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

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The Independent Online

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?”