LEPs' engagement with the voluntary sector

We asked each of the 38 LEPs in England to provide feedback on the extent to which the voluntary sector was involved in determining local economic, skills, job creation and other priorities. In particular, we sought examples of where the sector is involved on LEP main boards, themed advisory groups, committees or any other sub-groups that play a part in setting the LEP’s priorities and its other work. We received a response from 23 LEPs. For the remaining 15, we relied on information available on LEP websites and voluntary sector feedback for the following summary.

Sector participation on LEP boards and sub-groups

We found 19 LEPs with a voluntary sector representative on their main board. Of these, 13 had a representative from a single-issue charity. Two LEPs had two voluntary sector representatives on their main board (one of these also had a social enterprise delegate). The remaining six included representation from a local infrastructure body (CVS). In most cases, the chief executive of the organisation acted as representative.

16 LEPs with a voluntary sector representative on at least one sub-group or committee (excluding European Structural and Investment Fund (ESIF) committees – see below). The focus of these sub-groups included skills and education, sports and leisure, inclusive growth, health and social care, culture and tourism, nature and rural, social enterprise and transport.[1]

Each LEP currently has an ESIF sub-committee – supporting the delivery of EU funding – which is required to include a voluntary sector representative. According to the government’s own data[2], eight sub-committees do not include sector representation, while the membership of some sector delegates has expired. With some of the information provided by government either outdated, inaccurate[3] or sometimes not supporting what LEPs themselves reported[4], it is difficult to determine with any accuracy the full extent to which the sector is currently represented on ESIF sub-committees[5].

Voluntary sector experience of engagement with their LEP

To gain an understanding of sector experience on the ground and verify the information gathered from LEPs, we sought feedback from at least one voluntary sector infrastructure body in each LEP area. We obtained feedback on 36 LEPs (95%), mostly from chief executive officers[6].

Again, we looked for examples of where voluntary organisations were involved in the governance of LEPs, and other mechanisms for feeding the sector’s views into setting strategies and local priorities. We also asked respondents whether they felt their LEP was adequately focused on improving social inclusion and helping disadvantaged communities, and if they had any other observations about the way their LEP operates.

For many of the voluntary organisations we spoke to, LEPs are remote and hard to engage with in any meaningful way. While there some pockets of good practice, many have no coherent and consistent approach. Nor do many have an obvious commitment to the development of truly inclusive growth. Our assessment of the feedback gathered indicates that approximately two-thirds of LEPs’ engagement with the voluntary sector is either inadequate or requires improvement. For the remaining third, engagement was assessed to be good, and in a handful of cases, very good. The following analysis explores the common themes identified in the feedback gathered.

Sector representation in LEP governance

One of the most surprising findings from our conversations was that sector membership on main boards does not automatically translate into meaningful engagement with the voluntary sector. In fact, for around half of the LEPs that reported sector representation on their main board, engagement with the local voluntary sector was shown to be either inadequate or requiring improvement.

Often appointments to LEP boards are representatives from single issue charities, with no formal mechanisms for gathering the wider sectors’ views beyond the organisations concerned. What therefore might appear to be a ‘sector presence’ on the LEP can be perceived by others in the sector as tokenistic or unrepresentative, as the views and experiences of the sector and any intelligence it can provide about social inclusion and deprived communities can be neglected. Furthermore, LEP members from single-issue charities do not usually possess the necessary networks needed to provide feedback to the wider sector about the LEP's priorities or future plans, impeding an important feedback loop. Examples include a local charity that is only engaged in tourism, and a careers service spin out appointed to represent the skills and training sector which does not even consider itself to be part of the voluntary sector.

Often board appointments are sector-blind with local infrastructure bodies rarely approached by the LEP when board recruitment is conducted. One example of an infrastructure body representative on a main board that we did encounter was merely an ‘observer’. While they were able to meet with the chair and voice opinions in setting priorities, they had no voting rights like the other directors.

A narrow approach to economic growth

Not sufficiently including the sector in decision making processes can mean many LEPs are not fully equipped with the necessary intelligence required for the development of successful inclusive growth strategies. Many LEPs appear to be preoccupied with private sector growth, at the exclusion of the interrelated social issues that can impede inclusive growth. As a result, improving social inclusion and helping disadvantaged communities seems quite marginal to many LEP's priorities and focus, with pockets of ‘lip service’ but no obvious action being taken. We heard that this prevailing mindset is highlighted in many LEP’s local economic strategies. Many do not mention ‘social inclusion’, and while others may talk about ‘inclusive growth’ (a phrase borrowed from the government’s own Industrial Strategy) the inclusivity element often feels like an afterthought, with the growth of private sector business and infrastructure projects the overriding priority.

A common attitude among many LEPs is the belief that their approach to investment and development will help the wider area and communities over the long term. However, some of those we heard from felt that beyond EU funding, the work of their LEP and the devotion to a ‘trickle down’ philosophy to regeneration and growth has rarely led to tangible benefits for those most in need, or support for the poorest neighbourhoods. In short, LEPs often fail to give enough priority to addressing the systemic causes of unemployment and the range social challenges that can prevent people from certain communities participating in, and contributing to, inclusive and prosperous communities.

The inclusion of the voluntary sector as an important part of the business community

The sector can be sidelined in LEP decision-making processes because it is not viewed as a credible or important business partner. In an environment preoccupied with private sector growth and infrastructure development, the voluntary sector is not always embedded in the LEP’s broader vision and activity, which often defaults to the business and statutory sectors. Not only is there a lack of appreciation of the sector’s role in the local community, there is often a lack of recognition of the part it plays in local economies, including as an employer, taxpayer, and mobiliser of volunteers. In Brighton alone, the voluntary sector contributed around £170m to the local economy in 2017–18[7]. One respondent noted how voluntary sector employment in their area is equal to that of tourism but was not similarly listed as a LEP business priority.

