An image

Evaluative learnings from the North East Strategic Economic Plan

Read the independent evaluation of the delivery of the strategic economic plan between 2014 to 2024.


In 2023, the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (North East LEP) commissioned RSM to complete a piece of evaluative research to examine how the North East Strategic Economic Plan was delivered between 2014 to 2024. As the North East LEP will be one of five regional organisations that will come together to form a new North East Combined Authority in May 2024, it is important to reflect on, capture and consider the North East LEP’s journey and how key lessons can be taken forward in the new operating context. The conclusions and recommendations of this study will be used to inform the transition to the new Combined Authority, as regional governance changes in the region and the wider evidence base will be used to inform the value of regional policy making and delivery more broadly.

The North East LEP 

The North East LEP was the primary body for local economic development policy across seven local authority areas in the North East of England (County Durham, Gateshead, Newcastle, North Tyneside, Northumberland, South Tyneside, and Sunderland). 

In line with other LEPs across England, the role and remit of the North East LEP grew substantially, taking on the broad policy portfolio of the preceding regional development agency, comprising: i) economic development and regeneration, ii) support for business competitiveness and investment, iii) supporting and promoting employment, iv) supporting skills development and employability, and v) supporting sustainable development. 

The work of the North East LEP has been underpinned by a set of core values and working practices (below) that informed approaches and modes of operation. These were intended to foster consistency across the North East LEP’s broad remit and have been examined as a ‘cross-cutting’ theme throughout the consultation.

Think bigger

A commitment to scaling and continual improvement in working practices.

Do the right thing

A commitment to making decisions based on evidence and data, and backed by a commitment to accountability.

Better together

A commitment to developing trusted, collaborative partnerships across internal and external parties, and at the local and national levels.

Make a difference

A commitment to working with passion and commitment to delivering effective outcomes.

Overview of the study

The overarching ambition of this research was to identify good practice and lessons learnt from the process of policy and programme design and delivery in the North East LEP over the last 10 years, and the strategic added value that the North East LEP brought to regional economy. During the scoping of this work, the study team developed three high-level overarching research questions to guide the process:

1. What is the value added of the North East LEP to the regional economy?

2. Which areas of North East LEP delivery have been most effective/impactful? 

3. What lessons have been learnt through delivery? 

The research collected evidence through primary consultation with regional stakeholders, and a meta-evaluation of published independent evaluative evidence commissioned by the North East LEP.  To best shape the research, this process was undertaken in two parts, the first to develop a broad set of themes through scoping consultation and document review. These themes were subsequently short listed into four areas of exploration.

The role of the North East LEP

A deep dive into the ways in which the North East LEP has promoted economic development, and specifically its role in designing and delivering the SEP North East Strategic Economic Plan. This focuses on assessing how the North East LEP has fulfilled its mission, what worked well or less well, and what lessons can be learned from observed modes of working.

Capacity and capability

A deep dive into North East LEP’s ability to use its capacity to achieve SEP objectives (and undertake other appropriate activities), considering resources, infrastructures, stakeholder engagement, working practices.

Evidence and insights

A deep dive into the North East LEP’s use of evidence and insights, including data and evaluation, to drive design and delivery of the SEP.

Partnership working

A deep dive into the North East LEP’s approach to developing and implementing partnerships, its role in coordinating activities and efforts across stakeholders, including strategic and delivery partners, to achieve the outcomes of the SEP.

In order to reach an overall view of what has worked well and how observable practice has supported success, the research focused on both the process and impact aspects of the North East LEP’s work. To best identify, calibrate, and judge the good practice identified through consultation and meta-evaluation, the study team developed a conceptual framework based on academic and grey literature. This provided a sound grounding to compare the empirical practice of what the North East LEP has done ‘in the real world’ to the ‘ideal case’ (i.e., the optimum version as described in literature). This was an efficient and effective way to robustly judge examples of practice across broad areas.

"The North East LEP’s capacity to balance a visionary long-term perspective with flexibility in implementation highlights a leadership success that contributed significantly to the region’s economic advancement"

Headline findings

This research has distilled a number of headlines against each area of exploration, which are summarised below. Key to note is that all areas are supported by the cross-cutting values of the North East LEP. Consultation data and independent evaluations support the view that success has been underpinned by the ways in which the North East LEP has worked, which in turn is guided by the organisation’s values. 

The examination of the role of the North East LEP in this research covered i) leadership style/capacity and capability, ii) the value-added of the North East LEP, and iii) approaches to coordinating and undertaking network governance.

Overall, the feedback on the North East LEP’s leadership was positive, with consultees observing that there has been a consistent overall strategic vision for the region through the complementary combination of the chief executive and main board chairs. The leadership was also praised as fostering a culture of transparency and accountability while providing steady leadership.

