Lord Heseltine: “The forgotten people - the consequences of over-centralised power”
Lord Heseltine was speaking at the Mile End Institute, Queen Mary University of London. The occasion was the second annual Peter Hennessy Lecture in political history.
20 October 2016
Thank you for inviting me this evening. The work of the Institute focuses on the connection between academic research and public policy and politics. Under the patronage of Peter Hennessy you are in expert hands.
His preoccupation with learning the lessons of political history is one I share, and I will explore that in depth tonight. Indeed, this part of London has been central to my political experience, so it is a delight to be back.
I’ll return later to my connection with East London and its Docklands, both to express my pride in what has been achieved here, but also to talk of my regrets on the things we got wrong. The title of this lecture is The Forgotten People.
The consequences of difference
Theresa May, when she stood on the steps of Downing Street in July, having just accepted her Majesty’s invitation to be Prime Minister, spoke very emotively of the harsh reality of the consequences of each of us being different to one another. The consequences of being black, rather than white. Female rather than male. Young rather than old.
Of course she is right, and I commend her determination to correct that unfairness.
It is only through doing so that we will achieve the One Nation I have campaigned for my whole life. But it is also true that our aspiration is held back by other things. Not just our physical characteristics, our personalities or our beliefs. Those things are important.
But our backgrounds define our lives too. Our childhoods, the people we associated with and the places we lived. These are issues that create and challenge our political philosophy and agenda. How we create better spaces for people to live, to grow, to learn, to play, to meet, to call ‘home’ and to say that word ‘home’ with pride.
Dissatisfaction and total disengagement with the place you live is a stark feature of parts of British society. The recent referendum reinforced that message.
I don’t mean a lack of pride in your city or your suburb. It is more local and more personal than that. There are communities, even streets that combined together evoke no sense of pride.
No pride in the architecture, no access to the people who can support you to get ahead in your life, and no belief you have a stake in your community and its future.
These pockets of low engagement and aspiration exist up and down the country. It is a problem that is seen in London as much as in any other town or city.
But London, as the capital city, as the political heart of our parliamentary and administrative structure, helped cause the problem. We are a very centralised democracy.
I understand, if you live in Consett, on a deprived estate 250 miles away from the people that decide your future that you become frustrated, lack hope and ultimately become apathetic to it all. Many of the men and women who devise the policies that will shape your early years, your adolescence, your education, your life chances, your life, have never experienced your life.
But the truth is, never mind being 250 miles away, if you live 2.5 miles away from the Houses of Parliament, in one of London’s deprived communities, your experience is likely to be the same.
Let us be frank. The people who design and construct these deprived communities do not tend to live in them.
As the years have gone by there are long term social drifts at work here as those who could afford to choose have moved to the outskirts of the cities their forefathers built.
Reducing the interaction with the people who now live within them. Having less of a stake in their success.
Centuries ago prevailing westerly winds drove development to the west of the stink of eastern areas. Different social drifts are at work today but they have the same divisive consequences.
Far too frequently, those that provide the day-to-day services for some of our most challenging communities do not belong to them.
The people that educated the children, who tended to the ill and who provided care to the frail have moved away.
They do not feel they have a share in the success of them. That is bad in itself. But it creates a whole separate conundrum. Most of you here will have good social connections. Connections that in a myriad of social situations provide informal advice and guidance.
A friend that can help you with your mortgage application. Your mother’s friend from University, who is a solicitor, who can advise you on the dispute you are having with your landlord. Your partner’s aunt, who is willing to explain how to start a small business.
It is a “social interchange”. The network of people we know, from similar socio-demographic backgrounds. They make our lives simpler.
It is right we help each other out.
But these social networks do not extend readily to those in communities without this range of qualified and professional advice.
Now I do not wish to write off these communities as talentless places with no hope. Far from it. The problem is they have become detached from the people that make the decisions about them.
Victims of a century of centralisation
I welcome the enormous strides the Conservative Government has made devolving powers to places in recent years. Aside from Northern Ireland Scotland and Wales, about half of England’s population will soon have some form of devolved agreement from Whitehall.
The Mayor of London has responsibility for many decisions that affect those that are here today. And next year, Manchester, Liverpool, the West Midlands, Sheffield and Tees Valley will choose their democratically elected mayors.
The power of office will bring devolved decision making and budgets across a whole multitude of areas. Areas like transport, skills provision and business support.
It will also come with up to £6.5 billion for investment in infrastructure over the next 30 years announced by central Government, but under the direct control of those places.
Attitudes will change.
Experience becomes enriched by this new found responsibility. The powers being given to those mayors will much affect the physical environment in which we all live. That in itself is to be welcomed.
The devolutionary direction of urban regeneration is now established. If you doubt me, look at Liverpool now and compare it to the city in the early 1980s.
As in Liverpool, so the early experiments began here in the East End of London too. The story of the Docklands tells itself.
Younger members of the audience may not know that in the late 1980s it was a barren wasteland.
