Michael Heseltine: Regional devolution and the untapped opportunities

I WELCOME the enormous strides the Conservative Government has made devolving powers to places in recent years. Aside from Northern Ireland Scotland and Wales, about half of England's population will soon have some form of devolved agreement from Whitehall.
Michael Heseltine.Michael Heseltine.
Michael Heseltine.

The Mayor of London has responsibility for many decisions. And next year, Manchester, Liverpool, the West Midlands, Sheffield and Tees Valley will choose their democratically-elected mayors.

The power of office will bring devolved decision making and budgets across a whole multitude of areas. Areas like transport, skills provision and business support. It will also come with up to £6.5bn for investment in infrastructure over the next 30 years announced by central Government, but under the direct control of those places.

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Let me make one important generalisation. Without being exhaustive it is obvious that apart from the Treasury with its proper responsibility for expenditure there are several Whitehall Departments with a direct interest.

The Home Office with its responsibility for policing.

The Department for Education with overall educational and skills responsibility.

The Department of Health with its wide range of health and social care responsibilities.

Each of these departments conscientiously devises and seeks to implement policies designed to cope with problems that come within their remit. The question that thrusts itself forward is whether there is any co-ordination of all these streams of activity at an estate level.

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Do these people ever meet to see their work in the round? Gordon Brown’s government attempted to address the issue with its Total Place Pilots. The work proposed a “citizen viewpoint” to join-up services and remove the confusion people face in using them.

The figures collected in those pilots proved that such a co-ordinated approach could deliver greater value for money. And much more vitally, they showed that outcomes for the individual could be improved, with better health and wellbeing, greater employment chances and reduced crime. The 2010 election prematurely ended that work.

It is too early to make any forecasts about my own work but it cannot be wrong to ask the questions

The Conservative and coalition Governments have driven decentralisation since 2010. They have searched for better co-ordination, an accelerated impetus and a strong devolution of power to enthuse and involve local people.

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Further devolution should mean thinking about the person as well as the place. Let us not rest on our laurels. Some call what is needed ‘deeper devolution’, others ‘double devolution’.

I have never been one for labels. What matters is we get to the heart of all of our communities and make sure we fix the problems for them and with them.

One of the beauties of life is you never stop learning. The flip-side to that is you never stop regretting. As you acquire new knowledge, you wish you had known it earlier and been able to apply it sooner.

My career has focused largely on joined-up thinking on investment, capital build and regeneration. The estates work has opened my eyes to the challenges – and opportunities – of joining up social policy. How can we take the successes of devolution further and spread them to social services? How do we take the principles we have applied to spending public money and extend them to the day-to-day support of the people who live in some of our most deprived communities?

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As the Government continues to devolve powers to places, the importance of removing departmental ring-fences, rather than passing down specific powers and budgets to achieve the same outcomes, will be important if we are to release the advantages of empowerment.

The same challenge is true at a local level. There is little point demanding control over decisions, only for councils to replicate those silos locally. Devolution will keep happening. But let us be even more ambitious. As we continue to co-ordinate investment to make our cities a better place to call home, let us reach out to every community within them.

And let us make sure they are not just nicer places to call home, but places where your life itself is improved. I don’t just mean reliable bus services, regular bin collection and low council tax, but access to joined-up services to support your caring responsibilities, your own health issues and your education.

The quality of community life is much more than just a measured accumulation of individual services.

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The Prime Minister called for policies that reach where others fail to penetrate. A significant test of success will be measured in our deprived communities.

Michael Heseltine is a Tory peer and former Deputy Prime Minister who delivered the second annual Peter Hennessy Lecture in political history. This is an edited version.