I take my hat off to Michael Heseltine for producing a report on growth that has passion, commitment and vision. It is far cry from the usual dry as dust, Treasury reports that obsessively tinker at the economic margins. Alas, despite its punchy prose the Heseltine report is flawed.
There is a lot to celebrate in this report. Heseltine condemns a dysfunctional Whitehall for neutering local leadership: “As Whitehall has taken more powers so its distrust of local decision makers has increased. At the first sign of trouble, further powers are wrested back to the centre.” But like Eric Pickles, he does not trust council planners. He wants the Planning Inspectorate to call in slow moving proposals. He wants to beef up local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) with teams of private sector planners to plan economic development. Soon elected councils will be left dealing with just minor developments.
Heseltine calls for a single funding pot for growth in local areas, and for the initiative and delivery to rest with local leaders. It’s a good idea that he immediately undermines by insisting that localities will have to bid for their share of the funding pot. Who will they bid to? Whitehall of course.
Heseltine is not keen on local councils having this money. He wants it to go to the LEPs. They will only get the money when their bid chimes with national growth priorities. Not local priorities that might be achievable, but priorities dreamed up in Whitehall.
Whitehall likes matters to be tidy, so Heseltine insists that LEPs cannot overlap. He also insists that they are reshaped to “have a good match with their functional economic market area.” The reality is that market areas overlap, often substantially and that is the main reason why 12% of councils are members of more than one LEP.
Heseltine’s proposal just leads us back to the same cap in hand culture that the local authorities have had for too long in relation to central government. If Whitehall could solve economic problems, surely it would have done so by now?
The underlying problem, as Heseltine acknowledges, is that Whitehall does not trust local government. It believes that local leaders will mishandle the money. It believes that only people in London know best. His proposals will perpetuate that culture.
Heseltine’s vision for the economy will not work until there is a new bond of trust between central and local government. In the short term, that needs a concordat that sets out what national and local government will deliver and how they will interact. In the long term, local government must be responsible for its own finances rather than having to beg Whitehall for cash.
What we do not need is yet another version of the cap in hand relationship between Whitehall and localities that has failed this country for so long.
* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem living in Shropshire, and a former editor for Lib Dem Voice