In 2011 nine Regional Development Agencies operated in England, representing broad regions of the country. By 2012, however, they had been closed and abolished. A nightmare for SMEs and local/regional economies, one might assume. Look a little closer, though. Something else was actually taking place.
Until their closure, various actors and different levels of government held differing views on English RDAs. Some argued against them on the grounds that they did not represent coherent economic areas and did an equally poor job of inspiring the public, more likely to identify with a more local level of government and administration; the county. Others claimed that RDAs did many tasks which were already the responsibility of local government, thus wasting resources and delegitimising Local Authorities. On the other side of the debate, proponents of the 9 RDAs maintained that only organisations covering larger areas than the county, but smaller than the whole country, could effectively and comprehensively stimulate regional economic growth.
It should come as no surprise that the opponents of RDAs won the day. However, over the two years leading up to this abolition, other more localised structures known as Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) started being established under the oversight of the Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills. After a short period of changeover, the LEPs seem to have settled more into many of the spaces RDAs previously occupied and today there are 38 of them in operation across England.
LEPs can be described as local, business-led public-private partnerships established in order to further economic growth; to this end they are entrusted with public funds. In October 2017 LEPs were responsible for around £12billion of public funding. National government expectations of them and the framework they are required to operate in are set out in the National Local Growth Assurance Framework (NLGAF), which in 2019 replaced the National Assurance Framework. Their areas of responsibility are understood to have grown over the last 8 years.
One major difference between LEPs and their predecessors is that LEPs receive funding not directly from central government, but through local councils, as well as from specific funds such as the Regional Growth Fund, the Growing Places Fund, and the Rural Growth Network. Another difference is in the way they divide up territory. Until 2012 the RDAs – set up in a more coordinated and centralised way – neatly divided the country into areas of responsibility. LEPs, however – having been formed on a voluntary basis – have resulted in numerous areas of geographical overlap. This competing responsibility for certain areas between multiple LEPs is said by national government to weaken accountability for said areas; as of 2018 the national government was working on collecting proposal from LEPs and their local stakeholders on how to iron out these overlaps.
So where do LEPs go in the future? Clearly to anyone who has even glanced at UK news in recent years, major changes are on their way. One worry is that as European Structural and Investment Funds become a thing of the past, they will not be matched by the national government, leading to a net reduction in cohesion funding for RDAs. As the Local Government Association puts it, local solutions to skills provisions “must be backed by a UK Shared Prosperity Fund that is at least equal quantum to current EU funds and that does not result in a gap at the end of EU funding. This fund should be flexible, localised, and based on the needs of local places and communities.”  The said Shared Prosperity Fund is indeed on the table, though details remains unclear as no consultation on it has yet been published from the national government’s side.
Whatever happens in the coming years, it is clear that – with the UK being the European country with the highest level of inequality in GDP-per-person between its wealthiest and poorest county-level (NUTS2) regions – local economic development and the work done by LEPs and their equivalents in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland will continue to be of incredible importance for citizens.
 (Regional Development Agencies , 2012)
 (Ney, 2017)
 (Heseltine, 2012)
 (Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, 2018)
 (Local Government Association, 2018)
 (Brien, 2019)
Written by Owen Brown, Project Officer at EURADA.