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Lord Heseltine: Giving our cities back to the people

"When parts of our cities erupted in riots a quarter of a century ago, I asked the Prime Minister to release me to walk the streets of Liverpool.

After three weeks of listening, questioning, it became clear how politically impoverished our great cities had become.

There was no shortage of opportunities or ideas. What was missing were people willing and able to take responsibility.

For decades after the Second World War power had shifted remorselessly to London.

Nationalisation had turned powerful provincial industries into London bureaucracies.

Inflation and confiscatory taxation had wiped out much of our independent enterprise.

That same punitive tax regime effectively choked off the ability of the enterprise system to renew and revitalise.

Takeovers had undermined the independence of large and resourceful companies loyal to our cities. The dependency of the branch office was no substitute for local owners.

Local government underwent a similar centralising process. As Governments did more, spent more so more control followed the expenditure.

Those of us who served our party through this period, remember all too well the influence of the Labour Party in this process of centralisation.

The reversal of this process culminated in the great battles of the 1980's and 1990's.

The return of British industry to the competitive market place.

Tax levels that enabled enterprise to flourish.

Council house sales that enfranchised a million families.

The Trade Unions brought within the rule of law.

In the longest apology note in political history the Labour Party tore up its historic manifesto, accepted our agenda and pursued our reforms as though they had thought of them in the first place.

I have perhaps become too tolerant as the years went by.

But my tolerance is stretched to breaking point as I listen to the announcement of one more Labour initiative, another name change, as yet another Tory idea is relabelled and recycled.

Today they have learnt a new language.

But language is no substitute for action.

When it comes to action they are unable to distinguish between public expenditure and quality of service.

Every crisis has its new grant, every newspaper headline its ministerial initiative, every cock up its spin.

Not only do few of these things work, even more insidious is the consequential public disbelief. It is a question of trust. Time and again on my TV screen I hear members of the public say "you can't believe a word they say".

Take education.

Ten years of Labour Government.

Ten years at the end of which over one in four of all children in primary schools are unable to read, write, and add up properly.

And those are the Governments own figures. God knows what the truth is!!

Ten years of Labour Government and our examination system is so discredited that an increasing number of schools - independent schools which have the freedom to choose - are opting out and moving to internationally respected standards.

Tony Blair said it in these words Education, Education, Education.

Gordon Brown is now repeating it.

Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow.

Translated into Spanish I think that reads Manana, Manana, Manana.

It is no surprise that Gordon Brown managed to speak for over an hour without once mentioning our inner cities.

There lies opportunity for our party.

The renaissance of the enterprise culture in the 80's and 90's flowed because we restored freedom to the enterprise society.

But millions of our fellow citizens work for Government, local authorities, 'not for profit' organisations.

They also long for responsibility and the chance to use their initiative in solving local problems.

Reforming the public sector remains a huge challenge.

David Cameron asked my task group for a report on reviving the cities.

About empowerment of local communities.

About rebuilding the great powerhouses of provincial England.

Cities are the centres of human enterprise and endeavour.

They are the great engines of our economy.

They can sustain the infinite variety of human talent upon which a sophisticated society depends.

They provide choice and diversity in academia, the arts, culture, sport, entertainment and the quality of life.

I have proposed to David a vision for a new partnership.

Central Government cannot abandon its responsibilities for the proper use of taxpayers money.

But taxpayers money does not have to be channelled through the quangos of central Government.

Ten thousand million pounds a year goes through the Housing Corporation, the Regional Development Agencies, English Partnerships and the Learning and skills councils.

To achieve value tax payers money should recognise local priorities, local initiatives, local ambitions.

I say this not in any way to criticise the motives, integrity or ability of Whitehall and its civil servants.

I say it because I don't believe that there are simple, national solutions to complex and infinitely varied local challenges and opportunities.

But that is what centralisation does. It creates an intellectual straight jacket.

Solutions are devised.

Rules drawn up.

Circulars issued.

Guidelines promulgated.

But Birmingham is not Manchester

Leeds is not Liverpool

Bristol is not Coventry

And none of these cities are Scottish or Welsh.

If the English tax payer has to pay for the new freedoms of Scotland and Wales there should be choice, diversity, opportunity and, yes, experimentation in the relationship between Whitehall and Town Hall.

Each city has a different history, different strengths, different opportunities.

We believe in trust for the people.

We should also recognise that same spirit of independence in the governance of provincial England.

We should never forget that the majority of us live in or are affected by what happens in our cities.

I know of no country like ours that so suffocates its cities. In Europe and the United States they are respected for the great human powerhouses that they are.

Of course, there are difficult issues to be faced.

