LEPs and the central South: a summary of our breakfast seminar in conjunction with PwC

Since their establishment in 2010, Local Enterprise Partnerships have been integral to economic growth across England, providing a channel for government investment in infrastructure, skills and innovation. A joint Southern Policy Centre/PwC seminar held at the beginning of December exploredhow our local LEPs see their future role and discussed how they can help fulfil the needs of the Central South of England.

Julian Gray of PwC opened the discussion by suggesting that the urban South Coast was a great place to live, but that it underperformed economically. The session’s Chair, John Denham, reminded us that LEPs are big spenders, but that their activities were ‘under the radar’ for many, and they needed to be accountable to business and local communities.

John reflected on the suggestion of Lord Jim O’Neill, former Treasury minister, at a recent Southern Policy Centre seminar that the central South lacked ‘a distinctive, “stand-out” proposal which built on unique local strengths and offered …. a clear sense of local identity and place’.

Gary Jeffries, Chair of Solent LEP, saw a compelling vision of the central South coast as a ‘world class coastal economy’, building on our existing strengths. He suggested that a strong component of that vision should be the marine and maritime economies, but without neglecting other strengths in medicine, space technology and the wider knowledge economy.

Gary noted the proposed changes to LEP boundaries (now approved by ministers) which would see the New Forest area become part of Solent LEP. The parts of Test Valley, Winchester and East Hampshire districts which were currently part of Solent LEP would join the rest of their district in EM3. This would strengthen Solent’s coastal focus.

The LEP want to shape a distinctive local industrial strategy which builds on what we do well, and provides an investment plan which will support the growth of these sectors and of our economy, tackling infrastructure under investment and low productivity.

Alastair Welch, director of ABP’s Southampton port, highlighted the significance of the port in the UK’s global trade. Southampton was not ‘the end of the line’ but a ‘gateway to the world’. We should lobby hard for the investment to help us maintain this pre-eminence, which has many wider benefits for the central South’s economy.

We should be ‘thinking big’ and ensuring we invest in what is already excellent in our local economy to maintain our world-leading status. That will ensure we send a message about the success of our local economy, rather than a gloomy assessment of weaknesses. They could only be addressed, Alastair suggested, by building on our local strengths.

Presentations concluded with an assessment from Zoe Green from PwC of what would make a good local industrial strategy. Zoe’s experience with the national pilot on these strategies made clear that government ministers wanted to see investment in areas and sectors which can unlock local, regional and national growth. The best strategies would be ambitious and offer a distinctive vision for a place – highlighting its brand, assets, talent and even ‘liveability’.

A good strategy would also be based on robust partnerships between the public and private sector, which allowed the area to explore new ways of working. In Zoe’s view, collaboration across boundaries was vital to realising the vision for what the central South can be. That transcends organisational boundaries and presents a picture of how partners can deliver change at a scale which will have real economic impacts. In some areas, neighbouring LEPs in the pilot programme had taken a more strategic overview of their local industrial strategies, making a persuasive case for investment by highlighting shared aspirations and ambitions.

The discussion that followed these presentations echoed the need for an ambitious vision that businesses could get behind. One speaker endorsed the need for our area speaking with a coherent collective voice, and the need to avoid being parochial. Others spoke about our shared identity and the many things that bind us together.

Many of the businesses present were keen to get behind an ambitious vision for our future, and there was some discussion about the process for developing local industrial strategies, including the timetable – with Zoe pointing out that Government’s aim was to have all in place by early 2020.

The LEPs are already building the evidence base for their strategies, and will want to involve local businesses and communities in shaping their vision. Attendees at our seminar reflected the enthusiasm for that collaborative approach, and the desire for an ambitious, positive statement about what the central South can achieve.

SPC and PwC hope to arrange further events as our local industrial strategies progress. We look forward to working with our LEPs and businesses to help shape our shared future.