In planning the future of local authorities, we must not repeat the mistakes of the past

4 minute read

It has been 54 years since the last effective action plan for local government in England was published.

The Redcliffe-Maud commission looked at the 1,300 local authorities which largely reflected a country where the only means of transport was by bus, cart, horse or foot. Anticipating the completely changed mobility and communication of train, car, bus, telephone and many more, they devised proposals to replace the existing one with 62 unitary authorities largely based on large conurbations and unit counties.

It is impossible to calculate the immense cost that the failure to implement these proposals has imposed on our economy. I say this as someone who has fought against barriers to change for three periods at the Department of the Environment, two of which as Secretary of State. Looking across the advanced world, it is easy to see how far we have fallen behind in establishing clearly directed local government, enjoying some degree of real delegation of power and designed to reflect economic and social communities.

The first priority of Michael Gove should be the creation of a new wave of mayors

There has been progress, but it is through negotiation and compromise. The slowest ship in the convoy set the pace. Our indifferent education standards, lack of skills and shortage of homes reflect Labour’s indifference to the private sector and the conservative pressure of Nimbyism. God knows how much it has cost us to maintain two often conflicting levels of local government.

The late Peter Walker, as Environment Secretary, was responsible for the first and most important step forward in the early 1970s when he reduced the number of authorities to just over 300. London got its town hall in the late 1990s and the last significant breakthrough came when George Osborne and Greg Clark were in charge, as Chancellor and Local Government Secretary respectively. Town and city mayors are now an important feature of the. The political landscape.

Whether the recent white paper proposals will convince other authorities to join the club remains to be seen. In the face of the challenges facing our Brexit economy, it is as if we have decided to march to the sound of guns with one hand tied behind our backs. Add to this the adjustments brought about by climate change and Russian energy independence, and it is clear that every nerve must be stretched in a national program of change.

Local government must be equipped to play a major role. It should be led by people recognized locally for their achievements and not simply as a reflection of their party’s standing in national opinion polls. There is evidence that new leaders are already rising above traditional party labels.
These leaders must design local strategies and negotiate their implementation with the government. Only then will the strengths of each individual community be the cornerstone of growth and the weaknesses the targets of elimination.

The government must adapt its own practices to reflect the changing relationship with local leaders. Much larger shares of central government capital funding should be allocated competitively over longer periods. It is quite unacceptable that George Osborne’s reforms in this direction have been eclipsed and the money returned to departments in Whitehall. The Treasury could fund much of the extra local spending by ending two-tier government, as I did in Scotland and Wales in the 1990s.

There will be those who will say the government has been hijacked by Brexit and Covid from local government reform. Nothing could be further from the truth. These challenges are enormous in themselves, but their solution requires the most effective response. Almost half of this parliament was wasted. There are no short term solutions. It is time, however, to demonstrate that the government has the energy and the agenda to avoid snail’s pace progress.

One of Michael Gove’s priorities should be creating a new wave of mayors, especially in northern cities, which urgently need strong leadership to reinvent themselves after a generation of neglect and deindustrialisation.

Lord Heseltine is an unaffiliated peer and former Deputy Prime Minister.

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