While LEPs are more frequently interested in social enterprise, some view charities as a bit old fashioned. As a result, some LEPs do not define the voluntary sector in their industry analysis or include it within categories like health and social care. The GDP aspect of the sector can therefore go unrecognised. Similarly, the sector’s role in coordinating volunteering which helps build confidence and skills, and improve health and wellbeing outcomes which help people move into the workforce, is not always recognised. Where the value of volunteering is recognised, its cost in terms of recruitment, management, training and the reimbursement expenses, can be underappreciated.

Combined authorities, LEPs and voluntary sector engagement

Both combined authorities and LEPs seek to drive growth at a strategic economic geography, through place-based and locally-controlled policies and funds. The government requires that combined authorities and LEPs work together, along with local and national partners, to respond to future opportunities and challenges[8]. However, LEPs in areas where combined authorities have been set up may have a more limited role in local economic development. Where this is the case, meaningful engagement, interaction and co-production can exist via other mechanisms.

One infrastructure body noted that the absence of any sector representation on their LEP board or sub-groups had not prevented good engagement with the sector. The LEP is one part of the governance of the region, which is carried out via a large number of different boards and executives, with sector representatives on many of these. As such things the sector has had influence on economic policy, and involvement in developing key strategies including the Local Industrial Strategy, transport, and health and social care, and employment and skills. Good personal relationships and trust between sectors have been key to this. Many members of the LEP board including the Chair have a good understanding of the sector, resulting in the chief executive of the infrastructure body actually being part of the selection panel for a new chair of the LEP.

In other areas, however, the relationship between LEPs and combined authorities makes for a more complicated picture. We heard how LEPs in combined authority areas can sometimes have less power, such as where the mayoral office controls most funding decisions. In some cases, LEPs have acquired a lower profile in the area since the creation of the combined authority, increasing their remoteness from the sector. Occasionally, combined authorities should therefore be a higher priority for engagement for the voluntary sector.

The importance of personalities and relationships

The way in which LEP officials communicate with the voluntary sector varies greatly, with implications for effective engagement and constructive dialogue. Sometimes good engagement can be affected by the personality types of the people involved, including those from the voluntary sector. Proper engagement is often built on good personal relationships which take effort and years of building. One infrastructure body noted how their relationship with their LEP is probably aided by staff members who used to work for the council and, as a result, are familiar to the LEP, helping them to identify routes to engagement.

Lack of clarity and need to improve transparency

The government’s guidance for LEPs states that websites are a key product to ensure that LEPs are providing the public and stakeholders with key information. They also support transparency. As such, they must be easy to navigate and be updated regularly[9]. However, we found that LEP websites differ greatly in terms of their clarity and the ease at which information can be located. Some have their governance arrangements clearly signposted and easy to locate via the sites home page, but others have fragmented information scattered around the site. Some sites have comprehensive information on all board and sub-group membership, while others only cover the main board, or do not provide background information on the organisation or job title of the member in question. Not being able to easily determine who is involved in a LEP’s governance structure not only hampers general transparency, it can have potential implications for voluntary organisations and other stakeholders wanting to engage with LEP boards, including when they have important intelligence to share. Often, communicating with LEPs was only possible via a general enquiries email address or contact form, which in many cases did not elicit a response to our requests for information or even follow up requests.

Examples of good engagement

Despite the general preponderance of poor engagement, we did encounter examples of good practice. One infrastructure body highlighted how their LEP weaved the voluntary sector’s inclusion strategy into their economic plan and the Local Industrial Strategy. All of their LEPs sub-boards have at least one ‘inclusion rep’ (although not necessarily from the voluntary sector) and there exists a voluntary sector inclusion group – organised by the infrastructure body – which is both a mechanism for strategic conversations between the LEP and the voluntary sector, and for the inclusion reps across all boards to get sector input and shape the LEPs approach. A number of single-issue charities are also directly involved, and voluntary engagement is part of the head of people and skills job description.

Another respondent noted how their LEP has always taken voluntary sector representation very seriously and is open to engaging with it both through representation on its board and sub-groups. The LEP has a good relationship with the voluntary sector and relies on the infrastructure body to support it in gathering intelligence from the sector. When creating the Local Industrial Strategy, the LEP engaged fully with the sector, resulting in numerous organisations providing information and feedback.

Footnotes

  1. Where a LEP did not respond, we had to rely on their website. The quality, accessibility and clarity of LEP websites varies, so it is possible that a greater number of LEPs include sector representation on sub-groups, but that this information was either not published at all or made easily accessible.

  2. The data ranges from 2016-2019 and includes one example which links to incorrect data: Greater Birmingham and Solihull links to Greater Cambridge Greater Peterborough

  3. A few LEPs neglected to report sector representation on ESIF sub-committees. This may be due to the varying relationships between LEPs and ESIF sub-committees. Some ESIF sub-committees are very close to the LEP (and include LEP representation) while some LEPs take the arms-length nature of their sub-committees very seriously, keeping them very separate and only communicating via managing authorities (like the DWP).

  4. Following the UK’s departure from the EU, ESIF committees will become defunct.

  5. Many LEP areas contain more than one infrastructure body and experience may vary. However, it is our view that given their broad understanding of voluntary sector activity and experience in their area, the feedback obtained from infrastructure bodies will more often than not reflect the experience of the sector in that area more generally.