Some thoughts following a recent event on EU funding with Cambridgeshire & Peterborough’s LEP.
I went along minus dragon fairy this time around. Perhaps it was one event too many, along with not knowing nearly enough about LEPs and their audiences in general. As always with these local events, I came away with more nuggets of information as I piece together my internal jigsaw of the issues as I see them in my local area.
It’s something that Puffles’ Twitter followers have made me far more acutely aware of than in times gone by. On arrival the first thing that hit me was the number of middle-aged men in grey suits. I seemed to be the baby of the bunch and there seemed to be relatively few women, people from minority ethnic backgrounds, people with disabilities and so on. This then made me look at the LEP’s board – see here. It speaks volumes. This personally surprises and saddens me given that I’m personally acquainted with quite a few of the people that make up the day-to-day team that run the LEP. (See here).
On the day, I raised the issue of the lack of young people at the event. The reason why this was an issue for me is because ‘skills’ was on the agenda, and it felt all too often that young people were being talked about but not being consulted upon. A couple of comments about getting young people to choose what qualifications that business wanted rather than what young people wanted was one thing that particularly disturbed me. Mainly due to the tone of: ‘Young people! do what we want’ rather than something that is much more co-operative, where businesses seek to understand the pressures young people face, the hopes and dreams that they have, & where firms ask themselves what their role is in helping young people achieve them. Education and training are not the same thing. Training is much more job-specific. Education is a much wider and a much broader concept. Hence why I encouraged employers to consider becoming school governors (as I am) or engaging directly with schools and colleges in other ways. Go to where your target audience is, rather than expecting them to come to you as ‘the finished product’.
My main point on diversity is that if it is not embedded within your organisation, you risk missing out on the input and experiences of people who could be essential in what you are trying to deliver. I hope that when the LEP board is refreshed, they make it a priority to significantly change the gender balance – to a point where there is a critical mass of women influencing decisions, culture & behaviour, not just a token individual.
Tensions with Government policy
There were a number of tensions around Government policy – the big one being around careers guidance for young people. The scrapping of Connexions was noticeably unpopular with representatives from businesses – especially given that Conservatives are supposed to be the party of business. This chimes with a recent announcement from the CBI – see here. As far as firms are concerned, they would rather have one point of contact to engage with rather than the current model of where schools are individually responsible.
Looking at the theme of the day, which was around EU funding for the East of England, one of the things that struck me was just how little money there was available given the breadth of responsibilities and of the geographical area. In public sector land, £64million over 6 or so years won’t go very far. This inevitably means a grant application process. The problem is that putting together an application is something that costs time and money. Few have both, and it’s not always the most innovative ideas that get the funding they need. One complaint regularly heard is that it’s the bidders that are good at writing grant applications that get the funding, even though their idea might not be particularly good.
Were there any positives from this event?
Actually, there were quite a number. For a start, I got the feeling that the people there genuinely wanted to make a difference to their communities. In particular for those running businesses, it wasn’t a case of simply wanting to make a profit. LEPs are not the perfect set up – but then what is? People seem content to work with what is there, though I get the impression this is despite rather than because of Government policy.
I also thought the range of institutions represented was broadly positive given the nature of the event. Sometimes you have to put on the events and see who turns up, just to find out where the gaps are. This for me was one of those events – made clear by the ‘listening’ nature of the workshops. The challenge for the LEP team is ensuring the feedback influences both decision-making and day-to-day operations. (Otherwise, what’s the point in all that listening?)
Finally, Laura Welham-Halstead, who I first met during my early civil service days, seems to be getting a grip on communications for the LEP, which were weak in its early days. She set up her own PR company (see here) after leaving the public sector, and now also works part-time as the communications lead for the LEP. As well as getting a better grip of social media (something that I think is essential), publications are becoming more reader-friendly. Secondly, she also mentioned to me that she wanted to make much greater use of data and infographics in future publications. Think of more pictures and diagrams, and fewer wordy essays in summary documents.
Joining up the dots – community development strategies again
I raised this point in the public forum just as I did at Cambridge City Council a couple of months ago. What this event showed me is that there is a critical mass of organisations and institutions in and around Cambridge wanting to ‘reach out to the community’. This critical mass justifies a city-and-beyond community development strategy with listening and engagement at its heart. The reason why such a strategy could help significantly is that it could provide straight-forward answers and solutions to the question: ‘How do we reach out to the community?’ This is especially the case with consultations such as the event that this blogpost is based upon. LEP wants your ideas on how to spend this funding pot, Cambridge University wants to publicise things like the Festival of Ideas, Cambridge City Council wants our views on the refresh of the local plan – see here. (No you can’t turn my local launderette into empty luxury apartments or student rabbit hutches for wealthy investors!)
How much can an LEP be expected to achieve?
This for me is a big unanswered question. What’s not clear to me is how the actions of the LEP are co-ordinated with larger housing and transport infrastructure projects. The funding that has been allocated by the Government feels like peanuts (see here). This then brings us back to the importance of finding out what our current economic situation is. So for example we know that Cambridge is experiencing a house price boom, pricing the people that make the city function, out of it. We know that there are problems of skills shortages and skills mismatches. But do we have the strong quantitative evidence base to inform future decisions locally as well as making the case to central government for funding and support for improved transport infrastructure? (For example as set out in the New Anglia Rail Prospectus).
Do we know who should do what then?
This is a general public administration issue around ‘institutional competency’. Which organisation or tier of the state has responsibility for which things? For example in a rural area, maintaining the village green or the village hall might be something for a parish council. Bin collection in Cambridge is an issue for the district-level city council. The local road network is the responsibility of the shire-level county council. Problems with the M11 are a Highways Agency issue. If you’re talking about skills, the fragmentation of local education authorities means that there is no longer a single point of contact to engage with schools, as more become academies.
Then there is the issue of what can be done by local institutions themselves or in partnership with others? What are the big projects that inevitably need some sort of central government support, but that could have a huge positive impact? My personal one would be electrifying and upgrading rail links between Cambridge-Norwich-Ipswich, assuming Oxford-Cambridge rail is completed. I managed to get Ed Miliband to make a promise on the latter for any future Labour government in a recent visit to Cambridge – see here.
Social media – a missing link?
This continues to be an issue across East Anglia generally – in all sectors. I’m fortunate in that I am connected to a number of vibrant and diverse communities that are ‘digitally native’. Thus I get to see the potential of how people are using social media to good effect. Whether it’s young people at school, college and university, to the niches in politics and journalism to the various specialist fields in academia and PR, there is huge potential. And East Anglia is missing out.
Hence why someone like Laura (mentioned above) is ever so important. Social media as an issue was conspicuous by its absence yesterday – surprising and saddening given its growing importance. Part of the problem is that social media advocates like myself have not been able to make the case to firms as to why social media could be vital for them. There is also conflict within ‘social media world’ itself on what constitutes good social media practice and what does not. It’s one of those fields where anyone can set themselves up as a ‘social media consultant’ resulting in people having little idea of who is good and who is not. Authenticity-washers such as this example – see here, are ones I want East Anglia to avoid like the plague. This comes back to my general point about needing ‘informed consumers’ when it comes to choice.
One for the LEP to consider: Where does social media fit in your plans?
Food for thought.