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It is time to empower local leaders


By Chris Roberts

“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”. – Michael Heseltine, No Stone Unturned

Little seems to have changed in the decade or so since Michael Heseltine wrote those words in his government commissioned work No Stone Unturned which identified an initial £49bn of public money, already in Government budgets which should be devolved to local areas to drive economic growth.
No areas were off the table. Money from education, housing, planning, transport, skills, environment etc was included.

All too predictably, this fell on fallow Ministerial ground. In 2010, just after David Cameron had ended thirteen years of Labour Government, a local Conservative council leader advised me he had come from a briefing by new Secretary of State, Eric Pickles. When asked if the new government would devolve powers to Conservative councils, Pickles allegedly replied “Why would I devolve to you? Now we’re in government, all your councils will turn Labour in the next few years. Why would I give Labour councils money?”

In Britain’s unitary state, everything comes to and from the centre. The instinct of all governments is to centralise and yet, as Heseltine went on to say, “No company with an underperforming subsidiary would move all its activities to head office.”. Yet that is exactly how we run the British economy.

In recent years, local government has become excited about the concept of ‘levelling up’. As a northerner who led a London council for fourteen years, I know such a concept is flawed and impossible.

For a start, it seemed focused on inputs (spending) and not on outcomes. But any country must spend more on its capital than elsewhere. There are more people (usually), which means more commuters, hospital patients, school children etc. Plus, your capital city will inevitably host your most significant national museums and galleries, as well as your parliament and should you have one, your monarchy.

The point is, you will almost certainly have to spend more in and on your capital city than elsewhere. In Lancashire where I grew up, my ‘local’ specialist cancer hospital was fifty miles away in Manchester. Does levelling up mean Lancastrians can expect hospital provision the same distance from their homes as can Londoners? And will they get it before or after Boris Johnson’s £350m per week which we are still waiting for nearly seven years after the Brexit vote?

Levelling up has now become ridiculous. Next month, under government direction, the Arts Council will cease to fund some of the jewels in the UK’s cultural crown and tell them they must relocate to the North. This smacks more of levelling London down, like a King Solomon ‘let’s cut the baby in half’ solution.

I have always been a passionate devolutionist and I have been saddened at the manner in which some local leaders have jumped at the possibilities of which levelling up might have afforded. Many are now, however, realising that the agenda is flawed.

The last few years have only served to reinforce such views. Rarely if ever have we lived through such grotesque incompetence from our national politicians.

Our supermarket shelves are devoid of fresh fruit and vegetables while on the continent, they are full and full even in war-torn Kyiv. Our economy performs worse than any other G7 country and we had the second highest level of COVID deaths per capita in the industrialised world. We are poorer and less healthy than we were a decade ago.

I find myself checking if the nature of my utter aghastness is in reality, the onset of grumpy old man syndrome. Conversations with others confirm it is not – although I am aware there are other causes of the syndrome.

At the time of writing, we have a Prime Minister revelling in the Windsor Agreement that has made Northern Ireland a unique place in all the world, with trade access to both the UK and EU markets.

The child-like wonder of his press conference suggests he hasn’t quite understood that this is what the whole of the UK once had.

Meanwhile, Labour is promising a new push to grow the economy, in partnership with business. It has also promised greater devolution of powers to local leaders. I would be tempted to believe Labour, if it were not for the fact that virtually every opposition promises the same.

“Why don’t Opposition parties follow through on their promises of devolution?”
“Because they are no longer in Opposition.”

Whatever your politics, your analysis of how we got here, Britain is not working and clearly headed in the wrong direction. On present trends, the UK will be poorer than Hungary, Poland and Romania by 2040.

Returning to the North, as I shall for a family funeral next week, brings back the sheer scale and scandal of the deindustrialisation and unemployment created by the politics of the 1980s.

We blamed this on Margaret Thatcher, and we still do. But we have also had a Labour Government which had three terms to fix some of this and a Coalition where the Liberal Democrats held the posts of Business Secretary and Chief Secretary to the Treasury. The reality is, Westminster has neither the commitment, nor sustained capacity to uplift our cities, towns and villages.

The most consistently successful economy in Europe is one which has amongst the most progressive system of devolved power to its regions and cities. Moreover, it is a system devised by the UK to stop the centralisation of too much power ever again in Berlin.

Successive governments have failed large swathes of the nations and regions of Britain. In some cases, they have not cared, in some they have not understood and in others, they simply have too many other things, like Ukrainian wars, to find the time and capacity to make a difference.

Great local leaders, most famously, like Joseph Chamberlain in Birmingham, saw the innate value and power that local leadership can bring.

Levelling up is just another concept created by the central government to distribute its largesse according to its own wishes and often its perception of political party advantage.

The simple truth is that local leaders are the only ones who have the passion and determination, as well as the capacity of time and energy to make sustained and consistent interventions to drive economic growth for their cities, towns and villages.

The North of England does not need the English National Opera to be salami-sliced and relocated to Manchester. Local leaders need power.

They need power to tax and power to cut taxes. When Scotland faced its independence vote, local leaders in the north of England were worried about the proposal by the SNP to remove airport taxes from Glasgow and Edinburgh and how that might shift economic activity away from their airports. Let us not pretend that a single minister in Westminster ever gave that a thought. It simply would not occur to a London-based minister, yet it struck northern local leaders immediately as a potential economic threat.

Sir Keir Starmer promises a radical government of the centre. As Labour’s Brexit spokesman to 2019, he proved with his determination to try to secure a second referendum, that he did not understand the north of England and the so-called ‘Red Wall’.

A truly bold agenda would empower local and regional government and set them free to drive their own economic growth, in tandem with their local business leaders. It would, as the example of airport taxes above indicates, probably result in a competitive drive to cut, not increase, business taxes, in efforts to stimulate investment and job creation.

Such an agenda would reinvigorate the UK and in time we would see the emergence of more Joseph Chamberlains dedicated to rebuilding their own part of our United Kingdom.

It is time to empower local leaders