Government 'has let the devolution agenda drift', warns Michael Heseltine

The Government 'has let the devolution agenda drift' and will be unable to deliver on its promises during this Parliament, Tory grandee Lord Micheal Heseltine has warned.

Michael Heseltine pictured in 2019. (Photo by Tolga AKMEN / AFP)

Speaking at the New Statesman’s Regional Development in the Age of Levelling Up conference in Manchester this morning, the former Deputy Prime Minister said there has been a lack of progress on delivering devolution.

But Devolution Minister Chloe Smith told the same event Lord Heseltine’s comments were “not correct”.

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It comes after a long-awaited Government white paper on devolution was subsumed earlier this year into a yet-to-be published Levelling Up white paper, which is due to be published ‘later this year’.

Michael Heseltine speaking at the New Statesman conference in Manchester this morning.

Lord Heseltine said: “This Government has left the devolution agenda drift. We're still waiting, halfway through this Parliament for the white paper.

"And when it comes, of course, they'll find ways to produce the figures that indicate there's been big change.

"But actually, in the context of this Parliament there is now not sufficient time left to implement and see the results of a genuine devolution agenda. It's a shame."

But later in the conference, Devolution Minister Chloe Smith said Lord Heseltine’s comments were “not right” and the Government was already taking action linked to the levelling-up agenda.

“Look at the steps we have already taken, look at the plans already going out for the Community Renewal Fund, look at the City Growth deals, in England look at the Towns Fund’s £3.6bn worth of investment,” she said.

“Then there is the UK Shared Prosperity Fund which is quite the straight answer to the promises made in the manifesto. All of that is in addition to the Levelling Up Fund.

“I’ve made quite a long list, which I think demonstrates we are doing it, I don’t think it is possible to say nothing is happening. That’s simply untrue.”

Lord Heseltine said Boris Johnson’s recent speech on his levelling up ambitions contained “chilling and irrefutable” analysis about the nation’s regional disparities in which the Prime Minister warned “this country is the most economically imbalanced - it is the most centralised”.

“We are over-centralised, the regional disparities are wider than under most of our European equivalents,” Lord Heseltine said.

But he added that the Prime Minister’s speech lacked an “appreciation of what central government itself has got to do if you are going to seriously pursue a devolution agenda”.

He said: “We all know that Whitehall is functionally designed to suit the power structure of the great spending departments.

“If you are going to evolve a local strategy from a local authority, who do you discuss the strategy with? Well, 10 phone calls, one to ask when the housing ingredient is any good, another to see whether the transport work.

“Are we doing something about education - that needs another guy. By and large, if you design your strategy locally as a local leader, you can usually find the need to make 10 different phone calls and in each phone call you will only be able to discuss one aspect of your strategy.

“So central government has got to recognise, if it genuinely wants to reflect local strategies, it has to self-coordinate to create a face with that local authority, where that can be comprehensive dialogue about the way forward."

Lord Heseltine said he was “very strongly” supportive of the Prime Minister’s comments about the need for strong local leadership but said more powers need to be granted to elected mayors - an idea he admitted was “controversial”.

“The one thing that I know and you all know is that turkeys don't vote for Christmas. So the moment you suggest shifting power from one agenda to another, you have resistance, and there is no agenda in Whitehall which tells a civil servant or a minister that their self interests, their career structure, is enhanced by actually giving away the power that they now enjoy.”

But he added that having one elected leader representing a region is a structure “very largely adopted across the free world in virtually every other country which I have any knowledge”.

Government defends its record

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has defended the Government’s record, saying billions is being invested in local communities.

An MHCLG spokesperson said: “We’re investing billions of pounds to support and regenerate local communities, empowering people to have more control over their areas.

“Nine new combined authority areas have elected mayors since 2017, and we’ve asked local leaders in our historic towns and counties to come to us with their ideas about how devolved power can them the tools to make things happen for their communities.”

In July, Boris Johnson announced his intention to strike new county devolution deals.

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