Heseltine’s regional proposals attract growing cross-party backing

Lord Heseltine
Lord Heseltine
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HOPES are rising of a rare cross-party consensus at Westminster to drive forward Lord Heseltine’s radical blueprint for growth that would hand sweeping powers and billions of pounds to business and council leaders in Yorkshire.

Senior politicians from all sides of the Commons have now given their backing to the Tory grandee’s ground-breaking reform programme, which was published last week after a seven-month inquiry.

Ministers have pledged to consider carefully each of Lord Heseltine’s 89 recommendations to kick-start the economy, which include creating a £49bn “mega-fund” for local areas to spend on their own growth plans and measures to give local businesses more involvement in public spending, education and skills training.

In interviews with the Yorkshire Post, an alliance of business leaders, council bosses and MPs today give broad backing for the Heseltine plan and call for the Chancellor George Osborne to take significant steps towards its implementation in next month’s Autumn Statement.

They include the chief executives of Yorkshire’s two largest councils, MPs from all three major parties and senior business figures such as Lord Haskins.

The Yorkshire Post is also giving its support to the Heseltine plan as part of its Give us a Fair Deal campaign, which is calling on Government and local political leaders to work together to help close the North/South divide.

Business Secretary Vince Cable is the latest Cabinet Minister to pledge support for Heseltine’s report, describing his approach as “realistic” and insisting the peer’s “basic principle is right”.

Speaking to the Yorkshire Post, the York-born Liberal Democrat said: “Lord Heseltine’s point is that there is far too much decision-making in London.

“We may have lots of very clever people sitting in Whitehall, but they are not the best people to decide what happens in Yorkshire.

“You’ve got to find a mechanism for deciding how to allocate Government funding for infrastructure, for skills and so on.

“He actually proposes using the Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs). A combination of that and the City Deals, as we call them, will turn around this oil tanker which is heading in the direction of more and more centralisation.

“We’ve got probably the most overly-centralised Government in the western world. We’ve really got to go in a different direction.”

Mr Cable said the City Deals – the coalition’s existing programme to devolve more power to major urban centres – have already begun the process of giving local areas more freedom to spend and borrow “without the Government getting in their hair”.

And he dismissed fears that the Tory peer’s proposals will be seen as too radical by the Treasury.

Mr Cable said: “Lord Heseltine is being very realistic – he’s not saying you should just give billions of pounds to LEPs tomorrow.

“He’s saying in the next spending round for the Government, you shift pockets of money into a point where these LEPs can bid for it. We have to think carefully about it, but the basic principle is right.”

Mr Cable’s comments follow a similarly positive response last week from Mr Osborne, the Conservative Party’s senior strategist.

Dismissing fears that the radical nature of Lord Heseltine’s report meant it was likely to be shelved, the Chancellor said: “I think his idea about giving local areas much more control over public spending is a great idea. It will lead to concrete action.

“I am absolutely clear it’s a great report, and you’re going to see a huge amount of it implemented.”

Labour has also welcomed the report, though sought to gain political capital by describing it as “a damning indictment” of existing Government policy.

Labour front-bencher Rachel Reeves, the Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury and MP for Leeds West, said: “Lord Heseltine identified the fact that the LEPs, installed in place of the hastily-abolished regional development agencies, have not been given the capacity or the clout they need, and this is holding our cities and regions back.

“His call for a real devolution of power and resources will resonate with Yorkshire businesses which have missed out on bids for the regional growth fund.”

But her Labour colleague Barry Sheerman, the MP for Huddersfield, told the Commons on Thursday that it was time for all parties to work together to implement Lord Heseltine’s proposals.

“Why cannot we have more all-party agreement on some of the challenges that we face?” he asked Business Secretary Mr Cable. “The recommendations in the Heseltine review give us an opportunity to adopt a common strategy across the House.”

And Mr Cable responded: “I am absolutely willing to take up that challenge. There is an enormous amount of wisdom in the Heseltine report, and we will of course respond to all 89 of its recommendations in due course.”