'I wouldn't have had a vote. I would have just done it': Michael Heseltine on a mayor for the North East

In a wide ranging interview with the Journal, Lord Heseltine insists the North East is booming - but it would be even better with a mayor

Lord Michael Heseltine
Lord Michael Heseltine

The North East needs a mayor to help shift power away from London and to the region - and the new system should be introduced without a referendum, according to senior Conservative peer Lord Heseltine.

The former Deputy Prime Minister was speaking to The Journal after George Osborne, the Chancellor, revealed the Government wanted once again to try to convince major cities to create mayors.

It followed a referendum in 2012 when residents in Newcastle voted against creating a mayor.

Voters in many other cities also rejected mayors, although although Bristol voted for a mayor and in Liverpool, which had been due to hold a referendum, the city council decided to introduce a mayoral system without a public vote.

Lord Heseltine was the driving force behind the referendum, having convinced David Cameron that mayors could help revitalise England’s great cities.

The Chancellor has hinted that this time the proposal will be different, and instead of calling for city mayors the Government will encourage the creation of conurbation or city region mayors to govern across a range of local authorities.

It follows the creation of a North East combined authority to cover County Durham, Gateshead, Newcastle, North Tyneside, Northumberland, South Tyneside and Sunderland. Combined authorities have also been created in West Yorkshire and Sheffield and Liverpool and the surrounding area. Greater Manchester has had a combined authority since 2011.

Lord Heseltine said that he believed no referendum was needed in order to introduce mayors - and that they should have been introduced without referendums in 2012.

He said: “My position has always been the same. I wouldn’t have had referenda. I would have done it. But that’s my personal view. The Government decided to go the referenda route.”

Opponents of a mayor will argue that the Government should simply accept the results of the 2012 referendums, but Lord Heseltine disagreed.

“The truth is a tiny fraction of most cities voted against it.

“This is not a subject on which the public feel moved. They don’t feel moved by local government, they don’t vote in local elections.

“So we have a democratic deficit. In my view a reason for this is that so many decisions are imposed by London that local democracy is not seen to be a determinant in many things.

“I hope that the direction in which the Government is going will change the public’s perception of the degree of power they can exercise.

“I think that part of that process is moving to directly elected mayors.”

He added: “We have now got them in London. It would be unthinkable to take away the mayoralty of London. People would think you were mad.

“We now have mayors in three great cities - Bristol, Liverpool and Leicester.

“I think it is widely seen there that they are successful and innovative and giving the sort of leadership that those of us who believe in the system thought they would.”

And he endorsed the idea of a conurbation or city region mayor - saying he wanted to propose something similar in 2012, but believed the idea would encounter resistance from council leaders.

“I look back myself and wonder whether I got the judgement wrong in saying go for borough mayors, because there was talk of going for conurbation mayors when I was recommending policy to David Cameron.

“My own judgement at the time was that if we’d gone for conurbation mayors, the local borough leaders would have been deeply opposed. And so I recommended borough mayors.”

Announcing that the Government wanted to try to introduce mayors for a second time, the Chancellor said: “I think it’s great to see how local authorities here are getting much better at working together.”

And he added “Is it now time to take the next steps?”

The Chancellor said: “I am putting on the table and starting the conversation about serious devolution of powers and budgets for any city that wants to move to a new model of city government - and have an elected Mayor.”

What exactly happens next is unclear. Treasury officials said the Chancellor’s aim was to start a conversation about how cities should be governed.

But one question which is bound to arise is whether the Government wants to hold a second set of referendums - although these would not be needed if local councils follow Liverpool’s example and decide to create a mayor through a vote of councillors.

The Chancellor’s speech, in which he also called for a new high speed rail line to link Manchester and Leeds, is the first in a series of major announcements on regional policy by the national parties.

On Tuesday, Labour peer Lord Adonis will publish the findings of his Growth Review, commissioned by Labour leader Ed Miliband, which is expected to include plans to devolve more funding to combined authorities.

And on July 7, Lord Heseltine and Greg Clark, the Cities Minister, are to announce the results of bids for the Local Growth Fund, a Government fund providing £2bn a year for economic development to regions which have bid for a share.