In addition to providing a clear and consistent economic vision, the added value of the North East LEP was classified as aiding the navigation of flux through the COVID-19 pandemic and EU transition, and providing continuity and representation for the regional (e.g., translating regional need into the national policy language to secure funding for strategic projects). The North East LEP acts as an aggregator, co-owner, and broker-facilitator within the broader local policy ecosystem, and this is a key role in developing and delivering policy, supporting legitimacy and effectiveness.

Capacity and capability is an essential variable to the delivery of differentiated regional policy. The North East LEP was praised in consultation for its strong organisational team and board memberships that demonstrate extensive connections within the region and which foster strong ties with a broad range of organisations and businesses.

Both consultation and other documentary evidence suggested that resourcing was largely appropriate, albeit with some fluctuation over the North East LEP’s years of operation. Evaluations of policy and programme delivery often noted that greater resourcing could allow the North East LEP to ‘do more’ (i.e., deliver further benefit). The capacity developed by the North East LEP was thought to support the commitment to transparency and accountability, via reporting, outcome tracking mechanisms, and other tools (including the data and evidence infrastructure).

The capacity and capability of the North East LEP also appears to support the North East LEP’s reflexivity, i.e., undertaking frequent communication with stakeholders (internally and externally), part of which is developing and delivering policy and programmes, and part of which is securing additional expertise.

Consultation undertaken for this research also highlighted the extent to which capacity and capability supported agility and the ability to pivot where needed in response to external developments. This includes a proactive approach to identifying and considering diverse funding streams in light of EU transition.

Consultees described the North East LEP as having demonstrated agility by actively exploring alternative funding options, such as post-EU transition replacements for long-standing European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF) and other European funding sources. Showing the North East LEP’s adaptability to changing circumstances and commitment to securing resources for regional development.

This strategic exploration reflects the North East LEP’s capacity to navigate challenges and capitalise on opportunities in a dynamic economic landscape. It also demonstrates the North East LEP’s ability to leverage different funds, identifying opportunities, further building capacity, and innovating or pivoting approaches where needed.

Evidence and insights refers to the role of data and research in how the North East LEP has shaped economic policies in the region, and how data was identified and integrated to inform decision-making. Consultation undertaken for this research highlighted the consistent use of evidence, supported by the creation and maintenance of the Evidence Hub. This was regarded unanimously as a success of North East LEP delivery, and as a reliable source of data, drawing together national and regional data (secondary and primary) that was supported by proactive and adaptable data collection. The Evidence Hub was described as facilitating comparability in analysis and transparency and accountability in decisions.

Consultation also highlighted how the North East LEP had fostered a culture of evidence among stakeholders and partners, with evidence and data at the forefront of policy and decision-making and playing a critical role in justifying investments, attracting funding, and ensuring projects were strategically aligned. Communication was praised too, including the Our Economy conferences and commitment to publishing evaluative findings. The sum of these factors was felt by stakeholders to exemplify the North East LEP’s commitment to continual improvement, as enshrined in its values.

Partnership working was explored in relation to the North East LEP’s approach to partnership working and its coordinating activities and efforts across stakeholders, including organisations and delivery partners, to design and deliver the activities outlined in the SEP.

Consultation undertaken for this research was positive about the North East LEP’s view of and approach to partnership working, which was described as key to ensuring that policies and programmes are well-oriented, scoped, and targeted because of the role of co-design. Consultees felt that the North East LEP had managed to find and connected to the ‘right’ people from businesses and other organisations, harnessing their input views and leveraging external expertise alongside in-house knowledge.

The search for and engagement of external expertise was embedded in the North East LEP’s core approaches to communicating with stakeholders, from conferences and events to more bespoke arrangements such as the periodic refreshes of the SEP. The North East LEP’s approach to partnership working has bolstered legitimacy and trust, reputational development, and has contributed to good governance practices such as transparency and accountability.

Key learnings 

Independent evaluations of policies and programmes undertaken by the North East LEP have consistently highlighted effectiveness across a range of delivery areas, suggesting that the North East LEP has been able to oversee appropriate and impactful interventions for the region. Success has often been attributed to the scoping and targeting of the policies and programmes, knowledge of target audiences and beneficiary groups, and the approaches, working methods, and skills of the responsible teams. Where potential improvements are articulated, these have often related to increasing resourcing levels to allow for more expansive engagement, or simply allowing teams to ‘do more’, particularly under intensive delivery areas or models. 

The key learning of the research is presented against each core research question below.