Chief Executives of major cities are paid around £150k to £200k per annum placing then amongst the highest paid in those cities.

But they are not held to account by local people.

The leader of the Council works at least the same hours, faces public and press scrutiny, and is paid a fraction of the Chief Executives salary.

I believe it's time to combine these two jobs.

I believe cities should elect leaders held democratically to account every four years.

The constituency should be the whole city and not a small part of it that is often socially unrepresentative.

It is tempting in politics to present ideas in the most dramatic and innovative way possible.

Tempting but misleading.

Most initiatives are evolutionary not revolutionary.

I advocate changing the balance. The interests of provincial England were heavier in the scales yesterday than today.

Indeed we created the greatest empire the world has ever seen at a time when Mancunians proclaimed "what Manchester says today, the rest of England says tomorrow". There may be an element of controversy in that statement but no one would quarrel with the pride and self confidence it revealed.

Britain of past centuries thrived, on its dispersed dynamic centres of enterprise and municipal pride.

The legacy lives on in the majestic buildings, the rich endowments, the museums and art galleries. Too much of that independence has been snuffed out.

London has become one of the world's pre-eminent cities.

Paris maybe more beautiful.

New York richer.

Washington more powerful.

But add history, culture, politics, finance, commerce, sport, music, the arts, and the rule of law… and London has no equal.

We all gain from this but it creates great pressures on London and the South East.

Too many in the provinces feel left out. They want their chance to thrive.

We should offer it to them.

Let us think about the changes that follow an elected Mayor.

The first change requires a bonfire of central Government circulars, targets, ring fences and all those hidden persuaders that tighten central Government's grip.

Next, we must ask - what powers should a Mayor have?

First, existing local Government responsibilities such as education, transport, housing, planning, remain.

Next, policing. Nothing is of greater concern to our citizens than effective policing.

There are no simple solutions to lawlessness, drunkenness, violence and a range of criminal behaviour.

But people want these issues tackled. And they want an accountable person in charge.

Our party has rightfully recognised this. Our policy for the election of local sheriffs to break the Home Office monopoly over the police is an imaginative response.

Any such new power should be vested in an elected Mayor.

Next, the huge sums of money spent by Central Government quangos.

These powers were largely removed from local authorities and should be restored.

Next, there are imaginative ideas that could enhance local democracy.

Over my four decades in the House of Commons I was very aware of changing public attitudes to the Health Service.

There remains overwhelming support for our National Health Service, and great admiration for the men and women who often provide extraordinary service and skill.

But when things go wrong the scale of the machine, the remoteness of responsibility, the feeling that there are more excuses than answers argues for local not national accountability.

Next, we should look at the administration of education.

Study the statistics of crime.

Examine the background of our prison population.

You will find educational failure.

That is the extreme.

But look at the long-term unemployed. You will find educational failure there too.

Ask any employer if they can recruit the people they need with adequate education and proper training.

You will get an emphatic "no".

The lost opportunities are immeasurable.

There are too many overlapping authorities each with a finger in the educational pie.

A wider education authority could also have responsibility for much of the positive aspects of employment policy.

Getting people back to work is often about the failures of education.

In the pursuit of raising national education standards we should empower local people to devise local solutions.

I have spent too much ministerial time wrestling with local Government finance to believe there are easy or acceptable alternatives.

But there are changes that are possible.

Authorities could keep additional business rates created through new development.

They could have access to the capital bond market with no Government guarantee.

Finally, we should build on our City Challenge ideas of the 1990's.

We proved that if central Government offered to help finance local development plans, then local communities were enthusiastic to respond.

In every city there are organisations whose interests can coincide. Imaginative leadership can bring them together.

Such plans would be rewarded on their merits.

Yes, some cities would get more.

The others would try harder.

That is how you drive standards up.

The simplest example are the housebuilders who will build houses on brown field sites if the public sector first eliminates toxicity from them.

Such interrelationships are endless.

Clean-up canals and tourist facilities flourish.

Specialist universities bring business parks.

Roads open up development.

Better environment encourages new jobs.

It is about building on local strengths, creating communities of self interest, letting people own their cities.

We all know we have a fight on our hands.

We have to fight in the cities because we can't return to Government without their enthusiastic support.

We know it can be done.

We control Birmingham, Coventry, Bradford, Trafford, Dudley, Solihull, Walsall and a range of London Boroughs.

Winston Churchill once famously rallied our country with his exhortation to fight on the beaches, the fields and the streets.

In very different circumstances and with very different weapons.

We must fight with ideas.

We must offer a new, a fairer, an exciting partnership for tomorrow.

Set the people free.

Let us start by giving our cities back to the people."

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