UNI’S NOT WHAT IT’S CRACKED UP TO BE.

 

THINK TANK BACKS DEGREE APPRENTICESHIPS

Downtown is always ahead of the game, so this week even before George Osborne identified educational attainment as the biggest issue in the North-South divide, a Manchester Downtown event had the benefit of an interesting debate about education. Our guest was Henri Murison. He heads up Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse Partnership (NPP) think tank. Osborne has focused on the poorer attainment record of kids in the North compares with the South.

Our debate looked at the next stage. Should school leavers choose university or the alternatives of vocational or degree apprenticeships? If I was in charge of one of our traditional northern universities I would be worried. “Go off to university and accumulate some debt” wasn’t always the best advice. Many employers in the room would encourage youngsters to particularly look at degree apprenticeships. Combining on the job working with part time study, students had the advantage of becoming job ready and avoiding the growing burden of tuition fees. It was felt it might also help prevent the talent drain to the south on the basis that if someone was learning a trade with a northern employer, they were more likely to stay after they had qualified. Murison warned that the South East would become even more aggressive at pulling talent down the M6 (and eventually HS2) in the post Brexit world when the migrant labour the South East relied on became scarcer.

The meeting also took stock of progress with the Northern Powerhouse. Murison admitted there had been something of a vacuum after George Osborne had left office. The NPP had been set up to keep the flame alive. Osborne’s speech on the pupil attainment divide on Thursday was part of that.

Transport for the North has been the most obvious manifestation of the Northern Powerhouse so far but there’s a growing feeling that people need to be skilled up as well as connected up and the former needs greater priority than it has been getting.

I wish the Northern Powerhouse well but still think its priorities and organisation needs the transparency and profile an elected Northern Council would give it.

BACK OFF ABLE WOMEN LEADERS.

100 years ago next week women got the vote. There will be lots of debate in the next few days about what difference that has made to politics and wider public life.

We will perhaps conclude that women have still got to fight all the way for their rights. The controversy over equal pay for BBC editors, the President’s Club scandal and Manchester Council rightly acting to stop women having to walk the gauntlet of pro life campaigners shows there is much to be done.

Life remains tough for women in politics. Mrs May continues to be hounded by Brexit extremists. My feeling is that the public see a woman trying to do her best in difficult circumstances. Then we have Claire Kober, one of the few women leaders of a local council (Haringey) resigning, complaining of Corbynista sexist bullying.

Left and Right, shame on your both.

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NORTHERN RAIL: ARE THE TORIES SERIOUS ?

 

AWKWARD TIMES AT MANCHESTER CONFERENCE.

The May government is rattled by the growing perception that they are not serious about the Northern Powerhouse. So, it perhaps would have been easier for the Conservatives to be meeting in their other conference city, Birmingham. The city has been confirmed as the UK candidate for the 2022 Commonwealth Games following the election of a Tory West Midlands mayor. In Greater Manchester we elected Andy Burnham who has expressed his outrage at the decision to downgrade the electrification of the Leeds-Manchester rail line whilst giving the go ahead to Crossrail 2 in London.

We know the government is rattled because last week I was present at a meeting in Manchester where the Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, came out fighting over his government’s transport spending. He told a startled business audience that he was going to slay some myths and rattled off a whole series of road improvements from Cumbria to Cheshire before tackling rail. His argument seems to be that electrification could be an old hat solution and bi-modal trains with state of the art technology could be the answer.

The issue is sure to come up at a conference where the Tories are reeling on many fronts. Whereas I saw Jeremy Corbyn lauded at every turn in Brighton for losing the General Election, Theresa May comes to Manchester having “won” but with the worst Conservative campaign in living memory. The Tories are past masters at preventing unrest breaking out on the conference floor but there is sure to be some raking over of the General Election coals at the fringe meetings.

Europe will also be an issue to watch at the Manchester conference. The prospect of us effectively being in the European Union until 2021 has angered the hardline Brexiteers. There will be plenty of them in Manchester Central. The Tory activists who come to conference have always been very Eurosceptic.

Besides the Northern Powerhouse, the poor election campaign and Europe, the main challenge for the Tories this weekend will be to answer the growing opposition to austerity and cuts. Labour is shamelessly promising everything to everyone, even acknowledging that if they came to power there could well be a massive run on the pound. Nevertheless, they seem to have caught a tide of opinion against pay curbs, high rents and homelessness. The Tories’ austerity programme has been in place for over seven years now and people are fed up. There are some signs that ministers are recognising this but that can spell danger. Small concessions don’t necessarily assuage the anger. They can make matters worse as workers take industrial action to push for more and the uncertain tone from ministers gives the impression that the government is running out of ideas and is past its sell by date.

Jeremy Corbyn said in Brighton that he was a Prime Minister in waiting. It was a bold, some would say fanciful claim, but if the Cabinet infighting over Europe doesn’t stop, if the cracks are on display in Manchester, there can be no certainty over what might happen this winter.

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SIGNIFICANT BATTLE OVER GAMES

 

GOLDEN GAMES.

