Nick Appleyard 06 May 2011

‘Clusters’ of LEPs may decide key transport issues

Sub-national groups of local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) could be empowered by ministers to take key decisions on strategic transport issues, it can be revealed.

In the biggest indication yet about the role LEPs will play in transport, the Government has revealed it is looking at options to devolve decision-making and prioritisation of local transport schemes to the partnerships.

In response to the Commons transport select committee’s Transport and economy report, released in March, the Department for Transport (DfT) said: ‘We believe groups of LEPs, covering appropriate sub-national geographies, are well placed to work together on strategic transport issues.’

It added the Government was committed to establishing the best way to incentivise partnerships of LEPs to come together as ‘consortia’, in order to ‘reach the geographical critical mass needed to advise and decide on strategic transport priorities’.

The department pointed to the West Midlands where passenger transport executive, Centro, is working across three LEPs – the Black Country, Birmingham/Solihull and Coventry/Warwickshire – to develop an integrated transport strategy, as an emerging example of how this could happen.

The department also revealed it was already facilitating ‘thematic LEP groups’ on international gateways and local transport schemes. It is working closely with the business and local government departments to ensure transport considerations are ‘fully integrated into LEP activity’. A recent joint-departmental seminar was held to focus on infrastructure delivery and growth with LEPs.

In response to the transport committee’s fears of a gulf in regional transport planning, the department acknowledged ‘the need for co-ordination at a spatial level higher than individual local planning authorities on strategic issues, such as sub-national transport planning’. But reiterated the coalition was ‘committed to ending the top-down decision-making which ignores the specific needs and behaviour patterns of local communities’.

The department said it was engaging directly with LEPs in a co-ordinated way through its newly established hub teams, which were set up following the closure of the Government Offi ce Network.

‘The Government remains keen for LEPs to begin to engage with local transport prioritisation immediately for the current Spending Review period.

‘As set out in the local transport White Paper, the department will also be seeking to work directly with a small number of LEPs to agree a joint approach to tackling the worst congestion hotspots in the major urban areas.’

Committee chair Louise Ellman said the major concern was that LEPs, as currently structured, did not appropriately represent the regions. She told Surveyor: ‘These proposals do take this forward but we need to know a lot more about how they would work, and we will be asking the Government further questions about this.

‘The Government does seem to be recognising there is a problem with the current system, but we need more details about how this would happen and who will be consulted.’

Kate Henderson, chief executive of the TCPA, told Surveyor: ‘LEPs would be important advisers on issues, including transport, and help deliver largearea strategies. But whether they have a specifi c planning function, we would question, as they are not directly democratically accountable, and planning must be democratically accountable.

‘It would be useful for LEPs to be working together on infrastructure. Large-scale infrastructure investment is on spatial scale that may not be local, whether that is at a regional level or not, and transport is a good example of this. It is a welcome addition – the idea of LEP consortia/cross-working – as we need a strategic plan in place locally to create economic certainty and growth.’

David Carter, technical director at the consultancy, Parsons Brinckerhoff UK, said ‘We look forward to better understanding the role of LEPs and to working with them to help deliver their strategic priorities.’

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