THE biggest opposition group on Herefordshire Council has called for more 'accountability' and 'transparency' of a partnership between local authorities and businesses.

It's Our County says it has been campaigning for five years for greater transparency of the work of the Marches Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) – which works with local authorities and businesses in Telford, Shropshire and Herefordshire and the Government to bring in private sector investment – requesting assurances that the necessary governance and oversight processes are in place.

Prompted by an article in the Daily Mail newspaper this week concerning the alleged funding and support given to businesses and individuals closely associated with people operating LEPs across the UK – which included the Marches LEP in its coverage – the party spoke out regarding its concerns.

Councillors from the IOC group claim the council’s scrutiny and audit committees continued to be ‘fobbed off’ by the local authority despite their constant calls for transparency.

At a meeting of Herefordshire Council's audit and governance meeting last week, Councillor Anthony Powers, leader of It’s Our County, said: “The ‘evolution’ of LEP governance is positively glacial. I see no discernible progress in the last year and no evidence that this administration recognises the urgency to improve matters.

"We must have transparency and accountability in the way that public money is prioritised and invested.”

However, Chairman of the Marches LEP Graham Wynn insists it is one of the most transparent in England.

He said: “The LEP, which includes Herefordshire Council, operates in full compliance with the National Assurance Framework and our governance arrangements are robust and our processes transparent.

"The minutes of LEP board meetings, the LEP Accountability and Assurance Framework, Member Register of Interests and the Marches LEP Draft Accounts are all publicly available.

“Members of the board receive no salary, no bonuses, no expenses from the LEP and give their time and experience at zero cost to the partnership.”

Key funding decisions must be approved by the Marches Joint Executive Committee, with elected leaders of the three local authorities being the only members with voting rights to ensure accountability.

"All LEPs are required to meet government standards in relation to transparency and accountability and the Marches LEP was one of the earliest to do so. Indeed, a representative of the Department of Communities and Local Government was part of the decision-making panel on funding via the Regional Growth Fund in this region, again to ensure accountability, and due diligence reports by KPMG reported a 'clear and robust appraisal process' with 'clear and transparent documentation,” he said.

The governance arrangements, which include a performance Risk and Monitoring Committee, are designed to ensure funding is being allocated in a 'transparent and coordinated' manner which provides value for money; and assurance is provided through the accountable body finance officer on the proper use and administration of public funds, he added.

However, Cllr Liz Harvey, a member of the council's Audit Committee said she hopes the national coverage of LEPs will have a positive effect.

“In nature ‘evolution’ only occurs in response to environmental pressures,” she said.

“Hopefully the ‘pressure’ of this high-profile spotlight on LEP affairs will have a positive effect. The LEP is not a pet project pot for Herefordshire Council or for anyone else. Transparency and accountability are not optional extras.”