We established the London Docklands Development Corporation. It initiated so much of what you see today. I remember the origins of my interest in the area. Responsible for the search for a third London Airport in the 1970s, I flew over East London to the Essex coast. The dereliction was evident. There was a clear need to concentrate energy and resource in the redevelopment of our inner cities.
The strategy was clear. We had to clear the detritus of history, clean up the toxic ground and enable the land involved to compete with green fields for new investment, jobs and employment.
It may sound silly to hear me say I regret anything about a project that transformed this part of east London. But there remains a regret.
I understood the anxiety of the local people affected, but never saw the point of consulting them. I had anticipated their views. They would have asked for more public money to sustain their already publicly subsidised lifestyles.
The audience to which I felt myself appealing were the children of the elderly. They had gone in search of their own homes or to the opportunities of the New Towns. Looking back I was wrong to avoid a dialogue. It is wrong to assume you know the other person’s arguments. There may be surprising common ground.
There are countless examples of the resourcefulness of communities to shape their own physical space.
A more modern phenomenon is the community led project.
Innovative approaches to the physical environment of local buildings and open spaces. Community projects such as that in Talacre Gardens, Camden, where the local community working with young adults from four local secondary schools created ceramic and mosaic art on their local benches.
The project helped broaden horizons, building belief in how individual action improves communities. The scale of the project is not the critical ingredient.
Local involvement and a desire to reclaim a sense of pride in ‘place’ is the key. The simple act of residents coming together to bring nature to an area with no gardens, planting shrubs and flowers for everyone to enjoy, has been hugely beneficial in Peckham.
These are examples from here in London but the proof of how these community projects can sow the seeds of community regeneration can be seen across the country.
In an area of Nottingham, rife with crime and drug dealing that drove away residents, a Royal Horticultural Society ‘It’s Your Neighbourhood’ project, initiated and run by local people, has introduced flowers and plants to the streets. The look and feel of the place has changed completely.
Such was the success of the project that crime and anti-social behaviour reduced by 16 per cent in the first three months alone and the estate now has a waiting list of people waiting to move in. When people have a feeling of ownership of the place they live, they respect it more. So the challenge is not just to reconnect those that design our inner city living spaces with the areas they created and built, but also to involve local people in the design itself.
Back to the 90s
My experience in the 1990s returning to the Department of Environment took on a dimension hardly present in the early 1980s. Most of the urban programmes I dealt with after 1979 involved derelict land on which there were no people.
In 1990 we turned to the infinitely more complex issues of deprived communities.
From within the budget of the Department of Environment we found the money to offer local authorities with such estates an opportunity for fundamental change.
Ten packages of £35 million over five years were offered to some 30 local authorities provided they came forward with a coherent plan to redesign the estates and enhance the opportunities of the communities. As there were only 10 packages and 30 authorities, it was a competition with more losers than winners. There were conditions unusual in social schemes of this sort. Each project had to have a discrete management team drawn from the public and private sectors.
Each had to set out how much extra the local authority and private sector would add to the £35 million. It was an essential condition of success that the tenants had to be consulted and involved.
I have always regarded City Challenge to be one of the most successful projects I ever designed. It changed the attitudes of local authority leaders and their private sector partners towards each other. It forced the different functional departments of local government to work together as teams and partners and it gave a stake in their community to the tenants themselves.
Perhaps best of all after they got over the shock of losing, the losers rapidly found out how the winners had won and raised their game to win in subsequent rounds. The 1997 election had I thought ended my experience in the work of government. It was not to be. After a series of appointments under David Cameron's new government he invited me to co-chair with Brandon Lewis (and now Gavin Barwell) the Housing Minister, a commission to bring new purpose to 100 of England's most difficult housing estates.
Many of these estates have stood for decades. In the 1960s and 70s thousands of them were built by local authorities across England. Whilst the debate on urban regeneration of our great cities may have been won, I believe that there is so much more to do about some of the estates within those cities. David Cameron very much saw this programme as part of his legacy as a One Nation Prime Minister.
Let me say something about the definition of such estates:
Not all those selected are slums - although some are. Many are suffering – the result of poor design, bad build and under management. We didn't choose the estates - they had to bid. We have £140 million.
Not enough by itself but with many sources of funds, such as Growth Deal funding, the new Home Builders Fund, the Shared Ownership and Affordable Homes programme and Private Rental Sector guarantees.
Not just public funds, but private too. The concept of gearing is now well established. Getting the private sector to co-fund investment projects it would never be commercially viable for it to do on its own. I look forward to this work proceeding.
David Cameron’s purpose in setting up the estates committee was laudable in itself. The original concept envisaged new buildings, better design and an improved environment.
We have added two new initiatives to widen the purpose by revisiting some earlier work about the management of such estates.
We want to establish the cost to society of maintaining existing policies of support. We want to explore the structure of such support. We also want to enter into a dialogue with tenants to establish their perspective of the policies that were being provided for their benefit.
Investing for the service user
City Challenge taught important lessons in these areas.
One more recent experience much informed these enquiries. I visited an estate in Birmingham with the Labour council leader, Albert Bore. I was taken aback at how the key social services the people depended on were spread across the city, independent from each other.
