Lord Heseltine’s proposals for rebuilding Britain’s economy were widely welcomed.
The Tory peer understood that it wasn’t enough for government simply to stand back and “free” the private sector to do its thing.
Industry needs the right conditions to succeed – the right infrastructure, the right advice and, in some cases, the right access to finance.
The best way to deliver this support is as locally as possible. And, as Lord Heseltine – dubbed Tarzan – suggested, it makes sense to use existing bodies, such as chambers of commerce as well as the enterprise partnerships set up by chambers and local councils.
So far so good, but where the proposals really grabbed attention was when the peer suggested taking £49 billion out of Whitehall’s hands and funnelling it to the local enterprise partnerships.
There were a number of other good ideas, such as the call for the creation of a national economic council chaired by the Prime Minister, as well as a series of industry councils to ensure each sector of the economy had a voice within government.
But the suggestion that money could be spent locally was the boldest idea. It was also the proposal most likely to raise fears that the report would be quietly ignored.
While Conservative politicians generally welcomed the findings, and Labour hinted, quite sensibly, they planned to steal any ideas the Government didn’t use, it was somehow hard to imagine civil servants in Whitehall actually giving up that much power – nor the Ministers they worked for.
So there was a fear that, once the publicity accompanying the report’s launch was over, it would be placed in a drawer somewhere and left to gather dust.
It looks as if Lord Heseltine shared that concern. What else could explain his desire to get cracking with the task of putting it into practice?
There’s no guarantee yet that Birmingham city region’s status as the pilot project for Lord Heseltine’s ideas will bring funding to the West Midlands. For now, his team and local civic leaders are expected to work together to thrash out ways his proposals could be put into practice.
But if they succeed, the end result could well be an enhanced role and funding for the local enterprise partnership, the chamber of commerce and local authorities, including Birmingham City Council. Ultimately, it could lead to significant changes to the way the country as a whole is governed, if it leads to the Heseltine proposals coming into effect across the country.
The so-called “Greater Birmingham” region is the obvious place to run a test project, but there was nothing inevitable about the city being chosen. Lord Heseltine could instead have chosen to work with Manchester, or with Liverpool, a city he knows well.
So Birmingham’s involvement is something of a triumph. This is a big opportunity for the city region and one to make the most of.