ERIC Pickles says he is “leading the charge” in Whitehall to devolve billions of pounds of funding to Yorkshire and the other regions of England as gets behind Lord Heseltine’s radical growth plan.
Speaking to the Yorkshire Post, the Communities Secretary said he was “enthusiastic” about the Tory peer’s 89-point plan to revive economies beyond the South East, and has no problem with handing over a large slice of his department’s budget for local areas to spend for themselves.
Lord Heseltine’s wide-ranging report, commissioned by the Treasury, calls for a huge shake-up of Whitehall to get it focused on growing the economy, and a raft of new responsibilities for businesses and chambers of commerce.
But its central tenant is the creation of a £49 billion “single pot” of existing Whitehall funds which local areas could spend on their own housing, infrastructure, skills training and back-to-work schemes.
Chancellor George Osborne has expressed his backing for the idea and promised to bring forward concrete proposals for the devolution of funds in the new year.
Earlier this week, however, Lord Heseltine warned the Chancellor he will face “resistance” from those departments which will lose control of large portions of their budget as a result.
Mr Pickles’s Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) is one of those which looks certain to be stripped of significant funds, as it currently controls spending on key ‘growth’ policies such as housing.
But the Yorkshire-born Cabinet Minister insisted DCLG will not stand in the way of what would amount to the biggest devolution drive to the regions in generations.
“We are leading the charge on this,” Mr Pickles said. “I quite like the idea of a single pot.
“To have a single element – or several elements – that you could bid for I think is an excellent idea.”
Lord Heseltine’s vision is that each of the country’s 39 local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) would draw up growth plans for their local areas involving new housing, infrastructure, skills training and other key projects to get the economy moving.
The LEPs – which consist of local business and council leaders working together – would then bid competitively against one another for a share of the £49 billion fund.
The Yorkshire Post is calling for large parts of Lord Heseltine’s plan to be implemented as quickly as possible, as part of its Give us a Fair Deal campaign.
Mr Pickles accepted there are some voices within the Government seeking to hold back the Tory peer’s programme – but insisted his is not one of them.
“I think there are some that are more enthusiastic about the Heseltine plan than others,” he said. “I would put myself as one of the more enthusiastic.”
The mass devolution of funds, he said, should be seen as the next step in the Government’s “localism” agenda after the “City Deals” signed off with eight major conurbations including the Leeds and Sheffield city regions.
“Am I in favour of more devolution to local areas?” he asked. “Yes, I most certainly am.
“I think the City Deals gives us a way we might go on that. I think that’s the future – the kind of deal we did with Newcastle; the deal we did with Manchester, the deal that’s up there for Bradford and Leeds.
“That’s the way local government should be going – a lot more autonomy. And a lot more control over taxation.”
Asked if the “City Deal” devolution packages should be extended to rural areas as well, he added: “Yes. It’s the future – it’s the way it should go. We’re going to start looking at market towns.”