I gathered some of the people delivering those services together. Most had never met. This reflected the dysfunctional nature of government departments. Whitehall had been replicated in the local authority community.
One team dealing with health, another benefits, another training, and so on. All disparate from one another. The bus from the estate to the job centre cost the unemployed £2 each way. A whole existence designed for the individual functions of central and local government, not the user.
It was this that much encouraged our determination to proceed with our investigations.
We have identified four estates, in London, Manchester, Durham and Liverpool and we are working with those areas to establish the expenditure of public money in them.
A previous research pilot in three London estates found that whilst they housed 7% of the borough’s population, they accounted for:
- Over 20 per cent of the borough’s youth offending budget
- 15 per cent of income support spend
- 12.5 per cent of Jobseekers Allowance expenditure
The ‘do nothing’ option is one of continuing cost to the public purse. We need to be sure we have got it right. The tenants will have an interesting perspective.
There is an underlying question. Is sufficient attention being devoted to the erection of ladders of aspiration designed to open opportunities for improvement as opposed to just the amelioration of the existing circumstances?
Let me make one important generalisation. This is not a criticism of the countless men and women undertaking the numerous tasks of carrying out the policies of local and central government, or their agencies, the third sector or many professional people.
Without being exhaustive it is obvious that apart from the Treasury with its proper responsibility for expenditure there are several Whitehall Departments with a direct interest. The Home Office with its responsibility for policing. The Department for Education with overall educational and skills responsibility. The Department of Health with its wide range of health and social care responsibilities.
Each of these departments conscientiously devises and seeks to implement policies designed to cope with problems that come within their remit.
The question that thrusts itself forward is whether there is any coordination of all these streams of activity at an estate level.
Do these people ever meet to see their work in the round?
Gordon Brown’s Government attempted to address the issue with its Total Place Pilots. The work proposed a “citizen viewpoint” to join-up services and remove the confusion people face in using them.
The figures collected in those pilots proved that such a coordinated approach could deliver greater value for money.
And much more vitally, they showed that outcomes for the individual could be improved, with better health and wellbeing, greater employment chances and reduced crime.
The 2010 election prematurely ended that work.
It is too early to make any forecasts about my own work but it cannot be wrong to ask the questions. The Conservative and Coalition Governments have driven decentralisation since 2010. They have searched for better coordination, an accelerated impetus and a strong devolution of power to enthuse and involve local people. Further devolution should mean thinking about the person as well as the place.
Let us not rest on our laurels. Some call what is needed ‘deeper devolution’, others ‘double devolution’. I have never been one for labels. What matters is we get to the heart of all of our communities and make sure we fix the problems for them and with them.
One of the beauties of life is you never stop learning. The flip-side to that is you never stop regretting. As you acquire new knowledge, you wish you had known it earlier and been able to apply it sooner.
My career has focused largely on joined-up thinking on investment, capital build and regeneration. The estates work has opened my eyes to the challenges – and opportunities – of joining up social policy.
How can we take the successes of devolution further and spread them to social services? How do we take the principles we have applied to spending public money and extend them to the day-to-day support of the people who live in some of our most deprived communities?
The Government has already made strides in the right direction in the devolution of services.
Take Greater Manchester’s control of the National Health Service as an example. As well as giving local clinicians say on the provision of health and care services locally, it has opened up the opportunity for a dialogue with the private sector on medicines and treatments. In doing so it has helped attract new inward investment.
So a radical approach to devolution of social services, can deliver not only more locally inspired services but can also deliver our new industrial strategy.
The Manchester example is one that I know is close to home here, as the Institute is undertaking an analysis of the effect of devolution on the Manchester City Region.
Tackling the consequences of deprivation in our most stressful communities is multi-faceted.
Solving these consequences via functional Departments in London comes with its problems. My report, No Stone Unturned in Pursuit of Growth, rehearsed the vital importance of Whitehall moving away from siloed, Departmental based thinking.
As the Government continues to devolve powers to places, the importance of removing departmental ring-fences, rather than passing down specific powers and budgets to achieve the same outcomes will be important if we are to release the advantages of empowerment.
The same challenge is true at a local level. There is little point demanding control over decisions, only for councils to replicate those siloes locally.
Devolution will keep happening.
But let us be even more ambitious. As we continue to coordinate investment to make our cities a better place to call home, let us reach out to every community within them.
And let us make sure they are not just nicer places to call home, but places where your life itself is improved.
I don’t just mean reliable bus services, regular bin collection and low council tax, but access to joined-up services to support your caring responsibilities, your own health issues and your education.
The quality of community life is much more than just a measured accumulation of individual services. That is where I will end tonight.
The Prime Minister called for policies that reach where others fail to penetrate. A significant test of the success will be measured in our deprived communities.
When I arrived in Liverpool after the riots of 1981 it was a forgotten city. The people of that city have changed it beyond recognition. So much has been achieved since. An extraordinary legacy.
Now let us go further and deeper and ensure that the forgotten people of our society can be offered a hand, helping and encouraging them to a fuller, more rounded life.
For in years to come that will be our new legacy.