Déjà vu in Yorkshire on government spending

A sound bite I heard on the radio news this week from a government minister announcing a new initiative to promote regional economic growth sent me 17 years back in time.

Greg Clark, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury and Minister for Cities, said how important it is for economic growth that local people take control of public spending in their areas.

It was virtually a word-for-word repeat of a short clip from an interview I recorded for the BBC with Richard Caborn back in 1995.

'Unaffordable quangos'

At the time Richard Caborn was the MP for Sheffield Central and an influential voice in the economic policies being put together by the relatively new Labour leader Tony Blair.

After Labour swept to power a couple of years later nine Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) were set up across England with their own budgets so decisions on how the money could be used to drive growth could be business-led and local.

Yorkshire Forward, the Leeds-based RDA, finished up with a budget approaching three quarters of a billion pounds and a staff running into hundreds.

The RDAs were one of the first casualties of the incoming coalition government's spending cuts and its drive against what many Conservatives dismissed as "unaffordable quangos".

So is this another chance for the opposition to wag their fingers at a coalition economic U-turn?

New or recycled?

Well, as with all government announcements throughout modern political history, it is always a "new initiative" even if it does sound like the embarrassing recycling of a previously discarded policy.

This latest attempt at devolving power and spending away from Whitehall comes as a result of Lord Heseltine's report "No Stone Unturned" commissioned by the Chancellor George Osborne and published just before Christmas.

There are significant differences between the Heseltine approach and the former Labour government's RDAs.

Firstly, the word "regional" is never used. The power and the budgets would be administered "locally" by the 39 business-led Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) set up as a "more efficient" replacement for RDAs by the incoming coalition government. .

Secondly, the LEPs will not have what was dismissed by Conservative politicians in particular during the 2010 General Election as the "bloated" budgets of the old RDAs.

Déjà vu again?

The plan is for each of the LEPs to be allocated £500,000 to draw up a strategic plan for growth. In 2015 the government will then put all the money it currently spend in the regions into a "single local growth fund" which will allocate funding based on the individual plans.

Another bit of déjà vu for me. Back in 1994 I reported on the then Conservative government's launch of a similar combined pot of public spending which was to be administered by locally-based civil servants.

Anybody remember the Single Regeneration Budget? Thought not.