“It is very rare in public life to be given the chance to revisit previous responsibilities. Having served on three separate occasions in the Department of the Environment – twice as Secretary of State – I am delighted that David Cameron asked me to look again at the opportunities to stimulate the regeneration of our cities.
I can bring experience to the task but with that experience come the opinions that arose from that experience.
I should stress that whatever I may believe should not be confused with what a future Conservative government may do.
I act rather as a headwaiter.
I can produce a menu.
It is for David and his colleagues to decide what, if any thing, they will consume from it.
My task is also partial. Inner city policy embraces an agenda that touches on virtually all domestic issues. I am concerned with structure and physical regeneration. John Gummer and Ian Duncan-Smith with their policy groups carry the demanding work load concerning human relations and social provision.
Today we look forward to important local elections.
Let us be clear about one thing.
We are not here today to take part in a wake to remember the glorious past of Conservatives in urban Britain.
We have an altogether more optimistic purpose.
Already we control Trafford, Dudley, Solihull, Walsall and many other authorities.
We control nine London boroughs and we run Birmingham, Bradford and Coventry.
There is one clear message.
We have taken the beach heads.
Now to advance.
Let our cry be - if we can do it there, we can do it here.
Wining control of more authorities are skirmishes in the battle of the next general election.
Stepping stones to power.
The chance to serve.
As we bring the skills of good administration to more and more authorities let us remember politics is not all about fact, statistic or spinning the truth.
It is also about passion.
If you want to understand why Labour is bad for Britain walk about the deprived parts of Britain’s cities.
After nearly a decade of power what has New Labour actually done for the forgotten people?
What does that most overblown phrase of modern politics “Education, Education, Education” actually mean to those kids leaving our sink schools barely literate?
Do the elderly feel safer?
Is the litter picked?
Is there a glimmer of hope shining through the drab concrete world that is as far as the horizon stretches?
Feel the insecurity.
Absorb the squalor.
Understand what it’s like to lose hope.
Ten years of excuses, ten years when new Labour forgot a generation who simply missed out.
What a challenge here for our party.
With: the right policies,
the right candidates,
the right language,
and, above all, an unswerving allegiance to the Churchillian vision of a net of civilised living above which all are free to rise, below which none may fall.
Time and again the Tory party has leapt the simple barriers of class to bring hope.
Lord Shaftsbury took the women out of the mines and the children out of the chimneys.
Disraeli gave the working man the vote.
Rab Butler was responsible for universal education.
Mrs Thatcher’s government enfranchised the council tenant.
In forgotten Britain there are challenges today of such historic scale.
Do not for one moment think that these problems are self contained, affect only that proportion of society that actually live in urban deprivation.
There is high unemployment in deprived areas.
That is a human tragedy.
It is a tax payers bill.
The education is inadequate.
Illiteracy impoverishes someone for life.
To the drug barons it is an opportunity. It is a recruiting ground. The drug peddlers do not restrict their sales to inner cities.
Low or no education standards, drugs, here is the cauldron from which criminals come.
But the crimes threaten us all.
So it is our problem too. Less personal. Just as important.
I began by saying that it would be quite wrong for me to make statements that sound like policy decisions. I would like therefore to cover just three themes today.
What were the critical changes and consequences for the regeneration of our cities of the Thatcher and Major governments?
Are local governments capable of carrying greater responsibility for their destinies?
Why should a conservative government pay particular attention to the regeneration of our cities?
First, the critical changes.
The sale of council houses and the transfer of much of the remaining stock into self administering trusts was a social revolution of historic proportions.
Well over a million families became homeowners.
Many millions more were enabled to exercise a more direct influence over their housing conditions.
I give Tony Blair credit for making fashionable the concept of stakeholder.
It was a very good way to describe the property owning, share owning society we had already created in the teeth of Labour opposition.
Second, Geoffrey Howe’s, Nigel Lawson and Ken Clarke’s budgets created the conditions whereby the enterprise system could regenerate itself.
Everywhere today there are flourishing new companies creating local wealth and jobs.
We made that possible.
Third, less conspicuous but equally profound, our policies broke the barriers of prejudice and bitterness between the public and private sectors.
Both have their strengths.
We created the incentives to forge those strengths into formidable partnerships where the old enmities were replaced by constructive co-operation.
You may ask what do all these changes, now centrepieces of modern government, have in common?
I will tell you.
Every one was opposed by the Labour Party.
In the dark corners of deprived Britain which had been their fiefdom for decades, they had become the custodians of deprivation, the champions of mediocrity.
We let the light in and there grew an urban renaissance on a scale and quality not seen since Victorian times.
Let me be specific. Take Manchester
GMex the great exhibition centre
The concert hall
The velodrome and other great sports stadia that came from our support for the Commonwealth Games
The redevelopment of Castlefields
The transformation of the Hume estate
After the bomb outrage the recreation of the City centre itself
The list goes on.