Based on consultation and review of documentary evidence during this research, the value of the LEP over the period 2014-2024 can be characterised in three primary ways, each of which relate directly to chosen leadership approaches, and organisational culture:

  • Fostering a culture of data and evidence-led decision making. This is itself a two-part action comprising: i) creating and maintaining the evidence base for policy and programme development for the region, including the initial independent economic review, described in consultation as being a central to the LEP’s ability to shape and orient policy and programmes; and ii) increasing data accessibility and appetite to use data among partners in the region through creating and maintaining primary and secondary datasets and leading by example.
  • Facilitating the development and delivery of appropriate policy and programmes by performing the role of ‘honest broker’ among regional stakeholders. The LEP has been able to generate and maintain legitimacy through being openly data-led, developing a reputation as a neutral facilitator of policy decisions. This requires a combination of data infrastructure, organisational culture and processes, and sufficient capacity – as well as demonstrable adherence to good governance principles such as transparency. Each of these were highlighted in consultation for this research.
  • Helping local actors to navigate flux (whether related to externalities such as the COVID-19 pandemic or EU transition, or elsewhere in the policy system). The LEP has been praised for the ways it worked across the multi-level governance system to articulate regional needs and priorities to national government (e.g., in developing responses to competitive funding calls and devolution processes, also highlighted in the interim evaluation of the SEP). The evaluation of the Growth Hub also praised the ways in which the team worked to ease access to business support by undertaking individually focused outreach and curating a network of providers. Developing and maintaining strong strategic and delivery partnerships that are truly bilateral is key to both providing consistency and stewardship and working across levels of governance. 

As discussed in relevant academic and grey literature, the viability of these approaches rests on developing supporting capacity, which the North East LEP appears to have managed despite some flux in budgets and staffing. The literature reviewed as part of this research notes that these behaviours and practices can also be seen to be interlinked and mutually reinforcing, insofar as values and organisational culture can only be actualised through sufficient infrastructure (e.g., the evidence hub) and appropriate advocacy (e.g., clear communication as part of an inclusive approach to developing partnerships and working methods). These are in turn support and are supported by the ‘honest broker’ role, which embeds and becomes legitimised over time, dependant on results.

Based on the evidence review and consultation undertaken for this piece of research, the North East LEP has been effective and impactful in a number of areas. This covers both design and delivery of policy and programmes, with consultees emphasising the role of the North East LEP in setting (and maintaining) the strategic direction for the region, and independent evaluations offering a uniformly positive view of policy and programme results. This positive assessment covers areas ranging from business support to entrepreneurship, innovation, skills development, and investments in economic development infrastructures. While the interim evaluation of the SEP highlighted progress against a number of key performance indicators and policy domains, particular examples of effectiveness derived from consultation include: the approach to engaging and supporting businesses in an individualised way, the COVID-19 response, and  the Gatsby pilot having become a national standard. 

The above examples demonstrate the North East LEP’s differentiated approach, and the importance of using evidence in developing targeted interventions. The results of reviewing prior evaluation findings and undertaking primary consultation for this research highlighted that the LEP’s effectiveness is underpinned by its ability to scope and deliver appropriate interventions through use of evidence and capacity to mobilise the analysis. The evaluation of the COVID-19 response (and the evaluation of the Growth Hub activities) also highlighted the importance of the North East LEP’s agility and ability to innovate and pivot delivery to react to changing circumstances. Consultation emphasised the  importance of the North East LEP’s values and commitment to continual improvement to this, and its adherence to the good governance principle of responsiveness (itself also noted in the academic and grey literatures as underpinned by capacity). 

A final area of effectiveness that is worthy of discussion in this section is the perception of the North East LEP as providing steady leadership. This relates to two main areas: i) the North East LEP’s reputation for transparency and accountability, and ii) the above-discussed navigation of flux. Consultees repeatedly praised the chair of the main North East LEP board and the current chief executive, noting the complementarity of the pair and the importance of the consistency in setting direction and culture (including the transparency and accountability), and influencing ways of working (including the emphasis on harnessing the business voice). The chief executive was also praised for providing a ‘calming’ influence during periods of uncertainty.

The last ten years of North East LEP delivery provides a number of important lessons for future activity through the new Combined Authority. The view of the North East LEP as an ‘honest broker’ that works across both the region (with partners) and the multi-level governance system (with government departments and agencies, and other policy bodies) highlights the importance of the organisation being able to act in an informed and neutral way. Based on consultation and independent evaluations, the North East LEP has succeeded in large part because of its knowledge of the local area in terms of needs and how this translates into a national policy language and context. 

