By James Tout on 1 Jun 2016
Will English regional devolution drown out the LEPs?
The quiet revolution that is English regional devolution is hurtling forward at breakneck speed, posing a PR challenge for the Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) that have been beavering away since their creation in 2011 to foster economic growth locally.
The government has concluded devo-deals with many of England’s major city-regions, including Manchester, Sheffield, Birmingham (West Midlands) and Bristol (West of England), as well as rural Cornwall.
But unlike during the Blair years, Chancellor George Osborne – the mastermind behind the decentralisaion agenda – is taking no chances with his devolution push. Subjecting the proposals to such trifles as a popular vote is off the table. The message is clear: devo is coming – whether you like it or not.
As has already been seen in London, the creation of a new tier of metro government is likely to lead to the consolidation of a range of functions and services. But this poses a challenge for the LEPs.
Although still in their infancy (they were carved out of the earlier Regional Development Agencies), these bodies have produced some impressive results ranging from the creation of start-up hubs in disused landmark buildings to practical advice schemes for firms looking to export and skills development programmes engaging local schools and colleges.
The effects have been notable – the most recent figures show the number of high-growth firms (or ‘gazelles’) in the UK has surged to the highest level since the dotcom boom, while start-up numbers are also at a record high.
The Government has promised that no devolution deals will go ahead without the full agreement of an area’s LEP(s).
But the question remains: How will LEPs get the recognition they deserve once the juggernaut of devolution really gets going? Metro mayors (step forward Messrs. Livingstone and Johnson) aren’t known to be bashful flowers, so LEPs will need to fight hard to get their voices heard.
Here are some practical ways they can do this:
1. Celebrate success stories
Many LEPs are sitting on a proverbial goldmine of ‘good news’ case studies – firms that have benefited from their help to get going or grow. But often they’re hidden from view – despite the media being hungry for such stories.
We recently highlighted the example of ChargePoint Technology, a Liverpool manufacturer of specialist valves for the pharmaceutical industry that has grown explosively in recent years. It ended up being featured in the Financial Times alongside a story on high growth firms we promoted for the Enterprise Research Centre (ERC).
2. Cultivate a spokesperson
Many LEPs are in the fortunate position of having well-known local – and sometimes even national – business leaders involved in some way, often sitting on boards or chairing the organisation. For instance, the chairman of Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP (GBSLEP) is Andy Street, MD of John Lewis; the born-and-bred Brummie has become a champion for the West Midlands city.
Since many people still couldn’t tell you what the acronym LEP stands for, developing a consistent and recognisable spokesperson is critical for embedding the idea that LEPs are the primary cheerleaders for business locally into the public consciousness.
3. Stick to key messages
As organisations that bring together local business leaders with councillors, education chiefs and others, LEPs are a fairly ‘broad church’.
But as local devolved structures (such as the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, with brings together 10 councils) evolve, these organisations will be looking to take credit for improvements to local services such as transport – even if the LEP may have been heavily involved.
LEPs shouldn’t lose sight of their core raison d’être – creating the right environment for businesses to thrive. All messaging should reflect this – preferably backed up with a strong evidence rationale that what they’re doing is making a difference in terms that people can understand – jobs and growth.
This means LEPs need to be regularly monitoring the health of their business populations, with surveys to gather qualitative and quantitative data, as well as maintaining familiarity with key datasets such as those made available by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
4. Know your data
In enterprise, PRs needs to be as strong on data as they are on words as our CEO Holly commented at the end of this PR Week article. Looking at data and finding the stories that support the LEPs messages and finding ways of linking these into the mainstream news agenda data will quickly establish a LEP as a reliable source of local ‘colour’ on big national stories.
A sure fire way for a LEP to increase its share of voice of enterprise is to develop a reputation with key influencers, such as journalists and commenters, for having quick access to accurate and interesting data.
Using data like this can also form the basis of powerful strategic pieces that position your LEP’s agenda, such as we did in the Financial Times last year for the Enterprise Research Centre using LEP data to find ‘suprising’ results on the best places for entrepreneurs to grow their businesses in the UK.
5. Look beyond the UK
Stories about enterprise that encourage fresh ways of thinking and challenge orthodoxies are at best international in flavour. Benchmarking and trend setting against European and US comparators will create a freshness of voice that will compel influencers to listen. Shifts in working trends amongst financial sector workers was sufficiently interesting to make the FT front page recently due to US and European comparisons.