Like buses, my big beasts of the British political jungle came in a pair on Wednesday, at two of my associations, the Hansard Society on parliamentary reform and the Mile End Group on contemporary history. They’re two bodies where you get to find out what’s moving. Jack Straw, fresh from his Lords reform proposals, joined a great meeting to discuss Law in the Making, the influences brought to bear on the legislative process. Here are the headlines of themes which should stretch to Stormont:
Legislative plans should be scrutinised better before, during and after they become an Act.
Much of the key work is done more and more by committees.
The media are only interested in policy at its formation; usually, they give up monitoring changes as Bills pass through their stages.
Should Parliament adopt a deliberative model ( discussion until agreement is reached, sometimes using the internet and video conferencing ) to replace the current adversarial model (Punch ‘n Judy Prime Minister’s Questions)
The “internet gap” needs to be filled with a more sophisticated following- though of legislation, sometimes allowing interest groups and the public to intervene.
These are themes in my own small way, I’ve been banging on about in Westminster circles for years. I’ve a feeling they’ll still be banging on about them
long after I’ve gone..
But my spirits were lifted by a great performance of political showmanship in a glass palace down at Canary Wharf.. Michael Heseltine, Hezza, Tarzan, retired but not retiring, brought a little court of senior planners with him to celebrate an anniversary of the Canary Wharf project that regenerated 6,000 acres of the old London docks and transformed the mood of the London of the late 80s from decline to hope. More than anything, it was his energy and vision that got it going – along with political cunning and a few jokes.
“In Britain, we don’t do visions; but I told Margaret that down there, the local councillors were all Communists – and the idea was sold.”
As a young minister in the 70s, he wanted to take over the South Bank opposite Westminster “which looked APPALLING and still is appalling. But by 1979 when I joined the Cabinet, it was too late. So I flew over the docklands, derelict since 1967, and I was HORRIFIED”.
The breakthrough happened in 1981, after the Toxteth riots in Liverpool. “ You can’t leave the problem to the police, there’s something more going on.” So he took time out of his department, caught the train to Liverpool with a bunch of civil servants and started work.
“There was no local leadership. Everybody looked upwards to Whitehall and not across at each other.” My big idea, commonplace today but REVOLUTIONARY at the time was partnerships between government and industry. Even in Liverpool we had one and a half private pounds to one public pound.”
Canary Wharf was the Big One. £400 million a year spent on 6,000 acres, but the public money was kept within his department’s budget.
His only regret was not having the “guts” to include south of the Thames, except for the project that became the Dome, “which” he added defiantly, “ has become one of the great venues of Europe and is regenerating Greenwich!”
The future is his massive Thames Gateway project, “ the biggest in Europe if not the world.”
According to one of the project team accompanying him, spending on the Lea Valley is only £70 million a year and with little to show for it, compared with Canary Wharf’s £400 million – delivering a result which employs over 100,000 people and is itself a bigger financial centre than Frankfurt.
“We have lost the sense of scale that it takes to make a transformation.”
Canary Wharf keeps moving on. Next week the Crossrail Bill becomes an Act at last, to build under London a whole new connector railway linking the main termini. A planning application goes into the local council next week for a massive Canary Wharf station, a glass and wooden set of great bubbles like the Eden Project in Cornwall, designed – wouldn’t you know – by Norman Foster.
In spite of myself, Heseltine on form made me want to cheer. A man for the grand projects. An ageing pol who you feel, could still rise to the challenge, and yes, with a ego to match.
Any lessons for Northern Ireland in the Heseltine experience? Much excellent public housing since the eighties, commercial development since the nineties, some of it impressive, some fortress-style- ghastly, and now Titanic Quarter. All are achievements to scale. But the Maze languishes, a political victim, with costs soaring, according to one close observer, Ed Curran in the Belfast Telegraph.
Would they ever dare to hire Hezza to sort it out?