Greg Clark is Minister for Cities and MP for Tunbridge Wells.
Over the last few months I have used this column to shine the spotlight on Conservatives achieving great things locally and who, all too often, don’t get the national attention they deserve. In places like Trafford, North Lincolnshire, Swindon, Blackpool, Loughborough and Warwickshire Conservatives are acting boldly to drive their areas forward.
This week, I highlight a Conservative who has long been dedicated to the revival of our cities, towns and counties but who can hardly be said to be undiscovered nationally.
Michael Heseltine has for 40 years been one of the Conservatives who, while operating on the national stage, has used his hold on the levers of power when he had it, and his influence when he was not in office, to champion the strengths of local leadership and local initiative.
I first got to know Michael in 2011 when I was appointed Minister for Cities. After holding meetings across the country that summer with the leaders of our great cities, I developed the concept of “City Deals” – striking a bargain between central government and the cities to devolve powers and resources if each place could demonstrate convincingly that such a deal would be good for the country as well as good for that city. Michael instantly recognised that this owed much to the work he did as Environment Secretary in Margaret Thatcher’s government in which central government took a direct – and in his case, personal – interest in the regeneration of our industrial cities.
He got behind the initiative and lobbied and cajoled the Government to go further. Commissioned by George Osborne, he wrote a substantial report – No Stone Unturned in Pursuit of Growth – which he unveiled in Birmingham Town Hall in 2012. It recommended that we take the City Deals and go further – challenging the business and council leaders in every place in the country to assess the economic strengths and opportunities in their area, and to say what they would do differently if they had the chance; and to take from central government departments budgets that were controlled in Whitehall, but which could be made available locally if there was a credible plan to achieve more with the money than if it were spent remotely from London.
The Government accepted his recommendations, and on Monday we announced the results – a series of 39 Growth Deals with every Local Enterprise Partnership in England. During the months preceding the agreements, Michael criss-crossed the country with me, visiting almost all of the places and giving candid – sometimes brutal – feedback on their draft proposals.
It was a punishing schedule for anyone, and something a former Deputy Prime Minister might have preferred to skip, in favour of tending his celebrated arboretum at home. And the man famous for commanding a tennis-court sized office next door to Number 10 as Deputy Prime Minister has continued to advise me, working for the last six months from a desk in my private office. He has thrown himself completely into the task and was back in Birmingham Town Hall with the Prime Minister on Monday to launch the Growth Deals.
The outcome has far exceeded expectations. The proposals put forward from local places include road improvements, new railway links, investment in skills training promoted by local employers, bringing into productive use previously derelict land, extending superfast broadband coverage, and investment in science parks with our universities.
Every one of the proposals comes from local business and civic leaders and the deals involve local businesses and local councils putting in at least twice what central government is devolving. Such is the abundance of transformational proposals that we have been able to show the green light to £6 billion of projects in every part of the country. Not a penny of extra Government spending has been made – instead decisions that would have been made in Whitehall have been made locally, with far more leverage and so better value for money.
The Growth Deals have been enthusiastically received by businesses, councils, colleges and universities and parliamentary colleagues from all parties, all across the country.
In many ways this is reviving an approach Michael initiated when, having been appointed Minister for Merseyside after the Toxteth Riots of 1981, he took leave of absence from the Cabinet and based himself in Liverpool to immerse himself in the problems and opportunities confronting that city.
The result was the beginning of a regeneration of Liverpool that has seen the city go from a place seemingly indelibly associated with industrial militancy to a city that has hosted the International Festival of Business this summer.
Last year, Michael was made a Freeman of the City of Liverpool – by a unanimous vote of the City Council. The approach of allowing local leaders to set out and do what each place needs is now available not just to Liverpool but to everywhere in England. As Michael wrote this week: “If we were able to grab these opportunities in so small a part of England then what can stop us tomorrow if we unleash the economic sinews of a nation in a world of unprecedented opportunity?”