CHIEF SECRETARY TRUSS ONE TO WATCH

 

TRUSS GETS THE DOWNTOWN MESSAGE.

My 40 years of covering ministerial visits to the North have left me a bit jaded. They are billed as opportunities for ministers to get out of the Westminster bubble and hear what “real people” are saying. One of two things then happen. Eager ministerial aides pack the programme with too many events so nobody has a satisfactory dialogue, or the dreaded call to Return to The Bubble comes and the event is cancelled or curtailed at the last minute.

This nearly happened this week when regional Conservatives, led by Knowsley businessman Tony Caldera, had set up an excellent visit to Merseyside by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Liz Truss. Luckily a call to return for a three-line whip didn’t materialise and Downtown was able to host a gathering of the leaders of the business community on Merseyside with a powerful Treasury Minister. Liz Truss has had a colourful career which perhaps contributed to the relaxed and frank way she handled questions at the Downtown event. At the end of the day the Treasury calls the shots and an hour with the Chief Secretary in listening and delivering mode was very useful.

The main message from Merseyside business was that the region was on the up. The local economy had grown by £30bn since 2010. Max Steinberg, chair of this year’s International Festival of Business, was in particularly upbeat mood. As he thrust festival publicity leaflets towards Ms Truss he announced that 13,000 delegates had already signed up for the event.

Mark Basnett told the meeting that the Local Enterprise Partnership had just received a further tranche of money this very week. Phil Redmond (Merseyfilm) was told by the Minister that she had been a fan of Grange Hill, before he stressed the need to refocus on the importance of the cultural economy ten years after Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture. Bringing Channel Four to Liverpool would help.

This week has seen Town Halls announcing big increases in council tax and the minister was pressed on this. Liz Truss believed the future lay in council’s funding themselves locally. A time when central government grant disappears isn’t far away.

The Minister had come armed with statistics showing the growth of the Mersey docks with most exports going to Europe. This provoked a flurry of questions on Brexit. Mark Povall from Liverpool Airport wanted reassurance on the very basic issue of whether the current freedom of the skies arrangements would continue with Europe. Airlines were having to plan for 2019.The Chief Secretary didn’t directly address the issue but said £3bn had been put aside for Brexit preparations.

Perhaps most interesting was the Minister’s observation about connectivity. We have just had yet another plan from Transport for the North (TfN) about what we want. She urged us to concentrate on intracity projects rather than the entire HS3. The thinking appears to be that the Treasury will back projects where there is intensive use (Liverpool-Manchester, Leeds-Manchester) but fast journeys across the whole North might not get the funding.

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BOTH SIDES SHOULD STOP THE EURO TRASH TALK

 

IDEAS FOR THE NORTH AFTER BREXIT.

 

It’s a shame that SAS (Strong and Stable) Theresa May and Jean Claude Juncker can’t stop the trash talking ahead of their Brexit fight. They should learn from the dignified approach of boxers Anthony Joshua and Wladimir Klitschko who avoided throwing chairs or making lurid threats against each other but delivered a huge success.

The UK government and the EU officials are as bad as each other. Mrs May’s ministers are adopting an arrogant and ignorant approach to the Brexit talks. But talk of bills escalating now to £100 bn from the European side can only serve to turn public opinion in Britain from a 52/48 divide to 60/40 for Leave. Very depressing.

If we do eventually leave, many questions about the future of the North will need to be answered. Among them are what is going to happen when we lose EU regional development funding and agricultural subsidies?

Common Futures Network (CFN) has been peering into the post Brexit world. It is an independent forum of economists, planners, housing experts, engineers and development interests.

In a report out this weekend they note that while Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have developed national frameworks, there is no equivalent for England. The report is right to say that the need to address the “English question” was demonstrated by the sharp divisions shown up last June between towns and big cities and the North and London. The destruction of the Regional Development Agencies and their replacement by hardly visible Local Enterprise Partnerships was exactly the wrong thing to do in my opinion.

The CFN report calls for a new regional development fund to replace the EU structural fund and for a comprehensive deal for England’s regions, in addition to its cities and city-regions. This is the right approach. This weekend newly elected city region mayors are starting their work in Merseyside and Greater Manchester. We must wait to see what they achieve and meanwhile turn our attention to the areas of the North outside these conurbations. The CFN report calls for a comprehensive rural programme, a need to identify new development areas to accommodate a population growth of 9 million by 2040 and a drive to manage the growth of the London megaregion.

Let’s hope the government has time to address these issues whilst it is arm wrestling Mr Juncker after the election.

CANDIDATES SLOTTING INTO PLACE.

Nominations close next week for the General Election and the parties have been rushing to choose candidates. Ironically it has been the Conservatives who’ve had most to do because their constituency chairs believed SAS Theresa May when she said there would be no election until 2020. Opposition parties feared she was fibbing and mostly selected candidates last autumn.

This week has seen Esther McVey become the candidate for Tatton. The constituency never fails to have a high-profile MP. Since Neil Hamilton was kicked out twenty years ago, he’s been followed by Martin Bell, George Osborne and now McVey. How her scouse vowels will go down in the leafy lanes of Knutsford remains to be seen.

 Wirral West has made an excellent choice in Knowsley businessman Tony Caldeira who will have no rest from the campaign trail after running for Liverpool City Region Mayor.

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WILL THE WHOLE NORTH GET DEVOLUTION ?

 

PATCHY ROLL OUT.

This week saw some significant developments in the roll out of devolution in Greater Manchester at least. It was always going to take a lot to fill the shoes of Sir Howard Bernstein, the retired Chief Executive of Manchester City Council, so it is no surprise that we now have two Chief Executives, Joanne Roney running the city and Eamonn Boylan the Combined Authority(CA).

