Whether it’s the power to direct the skills agenda that would best benefit northern business or yet another report recommending northern rail between Manchester and Leeds (HS3), there a feeling abroad that devolution is a half-hearted business as far as the government is concerned.

That feeling emerged from two excellent Downtown in Business events that I attended this week, along with another one in Manchester looking forward to next week’s MIPIM gathering in Cannes and the sub regional mayor’s forthcoming crucial spatial strategy.

First up was the event with the two sub regional mayors. Andy Burnham has several frustrations. The Greater Manchester mayor believes the English regions are being ignored by the government in the Brexit talks. He wants HS2 and HS3 built at the same time but is dealing with organisations like Highways England and Network Rail that are not accountable locally.

Finally, Burnham thinks the Department for Education are as much use as a chocolate teapot when it comes to the skills agenda.

Steve Rotheram, mayor of the Liverpool City Region, shared the Downtown platform with Burnham and shares his frustration over the skills agenda. Both men want a clear pathway for youngsters who choose not to go to university, to access the vocational training that will lead to good jobs without student debt round their necks.

Burnham claimed that the lack of skills meant £40,000 computer coding jobs were going unfilled in Manchester but youngsters in Oldham and Rochdale weren.t being given the vision to apply for them.

The route to university is clear but the vocational path is not, and the Department for Education is to blame, according to the mayors because they are not in touch with local needs.

And in case Whitehall believes this is a Labour winge, apparently Tory West Midlands mayor Andy Street is equally critical.

The mayors should be given control of post 16 education.


At least Manchester and Liverpool have devolution deals, the already chaotic picture in Lancashire went from bad to worse this week when Pendle announced it wanted to break away from Lancashire and the Northern Powerhouse Minister, Jake Berry, opined that it would be a good idea.

Geoff Driver, the Conservative leader of Lancashire, was not amused. It is a distraction from his efforts to try to get the county to unite around a devolution proposal that would be lead by whoever was leader of Lancashire County Council. Driver told the Downtown lunch that it had to be that way. The county’s budget was £750m compared to a district council like South Ribble that was administering £13m.

His economic case is sound, but I fear that the districts will not agree to county leadership in this form. It might work if there was a leader of the Lancashire Combined Authority that could be from anywhere presiding over a Cabinet that was weighted to reflect the heft of the county council.


This is another area unlikely to agree a devolution deal. Meanwhile Warrington itself goes from strength to strength. It is determined not to be overwhelmed by its proximity to the Manchester and Liverpool sub regions.

Business networking that is commonplace in the cities, has been piecemeal in Warrington….till now. Let’s welcome The Business Exchange by Warrington&Co which will see events and get togethers with the lively group of entrepreneurs in the town


Perhaps Warrington will soon be represented at MIPIM, the world’s property market, which meets in Cannes next week. Downtown hosted a preview of the event in Manchester which has had a presence at the resort for years. Simon Bedford of Deloitte and Tom Higgins of Laing O’ Rourke said the key value of MIPIM was that people there had time to network with each other and while final deals weren’t necessarily done, the initial approaches were certainly made on millions of pounds of property deals.

The panellists also gave their observations on the Greater Manchester economy that they said was buoyant despite Brexit doubts. Tom Higgins suggested that the London market had become saturated and investors were keen to put their money into the city centre. It was agreed that if families were going to be attracted to town centre living, councils would have a big part o play in providing schools and health centres.

Homes would need to be affordable, but land values were shooting up. Would home buyers benefit from streamlined off site house building methods? We’ll see.

There was recognition that the picture outside the city centre was more stressed with high streets suffering from the retail crisis brought on by on-line shopping.

Andy Burnham’s spatial strategy, expected shortly, would need to address the needs of Bolton, Rochdale, Stockport etc.

So, the current comment on devolution and the Northern Powerhouse is that progress is patchy.

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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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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.


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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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.


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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