In Context - Heseltine turns back the clock

There's only one word for Lord Heseltine's new report on how to get the UK economy moving: Heseltinian.

Anyone who was privileged to work with him, and even some who may know him only from old television clips, will recognise the master's inimitable voice on every page. Coming from a 79-year-old who was long ago compelled to seek early political retirement for his health, it's astonishing.

What it demonstrates is the wisdom stemming from his experience at the top of key departments such as environment and industry. He really has been everywhere and done everything, and it shows. His report is fascinating for its appraisal of government policy decisions, including his own, over the past 40 years.

Most revealing of all is the saga of the disastrous 1972 local government reorganisation by his then senior colleague, Peter Walker. Heseltine makes it clear that, in rejecting the Redcliffe-Maud Commission's call for unitary authorities across England, Walker went against his best own judgement, overwhelmed by vicious local politics. In the new report, Heseltine effectively recommends restoring the commission's prescription for city-region authorities and aligning the boundaries of the government's local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) with them, corresponding to the geographical realities of modern economic life.

This allows him to perform a typically audacious leap: recommending a hike in government funding, with the aim of reviving the coalition's faltering localism initiative. To shift public funds away from Whitehall and down to the localities, he flips the Labour government's funding of regional development agencies on its head, putting the initiative in the hands of strong city-regional governments and LEPs. And the mechanism would be a single pot of money - estimated to be £49 billion over four years - for which they would compete, an idea he launched in 1990 during his second spell running the Department of the Environment. To do this, the LEPs will have to develop long-term growth strategies.

Thirty years ago, Margaret Thatcher let slip that Heseltine was not "one of us". We will soon see whether David Cameron, who courageously commissioned this report, will readmit Heseltine's uniquely iconoclastic brand of interventionism into the Tory fold.

Sir Peter Hall is Bartlett professor of planning and regeneration, University College London

Lord Heseltine is chairman of the Haymarket Group, which publishes Planning.


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