Lord Heseltine: It’s time to empower our cities

Posted On: 
15th July 2019

Both Parliament and Whitehall are paralysed by Brexit. Whether we stay or leave, we need to empower our cities and give them the tools to thrive, writes Lord Heseltine

Aerial view of Liverpool town hall
Credit: 
Adobe Stock Images

In both Houses of Parliament, most of us have learnt and plied our trade within the politics of urban Britain. For 18 months in 1981, following the riots in Liverpool, I lived in a suspended world, somewhere between the cabinet and the street corner. Every week I searched out derelict sites, empty buildings, alienated communities, warring factions and sought solutions. The experience changed me more profoundly than any other political experience of my life.

Everyone knew what was wrong. It was always someone, or something, else. There must be change but leave ‘me’ alone – it’s ‘your’ responsibility. That is where the problems start and, too frequently, end. The moment the arrow of responsibility points accurately at one person, group or organisation, the excuses begin. The truth was obvious. There was no one in charge. Every proposal to fill that void was resisted by those whose micro world was challenged.

Nowhere is that more the case than in the subservience of our great historic cities to Whitehall’s functional departments. In my report, Empowering English Cities, I set out the long journey of half-hearted reform, fudge and compromise that has followed the Radcliffe-Maud report of 1965. This was the last serious attempt to fit our cities for the modern world. It proposed to sweep away the outdated structures more relevant to a day when movement was restricted by travel on foot or on horseback.

Cities across the world are more powerful and better equipped. They are strategically organised to reflect the concept of place and community. They are encouraged to build on their strengths, tackle their weaknesses and are led by directly elected, accountable men and women steeped in the place itself. The private sector is joined together in representative structures with the people and resource to support local companies. Our equivalent bodies cover a fraction of our companies and are more pressure group than support service.

Both Houses of Parliament and Whitehall are paralysed by Brexit. Whether we leave, stay within or find an accommodation with the European Union we need to empower our cities with the powers, strengths and leadership to replay their historic roles in our country.

In my report, I set out twenty changes, all of them urgent, most of them controversial and likely to reignite the controversies that have prevented the reforms of boundary, structure, and leadership over half a century.

No change will happen, unless Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer believe in it and drive it.

A new Department of State should bring under one Secretary of State the essential functions necessary to bring coherence to local place making. Government offices should be collocated in the regions under a civil servant at Director General level. The boundary commission should propose boundary changes that reflect travel to work patterns, local economies and loyalties.

With immediate effect the government should transfer day to day responsibility to Combined Authorities for the following services: affordable housing; schools’ performance; the skills budget, and the unemployment and employment programmes.

Each mayor should produce five year rolling programmes to cover spatial policy, the economy, housing, transport, education and skills, and the environment.

The existing European structural funds and a top sliced capital fund should be distributed competitively to be judged against the quality of local proposals, the additional local funding they attract and the depth of consultation.

The roles of Mayor and Police Commissioner should be combined. An annual report should cover the social challenges reflecting the condition of the people.

Mayors should be provided with specific tax raising powers which could include a tourist tax, air passenger duties, vehicle excise duty and local cultural charges. Mayors should also be empowered to raise local bonds.

Select committees should be established in both Houses of Parliament to comment on, advise and review the devolution process.

Of course, we can go on as before. The cost will become apparent after this present generation have moved on. The debts will be paid by a younger generation. I reject so cavalier a disregard towards the inheritance we shall bequeath.

Lord Heseltine is a Conservative peer