Local Enterprise Partnerships needs clearer planning role and better link to local plans, new study finds

Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) could play a critical role in devolution to cities and regions and in promoting economic growth, but their potential is being held back by their unclear status and unfamiliarity with town planning, as well as a lack of personnel, a new study by the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) finds.

The first comprehensive analysis of the roles of all LEPs shows that they have considerable potential to work across different policy areas such as planning , and to shape strategy and implementation from housing to employment across local authority boundaries.

However, the analysis finds that LEPs continue to operate with an opaque remit and lack firm institutional foundations. This limits their effectiveness as brokers of cross-boundary, strategic planning issues.

The study reveals that LEPs feel they have limited freedoms to devise and coordinate place-based strategies, and that nearly all LEPs are understaffed, especially in the area of strategic planning. While the planning roles performed by LEPs have increased over time, there is widespread uncertainty over their planning role, including among LEPs themselves.

Richard Blyth, Head of Policy and Research at the RTPI said:

“More local authorities are preparing joint local plans across areas that are similar to LEPs, and combined authorities, directly elected metropolitan mayors and city regional devolution deals are set to become more common. If LEPs are to seize these opportunities our study shows there is a clear need to formalise their status in the planning system and their relationship with local authorities.”

“They need to find more ways to work more closely with local authorities on a range of strategic planning issues. Central government could encourage this through future rounds of the City/Growth Deal process, by seeking and rewarding a greater integration between LEPs economic strategies and the housing provision in local plans.”

Lee Pugalis, Reader at Northumbria University and principal author of the report said:

“Strategic planning is returning to prominence with different approaches and institutional mechanisms emerging in different parts of the country, for example between those places that have secured devolution deals to those with little history of inter-authority and multi-sector collaboration.”

“LEPs are but one piece in this evolving institutional architecture, but our research shows that they have the potential to be powerful players in sub-national development and planning.”

LEPs are voluntary partnerships between local authorities and businesses set up in 2011 by central government, to help determine economic priorities and lead economic growth and job creation within the local area. To date there are 39 LEPs in operation. They provide a ‘business perspective’ on planning matters, and LEPs’ priorities and decisions have important implications for local and strategic planning.

According to the study more than half of LEPs (25 out of 39) intend to align or pool local authority growth funding, particularly in relation to housing, transport, economic development, regeneration, planning and infrastructure. Nineteen refer to joint contracts or collective decision-making arrangements with local authorities, and 17 to combined authorities or ‘economic prosperity boards’.

In a report published earlier this year the RTPI highlighted the serious disconnect in parts of England between some LEPs’ plans for job growth and local authorities’ housing plans, and the need for LEPs to align their Strategic Economic Plans with local authorities’ joint housing provision plans.

The new “Planning for Growth: the role of LEPs” study was conducted for the RTPI led by Lee Pugalis of Northumbria University and Alan Townsend of Durham University with support from Nick Gray and Ania Ankowska of Northumbria University. It is funded through the RTPI’s Small Projects Impact Research scheme.