“EDUCATION DEPARTMENT NEEDS A KICKING”.

 

 

EDUCATION MINISTRY HINDRANCE TO SKILLS TRAINING.

As the skills and productivity crisis deepens, the Department for Education has come under savage attack from the mayors of Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City region.

Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram are getting into their stride in speaking for the North on a range of issues as was evidenced at a packed Downtown meeting this week. There wasn’t a single reference to strained relations between the core cities of Liverpool and Manchester, just a demonstration of the easy relationship that the two politicians share. This is important for the northern voice. Oh, that it was replicated in Yorkshire where rival councils are knocking nine bells out of each other over devolution models. Or in Lancashire, Cheshire and Cumbria where to describe progress on devolution as glacial would be to insult those magnificent features of the natural world.

After their election in May both men had very different starts. Burnham acquired a large staff at his Oxford Street headquarters in Manchester, although he said he envied Rotheram’s ability to shape his own team. That was a reference to the “Mary Celeste” situation faced by the Liverpool City Region mayor when he took office. Rotheram inherited no staff and a difficult relationship with Liverpool city mayor Joe Anderson.

Both men were just back from visits to Paris and New York and have realised that they need to impress the world, not just the government, that the North is a great place to invest in.

Raising skill levels is one of their main aims and you’d think the Department for Education would be an ally. Not so apparently. Rotheram said it was the least responsive department in Whitehall and needed a good kicking. The mayors wanted to control skills spending locally and show young people that there are routes to success other than through university by boosting vocational training. Burnham had been to his kid’s Year 9 options meeting where the ICT teacher had no takers while the pupils queued for humanities subjects.

Now in office the mayors want to tone down the politics to appeal to business. They feel firms in the two sub regions would feel more comfortable dealing with them than the highly politically charged Westminster village. They are working with other elected mayors including West Midlands Tory Mayor Andy Street.

Transport is another area where the mayors have given a voice to the North. With Downtown providing the launch pad they had launched a salvo of criticism over the government’s broken promises in the summer. They claimed it had born fruit to some extent with Liverpool City Region getting two “touch points” with HS2 and the Chancellor announcing a £400m cash boost for northern transport at the party conference. All well and good but still small potatoes compared with transport spending in London.

While stressing that their door was open to business, the mayors fired a shot across the bows of house builders saying the emphasis on developers needs had to change to provide the affordable housing that is in short supply. Andy Burnham made a striking remark that may meet with a mixed reception in his outer boroughs. He said they needed to shrink their retail offer and increase the space for housing.

Finally, on Brexit, the mayors had recently met with Brexit Minister David Davis. Burnham had told him that Greater Manchester exported 58% of its exports to the EU compared with the national average of 44%. No deal would be a very bad deal for him. Rotheram, also a Remainer, nevertheless said the port of Liverpool stood ready to welcome global opportunities post Brexit.

It is too early to say whether these politicians will actually deliver their visions, but people can begin to see how City Region mayors might make a difference in the absence of what we really need, which is powerful regional government.

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WHERE IS THE BRITISH MACRON?

 

THE EU STRENGTHENED.

The French people have turned the tide on the 2016 populist surge which led to reckless Brexit and reckless Trump in the White House.

Opponents of the European Union were forecasting it would break up following populist success in Hungary, Holland and France. All three countries have rejected a return to a nationalist Europe with all the potential consequences that could bring. With the UKIP style implosion of the Alternative for Deutschland Party in Germany I predict a victory for Angela Merkel this autumn. Then we will see how strong and stable Mrs May will be when faced with France, Germany and the other 25 European countries insisting that if you are out of a club you must have a worse deal than if you are in.

I saw a report this week on a Shropshire company that makes engine blocks. They must cross 5 European borders in ten days and time is vital. They are desperately worried about how they are going to operate outside the EU. That’s the reality facing business. Let’s hope Jeremy Corbyn’s refusal to rule out staying in the EU wasn’t just another blunder, although the Lib Dems offer the clearest policy on a second referendum.

 

 

BACK IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT.

Geoff Driver is the great survivor of Lancashire politics. After a controversial reign as Chief Executive of Preston Council, he made a successful change to politics leading the Conservatives to victory in the county in 2009. Thrown out of office in 2013, he survived a leadership challenge, police dropped an investigation into him over the One Connect Ltd issue and last Friday I was in County Hall for his return to office.

He faces big challenges to soften the cuts that Labour reluctantly made. Driver insists there will be no sweetheart deals with his government. A final word on this. Jeni Mein, the outgoing Labour leader was one of the most decent hard working politicians I had the pleasure to meet. Good luck to her successor, Nelson councillor Azhar Ali. He will prove a lively opponent for Geoff Driver.

