Tristram Hunt: Tarzan's vision offers hope for the future of our urban jungle
WHEN England’s cities rioted last summer, Communities Secretary Eric Pickles didn’t rush to take a holiday in Croydon or Wolverhampton to uncover the causes of unrest.
Yet that was exactly what Michael Heseltine did in 1981 following the riots in Toxteth, Liverpool, spending a three-week break from his role as Environment Secretary researching the city’s problems. ‘Alone every night, I would stand with a glass of wine, looking out at the magnificent view over the river, and ask myself what had gone wrong with this great English city’.
Just about everything, he concluded.
So began Michael Heseltine’s 30-year love affair with regional English cities. It began in the early 1980s when Heseltine clashed with those in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet who wanted to abandon the northern cities to a policy of ‘managed decline’. And it continued when he created the Urban Development Corporations, taking control of tough planning and land acquisition powers in a bid to improve the most deprived communities. The initiative proved bloodily successful, establishing the foundations for London’s booming Docklands and beginning Liverpool’s slow transformation into the European Capital of Culture in 2008.
Stoke-on-Trent also felt the benefit as he helped to create the National Garden Festival at Etruria. Still one of Stoke-on-Trent’s finest regeneration schemes, it was Europe’s most visited new attraction when it opened in 1986, after 180 acres of derelict wasteland on the site of the old Shelton Bar steelworks was transformed into a beautiful urban park.
The affair was reconsummated last week as Hezza launched No Stone Unturned, his comprehensive report on creating growth and unleashing the ‘extraordinary dynamism of provincial Britain’.
Supposedly written in seven months, the report is in fact the culmination of a lifetime’s passion. It is packed with recommendations around Heseltine’s traditional favourite themes – industrial policy, localism and link-ups between the public and private sectors.
There is perhaps a tendency to think that everything could be solved if only local businessmen and entrepreneurial civil servants could attend the same meetings and compete for the same jobs. And there is the odd hint at his disdain for local government, as distinct from local business institutions like Chambers of Commerce and Local Enterprise Partnerships. Yet overall this is an excellent report with much to welcome.
A national growth council chaired by the Prime Minister is a good idea, as is the creation of a long-term national growth strategy. If all political parties signed up to such a plan, we could ensure important long-term decisions – such as on social care, transport infrastructure and defence capabilities – are not jeopardised by the swing of the electoral pendulum. I also support moving civil service departments out of London and ensuring that each government department sets out plans to use procurement to encourage supply chains growth in relevant sectors. If nothing else, this would mean that our embassies abroad stocked ceramics stamped with the Made in Staffordshire brand. Best of all is his call to roll up all the bewildering array of schemes and budgets for growth into a single pot of funding, to be devolved immediately to local enterprise partnerships. In an ideal world this would be integrated into a full regional banking system, as is the case in Germany. Emulating such a system, which is reliant on and underwritten by strong local institutions, would be very difficult in a state as centralised as ours.
It would require a significant devolution of power and a large reallocation of central government manpower too. Yet it is precisely this kind of approach that is needed if we are serious about regional rebalancing.
What the report’s commissioner, the Prime Minister, makes of it however, is anybody’s guess. Of course he welcomed it as ‘excellent’ during Prime Minister’s Questions. But the report’s implicit argument, that the Government could be doing more – 89 things more to be precise – did not exactly give a glowing verdict on its strategy for growth. More explicitly, the Government was also criticised for removing the regional development agencies without first thinking how to replace the capacity. Local Enterprise Partnerships and Chambers of Commerce do a great job, none more so than in North Staffordshire. But as essentially voluntary organisations they need more time and resources.
In the past, Michael Heseltine has shown himself to be a friend of Stoke-on-Trent. This report, his political last will and testament, is a welcome affirmation of a lifetime’s commitment to strong, prosperous and autonomous British cities. The Prime Minister should implement it without delay.