Government making waves on the Mersey

Lord Heseltine is cautiously optimistic over the Coalition’s bid to put a regenerated Liverpool at the centre of its target to double exports to £1 trillion by 2020

Here’s a question: what does the Conservative peer Michael Heseltine have in common with the comedian Ken Dodd, trumpeter and television presenter Roy Castle and the Beatles?

The answer is that they have all been granted the Freedom of Liverpool. The political veteran who felled Margaret Thatcher may hail from Swansea, but his service to the city over a period of more than 30 years makes him an honorary Scouser. He’s one of a tiny handful of Tory politicians – maybe the only – that its citizens would speak of with anything more than spitting contempt. Becoming a freeman of the city in 2012 with the praise of the Mayor and 69 Labour councillors ringing in his ears was “one of the proudest days of my life”.

Lord Heseltine is indelibly associated with the revival of Liverpool from the riot-blighted social and economic wasteland of the 1970s and 1980s to today’s modern, regenerated city. The past month has seen another landmark for Liverpool as it has been the focal point of the International Festival for Business.

The idea of Liverpool hosting the biggest showcase for UK companies since the 1951 Festival of Britain would have been little more than a cruel joke 20 years ago, but over the seven weeks of the festival there have been 424 different events in the city and the wider North-west.

More than 75,000 delegates have attended from 88 different countries. Among the big hitters – apart from Lord Heseltine himself – were former Tesco chief executive Sir Terry Leahy, the chief of Santander, Ana Botin, and Ron Dennis, the chief executive of McLaren. But more important still than the eminent cast list were the networking opportunities created. The IFB has signed up 15,000 members of its business club and welcomed about 12,000 business visitors to its networking hub over the course of the festival.

The festival emerged out of one of the recommendations in a report that the peer and Sir Terry produced on Liverpool in 2011 – rebalancing Britain: policy or slogan? – which called on the Government to endorse a Liverpool-based international expo to help “create an important new wave of interest and investment” in the region. Three years on, the festival has been deemed such a success that a repeat is already pencilled in for 2016.

Lord Heseltine says the event “gave a huge boost of confidence to the many people involved in the process”. He says: “With any vision is a certain amount of ‘I hope it will be alright on the night’. It turned out to be much better on the night that even the most optimistic had anticipated. Where do you go from here? They’re going to do it again, and that to me is the most exciting thing possible. You start something, it works, you build on it, it gathers momentum.”

Certainly there is more to cheer nowadays than in Lord Heseltine’s first report on Liverpool, called It Took a Riot – a searing indictment of a city in the grip of high unemployment with declining prospects. The Mersey – now a top tourist destination – was described as an “open sewer”.

One of the key figures behind this year’s festival was Liverpool Vision chief executive Max Steinberg, whom Lord Heseltine has worked with on and off for more than 30 years in Liverpool. He was on a working party of officials and private sector secondees set up by Lord Heseltine in 1981 “to show we could get things working satisfactorily in Liverpool as it was pretty depressing at the time. Max was an important part of that team”.

The peer’s relationship with the city began in 1979, two years before the Toxteth riots which brought Liverpool’s plight to national attention. Lord Heseltine had been working on ventures such as the International Garden Festival and the revival of the Albert Dock for more than a year beforehand, dispelling the misconception that he was parachuted in following the disorder of July 1981.

“It was because of that 18-month experience that I felt a personal responsibility. I thought ‘I’ve been trying to help and they’ve rioted’. Instead of standing back and saying this is a matter of public order, which of course it was, I thought we’ve got to get inside this problem, and dramatically intensified the time I devoted to Merseyside.”

More than 30 years on, Liverpool is at the leading edge of the Coalition’s attempts to double UK exports to  £1 trillion by 2020 – a tough ask as the UK’s trade performance has not yet come to the rescue of an economy based for so many years on services and consumer spending. Is it achievable?

“It’s a hell of a target, but if they get substantially towards it that will be jolly good too. I’ve no problem with setting ambitious targets – it makes everybody wake up and understand the challenge.”

Despite the success of the festival, the peer adds that it is fruitless to expect Liverpool and the wider North-west to ever provide a genuine economic rivalry to London, which delivers more than a fifth of the country’s output.

“One has got to stand back and recognise that London is sui generis, it is a phenomenon, competing with a handful of world cities. A triumph and a huge national asset.

“If you’ve got something of that sort you treasure it, and nurture it, and never let anybody try to undermine it. I think it is better to be upfront and say London has specific strengths, an edge wherever you look. I don’t think people would be fooled if you were to say you can do just as well outside London.

“What I think they want to hear is that you are going to give every help you possibly can a) to spread the benefits of London and b) to generate the economic activity on the strength that exists outside London. As long as people believe you are giving every support to the local economies which are doing well they will not feel resentful if London is doing better.”

That said, Lord Heseltine is a champion of the regions and the Government has already acted on most of the 89 recommendations in his 2012 growth review, No Stone Unturned.

One of the key planks of this was the establishment of a Local Growth Fund which earlier this month agreed its first £6bn of projects. The announcement was another moment of immense satisfaction for the Conservative peer, who at 81 shows little appetite for putting his feet up or pruning the roses. “What is the point of retirement? I love what I do, I have a very fulfilling life so why should I change?”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£15000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisors are r...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: SThree were established in 1986....

Recruitment Genius: Compliance Manager

£40000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Compliance Manager is require...

SThree: Talent Acquisition Consultant

£22500 - £27000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: Since our inception in 1986, STh...

Day In a Page

John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most