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Action zones for health, education and housing had degenerated into places 'where civil servants can experiment with a hundred whacky ideas', Matthew Taylor told the conference.

'They have been one of the disappointments of this government,' he said. 'The experience of most people in zones is that you get even more circulars and guidance than before.

'We need to return to what the Americans mean when they talk about zones - which is creative, innovative spaces free from government interference.'

His concerns were echoed by Su Maddock of Manchester Business School, who said it had become increasingly clear that change pioneered in health action zones was being excluded from the mainstream management agenda.