Lord Heseltine will launch the Greater Birmingham Project today - but the question is, will the government actually back him up?
Last October’s publication of Michael Heseltine’s landmark report into economic development saw an ageing Tarzan swing into action once more, calling for a more concerted approach to driving local economic growth.
“No Stone Left Unturned in Pursuit of Growth” (pdf) made the call for a radical devolution of budgets and economic policy-making, with potentially tens of billions of pounds transferred from central government to local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) and Chambers of Commerce.
Heseltine’s report also called for the creation of a National Growth Council to be established by David Cameron by the end of this month, with ministers and permanent secretaries identified to champion individual local enterprise partnerships by April. In the Heseltine plan, this begins the inexorable downwards shift of power and resources from Whitehall.
This afternoon he builds on his approach at an event to launch ‘The Greater Birmingham Project’held in conjunction with the city’s local enterprise partnership. The plan is to use Birmingham as a test-bed to pilot ideas about the practical steps and structures needed to realise the ambitions of his report.
Heseltine has been invited in to lead the review by the chair of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership (and John Lewis Partnership chief executive) Andy Street:
“We are delighted that Lord Heseltine has accepted our invitation to work with [us]… to identify how we can collectively implement the economic recommendations of his report.
“We must present a compelling case to government to show the economic dividend that Greater Birmingham could derive if the Heseltine recommendations were implemented.”
“The onus is now on us, over the next three months, to demonstrate further that we can maximise the potential of this important opportunity.”
With high expectations – but little funding – England’s 39 local enterprise partnerships have so far faced an impossible challenge in picking up the broken crockery of the government’s disastrous approach to boosting local growth; including the rash decision to abolish the English regional development agencies in 2010.
Reform is needed andThe Greater Birmingham Project will explore how Birmingham can work more closely with outlying boroughs in what seems to be a recognition the scope of LEPs is geographically too narrow.
So why Birmingham?
There is a sense among many of the political and business elite that the city can and should be doing better. With one of the highest inner-city unemployment rates and with too many failing schools, there is a sense Birmingham has drifted a long way from its Victorian heyday when it was described as “the city of a thousand trades”.
Indeed, there is a portrait of Birmingham’s former mayor and civic pioneer – Joseph Chamberlain – in the introduction to No Stone Left Unturned.
Heseltine will spend three months working with the local enterprise partnership, consulting with key stakeholders across the city and beyond before presenting a plan to ministers about what practical nuts and bolts arrangements need to be put in place to make No Stone Left Unturned a reality.
The scope of his remit – Greater Birmingham – hints that Heseltine too realises LEPs are too fragmented to drive growth individually and need to join together to have any effect.
Indeed, he has already described the government’s scrapping of the regional development agencies as “a mistake” in what business secretary Vince Cable conceded was a “Maoist and chaotic” approach to regional growth.
If, after three months, Heseltine recommends the consolidation of individual LEPs to create ‘mini-RDAs’ in order to maximise their effectiveness in delivering No Stone Left Unturned, then the last two years of structural tinkering by the government will be fully exposed as the cul-de-sac so many in the regeneration field warned about.
Having dawdled while England’s regions suffered, ministers should then crawl under one of Heseltine’s overturned stones.