Investment to narrow the North-South divide will not come without putting “the right ministers” inside 10 and 11 Downing Street this month, the veteran Conservative Lord Heseltine has said.
He told officials at the launch of the first report from the independent UK2070 commission on rebalancing the economy, that there was “not a ghost of a chance of doing what is necessary” without the support of “the right minister in the Prime Minister’s job and at the Treasury”.
The former Trade Secretary said the only way to promote the North on the Westminster agenda was through legislation.
But he warned: “You certainly couldn’t get it through this Government, and I’d be surprised if there’s an alternative Government that’s likely to have a majority in the Commons.
“So the only alternative is to botch. And that doesn’t produce the best results.”
The UK2070 commission has reported that nearly half Britain’s population is concentrated in areas whose productivity is comparable to the poorer parts of the former East Germany. But while Germany had put in place plans to correct the imbalance between east and west, Britain had moved in the opposite direction, the chairman, Lord Kerslake, said.
Lord Heseltine, a Remainer who was suspended by the Tories when he revealed he would vote Lib Dem at last month’s European election, said he was “disenfranchised” in the party’s leadership election process.
But he said the winner could expect to be presented with a list of “asks” that would push forward the Power Up The North agenda that has gained traction across the region.
He also intimated that he would support the “Greater Yorkshire” model of an elected mayor for the whole county, in a report he will publish later this month.
A long-time proponent of placing local power in the hands of mayors rather than councillors, he said Yorkshire offered “economies of scale” that could be “sold to the world”.
Lord Heseltine said a mayor for the Leeds City Region alone made “no sense”, but added: “I would support a Greater Yorkshire. It’s a world brand – you can sell Yorkshire across the world, and so you should.”
Asked how a deal could be struck, amid opposition from some quarters within the region and at Westminster, he suggested the Government should “discriminate with economic support until it gets the deals”.
Manchester had not wanted a mayor but had accepted it was “the price we had to pay” for devolved powers, he said.
He added: “The councillors don’t want it. By and large they are entrenched in their own self interest. But if you’re going to devolve, you have to have someone in charge and to be accountable. Otherwise you’re simply devolving to the same compromise fudging arrangements that we’ve got at the moment.”
Judith Blake, leader of Leeds city Council, who was hosting the commission at the city’s Civic Hall, said the former Chancellor George Osborne “felt that he could lift the Greater Manchester mayoral model and drop it around the country”.
But in the Leeds city region, which includes parts of North Yorkshire, opposition came from Conservative MPs and support in Westminster evaporated after Mr Osborne’s departure, she said.
“We are sick to the back teeth of not getting any traction with the Government at all,” Coun Blake said. “Nothing is happening in Westminster on any agenda.”