Next week business and council chiefs from across the North will meet to demand a fair transport deal for our region. The summit, backed by Downtown in Business, comes in the wake of a watering down of government pledges on connectivity for the Northern Powerhouse (NP) and the simultaneous approval of Crossrail 2 for London.

We’ll see what the response is from ministers. They’ll need to bear in mind that the Conservative conference is in Manchester this autumn and the issue could be an embarrassing one, if not resolved.

But there is another decision to be taken shortly which will indicate whether the NP is still a priority for the government or if the Midlands Engine is to be favoured in the future. The question before ministers is whether to back Birmingham or Liverpool as the UK’s nominee to host the 2022 Commonwealth Games.

The Liverpool bid has brought rivals together like never before. Everton’s proposed new ground at Bramley Moore Dock would host the athletics, Anfield would stage the rugby sevens. Manchester’s velodrome would be the venue for the cycling. Wayne Rooney, who has played in both cities, has just announced his support for the bid which it is hoped will accelerate a billion pounds of investment in the north docks area and 12,000 jobs.

Liverpool would be a great venue for the Games with other venues like St George’s Hall and the ACC Arena also being used. The North West has already staged one of the most successful Commonwealth Games in Manchester in 2002 and ministers should show confidence in our region again.

This is especially the case as bid chairman Brian Barwick and Mayor Joe Anderson have responded to a crisis following the withdrawal of Durban earlier this year. Liverpool originally intended to bid for 2026. Let’s hope doubts over the city’s ability to deliver to the shorter deadline won’t scupper the bid. Particular focus will be on the ability to deliver Everton’s new stadium. That saga has been dragging on for most of this century.

Birmingham already has a stadium which is the home of UK athletics and claims it is 95% ready to host the games although it does not have an Olympic size swimming pool.

Certainty about facilities being ready on time are important, but so are politics. Conservative Andy Street was recently elected as Mayor of the Birmingham City Region and will be expecting the backing of his government in this important decision.

But as the Liverpool Echo said recently “Birmingham? As the Capital of HS2 and so close to the gold-paved streets of London, they don’t need any further help.”

TRUMP’S WINK TO THE NAZIS.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago that the Trump family could rule America till 2033. Now I wonder if Donald Trump will last the year. The laughable clown has now become sinister. There is a difference between fully armed Nazis and Anti-Nazi protesters reacting unwisely to provocation. Trump either doesn’t understand this or regards the far right as part of his blue-collar coalition.

He is alienating the business community although the turmoil doesn’t seem to be affecting the markets. If it does, the cry for Vice President Pence to steady the ship will grow, although such a transition would be fraught with danger particularly after the scenes in Charlottesville.

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THE UNACCOUNTABLE GOVERNMENT

 

RAIL BETRAYAL.

Since Parliament has gone into recess, hardly a day has passed without a significant policy announcement by ministers. They’ve ranged from banning petrol driven cars by 2040, to transport announcements that have the potential to drain the Northern Powerhouse (NP) of any meaning.

With MPs, away from Westminster and unable to call the government immediately to account, elected mayors and council leaders across the North have had to promise a summit in late August. Let’s hope that the current angry mood will not have turned to dull resignation.

The betrayal by Transport Secretary Chris Grayling is breath-taking. He has rowed back on plans for new platforms at Manchester Piccadilly station, said “bi-mode” trains will do on the Manchester-Leeds line rather than full electrification and downgraded rail schemes in Cumbria. At the same time the government announced their support for a £30bn Crossrail 2 project in London.

A few weeks ago, I challenged the chair of Transport for the North (TFN) John Cridland at a major conference on transport about the Treasury rules that will always mean that London schemes meet investment criteria because of the millions of commuters compared to the needs of the North. Cridland remained optimistic and TFN were urged by Manchester City Region mayor Andy Burnham to persuade the government to look at other criteria for justifying transport spending like economic return.

I said in a blog a few weeks ago that the acid test of the government’s commitment to the Northern Powerhouse would be whether Crossrail 2 or Trans Pennine investment would come first. Well now we know.

The whole Northern Powerhouse project is in serious trouble. Good connectivity between northern cities is the bedrock of the whole scheme. The new NP Minister, Rossendale MP Jake Berry is nowhere to be seen. Meanwhile Business Secretary Greg Clarke made his industrial strategy speech on investment in battery power in Birmingham this week. Ever since Theresa May came to power there has been a pivot from the North to the Midlands.

Let’s hope the summit backed by all the northern cities at the end of next month gets some answers from ministers.

EMPLOYMENT TRIBUNAL BLOW FOR BIZ.

 

It is always a shame when people abuse employment rights. But that was why the Coalition government brought in fees to deter vexatious employees and chancers who were taking employers to tribunals in droves. In 2012/13 191,541 cases were lodged before fees were levied. The latest figure is 88,000 which is high enough and by the way, fees were often reimbursed if the grievance was genuine.

Small businesses are set to be hardest hit as claims from aggrieved employees soar again. With Brexit uncertainty as well, it is not a good time to be in business.

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