Saturday, November 03, 2012

A welcome report - but why is Heseltine having to reinvent the wheel?

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OF all leading Conservative politicians of the past half century, the former Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine is perhaps the one who has enjoyed the most complex relationship with his own party.

To some, he will be remembered as a spellbinding orator and party conference crowd-pleaser par excellence – or as the late former MP Julian Critchley memorably put it, the man who “always knew where the find the clitoris of the Tory Party.”

To others, he will forever be the dark villain at the centre of what they would see as the most shameful episode in the party’s recent history – the defenestration of Margaret Thatcher after 11 years as Prime Minister in 1990.

Perhaps his most lasting legacy to the party, though, will be to have kept the flag flying for what became some distinctly unfashionable causes in Conservative circles – Europe, state intervention, and above all, regionalism.

Lord Heseltine’s long advocacy of regional policy as a way of promoting both economic growth and social cohesion dates back to his time as the ‘Minister for Merseyside’ in the wake of the Toxteth riots in the early 1980s.

But is a concept that fell so far out of favour among his colleagues that practically the first thing the Tory-led Coalition did on coming to power in 2010 was to abolish the regional development agencies.

In the light of this, perhaps the most surprising thing about Lord Heseltine’s report on industrial strategy published this week under the title ‘No Stone Unturned’ is that he was asked to write it at all.

Is it a sign of a new open-mindedness on the part of Prime Minister David Cameron and his Chancellor George Osborne - or merely a sign of desperation in the face of the country’s continuing economic plight?

Either way, it was inevitable that Labour would seize on Lord Heseltine’s headline statement that the UK currently “does not have a strategy for growth and wealth creation.”

This is, after all, exactly what Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls has been saying all along – that the government needs an economic ‘Plan B’ that puts more emphasis on generating growth and slightly less on cutting the deficit.

Labour leader Ed Miliband is also understandably keen to appropriate the ideas of a One Nation Tory like Heseltine in order to bolster his own attempts to seize the ‘One Nation’ mantle from the Conservatives.

Indeed, it is a measure of how far politics has shifted on its axis since the early 1980s that talk of measures to promote economic growth and wealth creation is now regarded in some circles as “left-wing.”

Some of Lord Heseltine’s proposals have a familiar ring to them.  Since the early 1990s he has viewed elected mayors as a general panacea for everything wrong with local government, and it was no surprise to see him giving this another airing.

The idea of conurbation-wide or even region-wide mayors have also been batted around before, and has some attractions as a halfway house between an elected regional assembly which might be too big to care and local authorities which are too small to cope.

A Mayor of Tyneside, for instance, would have the requisite critical mass of political and financial clout to make a difference while still retaining an element of local accountability.

As I have noted before in this column, it isn’t regional government as we once knew it, but it may be the best, or indeed only, form of regional government that’s ever likely to be on offer.

Lord Heseltine has also advocated handing over responsibility for billions of pounds of central government expenditure to the Local Enterprise Partnerships set up last year following the demise of the RDAs.

But this nothing terribly new either.   Moving power and budgets out of Whitehall was exactly the idea behind the creation of the Government Offices for the Regions in 1994 by the Major administration in which Lord Heseltine served, and also New Labour’s establishment of the RDAs in 1999.

The GORs were wound up by the Coalition in March 2011, exactly a year before the RDAs closed for business, but now Lord Heseltine proposes to turn the LEPs into something that looks suspiciously like a recreation of the two.

While it will be welcomed by those who bemoaned the loss of this institutions, it surely also begs the question why it has been necessary for him to reinvent the wheel.

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