Comments from Guy Lachlan, Owner of Jones & Cocks, Non-Executive Director of Buckinghamshire Business First, Chair of the Bucks Business Group, and Vice Chair of the British Hardware Federation.
My wife and I own and operate a small retail business which is involved in the delivery of Liquid Petroleum Gas and other gases around Aylesbury Vale. It just so happens that our served area almost exactly matches the footprint of Aylesbury Vale District Council (AVDC), which has chosen to be a constituent of two adjacent LEPs – Buckinghamshire Thames Valley (BTVLEP) and South East Midlands (SEMLEP).
LEPs have been given the job to drive growth in their local areas; they are partnerships of local businesses with local authorities and other public sector bodies, and because they know their local economies well, the idea is that they can tailor services to meet local needs, and thereby drive growth.
The result of AVDCs current choice is that my business operates almost entirely in an area covered by two overlapping LEPs; one of 21 overlaps around the country which have been allowed to exist.
The role of LEPs, however, is developing and maturing and it is increasingly clear that they are going to be vital to the success of small businesses like ours. For example, they are now expected to compete against one another for a share of the Single Local Growth Fund (SLGF), as well as the strategic allocation of some EU funds based on their local growth plans.
So how will an overlap of LEPs work for small businesses?
The short answer is: I have no idea!
Presumably we, as a small business, will be expected to speak to two LEPs which may have different – even conflicting – ideas about growth in our area; there will be two different business support numbers to call for help, and two teams of people looking at the same situation from different perspectives.
And the LEPs themselves will have to waste time cross-checking with each other to make sure they are not both being asked for the same help by businesses in the overlap, and that their responses are co-ordinated to whatever extent is possible.
This situation seems unnecessarily confusing and costly – as small businesses we continually strive to eliminate duplication and streamline processes, and yet the government seems to be tolerating this new inefficiency for the time being. They summarise their position as follows:
“LEP geography is a bottom-up process, identified and decided upon by LEPs. As such, overlaps between LEPs have been accepted as long as the case was made in terms of functional economic areas and LA and private sector agreement.” (Business, Innovation and Skills Committee – Ninth Report, 23/4/13)
This seems simplistic to me. Each functional business area can easily make a case for a particular geography from their own point-of-view, but if the result of two competing LEPs’ proposals is an overlap which generates unnecessary bureaucracy and cost with no benefit to the businesses within the overlap, they should be forced to settle the overlap one way or the other.
To allow overlaps to persist seems guaranteed to delay the ability of LEPs to succeed in their role, i.e. the constructive and efficient distillation of dialogue with businesses in their patch. The issue of overlaps will have to be resolved sooner or later, and as a business within an overlap we would urge the powers that be to grasp the nettle and force a resolution so that we can move into this exciting phase of national development together.
As well as running his own small business, Guy Lachlan is a Non-Executive Director of Buckinghamshire Business First, Chair of the Bucks Business Group, and Vice Chair of the British Hardware Federation. He also sits on the South Bucks and Aylesbury FSB branch committee.