Devolution is key to unlocking massive potential of the North

Lord Heseltine
Lord Heseltine
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Senior business and political figures from across Yorkshire join forces today to demand further devolution of powers and funding to the region.

Speaking to the Yorkshire Post in the wake of last week’s publication of a landmark report on growth by Lord Heseltine, the region’s key policy makers and wealth creators say they want many of his recommendations implemented as quickly as possible.

The Tory peer was asked by Ministers to come up with ideas to boost economic growth, coming back last week with a radical programme of 89 measures.

Among them were calls for a new and central role for business in education and skills training, a shake-up of Whitehall to get departments focused on growth, and a clear energy policy to attract private investment in industries such as offshore wind.

But his report’s centrepiece is the creation of a £49bn “mega-fund” of devolved funds for business-led local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) to bid for, to enact their own local plans for growth.

Lord Heseltine says the funds – currently being spent by Whitehall on promoting growth around the country – would be better off in the hands of local leaders.

Every politician and business leader spoken to by the Yorkshire Post agreed Lord Heseltine’s proposals were worth pursuing. The only debate was over how far devolution to the regions ought to go.

“I think it’s great stuff,” said Tom Riordan, chief executive of Leeds City Council.

“The scale of what he is suggesting is pretty unprecedented.

“It’s clear we need something pretty dramatic, and I think this is the sort of thing that could make a real difference to us. It’s got to have scale to have impact.”

Mr Riordan is supported by his counterpart in Sheffield, John Mothersole, one of three senior figures who outlines their views on different aspects of Lord Heseltine’s report below.

Conservative MP Andrew Percy, who represents Brigg and Goole, said “devolution from Whitehall can’t come quickly enough”.

His party colleague Martin Vickers, MP for Cleethorpes, agreed – but was cautious about giving LEPs too large a role.

“I think it’s a very welcome report,” he said. “I think there is much in it that could benefit our region. In principle I’m very much in favour of devolving power down to local level.

“I have reservations about the LEPs, on the basis that they are not democratically accountable. Nevertheless I am very supportive of their work. But you are approaching a recreation of the regional development agencies (RDAs) which clearly became too large and cumbersome.”

This more cautious stance was backed by Barry Dodd, chairman of the York, North Yorkshire and East Riding LEP, who was supportive of devolving certain aspects of Government work to LEPs such as skills training.

“The way skills are being handled in the UK is nothing short of scandalous,” he said. “It is so different from somewhere like Germany – we are like a third-world country in comparison.

“Putting this funding in the hands of the LEPs is a sensible way to go now. There is a responsibility for local employers to get involved – it is absolutely essential we give them the tools to do so.”

But he warned: “We have to be careful that the LEPs have the capacity to deal with what he’s talking about. And we don’t want a big head count; we don’t want to turn into a mini-RDA.”

But Mr Riordan – a former boss of Yorkshire Forward – insisted the LEPs would not need to be the size of the now-defunct quango to drive local growth in the way Lord Heseltine envisages,

“I think the LEPs are up to it,” he said. “Nobody wants anything on the scale of the RDAs given the current austerity, but certainly we would need more people and a better skills-set you could do it with 50 to 100 people, which is not dramatic.”

Mr Mothersole agreed.

“I think we have to get over the fact that whenever there’s a conversation about economic growth being driven by a unit smaller than national government, we immediately benchmark it against the RDAs,” he said.

“The RDAs existed for a period of time, they were abolished. Now we need to learn from the good and the bad, and move on.”