High ambition for twin-county LEP

IT was more an arranged marriage than a love match.

But yesterday, the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), the Coalition Government’s replacement for the East of England Development Agency in Suffolk and Norfolk, took a leap of faith as it cemented the two-county relationship.

On the Suffolk side, a campaign had sought unsuccessfully to create a LEP covering Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and part of Essex. On the Norfolk side, they tried to go it alone.

When all other options looked doomed to failure, the two counties finally, and with some coaxing behind the scenes, fell into each others’ arms and pursued a successful joint LEP bid.

But there were no signs yesterday of a “gritted teeth” arrangement as the new LEP got down to business with a briefing on its progress and workshops for delegates.

Joint chairmen Peter Barry and Andy Wood, representing Norfolk and Suffolk respectively, appeared to have developed a good working rapport as they spelt out their joint vision, and the challenges they hope to overcome, to an audience gathered at the University of East Anglia in Norwich from both the world of business and the public sector.

“I think businesses in Norfolk and Suffolk are up for the challenge,” said Mr Wood, who is chairman of the Choose Suffolk economic development partnership and chief executive of Southwold-based Adnams.

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Mr Barry, chairman of the Norfolk LEP Proposal Board, pointed to three bids already out of the stocks and lining up for Regional Growth funding, with more to follow in April.

He admitted that, from a purely Suffolk perspective, the first wave involve one bid for a private sector development near Norwich and another at King’s Lynn, but he said the Lotus innovation park planned for Hethel in Norfolk would potentially create many jobs on both sides of the county border.

Another funding bid to help stimulate broadband uptake in Suffolk, in order to get more communities above the infrastructure investment threshold, was also being pursued, he said.

With tourism representing a �4.3billion slice out of the �26.4bn local economy, the sector has been identified as one of the partnership’s first priorities in bringing the LEP area out of the post-recession doldrums.

“Why tourism? We think there are some net gains to be made there very, very quickly,” said Mr Wood. “We see tourism as somewhere where we can make some really quick wins.”

Also high on the new LEP’s agenda is the low carbon economy, and the opportunities that it presents for the two counties to cash in on the burgeoning off-shore wind energy industry.

The structure of the new LEP board, as envisaged by Mr Wood and Mr Barry, is a lean, nine-strong team, comprising five business people and four from the public sector. An application process for posts will form the next stage of the New Anglia LEP’s development.

There was a firm belief among the two chairmen that business, in cutting away at the complexities of public sector bureaucracy, could be more effective in growing the economy, as well as doing battle against “mission creep” and the overlapping of activities by public-funded bodies.

But with a budget for the entire LEP structure standing at just a fifth of what the outgoing regional development agencies receive, the challenges for the new LEP are great.

“Funding is going to be difficult. We can’t ignore that. It’s the elephant in the room,” admitted Mr Wood.

n For more coverage of yesterday’s ground-breaking LEP meeting, see next Tuesday’s BusinessEast supplement.