I counted 40 names on the delegate list which included representatives from industry, the universities, the law and other professions and local government. Judging by the number of name tags, when I arrived there were very few no shows. The meeting was quite unstructured. Save for a glossy about NAMTEC there were no delegate materials.
As soon as I had settled in I asked the speakers what exactly was the legal status of the Sheffield local enterprise partnership. Unlike the regional development agencies they were not established by statute. Their membership seemed quite fluid in that one local authority, Barnsley, managed to belong to both Leeds and Sheffield City Region LEPs. They apparently needed the approbation of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for the Communities, but why? Why did the LEPs have to be in adjacent authorities. Surely there was more synergy in function and economic interest than geography. The answer that I got was that there really was no formal legal structure. There was no provision for LEPs in the Localism Bill. The board members were unpaid and exceedingly worthy but also unelected. In that regard, I could not help comparing them to the Senate of the Venetian Republic.
The next question concerned the Regional Growth Fund. That elicited the answer that the criteria for awards under the scheme were jobs. Jobs now to soak up public sector redundancies. Not jobs in the future, to quote Lord Heseltine. That seems to be confirmed by the latest press release on the first round of awards.
Someone else asked about enterprise zones. The speakers said that the LEP had been tasked with drawing up criteria for the enterprise zones. David Grey invited our suggestions. A lady behind me suggested start-ups. Grey replied that start-up businesses are the ones most likely to fail. I suggested that Meadowhall which has been built on an old steel mill a few miles away were a good example of what could be done. The speakers' responded that Meadowhall had devastated Sheffield and Rotherham City Centres. I replied that they were missing the point. The idea was to match jobs to skill sets and Meadowhall did that spectacularly well. There was more to the site than retailing. There was demolition, earthworks, construction, distribution, entertainment, culture and leisure. Redundant steel workers were much more likely to find a job in a project like that than a biotech start-up.
Finally there was some discussion on British competitiveness. The speakers said that we Brits excelled in talking ourselves down and we should celebrate our achievements occasionally. I did not contribute to that debate but I couldn't help thinking that complacency was a greater danger than self denigration.
There were a few minutes for networking after the talk when I met patent librarian Lynne Hinchcliff and Joyce Gray from Sheffield City Libraries, Andy Curtis from Global Innovation Partners, Jayne Mezulis from Export & Import Consultancy Services and, of course, the speakers themselves.