This has been facilitated by the robust evidence base that is also kept up to date through continual investment, which allows the North East LEP to appropriately scope and orient its interventions. The honest broker role is a key element of developing trust in the North East North East LEP’s role, and is supported by the evidence base and values of the organisation, socialised among partners. In line with this, the leadership of the North East LEP has provided a consistent vision, updating the SEP iteratively and ensuring consistency with other areas of policy and delivery.

Despite some fluctuation, the North East LEP has been appropriately resourced to deliver its programmes and interventions, though consultation and evaluations note that greater resourcing would have allowed increased outreach/engagement/scaling. This includes some areas that are resource intensive (e.g. the Growth Hub), and efforts to respond quickly to external shocks such as the pandemic.

The values of the North East LEP have been central to ensuring consistency of approach (e.g., across numerous board chairs) while also facilitating individuality to be expressed. Advocacy of data and evidence-led decision making (and routinely bringing partners into the process of development as equals) has engendered shared value of the use of evidence. Adherence to good governance principles has been supported by resourcing and capacity, but also speaks to the values of the organisation and how they are embedded across all staff. This has resulted in a consistency of approach and a shared approach and baseline competencies.

Forward-looking considerations

This research aimed to investigate the ways in which the North East LEP has operated, in particular investigating a number of key areas of practice that are deemed important in international literature focused on place-based economic development policy. The conceptual framework used in this research sets out the core principles to the successful design and delivery of local economic development policy and programmes and should be considered when planning and executing the merger into the combined authority.

The evidence collected via consultation and document review reflects well on the ways in which the North East LEP acted on a number of these core concepts. This research has shown that the leadership of the North East LEP is well-regarded across stakeholders and partners and operates with sufficient capacity to design and deliver effective policy. The role(s) played by the North East LEP’s leadership, and the commitment to evidence-based policymaking, have also been important foundations for developing legitimacy and trust in the region, which has underpinned the LEP’s ability to deliver.

The North East LEP’s leadership also set a culture of openness, transparency and ‘expertise without ego’, which has subsequently led to strong adherence to good governance principles. The North East LEP has developed strong and effective partnerships via a commitment to seeking out appropriate expertise and input where this does not exist in house, bolstered via clarity over roles and responsibilities and two-way accountability and communication. The below table summarises the key insights against each variable of the conceptual framework.

Recommendations for new Combined Authority

Set out below are several key recommendations for the Combined Authority transition that have emerged from the research findings above. These are practical and concrete suggestions based on the study, and are designed to facilitate discussion of potential directions for future initiatives in the region.

1. Evidence

Maintain the North East Evidence Hub and commitment to data-led decision making, which incorporates reflection on delivery and results (i.e., evaluation practice) within the new combined authority.

2. Co-operation

Ensure that there are meaningful opportunities for co-created strategy development and programme delivery in the new governance structure and operating model. It is important to continue operating in appropriate ways dependant on needs and requirements (e.g., maintaining the ability to act as an ‘honest broker’ where necessary).

3. Partnerships

Ensure that partnerships and networks continue to be nurtured, developed and leveraged, by communicating and engaging with them effectively. Impartial input and challenge has been recognised as a strength of the North East LEP’s work, as was the importance of the voice of business, specifically. In addition, the North East LEP developed a strong sense of where expertise could be accessed, and used this effectively in the design and delivery of policies and programmes. It is important to acknowledge that the region and its people are important assets, and have demonstrated an appetite to be involved in governance.

4. Expertise

The North East LEP is an established organisation, and is recognised and respected across multiple roles. The knowledge, expertise, and innovative thinking of the North East LEP and its staff should be used to help shape the new organisation.

Wider reflections 

Key for local and regional economic development is ensuring that policy is appropriately differentiated, scoped, and targeted. This requires sound evidence and appropriate capacity to implement and manage policy design and delivery, as well as ensuring that partnerships are clearly defined. These are all explored within this research in the context of the North East LEP and should be preserved in the design of the new combined authority as per the recommendations above. 

Broader literature also stressed the importance of a ‘good fit’ between institutional design (e.g., roles, values, drivers) and policy objectives, and a mechanism to maintain relevance (e.g., reviewing and adapting alignment over time). This is often a challenge in the transition of governance arrangements, though the design of the new combined authority provides a good opportunity to enact this practice.

Further evidence

Overarching evaluation of the North East Growth Hub and its activities

Introducing the overarching evaluation, headline findings and key recommendations. 

High Potential Start Ups evaluation

To find out more about the evaluation of the High Potential Start Ups programme.

Made Smarter Evaluation

To find out more about the learnings from the Made Smarter North East programme evaluation. 

North East Growth Hub

To explore what business is currently available in the North East LEP area.