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Kent County Council fears losing influence as Government plans to give business more say on public funding

By Caitlin Webb, local democracy reporter

Councillors at Kent County Council have criticised government plans to reduce their power to make decisions about where public money will be spent.

The Government wants to give businesses more clout when it comes to deciding where money will be spent as part of Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs).

At the moment, decisions on major projects in Kent such as Rochester Airport are agreed publically at meetings of the South East LEP.

The expansion of Rochester Airport is one of the projects allocated money from the Government's £1.4 billion Local Growth Fund by the South East LEP
The expansion of Rochester Airport is one of the projects allocated money from the Government's £1.4 billion Local Growth Fund by the South East LEP

Its decisions are agreed jointly between councils in Essex, Kent, Medway and East Sussex and businesses.

However if plans were to go ahead, councils would no longer be equal partners with companies but would only hold a third of the vote.

These partnerships bid for a share of the £1.4 billion Local Growth Fund for schemes that generate economic growth in the area.

Cllr Jeremy Kite believes taking power away from local authorities would be a "colossal mistake".

At the growth, economic development and communities cabinet committee on September 5, he said: "This has to be a partnership and not something that's just being dragged along.

Beacon Woods Country Park, Bean..Jeremy Kite..Picture: Steve Crispe FM4786505. (4185821)
Beacon Woods Country Park, Bean..Jeremy Kite..Picture: Steve Crispe FM4786505. (4185821)

"To lose the delicate balance between locally elected people and the business community is a nonsense and a serious risk to governance.

"The Secretary of State must go further to reassure people there are proper routes to democracy inside the LEPs and if he doesn't do that it's a real risk and danger to the principle and integrity of the LEPs.

"We could be entering into a world where local authorities simply disengage because I would be very unhappy being part of the LEP where we didn't have any ability to influence the decisions."

Mr Kite, the leader of Dartford Borough Council, also raised his concerns over the legalities of businesses making decisions that don't involve raising money for shareholders.

He added: "The main problem is, who will look after the projects that don't have the major business drivers attached to them such as town centre improvements, landscape and projects with a long-term horizon.

"Businesses are not in that business, they are there to satisfy share holders.

Ian Chittenden (Lib Dem) told councillors how he feels this move is not "accountable", "transparent" or "democratic".

The Chairman of the South East LEP, Christian Brodie, said the current 50:50 balance is "the best possible use of expertise and insight".

South East LEP chairman Christian Brodie
South East LEP chairman Christian Brodie

He said: “We recognise the Government is keen to see the influence of business on LEP boards enhanced.

“Our strategic board currently has a 50:50 split of representatives from business and local authorities, with myself representing business as its chairman with the casting vote if required.

“The same structure has also been adopted by our federal partners, which is the Kent & Medway Economic Partnership locally.

"This enables SELEP to directly engage with many businesses across a wide range of sectors and to ensure we make the best possible use of their expertise and insight.

"As a result there is a strong business representation sitting alongside our democratically-elected partners on the strategic board."

He added the board will be meeting on September 28 to discuss their submission to the Government.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has been contacted for a comment.

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