UK: Political managers, Michael Heseltine - A corporate plan for councils - Rewarding efficient borough ...

UK: Political managers, Michael Heseltine - A corporate plan for councils - Rewarding efficient borough ... - Political managers, Michael Heseltine - A corporate plan for councils - Rewarding efficient borough councils and directly helping small business

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Political managers, Michael Heseltine - A corporate plan for councils - Rewarding efficient borough councils and directly helping small businesses should be as key an issue for this government as it was for the last.

One bonus that membership of the House of Commons brings is that you do not have to pay for the tidal flow of paperwork that this government produces. Sadly, as a taxpayer, like all of you, I do.

Two reports of particular interest to me arrived recently. The first purported to sort out our inner cities and the second heralded a new deal for small businesses. The first point to make is that, two years after the much-anticipated new world that was to follow the general election, it is apparent that there is no new way at all.

The Rogers report, presided over by one of Britain's most prestigious modern architects, is little more than a catalogue of all the ideas that had been pioneered under the previous government. Nothing wrong with that, as it was under the governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major that this country developed a comprehensive approach to these profound historic problems.

You will note that I did not say we solved those problems. What we did was to prove how those problems could be solved over time and with sufficient resolve and resource.

If John Prescott had asked his officials on day one to list the ideas on offer, he would have had the Rogers report two years ago and at a fraction of the cost. What the Government and this report have failed to address is how we move from where we were when it was elected to where we have to reach.

There are three essential preconditions to progress. We need the right framework to facilitate the necessary change; we have to put in place people with the power to lead it; and we have to drive though a change of culture that will free local government to take initiatives while at the same time restraining the endemic instinct of Whitehall to stop them.

That change of culture will be brought about only by insisting that local authorities work closely with the private sector and become in the future as occupied by output measurements as they are today with focusing on the levels of expenditure.

The simplest analogy with management practice in the private sector is to insist on a corporate plan, the appointment of a chief executive to drive it and to apply age-old techniques of competition to achieve the best value for money.

I am back to my familiar theme that we should have directly elected mayors in the large urban unitary authorities, properly paid and freed from the suffocations of the cloying process and snail-like procedures of endless committee meetings. Central government must then reward the best-achieving authorities with additional resources, provided that they can demonstrate both the intention to raise standards and the ability to do so - and to do so in ways that draw in the resources of the private and voluntary sectors to add to the taxpayers' support.

Of course, such a culture shift will provoke an outcry. Whitehall's officialdom will go spare at the thought of some go-ahead authority providing better ways to progress than those outlined in the never-ending flow of dictats through which local government is so closely controlled.

The baronies of power in local government will be fearful that a wilful leader will reorder priorities and in doing so upset some fad or theory that is dear to their conventional hearts. Bad authorities will fear that they will lose out. Good. They should. Nothing will make them improve faster.

The Government's proposal for small businesses also represents more of a continuum than a new start. I created the Business Links as a vehicle for the delivery of a growing range of services for the small company.

There is a huge competitiveness gap between too many of our SMEs and their overseas peers. This is going to intensify with the coming of the euro as a range of competitive pressures sweeps across the increasingly visible single market, leaving great numbers of our companies floundering, having been lulled into a false complacency by the insidious anti-European propaganda of the likes of the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph.

What the Government is now proposing is that the officials presently advising ministers on a wide range of matters affecting SMEs should be brigaded into a new quango. This quango will then be responsible for administering the Business Links and pushing the advisory services and grant mechanisms of government out through the chain.

The delicate balance that the quango will have to strike is that between allowing sufficient local initiative and discretion without permitting inadequate standards to be tolerated at the point of delivery.

The Government should be warned against the voices urging it to let the local people run the service as they believe best. That is where we came in. The Chamber of Commerce movement has much improved, but it was the inadequate performance of the chambers in the early 1980s that led to the creation of the TECs and the Business Links in the first place. There must be no going back. Of course we could go forward. We could move to public law status.

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