Improving LEPs’ engagement with the voluntary sector

Our assessment of sector feedback indicates that approximately two-thirds of LEPs’ engagement with the voluntary sector is either inadequate or requires improvement. Steps should be taken by both government and LEPs themselves to improve engagement with local communities and the organisations that represent them.

Recommendations for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG)

The government’s National Local Growth Assurance Framework which sets out standards for LEPs to follow, states that it is best practice for LEPs to ensure a diverse board that draws on the representation of sectors and all parts of their geography, including representation from the ‘voluntary and community sector bodies who will often work with and deliver services on behalf of the most vulnerable in society’[1]. However, our study found disappointing levels of sector representation on LEP boards, and where it did exist, it was often considered tokenistic or unrepresentative of the wider sector, and did not lead to meaningful engagement with the sector. As a result, many LEPs are missing out on vital expertise and local insight.

MHCLG should conduct a review of LEP boards in each area to determine the extent to which membership reflects the local areas they seek to represent. This should include intelligence gathered from local voluntary sector leaders to build a national picture of good and poor engagement. Through stricter enforcement of its ‘framework’ MHCLG should seek to improve the governance culture of underperforming LEPs by providing good practice guidance, produced in partnership with the voluntary sector, outlining the merits of meaningful engagement. This should highlight the importance of engaging with local infrastructure bodies rather than single-issue charities which rarely possess the networks needed for convening discussions and gathering the intelligence required for effective inclusive growth strategies. Where necessary, this should be accompanied by a programme of financial assistance for LEPs so they can support local infrastructure bodies to sit on boards and conduct engagement on their behalf. Many infrastructure bodies have faced a significant drop in funding in recent years and could otherwise struggle to meet increased pressure on their workloads.

Where any subsequent reviews identify underperforming LEPs that have failed to respond to good practice guidance, MHCLG should require them to design and implement a formal action plan to address any concerns.

The UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF)

Improving LEP’s engagement with the sector is all the more pressing with the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSP) scheduled to begin in April 2021. Identifying need and the distribution of funding through the UKSPF should be determined by local boards consisting of statutory partners, LEPs, local voluntary sector infrastructure organisations, skills and training and employment support providers, alongside other partners with specific expertise and knowledge of local and regional needs.

However, should LEPs be appointed as the lead delivery mechanism for the UKSPF, implementing the engagement improvement measures above must be prioritised in order for the UKSPF achieve its aim of levelling up communities and delivering truly inclusive growth. If LEPs are chosen to administer the UKPF, they should be required by law to have a dedicated UKSPF board with membership that reflects the local socio-economic landscape by including all relevant economic and community stakeholders, enabling inclusive growth planning to draw on the best local knowledge and insight. MHCLG should centrally publish and regularly update the membership details of all UKSPF boards - whether independent or part of LEPs’ governance structures - on a dedicated GOV.UK webpage so it is clear who is responsible for deciding how the UKSPF is spent and delivered.

Recommendations for LEPs and the LEP Network

LEPs should consider the sector as a key strategic and delivery partner, to engage in all aspects of its business. Despite the preponderance of poor engagement, we did identify some pockets of good practice. The government’s assurance framework states that LEPs have an essential role in self-regulation and peer review to drive improvement, and encourages LEPs to share and support best practice.

With support from the LEP Network, LEPs that display good practice in terms of engagement with the voluntary sector should be encouraged to share their experiences of how this has positively influenced decision making and growth strategies. This programme should be accompanied by ‘myth-busting’ guidance from the LEP Network, debunking misconceptions about the sector, including its contribution to local economies, its role in business and leadership expertise, and the important part it plays as an employer and mobiliser of volunteering.

LEPs themselves should ensure that when they recruit new board members, the sector should be invited to nominate representatives to all parts of the governance structure. They should make sure that vacancies are advertised as widely as possible to ensure the best field of candidates possible. In terms of board appointments, LEPs should publish and regularly update all details of their governance structure, including the main board and all sub-boards, in a standardised format. This should include the job title and organisation of every board member, and be easily accessible via the LEP’s home page.

Recommendations for the voluntary sector

While responsibility for engaging with the most appropriate local stakeholders principally rests with LEPs themselves, local voluntary sector organisations – including the local CVS – should also take steps to build a closer working relationship with their local LEP. This should include proactively approaching the most relevant LEP officials – either on the main board or sub-groups – with a clear articulation of the local voluntary sector’s contribution to, and role in, the local economy, and how the work of voluntary organisations can support the LEP’s plans for delivering its inclusive growth strategy. The recommendations above about promoting the benefits of cross-sector partnership working by providing good practice and myth-busting guidance would help create an environment more conducive to this building of stronger and effective relationships.

Footnotes

  1. National local growth assurance framework for Mayoral Combined Authorities and Local Enterprise Partnerships https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-local-growth-assurance-framework