Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Heseltine was wrong in 1982, wrong in 1992. He's still wrong in 2012.


I don’t know where to start with Lord Heseltine’s review. Perhaps with the bits I agree with – elected mayors, for example. Or maybe with a witch’s warning about reviews that everyone seems to ‘applaud’. But I’m choosing instead to begin with the big fib that Heseltine starts with -  his claim that the proposals are innovative, radical & different.

If there is an upside to the worst economic crisis of modern times it is the emergence of an audience for deep seated and radical proposals. They distrust talk of isolated initiatives or quick wins. An ever more competitive world will only become more competitive not less. The structures and attitudes of yesterday did not work that well then and certainly will not cope with the new world order.

All this may be true but Heseltine doesn't offer "deep seated and radical proposals" but exactly the things he disdains - "the structures and attitudes of yesterday..." 

Anyone who has listened to Lord Heseltine over the years will know that the themes of his thesis remain constant. The specific context of these particular proposals may be different from that led to the urban development corporations in the early 1980s or to “City Challenge” in the 1990s but the prescription remains the same.

Competitive bidding:

All my experience confirms that competitive funding is key to unleashing the entrepreneurial spirit in local areas. It injects a surge of excitement and incentivises communities to seek a wider and much more ambitious vision to anything they had thought of before. A healthy rivalry between areas comes into play. It drives collaboration, creativity, commitment and ambition. I therefore believe that the single pot of central government funds for economic development should be made available to local areas on a competitive basis.

Plan-led investment:

The Government will need to set out the requirements that LEPs must meet in their bids to secure funding. It should consult LEPs, local authorities and the business community in doing so. It is important that this framework is focused on high level outcomes and does not become detailed and prescriptive. This would rein in the creativity of local areas and undermine the benefits of local empowerment. However, there will be some essential criteria which have to be met for government to devolve such significant funding.

Sidelining local authority planning departments:

LEPs should therefore be given additional funding, specifically to develop their new strategic plans. This must be used to hire professional private sector planners as part of a deliberate attempt to spread best practice, engage private sector expertise and avoid LEPs being entirely dependent on the already stretched planning departments of their local authorities.

Cross-department regional offices:

This leads to the conclusion that we should bring together civil servants from different departments whose work impacts on the economy into Local Growth Teams so they can work seamlessly together, closer to the people and agencies affected by their work. They should facilitate both economic development matters that straddle LEP boundaries and partnerships around and between functional economic market areas

These tired old policies are accompanied by a familiar litany of how business-style public sector management is need, how economic development is driven by “innovation strategies” and some ridiculous obsession with “British ownership” as if that is somehow significant in our economy. What Lord Heseltine presents is simply his inevitable dirigiste, managerialist vision of how government should be organised. And it’s presented with panache and conviction.

The problem is that this agenda failed to regenerate the North when Britain was booming. Why on earth does anyone think that this agenda will regenerate the North when Britain isn’t booming? There is nothing at all in Heseltine’s prescription that will take us one inch neared a more dynamic, entrepreneurial economy. Instead we’ll have an economy designed and run by a closed sect of business managers working hand-in-glove with a closed sect of public sector managers.

In the end these are tired old proposals from a delightful and eloquent old millionaire. They are policies that haven’t delivered regeneration when they were tried before – except for some shiny city centres. But ask yourself this. Those city centres – Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle, Leeds – have they delivered regeneration for the wider community? Travel a few hundred yards to Newton Heath, to Harehills, to Kensington and look around you. That depressing place of high unemployment, poor education, rampant crime and unshiftable poverty wasn’t changed when Heseltine’s policies were tried before. What makes you think it will work this time?


1 comment:

Mike Chitty said...

It will work this time, just as it has worked before.
It will spawn a series of national conferences (perhaps run by Haymarket) and channel millions into the hands of developers, lawyers, planners and financiers...