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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COUNCILS UNDER THE SPOTLIGHT NO MORE

 

THE EMPTY TOWN HALL PRESS SEATS.

It is very sad that the Oldham Chronicle has ceased publication after 150 years. It is the latest local paper to fall victim to the surge in on-line advertising and falling readership. For years local newspaper owners have cut the journalists to save costs and then been surprised when the thin content drove away even more readers. Most local papers used to have a correspondent who was an expert on local government and aware of what was going on at the Town Hall. Now they are nearly all gone. The media concentrates excessively on national politicians leaving the leaders, even of some large cities, largely unknown.

The assertion is made that local politics is boring. That is lazy thinking by people who are not prepared to scrutinise the way billions of pounds of our money is spent. It is true that people in one council area don’t really care about what goes on next door but in the great days of local papers, they were the go to places for people to get information on their council alongside coverage of other authorities.

Does this matter? After all a new world has opened on line with a vast range of people offering their opinions about what is going on at national and local level. This blog is one of them. But we will miss the dedicated, independent local government correspondents who exposed scandals like Newcastle’s John Poulson and Westminster’s Dame Shirley Porter. Town Halls still provide many of the services we rely on and are often left to sort out the consequences of ill thought through Whitehall decisions.

But who is keeping an eye on our councillors? Council meetings are rarely reported. The Cabinet system has left most councillors with little to do. The scrutiny they are meant to carry out is a pale shadow of the Westminster Select Committee system it was meant to replicate at a local level.

So, can we rely on central government to do the job? Not really. Eric Pickles, the worst Local Government Secretary in recent history, abolished the Audit Commission. It was responsible for audit and inspection of local government. It reported publicly.

The vast majority of councillors and officers do a great job in difficult circumstances. They are subject to big cuts in their budgets and are dealing first hand with tricky personal services like allocating school places to children and elderly people to a care home.

That said local relationships and big money contracts can lead to corruption. Who’s going to report it consistently and professionally to a wide audience in the future? If the answer is nobody then we should worry.

HAMMOND AND THE NORTHERN POWERHOUSE.

Well at least the, Downtown inspired, crisis conference on the future of the Northern Powerhouse(NP) managed to get the Chancellor to come north this week.

Philip Hammond can be in no doubt at the anger directed towards the Transport Secretary who simultaneously cut back on promises to northern rail while giving the go ahead for Crossrail 2 in London. But it led to no promises while he was here, just a hint that there might be something in the Budget.

Well, Phil the Till, there better be or the NP will be dead in the water.

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‘ALEX FERGUSON’ SNAG FOR MANCHESTER COUNCIL

 

IN GIANT’S FOOTSTEPS.

How does Manchester Council avoid the “Alex Ferguson” problem in finding a successor to the retiring Chief Executive, Sir Howard Bernstein? You know the problem, Brown after Blair and Moyes after Ferguson.

Bernstein has worked for the local authority for 45 years and for the last 18 years has been Chief Executive. In that time the city has left behind the trauma of the IRA bomb in 1996 to become the leading city in the North. Throughout Sir Howard has sent a message to the private sector that the city is open for business. As a result Manchester has the feel of a young city for entrepreneurs that can look London in the eye.

His other achievement has been to respect the political process. Nobody elected him. The people’s mandate is held by Sir Richard Leese who has been leader throughout Sir Howard’s tenure, a remarkable partnership in its longevity and effectiveness. Such partnerships are rare and can go wrong. We remember the bust up in Liverpool between Chief Executive David Henshaw and leader Mike Storey. Bernstein and Leese have known where the boundary lies between local government officer and politician.

Bernstein is widely regarded as one of the leading figures in local government and the former Chancellor George Osborne recognised this in his efforts to found the Northern Powerhouse.

It has not all been plain sailing for Sir Howard. He failed to get the congestion charge and the BBC to locate their new headquarters in the city. Critics say he was more interested in shiny new buildings than the council’s basic services. He has been dismissive of charges that the devolution deal lacked democratic endorsement.

That said the town hall is losing a giant and the question is, who will succeed him?

POSSIBLE CANDIDATES.

The first thing to say is that there aren’t hordes of candidates out there qualified for this, one of the top posts in local government.