MAYORS.

After snubbing Jeremy Corbin at a victory celebration, Andy Burnham was quickly down to work making two good deputy appointments. Sir Richard Leese is taking on the business portfolio. Does this show Leese is preparing to end his long tenure as leader of Manchester? Anyway, from Burnham’s point of view…..(fill in the tent and urination metaphor here). The other key appointment is Bev Hughes to look after crime and the police. The former Stretford and Urmston MP will be taking over from the ex-Police Commissioner Tony Lloyd who hopes to win the Rochdale seat.

That choice by a panel of Labour’s National Executive has been welcomed by the constituency whereas in Liverpool Walton the choice of a Unite placeman, Daniel Carden, at the expense of Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson has caused outrage. These panels should have the constituency chair as a member and certainly should not have a Unite member as was the case with Walton. But if a party is so dependent on one source of funding, this is what you get.

Joe heading for Westminster was a neat way of solving a

 potential conflict between him and newly elected City

 Region Mayor, Steve Rotheram. We’ll have to see if grown

 up behaviour prevails to the advantage of the city region.

 

GENERAL ELECTION POINTERS.

 

The local elections showed Labour’s fragility in the North

outside its urban heartland. A spectacular defeat to the

Tories in Derbyshire was followed by the loss of

Lancashire and largest party status in Cumbria. There are many marginal seats in these areas for the Conservatives to target.

 

The Lib Dems had a standstill election and will be hoping

for more support when the Brexit issue comes centre

stage in the General Election. UKIP had to rely on a

popular taxi driver in Padiham for their only council

success. They should have developed policies on non-EU

issues to offer a real alternative for blue collar Labour

voters in the North. Instead they squabbled over who

should be leader.

 

In Scotland, the Tories have become the rallying point for

opponents of a second independence referendum, and

even though the fall off in support for the SNP was slight,

that irresistible tide has peaked.

 

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MAYORAL CANDIDATES FIGHTING TO BE HEARD

 

GOOD TORY CANDIDATES IN MANCHESTER AND LIVERPOOL BUT LABOUR TO WIN.

 

Not for the first time Westminster has disrespected the local election process. The constitutional innovation of electing mayors for some of our great conurbations next Thursday should be at the centre of political attention at the moment. Instead it will be largely ignored as we focus on the June General Election. Theresa May is not the first Prime Minister to do this and won’t be the last.

It is difficult to judge what effect the calling of the General Election will have on the mayoral races in Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City Region (LCR)but it is unlikely to help turnout. In his blog this week Downtown’s CEO Frank McKenna says a poll of over 25% in LCR will give the winner credibility. It is a commentary on the low expectations we have of local democracy when such a case can be argued.

It has also been suggested that people will vote “down the ballot”. This might help the Conservatives, the argument being that people are making up their minds about where their political preference lies this summer. If they have concluded that Strong and Stable Government (I’m already fed up with it too) is the answer they will vote Caldera/Anstee in the mayoral elections and May in June. May in June! Boom! Boom!

Caldera is Tony Caldeira, the Cotton King of Knowsley. A successful soft furnishings businessman he has impressed people at the hustings. He stresses his contact with government ministers and his call for a register of brownfield sites for housing is a sensible one. Caldera is an example of a Merseyside Conservative in the tradition of David Hunt (ex Wirral West) or Malcolm Thornton (ex Crosby). He’s a One Nation Tory who doesn’t lay on his conservatism too thickly. I don’t think he’ll win but he deserves to be selected for a winnable seat in the General Election.

Victory in the Liverpool City Region will almost certainly go to Labour candidate, Steve Rotheram, representing “the place I love”. His central policy aims are the reregulation of buses, drives for skills and affordable housing and zero carbon city region by 2040. It had been expected that Rotheram’s victory would have started a running battle with the city of Liverpool’s elected mayor Joe Anderson who wanted the city region job. It now looks possible that Anderson will succeed Rotheram as MP for Walton if Labour’s National Executive doesn’t prefer Seb Corbyn, the party leader’s son.

Greater Manchester also has a good Tory candidate. As leader of Trafford Council, Sean Anstee was a significant broker between the Tory government and Labour controlled Manchester Council in drawing up the devolution deal. While all the other candidates criticise plans to build houses in the greenbelt, Anstee points out that tearing up the Spatial Strategy will allow speculative development to continue.

The likely winner, Labour’s Andy Burnham, says there has been too much concentration on building luxury flats in the city centre and executive homes on the main roads. He wants free bus passes for 16-18 year olds and improved connectivity between the outer boroughs.

There’s plenty of time for the General Election campaign after May 4th. Next Thursday let’s concentrate on who would be best to run the county of Lancashire and the city regions of Liverpool and Manchester.

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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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