Speaking at a levelling up conference in Manchester on Thursday, Lord Heseltine opened his speech with a “mea culpa” for his role in axing metropolitan authorities as a Minister for Margaret Thatcher.
In 1986, six metropolitan county councils in South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire, Greater Manchester, Merseyside, Tyne and Wear, and the West Midlands were abolished, along with the Greater London Council following a series of high-profile disputes between the Conservative Government and the left-wing authorities.
Lord Heseltine said that speaking at a conference in one of the places where a metropolitan authority was axed gave him an opportunity to offer a mea culpa for “perhaps one of the bigger mistakes I made”.
“The truth is, I wish I hadn’t done it, because I think we’ve been able to evolve more quickly to the present situation where we had metro authorities which I played a part in bringing back, but it was a mistake to get rid of them.”
In a speech on levelling-up in July, Prime Minister Boris Johnson admitted the reason why the country is more economically imbalance and centralised than other European nations is because the Conservatives “relentlessly crushed local leadership” during the 1980s.
The Prime Minister said: “We must be honest about why this was necessary, it was because we were in the grip of a real ideological conflict in which irresponsible municipal socialist governments were bankrupting cities and were so genuinely hostile to business in such a way that the government was forced to intervene. Now, with some notable exceptions, that argument is now over and most of the big metro mayors know that private sector investment is crucial.”
Lord Heseltine said he agreed with that analysis of why the metropolitan authorities were axed. “It was explicable only as the Prime Minister’s speech indicates because party political divides are so acute at that time, that there really wasn’t any sense in which you could get a sort of consensus as to how one should make progress on the devolution agenda.”
But he added that politicians in Greater Manchester had kept in place many of the same structures, allowing the area to eventually lead the way on regional devolution.
“Although the structure had gone, the practice remained and that’s one of the reasons why Manchester became such a leading figure in the devolution agenda of George Osborne.”
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