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Tarzan’s final roar echoes through the Tory jungle

Tarzan’s final roar echoes through the Tory jungle

🕔31.Oct 2012

Lord Heseltine

Michael Heseltine returns to centre-stage politics today with a clarion call for cities and regions to be freed from Whitehall control and trusted by the Government to trigger economic growth on an unprecedented scale.

Lord Heseltine’s long-awaited report to Chancellor George Osborne, on how to get Britain back to work, runs to 228 pages and contains 89 recommendations. It is a tour-de-force by any standards, but its central thrust is clear enough – talking about delivering powers and budgets to the regions isn’t enough. Firm action is required.

As the 79-year-old political veteran puts it: “Government must now reverse the trend of the past century and unleash the dynamic potential of our local economies. The Government is committed to a local agenda. Is that policy or slogan? There are encouraging signs to believe it is policy but so far we have seen only the first steps.”

Many on the right of the Tory party will be aghast at this report, which, as expected, gives Lord Heseltine ample opportunity to rehearse his interventionist instincts. He even demands an industrial strategy and a prime minister-led National Growth Council, which those with long memories might imagine would be something akin to George Brown’s Department for Economic Affairs in the 1960s.

But it would be a mistake to be sidetracked by Lord Heseltine’s prescriptions for shaking up central government, and his digs at Whitehall’s inefficiencies. He is not the first person to propose shipping out of London thousands of civil servants so that they might work more productively with local government. It hasn’t happened yet.

At the centre of his localism agenda is the distribution of £50 billion to Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), which would be permitted to implement their strategy based on local needs “free from Government diktat”.

Lord Heseltine puts it like this: “For the UK to face up to the challenge of increasing international competition, we must reverse the long trend to centralism. Every place is unique. Local leaders are best placed to understand the opportunities and obstacles to growth in their own communities.

“LEPs must be enabled to respond to economic shocks or opportunities in their areas. Criticism should be levelled not at people who tried to achieve a project which proved too ambitious. Criticism should be aimed at people who do not try at all.”

The report contains a section setting out how additional budgets and powers for the LEPs could benefit Birmingham and the West Midlands. But first, Heseltine reinforces the point that decades of centralism have all but destroyed local entrepreneurialism.

“The grand Victorian town halls of Birmingham, Bradford, Liverpool and Manchester attest to an age when people looked to their city, and not just to Westminster, for solutions.

“Powerful local government held sway, led by business people who applied their entrepreneurial energies to the economic development of their communities.

“With central government reserving for itself the power to make the vast majority of economic decisions – creating itself as a functional monopoly – local authorities have been relegated to service providers. To make matters worse, as Whitehall has taken more powers so its distrust of local decision makers has increased.

“At the first sign of trouble, further powers are wrested back to the centre. At the same time – and I would say as a result – the involvement of local business people in the governance of their communities has dwindled, and their energy and innovation has been lost.”

The Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP gave evidence to Lord Heseltine’s inquiry. This is how the LEP envisaged that the report’s proposals would strengthen the local economy:

Transport and Infrastructure: We could maximise the impact of major national investments like High Speed 2, link them to our transport network and deliver major schemes faster by removing lengthy bidding and approval processes. If these powers had been in place 10, or even five years ago, significant transport projects which are now only just being built such as New Street Gateway would be operational, linked into a coordinated transport network and providing a £2 billion benefit to the region.

Housing: We could overcome the challenges of housing growth by developing further ‘build now, pay later models’ for public sector land and providing the necessary supporting infrastructure – meeting demanding housing growth targets, and building new jobs and businesses through the supply chain.

Growing leading sectors: We could build on existing assets (particularly around Life Sciences and Automotive) with a complete package (skills, business support, infrastructure, Foreign Direct Investment) to give the UK internationally competitive sector strength, creating approximately 73,000 jobs in our local supply chain.

Lord Heseltine’s report, “No Stone Unturned”, begins with a familiar picture of Joseph Chamberlain, the Birmingham businessman credited with inventing municipalism in the late 19th century. The document is in many ways an argument for restoring the power base, and budgets, town halls and to ensuring that successful businessmen and women return to the forefront of local government.

Will all, some, or any of the recommendations be accepted by the Prime Minister, or is this another set of suggestions destined to gather dust on a Whitehall shelf?

Lord Heseltine must have the last word: “It will be said of this report that it is too prescriptive and that cannot be denied. My case is based on the experience of ministerial life and the myriad of reports like this that are littered across Whitehall.

“Every prime minister of whom I have knowledge has been frustrated by their inability to make Whitehall work effectively. The levers are there but the links are elastic. Pull them and not much happens. We need to link the levers to the gears.”


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