As RDAs are axed , will Local Enterprise Partnerships really fill the gap?
Regional Development Agencies have proved a tasty morsel for many creative and marketing firms - from timely briefs to business support. Yet, news that they were to be butchered in favour of Local Enterprise Partnerships was met with mixed opinion. The Drum dives into the bloodbath to get the beef."I am glad Yorkshire Forward is going and after everything I have read on the web, so is everyone else. I do not remember anyone ever asking me if I wanted to spend my hard earned taxes on yacht races or marketing Leeds. I am not Conservative but I am impressed that they have exposed so much waste - from my hard work over 50 years.”This was the blunt view expressed by one commentator on The Drum’s website under our story about the demise of Yorkshire Forward and its fellow regional development agencies (RDAs). Judging by the prevailing mood of tabloid newspapers and their readers' comments, our unsympathetic complainant is not in the minority.The RDAs were founded by the Labour government in 1999 to stimulate growth in England’s regions. Today, at a reported cost of £246m to the taxpayer, they are described as “bloated” by the Daily Mail and are among the casualties of what has been dubbed “the bonfire of the quangos”.Over the next two years they will be phased out along with other publicly-funded organisations, including the UK Film Council, by the coalition government.While their demise has been met with little sympathy, the end of at least some of the projects reliant on their funding will be lamented. NWDA, the regional development agency for the north west, announced last week that 100 projects will no longer receive its backing. They include Blackpool’s regeneration, Manchester’s international festival and theatres in Liverpool.The regional development agencies have supported the creative, media and marketing industries either directly or vicariously across the country. In the north west, the NWDA provides funding for North West Vision and Media, which exists to grow a “world class” digital and creative economy in the region.Vision and Media was one of the few bodies spared in the purging of NWDA projects. Its chief executive, Alice Morrison, says she can accept the cuts at a national level but thinks the wide-scale scrapping of quangos and projects now could be detrimental in the long term.She tells The Drum: “Should we cut things that are wasteful? Yes we should. Should we all be looking at our overheads? Of course we should. And that’s no bad thing. Should we be working better in partnership and avoiding duplication? One hundred percent yes. Should we be going to meetings that are useless and just talking shops? We shouldn’t."So some good things will come out of this but at the moment it’s a bit of a scorched earth policy, and that is worrying because you have to make sure that we at least have the potential to grow again and support the areas of the economy that are likely to grow.”PainfulAs public funding dries up Vision and Media will itself have to make cuts to its services. Quangos may largely be considered bloated, but Morrison says her organisation is anything but.“Cuts are painful, they’re painful for everybody. I guess one of our problems, one of the things that is irritating, is this mood of ‘bonfire of the quangos, they do bugger all, they’re shit, they just use up expensive tax payers’ money, the fat cats are just enjoying their lifestyles’. That’s all very well if you’re a quango that has been fully-funded all its life and never had to fight for any money.“We - apart from core funding from the Film Council - have had to fight for every contract we’ve ever got. And we’ve been really lucky and really privileged with our public sector partners. But we’ve had to fight for those contracts, just like a business has to - in fact, we are actually a private company.“So when I see things ‘ah you’re just a quango you deserve to be cut’ I’m like if you knew the blood, sweat and tears that had gone into winning that money to support your company then you wouldn’t say that.“And we’re not that fat, we really aren’t. So when we cut, and we will cut at some point - the current climate absolutely demands it - we’ll be cutting off arms and legs. We won’t be having liposuction, we’ll be having amputation.”Vision and Media is contracted to provide its core services - business support, networking and collaboration events - until 2012. But in the interim everything it does will be under scrutiny and Morrison cannot guarantee that agencies and freelancers will not lose out on its services.“What we’re constantly looking at is: if we have to cut, what are the absolute things that people want us to keep, can we keep them? What will guarantee growth? So there might be things that are nice to have and people like them but they’re not crucial to growing your business or helping your business survive and then grow.”No matter the cuts to specific services provided for the creative, media and marketing sectors, business guru Carl Hopkins says the industry will feel a wider impact from the closure of RDAs anyway.And though you would not expect the ‘Secret Millionaire’, who made his fortune building up businesses like marketing agency JDA in the private sector, to be a flag bearer for quangos, he has mixed views about their extinction.He says: “I think there is a role for quangos if these are people from private businesses bringing their expertise and skillsets to public organisations whether it be the NHS or a development agency.“But I do think that everyone got a bit giddy, and it became a gravy train. It’s quite right that it’s ended.“We’ll see the big headlines about businesses losing funding, those that have taken hundreds of thousands of pounds from the development agencies, and they ultimately disappear.“But what about the pub and the corner shop next to those organisations that used to feed them at lunch time? What about the PR agency and the web agency that built their websites and helped them put their events together? They might not have been directly receiving funds from Yorkshire Forward say but were supporting those other businesses that did receive funds.”Endless quangosHopkins expects the strong businesses to survive but warns that any agencies reliant on producing “glossy brochures” and “pointless little websites” for the RDAs will be under threat.He hopes that when the RDAs are succeeded by the Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEP) in 2012, they will have a more transparent “focused brief”. “They can't replicate the mistakes of the previous dynasty,” he says. “They can’t just create endless quangos and fill them with their mates.”Whatever comes next, and the LEPs are an unknown quantity until the government explains them properly later this year, Hopkins believes the creative industries should be better represented. Until then, independence is the key.“Our industries should have their own Martha Lane Fox [the Lastminute.com founder recruited as the government’s digital champion].Then it gives a focus for all the trade bodies, whether it’s the CIPR or the DMA. They’ve got a point of focus, a link to government, to say these are what our members care about and these are the issues individuals and businesses are facing.“But until then we should look after ourselves. Any support we receive would be great but if we have to wait for the government or an RDA to promote creative services or marketing services we’re going to be waiting an awful long time.”