Heseltine wants regions to focus on sink estates

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Lord Heseltine has called on towns and cities across England to use their newly-devolved funds from Whitehall to address the severe problems of deprivation on their sink estates, while also pushing for economic growth.

The Tory peer, who advises the Government on regional policy, said he is in discussions with Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith about how cities such as Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield and Hull – which host some of the country’s most deprived housing estates – could use Whitehall money to get people off benefits and into work.

Lord Heseltine was speaking a year on from the publication of his landmark No Stone Unturned report to Government, which recommended the mass devolution of funds from Whitehall to the regions to kick-start growth.

The 80-year-old former Deputy Prime Minister said his next focus will be on deprived estates – and called on local areas to use their new funds to intervene.

“People know where these estates are, and huge sums of public money are being used to sustain them,” he said. “But they are being used by agencies or quangos or local authority departments in ways that are unco-ordinated.

“You will find the police have got a drugs initiative, the local authority has got a troubled families initiative, somebody else has got a housing scheme... There is not one person who you can ring up and say, ‘I want to talk to you about the problems of this estate’.

“So there is no aspiration. This is all financing the status quo. It’s an acceptance that that is the way it should be. There’s no person who says ‘I’m going to change this’.

“What’s in my mind is to restore the dynamism that gives a purpose for the very large sums of public money being spent.”

Lord Heseltine said he had discussed the issue with Mr Duncan Smith, and has visited several sink estates in the North where it was clear intervention was required.

“You are sitting in a bombed-out estate, the Job Centre is some distance away, the bus costs £2, so you go and try to get a job and then it costs £2 back,” he said. “How much of a problem would it be, in this electronic age, to have an outpost of the Job Centre in this bombed-out estate?”

Local areas are currently finalising their bids for money from the £3bn-a-year of devolved funds to be devolved from 2015, and Lord Heseltine said Ministers should be supportive of those areas looking to address deprivation as well as pushing for growth.

He also made clear he is not bitter that the money being made available by Whitehall is significantly less than the £15bn-a-year he had envisaged.

“You’ve got a simple choice in life,” he said. “You can sit down and sulk, and complain, and say they didn’t listen... but frankly why not settle for that, and take it as a starting point?”

He said that despite the ongoing “civil war” within Government, as departments battle to keep control of their budgets, he is “optimistic” that devolution to the regions will continue.

“I detect we have caught the wind,” he said. “I think one of the consequences of the most appalling recession is people did look into the way we run this country and ask some pretty fundamental questions. I think there is a mood now to get much closer to place-based ideas.”