IS DEVOLUTION DRIVE SLOWING TO A STANDSTILL?

 

 

BACK IN YOUR BOX!

The government’s commitment to devolving power to the North was the subject of sharp disagreement amongst top speakers during the first week of the International Festival of Business in Liverpool.

Lord Heseltine said it was a casualty of Brexit and Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham said he felt the government was putting him “back in the box”. However, the Conservative Mayor of the West Midlands begged to differ. Andy Street told the audience of business people, he didn’t feel that he is being put back in any sort of box and, with the help of the private sector, the Midlands Engine was roaring with 12,000 housing starts and half a billion from the government to clear brownfield sites.

These exchanges came on a day when the Festival had lined up an impressive range of guests to discuss urban policy. Five English mayors joined forces to renew their call to demand greater devolution of powers particularly concerning apprenticeship funds.

The government’s Apprenticeship Levy Scheme is intended to fund new apprenticeships through a levy of 0.5% on the wage bill of large employers. It raises £3bn a year and is meant to pay for apprenticeships. However, over a billion is languishing in Treasury coffers according to Andy Burnham and the most recent figures show apprenticeships dropping!

The main challenge for these mayors is economic improvement, so what have they achieved in their first year. They are often dealing with strategic issues that don’t yield instant results. For instance, Steve Rotheram (Liverpool City Region) said his priorities were ultrafast broadband and the green energy coast around Liverpool Bay. Andy Burnham (Greater Manchester) saw the need for quick “retail” wins like a free bus pass for 16-18-year olds.

There are to be new regional industrial strategies for Greater Manchester and the West Midlands, but not elsewhere apparently. This is evidence of the piecemeal approach being adopted by the government and whilst Sir Howard Bernstein continued to criticise the Regional Development Agency structure at the Downtown Festival conference, the fact remains that it had the advantage of being coherent across the country.

MALE AND PALE.

All English city region mayors are male, and, except for London’s Sadiq Khan who attended the Festival this week, they are all white. So, theatre director Jude Kelly returned to the city of her birth to decry this state of affairs. She uttered a profound truth about the regeneration and devolution debate, that it seems to almost exclusively interest blokes. That is so correct. I attend far more conferences on this subject than is good for me and the absence of woman, and even more, the ethnic communities is so striking.

Kelly said this would only change through education and the use of female role models to inspire young women to take an interest in engineering, regeneration and devolution.

Andy Burnham opined that at least the mayoral model was rid of the petty point scoring of Westminster which he was happy to leave behind.

No time was given by the moderator for the audience to ask any questions, which was unfortunate. I would have asked if the Labour or Conservative Party would consider all women shortlists for the next round of contests in 2020.

There was evidence of international interest in the Festival, particularly from China. It has two more weeks to run which is shorter than previous Festivals, but I picked up a feeling that the next one could be consolidated into one intensive week of high quality events. That said, congratulations are due to Max Steinberg and his team for bringing the world of business to Liverpool.

 

LIVERPOOL OUTPACING MANCHESTER GROWTH ?

 

 

MAYOR LAYING THE FOUNDATIONS.

 

After my last two blogs on the Greater Manchester economy which took a bullish view of the conurbation’s growth; it is time to look at the surprising claim that Merseyside is outpacing its neighbour.

In the run up to the International Festival of Business, I am looking at the economic prospects of our three city areas, including Preston which I will review next week.

City Metric, a New Statesman magazine urban website, claims that over the last twenty years Liverpool has grown faster than any other city apart from London, Edinburgh and Cardiff. The reasons for this range from the fact that it started from a low base, benefitted from the legacy of Capital of Culture 2008, built the Echo Arena and opened the 42 acres of Liverpool One shopping. In addition, the sub region has seen an influx of students, land is affordable, and it has received  over £2bn in European aid. Whether Whitehall will be as generous in the post Brexit era is a question for another day.

Responsibility for strategic economic growth in the Liverpool City Region rests on the shoulders of Mayor Steve Rotheram. A former bricklayer he helped Joe Anderson win the city for Labour in 2010 before reluctantly becoming an MP. He told a recent Downtown event that he thought the parliamentary procedure book called Erskine May, was a girl! Despite having little enthusiasm for the old-fashioned procedures of parliament he did remarkable work on the Hillsborough justice campaign and became parliamentary aide to Jeremy Corbyn despite voting for Andy Burnham for leader.

Both he and Andy Burnham quit Westminster to take up the mayoral conurbation jobs and work closely together. They are both demanding more power to make their economies work. They are particularly frustrated that they have no direct power over organisations like Network Rail or the Highways Agency(HA).

It seems the HA is aware of the growing complaints of the mayors. Tim Gamon, Regional Delivery Director for Highways England, recently claimed his organisation was conducting more consultation than ever before on eight major road improvement schemes across the North West. These include finishing the M60 smart motorway project, improving connections between the M67 at Hyde and the MI at Sheffield, to better links to Fleetwood and the Rimrose Valley project to upgrade links between the Port of Liverpool and the motorway network.

The mayors probably back these schemes but have little power over what they see as unaccountable national agencies. The mayors claim the North will always suffer from the Treasury’s Benefit Cost Ratio formula which favours the South East because of its huge commuter population and high land values.

Even with the good news on growth, the Liverpool City Region suffers from low skills. Rotheram says he’d like to get his hands on £1.28bn that lies unspent in the apprenticeship levy pot.

