The days of John Prescott thumping the table and demanding power for the North are long gone according to the people now in charge of devolution. Instead of the Hull bruiser we have the softly spoken Nick Forbes, the leader of Newcastle Council and his friend with the money, Nigel Wilson. He’s North East born Nigel Wilson, Chief Executive of Legal and General.

These gents were the keynote speakers at the first Convention of the North held in Gateshead last week. They were full of optimism with Forbes keen to stress that we can do a lot of things for ourselves without being reliant on central government. Wilson claimed there was plenty of private sector money waiting to be invested in projects in the North.

When I questioned these speakers, I ended up feeling a bit Eeyoreish because my view was that this Convention was being held at a difficult time for devolution and the Northern Powerhouse (NP).

Most people in the North voted to leave the EU. This wasn’t just an expression of disillusion with Brussels, but Westminster too. But convincing people to have faith in northern powerhouses and conventions is proving difficult. People take little interest in the structures of government. This perhaps explains why the, once a year Convention, has not put in place a representative assembly as suggested by some.

But the other reason why devolution has a bad name at the moment is the sclerotic rail and road system in the North. Over three years ago connectivity was identified as the top priority for the NP, linking up the major cities of the north that enjoyed proximity but were poorly connected. The dreadful experience of people this summer on the trains has left many people asking if northern devolution means anything.

The Convention for the North aims to give a voice to the whole area from the Scottish Border to the Humber and Mersey. The NP tended to focus on the cities only. Civic leaders, and representatives of business, the unions and civil society stakeholders came to Gateshead for this purpose.

But the approach is to be cautious. Cllr Forbes told me the Convention would not be a vehicle for whingeing to the government about how bad things are in the north. “We can do it for ourselves” the leader of Newcastle told me.

But can they? The conference documents were littered with reform the Convention wants and only the government can grant. Reform of the Apprenticeship Levy, sharing regional funds that currently come from the EU and more transport powers to name but a few.

It is true that Sir Howard Bernstein and Sir Richard Leese gained many powers for Greater Manchester by a cooperative approach to Whitehall. But crucially they had a sympathetic person at the highest level of government sitting across the table in the shape of Chancellor George Osborne.

Cllr Forbes and his colleagues are facing a government distracted by Brexit and, if anything, prioritising the Midlands Engine.

However, the Convention of the North is in place. Let us hope the private sector step up to the plate with investment that used to come from London and let us also hope that promises made in Gateshead to make all this relevant to ordinary people are fulfilled.

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Business people are rightly sceptical when politicians propose setting up new tiers of governance. But at a convention in Gateshead next week a Council of the North is expected to be set up comprising six combined authorities, three county councils and 10 unitary authorities.

The idea is to give a collective voice to the partial devolution that has taken place in most parts of the area stretching from the Scottish border to Crewe and Hull.

The issues to be discussed are important to business, transport, skills, health, advanced manufacturing, energy, trade and investment. It will be essential that business people are closely involved and that the Council of the North does not just become a talking shop for the usual suspects of council leaders and mayors.

Since the clear framework of Regional Development Agencies and the Northern Way was scrapped in 2010, the government has proceeded with a dog’s dinner of Local Enterprise Partnerships, elected mayors and Combined Authorities. However, this is what we have to work with now and a Council of the North will hopefully help bring some coherence to it all as it speaks to London.

There is also to be a Northern Citizens’ Assembly. It is very important that people have a sense of ownership of devolution, but the politicians must listen to them. Let us hope it is a diverse Assembly. Devolution gatherings generally attract the male and pale.


The Council of the North’s task will be complicated by the slow progress in completing Combined Authority or unitary council models across the whole area.

Warrington and Cheshire (which I looked at last week) has a thriving economy but separate councils and an LEP. Cumbria has had three failed attempts at creating one or two unitary councils. Agreement on a future model still seems some way off in Lancashire and Yorkshire but Combined Authorities are working effectively in the North East and Tees Valley.

In Greater Manchester and Merseyside, the elected mayors have established themselves but will, no doubt, be telling next week’s NorthernConvention of the North that they want more power given to Transport For The North(TfN) and more influence to them over skills.


This organisation is already operating across the area that the Council of the North seeks to cover. It will be telling delegates about the seven “corridors of opportunity” where better connectivity is vital.

But TfN will be under pressure over the recent mayhem on the existing railways and from the conurbation mayors on specific matters. Steve Rotheram (Liverpool City Region Mayor) wants proper links to HS2 and a new station as Lime Street is up to capacity. He would not tell me at a recent conference where this should be sited.

Andy Burnham (Greater Manchester) has a top priority about getting Network Rail and the Highways Agency to work together particularly over the big issue of Trans Pennine connectivity by road and rail.


So, let’s wish the Council of the North well. Let’s hope it listens to ordinary people and business. Then it might be able to get the tin ears in Whitehall to realise that a balanced economy is the only way to try and counteract the economic problems we are going to face post Brexit.

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Early next month the movers and shakers of the Northern Powerhouse (NP) will meet in Gateshead for the first Northern Convention. Its aim will be to inject some impetus into the badly stalled project.

The loss of its champion, George Osborne, at the highest level of government, the distractions of Brexit, the rise of the Midlands Engine have all contributed to a sense that NP amounts to lots of fine words and little action to help people and business.

Connecting the close, but isolated, northern cities was at the heart of the NP vision. Transport for the North has been created and is doing good work. However, any good news from that area has been completely overwhelmed by the awful experiences of train passengers this summer on the northern networks. It is not just rail. Having been stationary on the M6 last week for two hours, my impression is that our motorways are getting worse not better.

Next month’s Northern Convention has a big job to do to address the cynicism that surrounds devolution after the rail debacle. Its vision is wider than the Northern Powerhouse which has tended to focus on the urban strip from Liverpool to Hull. It wants to speak for the whole of the North, including Tyne and Wearside, with a clear message to London that much more needs to be done to redress the imbalances in the English economy.

This week and next I’m going to take a look at the State of the North. I’ll begin with an area that is sometimes overlooked, but not by Downtown in Business which has recently set up a new network in Chester.

According to the Cheshire and Warrington Local Enterprise Partnership, the sub region has a £29bn economy. It has the second highest Gross Value Added outside London. It has 25% of the North West’s manufacturing output and more graduate level jobs than anywhere in the North.

There is a belief that Cheshire is a dormitory for Manchester and Liverpool. In fact, according to the LEP, more people travel to work in Cheshire and Warrington than go to the cities. The sub region is strong in manufacturing, life sciences, energy, chemicals, business services and (particularly in Warrington), distribution.

There are challenges. A lack of the right skills, congestion and lack of housing at the right price. There are plans for 127,000 new homes.

The three major conurbations are all faced with the challenges of the retail revolution but have business plans for the future. In the case of Crewe, they will play a central role in the Constellation Project which is focussed around the arrival of HS2. Warrington has its New City plans and Chester’s £300 million Northgate scheme will deliver a mix of retail, restaurant and leisure facilities.

There is still no sign of a Combined Authority for this sub region. There have been issues around an elected mayor and the politics are difficult. Cheshire East is a solidly Conservative council recently wracked by officer turmoil. Cheshire West and Chester is finely balanced with Labour in control at the moment. Labour chiefs in Warrington say they can see the benefits of a Combined Authority but remain confident they can progress without one.

So that’s the picture in the south west corner of the Northern Powerhouse. Next week I’ll look at the rest.

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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.


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.