The demise of the RDAs has raised many questions. Paul Fanning asks Greg Clark MP, Minister of State for Decentralisation and Planning Policy for some answers.
One of the earliest acts of the current Government was to announce the scrapping of the Regional Development Agencies that had previously overseen central government's support for business. While this was far from unanticipated (the Conservative Party manifesto having already pledged to "devolve the powers and funding of the unelected RDAs to local partnerships of councils and business"), the announcement in June last year nonetheless sent shockwaves through engineering and industry as businesses faced uncertainty as to the nature of their future relationship with government.
As Minister of State for Decentralisation and Planning Policy at the Department for Communities and Local Government, Greg Clark MP holds direct responsibility for aspects of this policy and feels that RDAs will not be missed. He says: "I think actually that towards the end of the life of the RDAs, there was a widespread feeling that they were very imperfect and often rather cumbersome institutions that didn't necessarily reflect the potential of some of the local economies they were supposed to serve. I think there was a general desire for change to the system. By the end, I don't think there were many defenders of the RDAs left."
The organisations tasked with filling the gap left by RDAs are Local Enterprise Partnerships, designed – in accordance with the original manifesto pledge – to allow smaller regions to work together in areas of common interest rather than under the aegis of the RDAs. The logic behind this, claims Clark, is simple: "When we asked people what kind of Local Enterprise Partnerships they wanted, it came across very clearly that while they wanted to work closely with regional neighbours, they wanted to have a clear focus on the skills and capabilities of the region itself. That came out very strongly and I think was suppressed by the previous arrangement. And look at some of the other LEPs that have been organised. For instance, Kent, Essex and the Thames Estuary, where common opportunities for industrial progress haven't always been exploited.
There are really strong links between Kent and Essex, but the two areas have traditionally been carved up into two separate regions and they voluntarily came together because their strong common interests and geography meant it made sense for them to do so. Things have come up that no bureaucrat in central government could have devised – for instance, businesses in the corridor from Brighton, through Gatwick and Croydon realised that they had a lot of interconnected interests that meant it made sense for them to come together in a partnership." Given this Government's expressed desire to 'rebalance the economy', it would seem logical to assume that LEPs will tend to favour manufacturing.
However, Clark makes it clear that there is no intention on the part of Government to dictate such a course. He says: "For a lot of them, the basis of their bid has very much been about the fact that there hasn't historically been enough concentration on those areas. But the direction comes from the bids themselves… That was always the intention. Rather than central government saying to the regions what activities they should be pursuing or how they should be organising themselves, businesses can get together on the basis of shared interests and government will support them." That is not to say, however, that this Government is not seeking to aid manufacturing where possible. Says Clark: "If you look at the things that either help existing companies to prosper and expand or are important in attracting overseas investment, there are two really important things: one is skills and the other is the whole environment for planning. We know that the planning system is a real source of bureaucracy and cost, so we want to make it more intelligible and pro-growth for manufacturers and technological businesses to expand and relocate."
This attitude, Clark emphasises, reflects a more general concern for the future of UK manufacturing on the part of the Government as a whole. "I think there's a huge enthusiasm for manufacturing and engineering within Government," he says, "I think that what the Government has realised that it's not an inappropriate thing for it to think carefully about how we're going to make our living in the future anymore than it's the wrong thing for any individual to think about how they're going to make their living in the future. And when you look at the strengths that we have... take the energy industry, for example: we know that both within the UK, but also around the world, we are in the early stages of a real energy revolution, whereby in most developed countries, a lot of capacity was laid down in the 50s, 60s and 70s and now needs replacing. That's a huge challenge and a huge opportunity…Our industrial heritage in terms of the process industries, precision engineering and marine engineering are precisely the skills and abilities that are needed to prosper in those areas. So there is not only a need to rebalance the economy, but also a very real sense of excitement that the way the world is going, where hi-tech manufacturing skills are going to be required. We are very well placed to have more than our fair share of that."
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