Future economic targets for the Mayor include bringing the Spanish train builder Talgo to St Helens, and progress on the Mersey Barrage.

Rotheram has less power than Andy Burnham who includes NHS spending in his portfolio as well as police and fire. The complication for Rotheram is that his region includes Halton which is under Cheshire for police and fire. Consequently, when Jane Kennedy stands down as Police and Crime Commissioner(PCC) for the Liverpool City Region, she will have to be replaced as Halton has a different PCC.

Tensions between Joe Anderson, the city mayor, and Rotheram at the region, seem to be easing, allowing the hope that both Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City Region can prosper. But what about Preston?

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MANCHESTER SAFE FROM RETAIL TURMOIL ?

 

 

TOWNS FACE RETAIL CRISIS.

If anyone was in any doubt that our town and suburban retail areas face a massive challenge, the decision of Marks and Spencer to close 100 stores will concentrate minds. M&S are the anchor tenants in so many smaller towns, pulling people in who then shop at other stores. From St Helens and Birkenhead to Bolton and Altrincham some big thinking is going to be needed. Solutions may lie in converting shops to affordable homes and creating community hubs with mini cinemas and meeting spaces.

Meanwhile it looks as if Manchester is going to be immune from all this as I continue my survey of our North West urban economies in the run up to the International Festival of Business next month.

MANCHESTER ON A ROLL

I’ve been listening to the leading people helping to shape the conurbation’s future. People like Manchester’s Strategic Director Eddie Smith who says developers are now giving a much higher priority to the housing needs of potential employees when deciding on location. With some evidence of developer saturation in the South East, Smith points to the area’s 250,000 undergraduates and 50,000 graduates as a big pool of talent.

There are some clouds on Manchester’s horizon. In the area of housing there is growing criticism by some Labour councillors of the lack of affordable homes in the city centre. This is likely to grow as I detect a determination among city planners and the political leadership to capitalise on luxury flats in the city centre and develop affordable homes outside in the suburbs.

In the vital area of broadband, city chiefs privately describe them as “crap”, and the air quality issues are widely known.

SALFORD: CAR PARK NO MORE.

Salford has a vital part to play in the success of the “Manchester” city centre. The Irwell is the unattractive and largely irrelevant boundary between the two cities and Salford is involved in extensive development right up against the river whether it be in The Crescent area or Greengate, the forgotten area between Trinity Way and Manchester Cathedral where two thousand apartments are planned. Better known is the development of Media City where a further billion pounds of investment is planned. In the words of a key officer “the council is determined to end the perception of east Salford’s as a car park for Manchester city centre.”

In the final part of my look at the Manchester economy next week, I’ll be reporting on what some younger developers are up. They have exciting ideas about making office and housing developments interesting and different. I’ll also look at the huge economic engine that is Manchester University.

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MANCHESTER: A YOUNG CITY

 

 

ECONOMIC SURVEY PART 1

 

First, congratulations to all my colleagues, past and present, who have contributed to 15 years of success for Downtown in Business.

In the run up to the International Festival of Business in Liverpool I’m going to be taking an in depth look at the business prospects of our three great cities, Liverpool, Preston and Manchester.

My interest in doing this was stimulated by a report this week claiming that Liverpool’s economy was growing faster than Manchester’s. I read it as I was about to meet with the leading movers and shakers of the Manchester economy. We can reach some conclusions at the end of the series of blogs, but just to say for now, Manchester is buzzing and perhaps the truth is that both of the large cities have a bright future despite Brexit. In Preston’s case we’ll be looking at the “keep it local” model which is attracting national attention.

But first to Manchester where Eddie Smith, the city’s Strategic Director, exudes vision and optimism. He has been in post a long time and remembers the challenges around the turn of the century to deal were to deal with jobs and office e accommodation. Since 2010 the drive has been to make Manchester a place where people want to live because the city is getting younger and there is an imperative to keep the graduates spilling out of the city’s excellent universities.

Future planning for the city, and conurbation more widely, will become clearer this summer with the opening of the review of Manchester’s local plan for the next fifteen years. Transport for Greater Manchester will publish their plans towards 2040. Finally, the Mayor of Greater Manchester will publish his revised spatial plan. The latter sounds dry and dull but is highly controversial as it involves housing and the green belt. When he came into office, Andy Burnham didn’t like the plan he inherited, and we will see what reaction he gets to the revised options.

The major infrastructure issue for the centre of Manchester now is Piccadilly station. It is due to be the hub for HS2 and the Northern Powerhouse rail link to Leeds. In the neglected area around the station, there is the prospect of 60,000 if the whole redevelopment benefits from the sort of central government vision and funding that has been invested in King’s Cross in London. There Eurostar, the London tube, national and local rail services converge in a spectacular station. The area around King’s Cross that was once a haven for sex workers and drug dealers has been transformed. Manchester wants a similar response from government for Piccadilly station, but ministers remain to be convinced.

Around the conurbation there are significant growth points in Salford (more on that next week), and airport city. Smith draws our attention to developments in Wythenshawe. It is already benefitting from the prospect of an HS2 station at the airport with Vodaphone and Virgin Media increasing their investment in an area long associated with unemployment.

In a week when Manchester City paraded their Premiership trophy through the streets, regeneration continues around the Etihad Stadium. The world’s first sports business park is being developed and 15,000 houses are planned out towards Collyhurst.

Next week I’ll be looking at developer interest in Manchester, the Salford story, and young entrepreneurs innovative approach to housing and office development.

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