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Former UK prime ministers and chancellors have joined forces to call for an end to decades of “chopping and changing” on regional policy, in a report that warns it has led to growing inequality and “40 years of failure”.
Labour premiers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, Conservative prime minister John Major and former Tory chancellor George Osborne are among those calling for a more consistent cross-party approach.
Ed Balls, former Labour minister, led a Harvard University and King’s College London project on UK inequality, which included interviews with those who oversaw the country’s spluttering regional policy.
“Getting John Major, Tony Blair, George Osborne and Gordon Brown to agree on something is unusual,” Balls told the Financial Times. “They say you have to build a cross-party consensus that lasts for two decades.”
Balls argued that Britain had finally found a system that was working, namely large local authorities typically headed by a high-profile mayor, and said both Labour and Conservatives should commit to building on it.
He argued that all regions of the UK should be encouraged and incentivised to follow the example of Greater Manchester, the West Midlands, Liverpool and Tees Valley and adopt the combined authority model.
The paper, published on Monday, reflects on incomplete Tory attempts to reform local councils in the 1970s and 1990s and the Blair government’s failed Regional Development Authorities as examples of policy failure.
“Everything we’ve done on regional policy over the last 40 years has failed to deliver,” Balls said. “The central reason for this lack of progress — alongside a lack of resources — is that policy has chopped and changed between, and even within, governments to a debilitating degree.
“Without cross-party political leadership and a commitment to agree a plan and then to stick to it, things aren’t going to get better,” he added.
The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government led by David Cameron promoted the creation of combined authorities, often focused on big cities, which brought together smaller local government units.
Greater Manchester acted as a trailblazer. Today Andy Burnham, Manchester’s Labour mayor, and Ben Houchen, Tory mayor of Tees Valley, are significant public figures and figureheads for their regions.
Many of the politicians interviewed by Balls’s team admitted that a failure to devolve power more quickly from London reflected cross-party suspicions about the capacity of local government to deliver.
Major said in the paper: “Where I think we did get something wrong was that we did undervalue the capability of local government and overvalue the capability of central government.”
Blair admitted he became a late convert to the mayoral model, having in government backed the idea of Regional Development Authorities, which lacked an elected figurehead.
He said: “I think the biggest frustration is that, for this to work, you need a coherent policy pursued over probably a 15- to 20-year period in order for the thing to have a result.”
Brown said his government did not push ahead with directly elected mayors because of opposition from local Labour councils. “Clearly having a visible figure representing a local area has been very important in the last two years,” he said.
Lord Michael Heseltine, a life-long supporter of regional devolution, told the researchers: “British economic policy has been run for the south-east of England.”