Tristram Hunt led off the most recent Culture and Creative Industries breakfast session, bemoaning the lack of clarity in government policy on localism and democratic renewal.
He wasn’t against much of what is being developed – and, indeed, the Local Economic Partnership (LEP) model was identified as a potentially ground-breaking way of focusing energy and resources around industrial and demographic requirements, rather than arbitrary borough or regional boundaries – bringing together public and private sector to develop long-term programmes for growth.
But the main threat to the regional and local infrastructure that underpins cultural and creative activity is the lack of funding, and the absence of any top-down co-ordination of local initiatives. Local authority funding cuts are severe and uneven – and do not appear in any way to reflect recent LEP selections.
There’s a view that RDAs have become bloated bureaucracies, but at least they brought a clarity and co-ordination to economic development – and they have been absolutely instrumental in fostering and promoting a new energy and enterprise regionally: whether it’s Media City in Salford, the London Design Festival, or initiatives such as ‘Own It‘ or DoTT in the south west and north east.
It would be foolhardy to think that under-resourced LEPs can somehow provide a lean-and-mean substitute for much of this. There are no plans, for example, to transfer the specialist staffing, knowledge and resources within many RDA teams; and, despite getting a government imprimatur, it’s clear that the LEPs won’t necessarily get any Regional Growth Funding, which will be distributed via a completely different system. Approving plans for a LEP in Somerset isn’t much use, if central government is cutting back on the local authority funding which supports the arts in the county.
Locally-driven visions for growth are to be welcomed, and a new compact between the public and private sector focused on economic renewal could provide a real platform for new ideas (take, for example, the proposals emanating from some of the city-regions such as Bristol/West of England and Stoke-and-Staffordshire). But their success will depend on clear leadership – and investment – from within Westminster and Whitehall, and a long-term plan for growth.