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< Regeneration, < New Start editorial index page

Those who remember Michael Heseltine of old won’t be surprised at some of the thinking to emerge from the Tory task group on cities.

The man who came up with the simple, striking solution of garden festivals to turn around inner-city dereliction is now offering to unleash another genie: powerful metropolitan mayors to wipe away the waffle and put some action into regeneration, bypassing Treasury restrictions by raising money on the bond markets.

Tarzan may have retired to his arboretum, but the urban Jane awakens all the old urges.

In pushing strong city governance in England’s biggest conurbations Mr Heseltine is in good company. The Centre for Cities has been banging the drum for city-regions.

Ken Livingstone has demonstrated that, contrary to Krushchev’s analysis, the cult of personality can occasionally be good for democracy.

Such simple solutions do have the benefit of masking in apparent certainties the fluid, unpredictable, conflicting maelstrom of human activity that is the lifeblood of a city.

They lend a sense of purpose and direction to an entity that is essentially organic. They are hymnsheets we can all sing from, until we read the words and struggle to reconcile them with reality.

But Michael Heseltine will be one of many who remember the battles between central and local government during his time in power.

He’ll recall, too, being part of an administration that viewed powerful local government with suspicion and hostility, and did its best to shackle its financial freedoms, ostensibly to protect poor beleaguered ratepayers.

It’s an attitude that has continued throughout a decade of Labour government. Freed from the burden of government, and with Tories occupying most of England’s town halls, it’s understandable that the cities task group now finds the idea of local fiscal freedom rather attractive.

And attractive it is, if cities are to have the incentive and clout to drive forward their own renaissance. But the outcome is far from certain. Liberty is risky. There will be mistakes, and some will be costly.

When that happens, expect a chorus of council tax payers demanding government action to deal with their irresponsible (though elected) local leaders.

It will be a brave secretary of state who’ll turn round and tell voters to clear up their own mess, but such courage is needed if local government is to escape decades of serfdom.

Julian Dobson, editorial director, New Start Online magazine

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