Many people have not heard of Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs). More do not know what they do.
However, our North East LEP matters. It defines the economic strategy for our region and will be responsible for managing or directing over a billion pounds of spending over the next five years. It drives the approach to skills, transport, access to finance, innovation, business support, place marketing and inward investment.
Our North East Local Enterprise Partnership is a business-led partnership between local authorities and the business community. It is in all our interests for it to engage more of our businesses so that we can create a more successful economy for everyone here in the North East.
Our LEP is well placed to lead on the economic development of our region. As a business-led partnership the LEP can harness the skills and resources of our seven local authorities.
Furthermore, it is geographically neutral, which ensures that investment goes to the right places. It is also politically neutral and makes decisions based on what will have the biggest impact on the North East economy, not party politics.
The North East LEP is led by a Business Chairman. The North East LEP has had an outstanding first Chairman in Paul Woolston. He has secured successful Enterprise Zones, won a series of important financial packages for the North East, lobbied hard for our region with Government and secured one of the best Growth Deals in the country.
He secured the services of Lord Adonis and an outstanding team to conduct the North East Economic Review, which has provided the strategic bedrock for our case for financial support both from the European Union and our Government.
However, I am calling for a new system for selecting the Chair of our Local Enterprise Partnership.
It is my view that all businesses in the North East should engage in an election to choose our Chair. The endorsement of the business community would surely create a powerful figure.
Here in the North East, we have a huge wealth of business leaders who could stand for the role and carry the respect of their peers. The process of electing them would engage the business community far more than an appointment made by a small group.
There would need to be some discussion on the system adopted for the election, and terms of office, as well as eligibility to vote.
One option for eligibility might be that any business which pays business rates would have the franchise.
The campaigning period itself would represent a time of idea generation and debate which could help shape the successful candidate’s incumbency.
All of this, of course, presumes that, whatever the outcome of the General Election in May, the LEP structure continues to be supported.
Here in the North East, not only with the North East LEP, but also the Tees Valley LEP, we have seen real value driven by these organisations.
Whatever party or coalition is next to govern, it would be a backwards step to rip up the structure and start anew, but that’s not to say that the system cannot be improved. Evolution, not constant revolution, is the way to achieve greater progress.
Jeremy Middleton is founder of Middleton Enterprises, a £50m investment company based on Tyneside. He is also a board member of the North East Local Enterprise Partnership.