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April review – new Unitaries, Local Skills Improvement Plans, and the official-politician divide

LED Confidential's April 2023 roundup comprises probably our most eclectic trio of current affairs items since we began the monthly roundups. The Raab bullying saga, the impending submission of Local Skills Improvement Plans (LSIPs), and the inception of four new unitary councils are our hooks to survey the LED and placemaking landscape.

Local economic development conference

What, if anything, can the resignation of the Minister of Justice (sic) and Deputy Prime Minister tell us about the essential relations between elected politicians and senior officials in local and regional leadership teams? It is a discussion that has so many talking points. But it can be difficult not to default to shallow, if often accurate, cliches – ‘speaking truth unto power’, understanding and agreeing respective political and executive roles, the importance of ‘can-do’ attitudes and delivery focus when officers face determined, driven politicians.

Yet, these cliches obscure complexities. In reality, ‘speaking truth unto power ‘, in a context where there are often many different ‘truths’; where social media can make everyone believe they are an expert or assail them with a distrust of all experts; where can-do and delivery is framed by constant crisis, major constraints and boundaries; makes successful relationships more and more challenging.


We need to live with role ambiguity too. Of course, politicians sometimes wish to be ‘hands-on’; of course, senior officers make small-p political choices, and have a representative role in their economic geographies. Taking the time to get the ‘chemistry’ right between politicians and executives will often be a prerequisite for enduring, effective political and executive place leadership and management.


Our discussion on LSIPs covered a lot of territory. However, in terms of place leadership it considered the ‘mediator’ role of Employer Representative Bodies (ERBs – most often Chambers of Commerce). ERBs are intended to bridge the gaps between the labour skills needs of businesses and the supply of learners graduating from particularly colleges and post-16 vocational providers.


Only time will tell if the scale, scope and traction of LSIPs is enough to transform skills and employment eco-systems, and there are some uncertainties about the future responsibilities of Mayoral Combined authorities in LSIPs, with the UK Government choosing ERBs to mediate the process. Broadly, however, both of us see LSIPs as a positive opportunity to make a fresh start in the types of technical and vocational skills local economies are going to need going forward. It will fall, at least partly, to LED and place-makers, though, to work our own, sometimes also mediating, ‘magic’ to make them truly transformational.


A different type of disruptive change moment is Local Government Reorganisation (LGR). We were privileged to play a small role facilitating discussions on Somerset Economic Futures in the lead up to their unitary status in April, alongside North Yorkshire, Cumberland, Westmorland and Furness.


Getting the balance right between seamless transition on the one hand and a clean-slate break with the past on the other is a huge issue. Resolving it is immensely assisted by ensuring the deliberative processes include unusual and non-traditional voices likely to be less wedded to continuity. In the Somerset case this was exemplified with enabling significant Young Person involvement.


We started our episode fondly recalling moments at the fringes of large conferences where politicians and officers can relax and speak honestly with each other. The chemistry built in those moments can provide foundations for success back at the day job. Maybe the success of LSIPs, or the assimilation of new voices in LGR, ultimately requires similar opportunities to build chemistry across role players.


If we get people and partnerships working collaboratively, a lot more of LED and placemaking will fall more easily into place.


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