One immediately looks at the current Chief Executives in Greater Manchester who have helped in the creation of the Combined Authority. It would be great for a woman to get this job. Donna Hall, holds the top job at Wigan Council and recently won an award for transformational leadership. Theresa Grant used to work for Manchester Council, did a great job running the athlete’s village during the Commonwealth Games and is now Chief Executive at Trafford. Then there is Eamonn Boylan, who served for six years as Sir Howard’s deputy and is currently in charge at Stockport.

There is a strong possibility however that Manchester will want to cast its net wider and bring in a fresh face outside the current “Greater Manchester” family. Charlie Parker cut his teeth with the city’s Inner City Unit and is now Chief Executive of Westminster Council. Sean Harriss, formerly top man in Bolton, is now in charge at Lambeth.

At a recent Downtown event there was a suggestion that a “blue sky approach” might be taken bringing in someone with more of a business background. Would Charlie Cornish, Chief Executive of the Manchester Airport Group, fill the bill?

It will ultimately be a matter for Sir Richard Leese in what may be one of his last big decisions. Few would envy his “Alex Ferguson” dilemma.

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LEEDS AND LIVERPOOL RACE FOR POWERS

 

NEXT CITY DEALS ?

Following Greater Manchester’s devolution deal, the race by other northern combined authorities is on with a vengeance. In Leeds last week the Deputy Prime Minister announced that packages for Leeds and Sheffield would be agreed before the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement. Lord Heseltine is trying to bang heads together in Liverpool which is displaying its usual propensity for internal bickering. Meanwhile talks are under way amongst Lancashire’s myriad number of councils to try and get the first powerhouse deal outside the major cities.

 

I have attended a number of devolution conferences in the last week and watched nearly all of the BBC’s regional debates across England. My worst fears have been confirmed. Apart from the city regionalists, people from smaller towns and rural areas are hopelessly divided on what devolution they want. There is no clarity on how to solve the issue of English votes for English laws. There was virtually no debate on how an elected Lords could represent the North and not just the South East.

 

So it looks as if the Tories get back we will have piecemeal devolution to a number of city regions with little for the rest of the North which will be left with its confusing patchwork of district, met and county councils and ad hoc bodies created to deal with major infrastructure issues. Labour’s promise of a comprehensive constitutional convention seems worth voting for.

 

A couple of final thoughts on the position of Leeds and Liverpool. The Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg told us in Leeds that we should not presume that Leeds (and Sheffield) would have to have elected mayors. This seems strange when the government, in the shape of George Osborne, insisted on it in Greater Manchester as a democratic requirement. Will Leeds and Sheffield get less powers in return for no elected mayor? Is Clegg doing his own thing in Yorkshire? This is what happens with a piecemeal approach. Different strokes for different folks ends in chaos.

 

In Liverpool Jo Anderson continues with his schizophrenic performance. He has used leadership and imagination to save the city’s libraries but on the issue of devolution he is not handling things well. He needs to work with Phil Davies, the leader of the Combined Authority, not continue to make snide comments about part time politicians meeting every four weeks. Also his ambition to be the elected metro mayor takes no account of the democratic processes of the Labour Party. If an elected mayor was on offer, Phil Davies or Jane Kennedy (the current Merseyside Police Commissioner) might at least want to offer an alternative to Joe’s coronation. The important thing here is that all the infighting is putting off the government from granting the Liverpool City Region its powers. It is also fuelling the prejudices of those who claim that nothing really changes in Liverpool. It is manifestly not true but people need to stop shooting themselves in the foot.

 

UKIP FOX SHOT

 

The much derided European Court of Justice has come to David Cameron’s rescue. So we can stop benefit tourism after all. It is a much exaggerated problem anyway. Most foreign workers want to come here make our sandwiches, pick our potatoes and pay their taxes.

 

The interesting question is whether it will slow UKIP’s momentum in next week’s Rochester by election. At the moment it looks as if the reckless Reckless will win. The Tory candidate is very poor. If UKIP do win, the Tories need to steady their nerve and pro European Conservatives need to have the guts to speak up for the EU and not just leave it to Ken Clarke.