Today I attended the Southern England Local Partners annual European Congress in Poole. This was an important event for the delegates in the room, mostly representatives of local government and the new Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs). The highlight of the programme for many was the keynote speech, a presentation from the UK government on how the range of European funds in the 2014-2020 programming period were going to be delivered.
The message was that, unlike previous years, local areas were going to have a greater say in how EU funds would be used and prioritised in their local areas. LEPs would be able to choose the relevant priorities for their area and how they could meet the EU2020 objectives. The rationale behind this is clear; these bodies have the local knowledge to target European funds in order to address local challenges and to capitalise on local strengths that could address the EU2020 aims. Consequently, the LEPs were invited to outline their priorities in the form of a local investment strategy.
However, while the LEPs are invited to develop their own strategies, they are still subject to central government approval. Indeed all local investment strategies will undergo a sign-off process by the government that will see them assessed against a number of centrally determined criteria, mainly based around how well LEPs’ plans fit with the UK’s EU2020 priorities and national policy. LEPs have already been issued with detailed guidance, outlining what information is expected to be included in local investment strategies, how they should address national policy concerns and how they will be assessed. The presentation emphasised that LEPs were very much encouraged to follow this guidance.
So LEPs are free to set their own priorities for EU funds, but their ultimate approval by central government is determined by the extent to which they meet national policy objectives, not local ones. This raises questions as to how decentralised and locally tailored the 2014-2020 structural funds are going to be (in England at least).
It seems like the LEPs have an exciting opportunity; they are going to play a major role in delivering EU structural funds and their role has the potential to tackle local issues that matter to citizens and business alike. However, they still have to navigate their way through central government policy and trying to match local priorities to national and EU priorities. This is represents a significant challenge, particularly for relatively new organisations with limited capacity.
So, as noted by one of the conference’s participants:
We are where we are and we have to make the best of our situation.