Looking beyond the spending review, one of the toughest challenges we face is the way to rebuild our fragile economy. Let’s start with what not to do. We cannot ever again become so dependent on one industry, or reliant on an over-inflated housing bubble. Nor can we allow the economy to become so London-centric: with the growth, prosperity and wealth concentrated in the South East, while the rest of the country lags behind.
The economy is completely unbalanced: both geographically and across industries. And frankly, the legacy of regional development agencies which we inherited was totally inadequate to address these problems. So, as I’ve written before on ConHome, that’s why over the past few months, we’ve axed everything regional-related: not just the development agencies, but the spatial strategies, and assemblies too. The Regional Development Agencies spent their time bidding for, and spending, taxpayers' money: concentrating on their relationship with Whitehall rather than the needs of local economies.
Even more importantly, the whole concept of ‘regional economies’ is a non-starter. Arbitrary dividing lines across the country for bureaucratic convenience ignore the fact that towns probably have far more in common with their neighbours than with another town in the same region but many miles away. It’s the businesses, councillors and residents of Liverpool, Bristol, or Cambridge who should be deciding how to attract investment, drive growth and create jobs. Not me. And certainly not unelected, unaccountable officials.
That’s why our emphasis is on local enterprise partnerships, which will cut out the middle man and transform the way that businesses and local government work together – without interference either from regions or the centre. Earlier this week, myself and Vince Cable confirmed that we’ve received 56 bids from different places wanting to set up a local enterprise partnership; reflecting the enthusiasm for this new approach from people finally freed from the shackles of regionalism.
What’s so radical about this approach is that neither myself nor Vince has ever, or will ever, say that partnerships ‘must’ do this or ‘should’ do that. We believe that local people who know and understand the needs of their area can develop their own strategy for economic growth; creating the right conditions for local prosperity by reflecting local industries, circumstances and strengths. And because of that, we’ve seen huge variation in the aims and proposals in these bids. Some are based around major cities; some will draw on the knowledge and ideas of the local university. Some will choose to focus on skills; others might look at unblocking the local planning system. Unsurprisingly, several cross the old regional boundaries: such as the proposal to link up Bedford Borough and Central Bedfordshire with Luton and Milton Keynes.
We can never underestimate the powerful pull of local identity; the historic connections, traditions and shared history which shaped communities long before regional government was even invented. That sense of local pride is a tremendous asset in these difficult times. Local enterprise partnerships will enable councils and businesses to work creatively together in ways, without second-guessing from regions and prescription from Ministers. They promise to be a radical, effective and ambitious model which will rebuild our national economy by shaping stronger local economies.