I was in the new CA headquarters on Oxford Street last week and reflected that exactly 43 years ago I walked into County Hall on Portland Street, the Greater Manchester Council’s new HQ. In 1974, It was felt it was a good idea to have a strategic authority for the whole county. After a costly abolition in 1986, we are now back to square one in some ways, although having an elected mayor may make it different.

While the devolution band wagon is visible in the Greater Manchester and Liverpool city regions, elsewhere in the North the roll out is patchy and incoherent with a great deal of uncertainty about how far meaningful devolution will extend beyond the Liverpool and Manchester City Regions. Lord Porter, the Tory chair of the Local Government Association thinks devolution is dead because the government has encountered petty squabbling in areas of two tier local government or opposition to the concept of elected mayors in more rural areas.

That is an extreme view. Whilst it is true that Brexit is a major distraction in all departments and that the Communities Secretary Sajid Javid remains in an inactive sulk having been moved from his role as Business Secretary, there was enough energy and ideas at the recent NP conference in Manchester to convince me that the project is not dormant. But if business outside the Manchester and Liverpool City Regions want similar packages they need to knock politicians heads together across the rest of the North.

A RAGGED PICTURE.

Leeds is the greatest underperformer so far. This great city should have been electing a mayor this May with a full devolution deal. Disputes with some surrounding authorities have prevented this and the latest idea for a mayor for a Yorkshire wide body across three combined authorities looks set for a ministerial veto as it would need new parliamentary legislation. Sheffield isn’t having a mayoral poll this year either. This is partly because of a row with Derbyshire over whether Chesterfield could be included in a new South Yorkshire authority even though it has no border with it.

Now we come to the town of Warrington which recently flirted with the idea of joining the Liverpool City Region. That would have scuppered the idea of bringing the town together with the two Cheshire councils in a powerful authority at the southern end of the North West. The Merseyside dalliance is now over and Warrington council leader Terry O,Neill is hoping for a devolution deal this summer. However, a new constellation has entered the Cheshire scene…literally. A grouping of Cheshire’s two councils and the Local Enterprise Partnership have come together with six Staffordshire authorities under the Constellation Partnership. They’re starry eyed about the economic potential of the HS2 hub around Crewe. However, the idea of an elected mayor may be a sticking point once again.

Lancashire has suffered for years from having sixteen councils, thirteen districts, two unitaries and the county council. The leader of Lancashire Council, Jennifer Mein, is the equivalent of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the sense that she has used calm and wise leadership to try and bring all the parties together. Wyre Council has stood out against a deal for a long time and Fylde has now joined them. A devolution deal will have to await the result of the closely contested county election next month.

Elections are also due this summer in Cumbria where the idea of an elected mayor for this largely rural county has been a stumbling block. Relations between the districts and county are not good with talk of a combined authority being formed without Cumbria County Council’s involvement.

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HOUSING ROW EXPOSES DEMOCRATIC DEFICIT IN GREATER MANCHESTER

 

 

CITY REGION NEEDS DIRECTLY ELECTED REPRESENTATIVES.

 

Andy Burnham is right. The Greater Manchester Spatial Framework (GMSF) has been top down rather than bottom up. This dry sounding document is set to make serious inroads into the greenbelt in the county for housing development.

One needs to take into account the rampant opportunism that most politicians display ahead of elections; that said the dismay of three of the candidates standing for elected mayor of the Manchester City Region over the housing plan is notable.

There were widespread demonstrations as the consultation period closed with claims that people were unaware of what was being proposed.

There has been an opportunity to put viewpoints on line and there have been drop in sessions across Greater Manchester for people to state their case. However, many feel that the exercise was cosmetic and a product of the Combined Authority, a body mainly consisting of the ten leaders of the councils in the area.

Will the elected mayor change this perception? Will the new post herald an era where there is full democratic debate on issues like housing, the congestion charge and health? The jury is out but talk of making the elected mayor “the eleventh member of the family” suggests that Manchester City Council in particular will want to prevent the elected mayor being truly independent. The model is flawed. District council leaders sit on the Combined Authority with no direct mandate from the people. The Local Enterprise Partnerships are business organisations and strategic bodies like Transport For The North do not open their meetings to the public.

Real devolution requires politicians directly elected for the purpose of making big decisions on housing, transport, skills and health. We have Police Commissioner elections in an area of policy where there is little controversy. Why can’t debate over issues like greenbelt and hospitals be argued back and forth in election campaigns for a regional or sub regional assembly?

There need not be more politicians, the number of district councillors could be cut (Manchester has 96) and replaced with directly elected assembly people.

CENTRE LEFT CIVIL WAR CONTINUES.

I went to the Fabian conference in London last week to see if there was any sign of the Greens, Lib Dems and the anti Corbyn forces getting their act together. I was once more disappointed as they continue to rearrange the deckchairs on the Titanic.

Amidst self indulgent in fighting, there were small signs that thinking is being done about local deals to allow the strongest of the opposition parties in a particular area to fight the Tories. But mostly people remained in their trenches with the Greens being attacked by Labour for standing a candidate in Copeland where the issue of nuclear power is a key one in the by election.

One red faced Labour purist, Luke Akehurst of Labour First claimed the Lib Dems should pay the price for many elections for going into coalition with the Tories in 2010 rather than support a rainbow coalition under Gordon Brown. Supporting him was Johanna Baxter of Scottish Labour saying she would never work with the SNP. It didn’t seem to occur to them that the rainbow coalition would have needed SNP support to make it remotely stable.

At the same conference, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn made a better speech. He’s hired John Prescott’s son apparently as a writer. Consequently, it had more North of England references than north London for a change. His theme that the system is rigged against ordinary people has potential.

 

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