It can be replicated in City after City.
London, Liverpool, Leeds, Birmingham, Newcastle, Cardiff, Glasgow. Many others.
I come to my second question.
Are local authorities capable of carrying greater responsibilities for their own destinies?
Well let’s say something rather uncomfortable.
The chief executive of a major city is paid in the order of £150-200,000pa.
He or she will be amongst the highest paid people in most cities.
If they are not capable of doing the job, there should be a system to replace them by someone who is.
If they are capable, why should Whitehall double or triple guess every decision they make?
We should give them real freedom to serve local people as local people determine.
But let me say something else uncomfortable.
You will say to me “but surely the leader of the council runs the show, why are they paid a fraction of the Chief Executive’s salary?
And anyway why do we need two Chief Executives?
One badly paid and answerable to an electorate and one extremely well paid and enjoying a tenure far removed from public accountability.
I believe that the time has come to combine these two jobs.
I believe great cities should elect great leaders and hold them to account.
They should be elected by the constituency of the whole city and not just a constituency that is often an unrepresentative part of it.
There is a second part to my question as to whether cities are capable of carrying greater responsibilities.
It is this.
Would central government ever devolve real discretion to local authorities?
Anyone who has any experience of the relationship between central and local government is familiar with what happens.
Officials get at it.
Circulars prescribe in detail after detail what the law means, what it entitles an authority to do or not do.
When I first became Secretary of State I discovered that a housing authority had to answer 80 questions about the detail of any scheme before they would put a brick on the ground.
And councillors thought they were free!
We changed much of that, but the culture remains.
Central government pays for 80% of local expenditure, so it controls the details of that expenditure as well.
The money comes in labelled packages each with its own detailed prescription and set of rules.
Rules mean Whitehall knows best.
Whilst Whitehall checks its forms, questions the detail, imposes its remote perspective, it also creates delay, generates cost and, even worse, encourages a culture of drab conformity and stifled initiative.
I think we should breathe freedom into local authorities.
We should welcome the diversity of policies that would flow.
We started in the early eighties to link government grant to the after use of reclaimed land. By such linkage local authorities had to find private sector partners who in turn added more investment on land reclaimed at public expense.
City challenge was the logical next step.
Government grant was available for local authorities with the most attractive proposals involving local communities of up to 30,000 people and partnership across public and private sectors.
This simple idea made local authorities’ officials much more inclined to work together as a team as opposed to their traditional role as outpost of their sponsoring Whitehall department.
Times have moved on but the lessons remain.
I think that such ideas could be extended to cover whole authorities and not just parts of them.
Directly elected local leaders would prepare an overall plan for the administration and development of their authority.
The scale of central finance would relate to the quality and imagination it contained.
Local leaders would be rewarded for the vision they conceived, the partnerships they formed and the co-operation they secured at local level.
In any competitive allocation of funds not every authority would win.
Those that lost would have a choice.
Moan about the result or try harder next year.
I think they’ll try harder.
It worked with City Challenge.
It would work on a larger scale.
I understand the arguments about public accountability, but this should be the job of the Audit Commission. I do not believe that our public services are so well administered by the present rigid control that we should deny authorities the freedom to experiment, diversify, set their own priorities, design policies that reflect local needs as local people see them.
Our party places its faith in choice, initiative, individual responsibility. Why should we apply these inestimable human qualities only to the private sector?
We have to encourage the public sector to adopt similar attitudes and approaches.
The way to do that is to devolve responsibility not impose restraint.
I come to my last question. Why should a conservative government pay particular attention to the regeneration of our historic cities?
Cities are the great engines of our economy.
They can sustain the infinite variety of human talent upon which a sophisticated society depends.
They can educate and train a workforce without which investment drains away.
They provide choice and diversity in academia, the arts, culture, sport, entertainment and the quality of life.
They are the great centres of human enterprise and endeavour.
They were built on the enterprise of countless generations
As the party of enterprise we have so much to give.
But there is another answer to my question.
Just two words.
Someone once said to me “why do you bother with inner Liverpool? There are no votes for us there.”
No Tory can accept that.
I do not see this nation as packages of voters, some to be cherished, others discarded because they vote another way.
I do not pretend to know from which school some great academic originally came or from which part of society a world class entrepreneur may emerge.
I only know it is our responsibility to give to each and all the best start in life we can.
I believe passionately in the free enterprise system as a creator of wealth, but markets know no morality.
It is our responsibility, as it has been the tradition of our party throughout its long and distinguished history, to bring a balance to the books of life.
To recognise that, if we fail to educate our people, we will pay for their unemployment benefits or, worse, fill our prisons to overcrowding.
If we let large parts of our cities become the preserve of the low skilled, the elderly, the dependent, then have no doubt that one day society will pay the price of dereliction and decay.
We must fight to regain a place in our cities because by any standards I understand they will be better run if we do.
It is right to do so.
What is morally right cannot be politically wrong.”