Heseltine urges voters to say yes to city mayor plans

There was no mace-swinging from Tarzan on his visit to Tyneside this week, but Lord Heseltine had plenty to say.

Number one, there will be no quick fix for the North East's economic problems.

Number two, if you want to help yourselves, back plans for an elected mayor in Newcastle.

Of course, Hezza's heyday was in the '80s and '90s when his government's policies had a profound effect on the North East.

To his detractors, he's one of the Tory ministers that oversaw the destruction of traditional industries.

To his fans, he's the man who picked up the pieces and began the process of regeneration.

His role now is less central, but still significant. He chairs the government's £2 billion Regional Growth Fund, and decides on which businesses deserve its grants.

Slow recovery

When I met him at this week's North East Economic Forum in Gateshead, I was keen to get his view on what progress the coalition had made in its aim of rebalancing the economy and closing the north-south divide.

As a businessman himself, he admitted to being frustrated at the slow recovery.

But he believed the government was right to be concentrating first and foremost on getting the public finances back in the black.

He said: "I don't think anyone seriously believed a transformation would take place within 18 months of the government taking office - it inherited one hell of a mess.

"My own reading is that we are now beginning to see a more optimistic note on growth, but there isn't a quick fix, and it's a complete delusion to think there is.

"Politicians often like to think so, and the opposition in particular say they would be doing one thing or another, but it was the opposition politicians who got us into this mess in the first place."

Rising unemployment

He suspects things might get a little worse before they get better, but he doesn't believe it will be as bad as the 1980s.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Hezza in his heyday as Deputy Prime Minister in a Conservative government

He said: "There has been rising unemployment, and it may even go higher than it is now, but it's not been as harsh as people feared.

"There was a lot of talk of three million unemployed. We haven't got to that state, and it shows there has been a restructuring, to an extent, of the industry of the North East.

"But I don't want to give any impression that this is an easy time, or people are not suffering as a consequence.

"That is the price of the policies of reckless overspending that this government inherited."

Of course, Labour would and does dispute that.

David Miliband spoke at length at the economic forum about how the government had made a mistake by reining back so dramatically on public spending.

He said it must take the blame for a 19% rise in unemployment in the North East, and said Lord Heseltine's Regional Growth Fund was failing to make a difference because to date only a quarter of the grants had been paid out.

Lord Heseltine was robust on that issue though.

He said the process of handing grants was taking longer than he'd hoped, but he said some of the companies must share the blame for dragging their heels in providing the information needed to release the money.

But he said many of the schemes had started, and that the grants would make a difference.

Elected mayors

One thing he and David Miliband did agree on was the merits of having an elected mayor in Newcastle.

Voters decide in May whether to have mayors in Newcastle and England's other big cities.

Image caption David Miliband criticised the Regional Growth Fund but backed elected mayors in a speech via video link

David Miliband backed the idea at the economic forum, and Lord Heseltine certainly believes Newcastle should seize its opportunity.

He said: "I want to see the power of Newcastle enhanced, and indeed restored. Over a long time London has sucked the power out of the provincial cities.

"That's been dramatically thrown into perspective by Alex Salmond just over the border, who all the time is on television talking about Scotland.

"Everybody knows Alex Salmond speaks for Scotland, everyone knows Boris Johnson speaks for London. Who speaks for Newcastle?

"Nobody knows who leads Newcastle Council, except a very limited number of people here.

"The big cities have been hollowed out in terms of power and influence and what I'd like to see is people here elect someone to articulate Newcastle day and night.

"That someone will have an impact on London."

Image caption Lord Heseltine tells the North East Economic Forum that a Newcastle mayor could make a big difference

He expressed similar sentiments when he spoke to the forum formally - with a slightly uncomfortable looking Newcastle Council leader (Nick Forbes if you don't know his name) listening on.

In truth, the debate about whether Newcastle should have a mayor has yet to take off in the city. Opponents doubt that it will have the kind of impact Lord Heseltine talks about.

Instead they see it as expensive and potentially less democratic.

But for Hezza, mayors will be one of the factors that will help to turn round the economy in Newcastle and beyond.