Taking a swing through the North West just before the Oldham by-election, Prime Minister David Cameron and his Regional Growth Fund (RGF) chair Lord Heseltine announced plans to boost growth "in all regions of the country".
It must have been quite like old times for the former environment secretary. Once, in the Thatcher era, he led a charabanc-load of leading entrepreneurs round the derelict hectares of inner Liverpool, where councillors complained of insufficient funds even for grass seed. His hope was that business would stump up for the city's regeneration.
In this year's event, they met members of the Liverpool City Region shadow local enterprise partnership (LEP) and the PM launched a group to produce a regional economic plan to "stimulate growth in Liverpool". The LEPs are to be "partnerships of businesses, councils and communities", usually with a business leader in the chair and empowered to bid for money from the £1.4 billion RGF. The aim is to stimulate enterprise and find private sector work for those losing public sector jobs. To this may be added an LEP Capacity Fund: a new pot of cash designed to "help LEPs understand the real issues facing local businesses".
In the context of the Government's precipitate decision to abandon regional planning, it is unsurprising that the regime seems unaware of how much the business community depends on getting the basic infrastructure and sustainability of a region or sub-region right. Lord Heseltine, who was an unapologetic advocate of wider-than-local strategies when in government, wants "local people to think strategically about their area's priorities" and to "come forward with compelling funding proposals". It is easy to be patronising about such endeavours, but to assume that they can be successful without any kind of formal or informal regional structures is surely fanciful.
LEPs are not at present intended to exercise statutory powers. Nor will they have to conform to any standards in terms of the areas they cover. The spatial aspect of their activities, which logically will impact on the nature of their bids for the RGF and the location of development within their boundaries, has so far been wilfully ignored. Neither is it suggested that these bodies will seek any kind of democratic legitimacy or be eligible for government funding for their administration. So the burden will fall on the member organisations - a skimpy prospect in current economic circumstances.
Nevertheless, LEPs are at present the only supra-local game in town and it is reasonably certain that if they survive they will have the potential to grow - in some cases into bodies that might, for example, start working at a city-regional scale. Some have already launched intriguing experiments, from the effective reinvention of a county development function by covering precisely a historic county area, to the designation of an LEP along a substantial stretch of an established and busy motorway. It is not that LEPs are likely to go looking for a planning role but they will come to realise that they need one.
Anthony Fyson is a freelance writer on planning issues.