Lancashire growth body has to show government that county is an area to invest in

The Lancashire Enterprise Partnership is poised to recruit two new people at the top.
The Lancashire Enterprise Partnership is poised to recruit two new people at the top.
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The organisation responsible for helping to grow Lancashire’s economy must not be seen to be “paying lip service” to a government-ordered review of how it operates, one of its members has warned.

The Lancashire Enterprise Partnership (LEP) - and its counterparts across the country - have to make a series of changes to the way they function, some of which need to be completed by the end of the month.

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Board member Miranda Barker said the partnership body was crucial in an area like Lancashire, because the county has not agreed to form a combined authority made up of the region’s councils.

“The importance of the LEP in Lancashire is that this is the only body which government can look to to decide whether we should be an area to invest in. The LEP - and especially the chair - have got to be seen to be standing on a model that government can say they want to back,” Ms. Barker told a meeting of the organisation's board.

A new chair is expected to be appointed within a month to replace supermarket supremo Edwin Booth who stepped down from the role last December after seven years.

But the LEP also aims to take on a chief executive officer to offer advice to the board. Members heard that an interim had been appointed to the role, but their identity was not revealed.

“We had four weeks to do this and we had to try and get somebody with the [right] skillset,” interim chair David Taylor said.

“I knew some people...that identified somebody who could help us - and we just did what I felt we needed to do.”

The board was told that a CV for the interim chief executive - who starts work on 1st April - would be circulated to them.

But the arrangements for appointing to the permanent positions of chair and CEO came under scrutiny over of the scope of the role of Lancashire County Council in deciding who fills the key positions.

As part of the review process, the LEP has to demonstrate that it is independent of the authority - which is currently its sole member. County Hall is also the so-called “accountable body”, with overall responsibility for the organisation - but the review process demands the LEP demonstrates its operational independence from the council.

“There are specific references to the accountable body [approving] the appointment of the chair and chief executive - and I think that’s a step too far in terms of making sure this is a private sector-driven LEP,” Burnley Council leader Mark Townsend said.

Paul Evans, from the government’s Cities and Local Growth Unit, also said that he found the arrangement “a bit concerning”.

County Council leader Geoff Driver said that he could “live with” substituting a veto for formal approval in the appointments process and said he would hope never to have to use it, but added: “We’ve got to recognise the risk [posed by being] the accountable body.”

The authority’s chief executive, Angie Ridgwell also warned that it would be she and County Cllr Driver who would be brought for parliament’s public accounts committee in the event of a problem - but focused on the potential of bringing new individuals to the organisation.

“This is a real opportunity...where we can really move forward - the LEP has done brilliantly, but we now need to start a new journey,” Ms. Ridgwell said.

The meeting heard that the chair and CEO would need a period of grace to settle in before making any “tough decisions” about the future workings of the organisation - but the meeting heard that timeframes would be put in place for when things had to be achieved as part of the ongoing changes.

In order to cement the perception of the LEP’s independence from County Hall, the partnership’s small number of staff will move out of the building by the end of the month - although that is not a formal requirement of the government’s review.

Shareholdings in the LEP will also be opened up to local authorities across Lancashire - and, eventually, to the private sector.

But the meeting heard that any new shareholders from outside the LEP itself would have a “constitutional” rather than operational role, after board member Mike Blackburn raised the prospect of the group’s work being “strangulated” from the outside.

Paul Evans praised the LEP for doing “a tremendous amount of work” on its overhaul.

“There’s been some really good, sensible discussion which I find very encouraging,” he said.