Boris Johnson has “lost interest” in devolution of power in England, says Lord Heseltine

Lord Heseltine, who wrote a report called Empowering English Cities in 2019, told Econ Film’s CoronaNomics show that the picture is “infinitely depressing”

Ben Chu
Economics Editor
Monday 09 November 2020 14:28
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Michael Heseltine on devolution

Boris Johnson is retreating from promises to hand down political power to English regions, according to the former Conservative deputy prime minister and champion of devolution Lord Heseltine.

The Conservative manifesto last December promised “full devolution across England” to enable “every part of our country…to shape its own destiny”.

The government has presented political devolution as a key element of Boris Johnson’s plan to “level up” the UK and promised an English devolution White Paper this autumn.

But that White Paper has now been postponed and frustration has boiled over for many advocates of devolution with what they see as the government’s failure to follow through.

The Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, last month accused the Government of effectively “levelling down” the UK with its Covid economic policies.

And Lord Heseltine, who wrote a report called Empowering English Cities in July 2019, told Econ Film’s CoronaNomics show that the picture is “infinitely depressing”.

“The story I get is Number 10 has lost interest in devolution, that they are more concerned with a battle with the Mayor of Greater Manchester and the whole thing has soured,” he said.

“Well, I tell you if you’re going to go into the post-Covid, Brexit reality, and you're not going to make use of the strengths of those mayors, then we are facing an even bleaker prospect than I had anticipated.”

In May 2019 Lord Heseltine, a trenchant opponent of Brexit, was stripped of the Conservative whip by Theresa May’s government.

A Tory party spokesperson said at the time the decision was made because the peer had endorsed the Liberal Democrats in the European elections of that year.

But when Lord Heseltine published his 2019 report, the Conservative West Midlands mayor, Andy Street, urged his party to listen to the veteran peer’s recommendations.

These included giving metro mayors control over failing schools, affordable housing and greater local taxation powers.  

Lord Heseltine also recommended a committee of metro mayors chaired by the prime minister. A complaint of many mayors in the Covid crisis is that they have not been consulted in advance on restrictions affecting their areas by Downing Street.  

Lord Heseltine says he was converted to the cause of regional devolution in 1981 when he was appointed “Minister for Merseyside” by Margaret Thatcher in the wake of the Toxteth riots and found weak local leadership in Liverpool and too much authority residing in London.

He is credited locally with helping to regenerate the city and was given the Freedom of Liverpool in 2012.

The local government minister with responsibility for devolution, Simon Clarke, resigned in September for personal reasons.

Mr Clarke had told the Local Government Association in July that the government’s plans, at that juncture, involved “many more elected mayors and more unitary councils” and that the White Paper would  “connect local recovery with levelling up”.  

Watch the full CoronaNomics interview with Lord Heseltine and Catherine McGuiness of the City of London Corporation on “How will Covid change cities?” here 

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