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Devolution a “once in a lifetime” opportunity for the North of England

Words: Simon Wicks

Regional devolution is a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to transform English democracy and make the “long overdue return of this country to its 19th century dynamics that made it the world leader in the industrial revolution”, according to Lord Heseltine.

Speaking at the Northern Summit in Leeds yesterday (Thursday 14 January), the former environment secretary argued that local decision-making would force the public and private sectors to work together, stimulate “bold” local ideas for bettering places and improve economic competitiveness.

The North of England, in particular, stood to make enormous gains from such changes – and soon.

“In 18 months there will be about six people directly elected to represent the whole of the North of England,” he said. “These people will have enormous power in political terms.

“If you have the degree of direct accountability and the quality of people that tends to produce we will find the place is drawn together because of the democratic mandate these people have achieved.”

The Northern Summit, an event jointly promoted by the RTPI and thinktank IPPR North, was the culmination of a series of workshops designed to generate ideas for a ‘Great North Plan’.

This plan, to be compiled over the next 12 to 18 months, would provide a blueprint for the development of the North of England in an age of devolved local administrations. Its focus would be on regeneration, economic growth and maximising the ‘liveability’ and attractiveness of the region to citizens, visitors, businesses and investors.

Heseltine, charged by David Cameron in 2012 to review Britain’s competitiveness, recounted his long involvement with regeneration projects, from Canary Wharf to Liverpool.

He also provided a history lesson – arguing that Britain was more competitive at the height of the industrial revolution thanks to local vision, energy and investment. However, the “unacceptable” urban living conditions produced by rapid industrial growth had driven a centralisation of politics that had clipped the wings of local entrepreneurialism.

His experiences of regeneration had taught him that local people needed to be engaged and involved in decision-making for their area at every level, from deciding on the best ways to revive “sink estates” to making large investment decisions in infrastructure and housing.

“Three years ago my report No Stone Unturned advocated a radical reinvigoration of all parts of England by shifting local decisions to local people. When it comes to the question ‘Who knows best?’ the answer is the people who live and work here.”

He continued: “As to the age old debate as to whether the public or private sector knows best – the answer is neither. The best solutions are where the knowledge, skills and expertise of both are brought together.”

However, Heseltine warned that while a grand vision for a region was essential, too much detail attached to a Great North Plan could suffocate the flow of ideas.

“It’s a very good idea to make people think in these big strategic terms, then to look at what are the essential ingredients of opportunity. But it’s not wise to dot every i and cross every t – it cannot be done.

“You cannot know [what will happen]/. The opportunities are huge and the money available in the world for investment is enormous.”

A blueprint for change

IPPR North’s chief executive Ed Cox backed up Lord Heseltine’s assertion by pointing out that the general feeling from workshops was that a plan should be “high-level, strategic and brief”. Its aim should be to provide a framework and reference point for other more details plans.

The IPPR and the RTPI aimed to produce a “blueprint” for the Great North Plan in spring 2016, with the plan itself ready in April 2017.

The RTPI’s chief executive Trudi Elliott, outlining the benefits of local strategic planning and governance, referred to examples from the Netherlands (Randstad), Germany (The Ruhr) and Hong Kong (Pearl River Delta), to illustrate how communities overseas had used local collaboration to economically strong and attractive places.

What she had seen emerging from the roundtables was a consistent idea of what was needed to achieve this: “Vision. Collaboration. Strong leadership.”

In particular she argued that any regional plan would need to look beyond cities and city regions to the market towns, rural areas and seaside towns that also make up a geographical and administrative region. It might even need to look beyond borders dividing regions and nations.

Furthermore, it would have to be more than just an infrastructure or economic plan. “What we know from research is that this is not just about transport or economic growth,” she said. “They have to be intertwined with issues around climate chance and liveability – and that can become one of your great strengths (in the North)”

The population growth and cost of living challenges of the South of England could present opportunities for the North, she said. “Employers are now worrying about the potential exodus to the North of skilled people who are thinking about where they want to put down roots.”

But the North has to ask what sort of growth it wants, she said, and it has to engage all levels of society in the debate. “It’s not just a dry discussion between technical experts and planners that’s going to move this stuff forward.”