Green liberalism: are Local Enterprise Partnerships working for low carbon development?

Business_Park,_SwindonThis post is by Duncan Hames, MP for Chippenham. It is one of a collection of essays to be published later this week by Green Alliance, titled Green liberalism: a local approach to the low carbon economy. Similar collections will also be published under Green Alliance’s ‘Green social democracy’ and ‘Green conservatism’ projects, as part of our Green Roots programme, aiming to stimulate green thinking within the three dominant political traditions in the UK. This piece has also been published on Liberal Democrat Voice.

A one size fits all policy, devised at a distance, imposed on local communities and implemented rigidly, is unlikely to rise to the environmental challenges we face today. That’s why we should give Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) the freedom to grasp this challenge in a different way to traditional bodies, such as central government and Regional Development Agencies (RDAs).

LEPs are characterised by their variety. Most contain local enterprise zones, but others do not. Some receive local authority funding in addition to government grants, but others have set up as limited companies, enabling them to fund themselves. This diversity is echoed in their approaches to green growth: several have set out as trailblazers; while others would do well to follow that lead.

An economic development policy that creates room for these organisations, individuals and businesses to find their own way towards a low carbon economy will result in greater diversity and in some cases more innovation.

LEPs must be allowed to make their mark on low carbon development
We have seen before that a tickbox approach crowds out innovation, whereby non-departmental bodies are set tasks by, and receive funding from, a number of government departments, each imposing its own set of demands. It forces each organisation to spread itself too thinly across a whole range of initiatives and is, therefore, not conducive to suitably ambitious low carbon initiatives. I’d argue a more hands-off approach is better, allowing LEPs to make their mark in ways that work for them, instead of requiring them to do a little of everything.

Of course, some RDAs really did seek to take sustainable development seriously and come up with creative solutions, as I know from my experience on the board of the South West of England RDA. It can be proud of its legacy, having played a central role in the inception of Regen SW, which is now leading the transition to sustainable energy in the region. But the RDA system, consisting of only nine bodies each under pressure to fulfil its list of tasks, provided less opportunity for innovation than the new landscape of 39 LEPs does now. We must, therefore, be careful not to stifle this potential for creativity by centrally prescribing what they must do to promote low carbon development.

Good examples of green development inspires others to follow
Some initiatives have already been forthcoming: the New Anglia LEP, for example, has become a ‘green economy pathfinder’. In June 2012 it launched a green economy manifesto to showcase how businesses and other organisations in Norfolk and Suffolk are growing the low carbon sector, from research at the Norwich Research Park to a sustainable housing development in the village of Wortham, as well as identifying the challenges they still face. This serves a dual purpose: on the one hand, highlighting the opportunities in the region is a powerful way of encouraging green investment in East Anglia. At the same time, it promotes initiatives that are working well so that other organisations, in East Anglia and beyond, can learn from, and where appropriate, emulate them.

But, while the LEP model brings great advantages, it also has drawbacks that must be overcome. One is the challenge of scale that comes with operating at the local level. It can be difficult for LEPs to acquire sufficient expertise, and a single LEP may not be able to effectively implement certain projects. To benefit from a greater knowledge base and economies of scale, LEPs should be encouraged to co-operate and work together, seeking partnerships with local authorities and businesses.

This is already happening on a range of projects, such as in the West Midlands: six LEPs are working together with Birmingham City Council on the ‘green bridge supply chain programme’, using Regional Growth Fund money to support small and medium supply chain companies and expand the green sector.

Of course, the freedom they are granted means that not every LEP will successfully engage with this agenda. That is the price we pay to enable innovation, but it can be mitigated: for example, by encouraging and facilitating the sharing of best practice, so that fruitful initiatives developed in one LEP are cross-pollinated to others.

It is too early to judge how well LEPs have risen to the challenge of fostering a green economy, or to predict how they will do in future. But the appetite and ambition is clearly there, in certain areas if not all, and we can hope that, in time, their successes will inspire others to follow.

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