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Profile Dermot Finch Urbane thinker

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15 July 2005

The director of the Centre for Cities is using skills honed at the Treasury to focus on the economic and commercial drivers of urban development. Will Hatchett reports

Life could have turned out so differently for Dermot Finch. In 1993, he was interviewed to be a casting director for Coronation Street. He chose instead to join the Treasury, where he worked for the next 11 years. He is now the director of the Centre for Cities, a think-tank funded from the deep pockets of science and innovation minister Lord Sainsbury.

The centre is hosted by the Institute for Public Policy Research.

Its mission is to stimulate research on ways to make UK cities more prosperous.

Another think-tank? Boring, you might conclude. Run by a former civil servant. Boring again. You would be wrong on both counts. Finch has an extraordinarily varied background, including spells as a thespian. The 37-year-old is from Clitheroe, Lancashire, where he attended a state grammar school. Both of his parents were French teachers. He studied modern history and politics at the University of Liverpool. His first job, taking him back to his family's northern Irish roots, was as a political science tutor at Queen's University Belfast, in 1989.

After that, he was appointed director of the Irish Student Drama Festival. 'I was running a team of about 50 students, raising sponsorship, putting on a week of productions, doing the media, balancing the books. It was fantastic,' he says.

Finch loves drama. He directed plays at both Liverpool and Queen's and took lead roles in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? He also likes to play the piano for relaxation – 'some classical stuff, film scores and a bit of Elton,' he says.

He studied politics because, as an eight-year-old, he had been a 'current affairs geek'. He would listen to the Today programme and compile his own books of news. But why would someone with such a background join the civil service?

He makes the move sound plausible. 'In a weird way,' he says, 'running the drama festival equipped me for what I did later on. When I took the civil service fast-stream interviews, the fact that I had done the festival impressed them. It was different and showed I was able to run something.'

But surely only Sir Humphrey types get to the top in Whitehall? Not at all, Finch insists. 'If you can demonstrate that you are good at running projects and have a bit of political nous, jobs come to you,' he says. 'Within a year of being in the Treasury, I was running a minister's private office.'

In 1996, Finch became private secretary to Michael Jack, financial secretary to the Treasury, in the dying days of John Major's administration. It was a 12-hours-a-day job, organising speeches and briefings and acting as an intermediary between the minister and officials. Then the general election came.

'I was in the minister's office on the Saturday after the election, when Gordon Brown was sitting down with senior Treasury officials figuring out how to make the Bank of England independent,' Finch says. 'I was rung up and told: "You've got Geoffrey Robinson, you'd better come in. He's a millionaire football chairman".'

Finch became private secretary to Robinson, who later, as paymaster general, was mired in scandal. In a few hectic weeks, Finch ran the team that put together Labour's windfall tax. His Treasury jobs over the next few years included working on the five tests for joining the European single currency, equity release for long-term care, and tax relief for social investment.

By 2001, Finch was first secretary for economic affairs in Washington. He says Chancellor Gordon Brown has an insatiable appetite for US ideas. Finch's task was to report back to the chancellor on state-level initiatives, including community colleges, volunteering, welfare-to-work programmes and affordable housing.

Each summer he also shepherded Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott around US cities, introducing him to the mayors of Chicago, Milwaukee and Washington. 'I really enjoyed working with Prescott,' he says. 'You could tell that he was lapping it up. He loved it. I think that he is misrepresented in the UK. In America, they appreciate a bit of straight talking and they really warmed to him.'

Finch describes himself as an 'amateur economist by osmosis'. His main skills, he says, have been in leading large teams on complex projects, talking to people on the ground and translating theories into workable policies.

The list of politicians and advisers he has worked with is impressive. As well as Brown and Prescott it includes Ed Balls and the two Milibands, Ed and David. However, he is anxious to point out that the Centre for Cities straddles both sides of the Blair–Brown divide and that it has a separate identity to the IPPR, which everybody connects closely with Tony Blair.

He says: 'You are probably better not being anybody's favourite think-tank, because things move quickly in politics.'

The Centre for Cities is based, with the IPPR, in smart offices in London's Covent Garden. It has eight staff but is set to double in size over the next year. Finch is not on a short-term contract, his job is permanent. He explains that Lord Sainsbury is passionate about cities but that he takes a hand's-off role: 'He is very interested in the contents of the projects. But, at the same time, he lets me get on with my job.'

The think-tank, Finch says, has commissioned three main strands of research, reporting next March. These are: who lives in city centres and why, what factors make businesses succeed, and how cities should be governed. The last of these, he believes, will make an important contribution to debates about city regions and elected executive mayors.

These debates, he says, are being driven by the Northern Way strategy and the core cities group – Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield. But perhaps they should slow down a bit. At the Core Cities Summit in Leeds on July 14–15, he was set to argue that policy makers should press the pause button on city regions and mayors. They should be more reflective, he suggests, looking at the strengths and weaknesses of regional development agencies and the growing potential of Local Area Agreements.

The Centre for Cities' research programme, he says, should help. 'By focusing on economic drivers, rather than traditional areas, such as housing and social inclusion, our research should give a better sense of what's going on,' he says. 'Nobody else is doing the work with an economic focus we are doing and nobody else is bridging the gap between the business community and the public policy community.'

He also planned to tell the summit that policy makers should look beyond the 'star performers' – Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool – and focus on smaller urban settlements. He says: 'I would love to see a place like Barnsley or Derby really put itself on the map. Everybody wants an urban tramway and a big steel and glass building.

'That's fine, but what is good for Halifax is not the same as what is good for Birmingham. The key thing, I think, is distinctiveness. Otherwise all cities will end up looking the same.'

How well is New Labour doing on urban policies? 'There is certainly a gap between the government's rhetoric on "new localism" and the reality,' he says tactfully. 'We want to firm up the case that says that if you devolve powers and responsibilities to a city level, people will make better decisions.

'If we can present that evidence to government – and that's what they are looking for – they will have no excuse not to go forwards and devolve.'

Will Hatchett is editor of Environmental Health News

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