7. TALKING TO THE MAYORS
Following their invitation to produce this report, I have had the
privilege to talk candidly with each of the six mayors of England’s
first new Combined Authorities. Their reflections have crisscrossed
the relationship between formal powers, strategic ambitions, local
politics and the frustrations of central control. Each story is different.
But there are many common themes that relate to my own experience
of city regeneration. This chapter draws on these common themes
as a basis for the recommendations that follow. As I contemplated
my interviews with the six mayors of England’s new Combined
Authorities for this report, I thought back to 1979 when, as the
new Secretary of State for the Environment, I wished to tackle the
dereliction of 6000 acres of East London. My plan involved a serious
intervention into, and diminution of, the responsibilities of local
government. On those grounds, my civil servants were opposed. It
was a massive intervention into the local economy. On that ground,
Keith Joseph was opposed. It would cost money. My friend Geoffrey
Howe threw the weight of the Treasury against me. Only Margaret
Thatcher supported me – but one was enough.
Three years later, I was seriously concerned that I had very little
evidence on the ground to demonstrate any success for the policy.
I called Sir Nigel Broackes, the very experienced private sector
chairman, and asked for an explanation. Legislation, planning
permission, architects and consultation don’t add up to a credible
political excuse. He offered to paint historic churches if I felt that
would make my defence easier. I was far from satisfied.
This memory remains with me. As I went to talk to them, the
mayors had been in office for a short time and they face re-election
campaigns in the upcoming years. I decided to put this point upfront.
There was ready agreement that, for them, the strategic opportunities
were essentially long term. It will take a decade to demonstrate
conclusively what a difference the new-found ability to draw
together and coordinate the policies and programmes that Whitehall
compartmentalises into functional disciplines.