By Phil Orford, Forum Of Private Businesses

In recent weeks, there has been a lot of debate about the new Government’s plans to abolish regional development agencies and replace them with smaller ‘local enterprise partnerships’, or LEPs.

Despite the fact that RDAs effectively compete with us in some areas, we at the Forum are by no means celebrating their demise. We appreciate that they have done some good work over the past 12 years and helped a lot of smaller businesses, which is obviously something we want to see.

This help has come either directly through hands-on support and advice to individual firms, or indirectly, by the RDAs working to improve the overall economic prosperity of their respective regions.

However, with limited funding and enormous pressure on resources, we would argue that when they replace RDAs, the LEPs of the future should shift their focus away from the former and on to the latter. We say that because private and third-sector organisations like the Forum are already in place, ready and willing to provide practical hands-on support and advice to small businesses at a nominal cost.

That may sound like a blatant plug but it’s the truth — a quick check of the pricing structure on the Forum’s website will confirm that every small business in the country should be able to afford membership of a support organisation like ours, if and when they require it. The additional benefit of sourcing support from private organisations, rather than a public body, is that choice and competition in the marketplace will inevitably drive up standards. We have to excel at what we do simply in order to survive.

What organisations like the Forum can’t do is take on the role RDAs currently serve as general economic coordinating bodies in their respective regions, and that’s what we’d like to see the new LEPs concentrate on. We believe they should be there to oversee things like distributing European and national funds locally, lobby central government on regional problems and tackle planning, housing, local transport and infrastructure issues.

We’d also like to see the new LEPs concentrate less on the needs of big businesses and more on the SMEs which are likely to be key drivers of growth and job creation over the next four or five years. In the past, the RDAs tended to lobby skills and training providers to work around the requirements of their area’s top five or ten employers.

Small businesses tend to need a broader mix of skills and abilities, and we’d like to see LEPs recognize this and push for schools and colleges to produce more multi-skilled, well-rounded students.

One other thing which I personally want the LEPs to avoid, despite the ‘localness’ inherent in their nature, is parochialism. We don’t want a return to towns and cities all competing with each other as they often did in previous decades.

As a final point, I think it’s important to say that as there’s not going to be a lot of taxpayers’ money around to fund them, and because the fortunes of businesses are often heavily interlinked with their local environments, LEPs are going to have to be heavily collaborative with the private sector in order to succeed.

This means that the business community has got to play its part if it wants the idea to work. While it’s easy to be apathetic towards things which don’t bring immediate commercial rewards, business owners need to get involved in LEPs in their areas. It’s often all too easy to sit back and criticise — what’s more difficult but ultimately more rewarding is standing up, making your voice heard and playing your part.

By using their experience, knowledge and a bit of time and effort, business owners can help drive the economy in their local areas away from recession and uncertainty and back towards growth and prosperity.

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