Lord Heseltine has been overseeing the process of judging bids for a share of the Government’s Local Growth Fund, which is designed to transfer cash from Whitehall to the regions.

Ministers have made £2bn available for the 2015-16 financial year, with the promise of more in future years.

But no region is guaranteed to win funding. Instead, Local Enterprise Partnerships, the economic development bodies led by councils and industry, were told to compete for cash by submitting rival bids.

The North East Local Enterprise Partnership, which covers County Durham, Gateshead, Newcastle, North Tyneside, Northumberland, South Tyneside and Sunderland, asked for between £90m and £121m in the first year to kick off a long-term plan to create 100,000 jobs and dramatically improve school standards.

Tees Valley Unlimited, the partnership for Darlington, Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, Redcar & Cleveland and Stockton, asked for £66.5m in the first year of the scheme.

Lord Heseltine said the cash would contribute to the further “transformation” of the North East.

He said; “The North East has transformed over my political lifetime.

“I remember the banks of the Tyne and I remember Teesside, and the transformation is extraordinary.

“To me, all that is an indication of what more we could do now.

“Because we have done so much, but we can do so much more.”

He backed the North East Economic Review, conducted by Labour peer Lord Adonis on behalf of the North East LEP.

“I know that Andrew Adonis has done a report on the North East. I strongly support the principle of that.

“And I think that the North East should take great encouragement from the Chancellor’s speech, because here we have a Chancellor giving all the signals that local people could want, including the conurbation mayor to help drive this forward.”

Referring to the Local Growth Fund as a “single pot” of funding, he added: “The Chancellor has already established the single pot, giving the North East the ability to prioritise investment.

“And this process is in its infancy. It’s only going to get bigger and not smaller.”

In a wide-ranging interview, Lord Heseltine dismissed the threat to the Conservatives from UKIP, describing UKIP leader Nigel Farage as “a high quality populist”

The former Defence Secretary said: “There is no doubt that the recession has helped them .

“Secondly, there is the fact that the Lib Dems are no longer the vehicle for the protest vote.

“All sorts of people were attracted to the Lib Dem cause, because they were reluctant to be associated with the more assertive views of the other parties.

“The problem for the Lib Dems now is that they have become associated with decisions which are as assertive as those of the other parties.

“So they are no longer a party in to which people can sort of drop out.

“Both the Scots Nats and UKIP have become the home to which the ‘don’t knows’ can go.

“UKIP will decline seriously between now and the next election.”

He predicted Scotland would vote against independence in the referendum in September, saying: “The strengths of the United Kingdom are so powerful, our history so dramatic, the achievements so evident in the way we worked for the last 300 years that there’s no case for breaking it up.

“I understand the frustrations which make people say give us more power. And they’ve been particularly acute in the past few years because of the economic circumstances.

“But the fact is that the world is shrinking and the competition is not a large number of small countries, it’s now increasingly a relatively small number of very large countries.

“And so working together, sharing our talents, building on our strengths, is of more compelling relevance to the century in which we live.

“And I think the Scots have such a role to play in that, that I think they will vote for it.”

Some of those comments could apply equally well to Britain’s membership of the European Union - and Lord Heseltine confirmed that he remained an enthusiastic supporter of the EU and Britain’s role within it, predicting that the country would one day join the single currency.

Although in other respects a vocal supporter of David Cameron, he declined to be drawn on whether he supported Mr Cameron’s plan to hold a referendum on EU membership.

Lord Heseltine also launched a defence of Education Secretary Michael Gove - and urged him to ignore critics within the teaching industry and elsewhere.

He highlighted a study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development which found England’s 16 to 24-year-olds were 22nd for literacy and 21st for numeracy out of 24 countries.

He said: “That concerns me deeply. Amd that is why Michael Gove is so important in the politics of the day.

“I actually read his speeches - it is very rare for a politician to read another politician’s speeches - but I do read them and they are absolutely right.

“Closing that gap, ideally eliminating that gap, and the gap I’m thinking off is the 20% of kids coming out of primary schools effectively illiterate and innumerate . . .you cannot compete in tomorrow’s world at that level.

My only advice to Michael Gove is to go further, go faster. Exactly the reverse of what the establishment pressure on him is to do. They want him to ease up, take his foot off the accelerator. My advice would be exactly the opposite.”

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