Michael Heseltine: Time for Yorkshire to seize initiative over devolution

Michael Heseltine says its doubters are wrong about the Northern Powerhouse and its potential for change, but devolution holds the key.

Michael Heseltine says its doubters are wrong about the Northern Powerhouse and its potential for change, but devolution holds the key.

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In an exclusive column for The Yorkshire Post, the Conservative peer makes the case for the county to unite and make the most of the Northern Powerhouse agenda.

LEEDS is a city with a proud history. It is not just one of England’s great economic centres, but one of Europe’s.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, it was the buccaneers of the Industrial Revolution who forged the great British cities.

Democratic concern led to a series of increasingly centralised responses to living conditions among the poor. Local authorities, previously so well attuned to the dynamics of economic growth, replaced wealth generation with social amelioration as their primary concern.

The buccaneers of the 19th century gave way to the officialdom of Ministers and councillors in the 20th.

Mandarins in London decided what was best for distant cities yet had little to no dialogue with them. Local entrepreneurship was replaced by formulation and prescription from London. Thus began a century-long process of centralising decision making to Westminster. It is this process that I have spent the bulk of my political career trying to rewind.

In 1979, I first joined the Cabinet as Secretary of State for the Environment. My Labour predecessor, Peter Shore, had established the Urban Programme. It was an admirable attempt at addressing the causes of urban deprivation.

Across the country, I encouraged all local authorities to talk to the private sector and work out what private investment the grant could unlock. After my long experience of government, three lessons have remained with me.

First, the importance of place. Put simply, you cannot make decisions about people and the places they live in without speaking to those people and making sure they are involved in the decisions that affect them.

Secondly, I learned that in the age-old debate as to whether the public sector or the private sector knows best – the answer is “neither”. The best solutions are arrived at where the knowledge, skills, experience and expertise of both are harnessed.

Third, public money is spent best when it is used to incentivise the private sector to spend too. I have believed that for many decades, but never has it been so important as now, when the country continues to go through a period of restraint in public expenditure.

In 2012 the Chancellor asked me to conduct an independent review into the UK’s competitiveness. In my report – No Stone Unturned In Pursuit of Growth – I made 89 recommendations which all revolved around the key themes of involving local places in decisions that affect them; of the importance of Government and the private sector working hand-in-hand; and of using public money to secure private finance.

The central recommendation was devolution – the long overdue return of this country to the 19th century dynamics that made it the world leader of the Industrial Revolution.

Late in the last Parliament, the Chancellor announced an historic agreement with the local leaders of Manchester.

They agreed to form a combined authority with a new, directly elected mayor, in return for responsibilities they had never had before.

Since the election, the present Government has made big strides with devolution, agreeing deals with Cornwall, Sheffield, Tees Valley, the North East, Liverpool and the West Midlands.

Of course I am aware that such agreement has not yet proved possible in Leeds or in much of Yorkshire.

The opportunities are not just in the boroughs of Leeds or the villages of Yorkshire. They are in the export markets of the world, in the competitiveness of our economy, in the quality of services we provide and in the local leadership that is within our grasp.

Central to this Government’s devolution ambitions is the Northern Powerhouse. Everyone knows the importance of reinvigorating the North of England. Some dismiss the Northern Powerhouse as a slogan. But the examples already cited, and this Government’s relentless drive to make devolution a reality at all costs, ought to show those doubters they are most certainly wrong.

The Government is reversing the trend of town halls being preoccupied by social provision and welfare and focusing them once more on growth – just as they were 150 years ago. It’s genuinely transformational. Wherever I go now, councillors are talking once again about their local economy.

I believe this to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The Government has set in train the most full scale and radical devolution plans I have witnessed in my lifetime.

Devolution is not simply about staying ahead of your neighbouring communities – it’s about all of us pulling together to keep in front of our global competitors.

For the UK to be competitive, each and every part of it must succeed.

Michael Heseltine is a former Deputy Prime Minister who is speaking at the Northern Summit in Leeds today which is being hosted by the IPPR North and the Royal Town Planning Institute.

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