Hancock’s Half Page

WHICK WAY WILL THE ECONOMY GO ?

The Bank of England forecasts that the downtown won’t be so severe. Car sales are healthy, the construction industry is buying more bricks and we are all eating out courtesy of the Chancellor.

So, can we be optimistic about recovery during the rest of this year? I think it is too soon to say because other things must be put into the balance. Principle amongst these is the very real threat of a second wave of the pandemic. Scientists are arguing whether the recent upturn in Covid inflections in the North West is a precursor of this or the result of the lifting of the full lockdown.

But the fresh restrictions in Greater Manchester, East Lancashire and West Yorkshire cast a cloud over the gradual return to normality. It was always going to be a difficult autumn and people wanted to believe the Prime Minister’s aspiration that things could be near normal by Christmas. That wasn’t going to happen. Johnson always wants to play the optimist which is partly responsible for the government’s confused messaging. This crisis was always going to stretch into next year, but now it looks as if things could be even more tricky this autumn.

If the great return to work and school is happening against worsening infection figures, some really difficult decisions are going to have to be taken.

We can already see tensions about the return of all schools. The teacher unions are angering the government, many parents, and members of the general public by continuing to express concern. Some see it as union militancy, others as appropriate concern. We will have to see how it plays out, but a full return of school children is going to be needed if the government is to tackle its next big problem. That is a general return to factories and offices

There are signs of growing tension between people who have gone back and those that remain at home. August is not the month to fully test this as working families have always had a tricky problem with childcare during the holiday month. But come the autumn with the withdrawal of government support, employers will want to decide if they are going to remodel their companies along a more working from home basis or insist their workers return.

The other decision many will take will be to make workers redundant. Pessimistic figures suggest the number of unemployed could reach 4 million after the shake out is complete.

If no vaccine is found and a second wave takes place, we will be in for a very difficult time. People have shown patience, obedience, and huge generosity with the thought that the crisis would last for months. If this is stretching well into 2021, a darker mood is likely to prevail.

Let us therefore hope that the government’s testing system really does become first class, that individual hotspots can be identified, that second wave does not happen, and a vaccine can be found.

Then we can build on the more optimistic data I referred to at the start of this blog and we can put 2020 behind us.

CAN TORIES BE TRUSTED WITH DEVOLUTION?

OFF THE RAILS.

Transport for the North (TfL) was the symbol of the government’s pledge to start devolving decisions from London to us.

It seemed to buy into the concept that we knew best where road, rail and bus investment should go. TfL was the most tangible organisation to emerge from the Northern Powerhouse.

TfL has a large number of members representing the public and private sector, Local Enterprise Partnerships, delivery partners and Network Rail. Its aim is to make sure funding decisions are informed by local knowledge and it wants to draw power from central, not local government.

It has drawn up many valuable reports on northern transport and demanded that investment be made.

Now it is called a talking shop by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps with the implication that it has failed to deliver. To the extent that is true, Mr Shapps, it is because your government hasn’t given it the powers to deliver.

Now, this government that hates bureaucracy, is setting up another body the Northern Transport Acceleration Council to deliver the Leeds-Manchester rail upgrade. Council leaders and elected mayors will sit on this organisation which will be chaired by Mr Shapps, in London no doubt.

What a blow to local decision making and shame on the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham for pledging his faith in the new body.

DRIVER’S UMBRELLA.

Suggestions that Lancashire’s political leaders had ceased their squabbling and were getting behind an elected mayor for the county appear to have been premature.

Lancashire Council leader Geoff Driver was hoping he had backing to abolish the mish mash of local councils in the county. Instead three unitary councils, roughly based on west, north and east Lancashire would sit under a Combined Authority with an elected mayor.

In this way Lancashire could hope to compete with the Liverpool City and Greater Manchester regions for government investment and streamlined decision making.

Consensus seems to be falling apart with Pendle saying they don’t want a mayor, Burnley refusing reorganisation as a precondition for devolution and others saying Cllr Driver lacked the authority to indicate their support for his scheme to government.

Cllr Driver vented his frustration at a recent meeting when he said to the district leaders “You could all stand outside in the pouring rain-and you would take all day to decide whether you were getting equally wet or if some of you had more shelter than others”.

Quite Geoff but that’s unlikely to bring them together. Instead (unlike the transport issue above) this is a case for the smack of firm central government. Simon Clarke, the Minister for Regional Growth, has made it clear the government wants single tier councils in this country. He should go ahead and impose it in the same way as the Heath government abolished small rural and urban districts in 1972.

Parochialism has reigned for too long in the Red Rose county. It is time for change.

IT SUITED BREXITEERS NOT TO PROBE RUSSIA<

ON PUTIN’S SIDE.

Why the incredulity at Britain’s failure to tackle Russian interference in our democracy?

I’m not surprised. Please follow my logic. Russia wants to break up the European Union. David Cameron unleashes a referendum campaign which could lead to the second largest economy in the bloc leaving. The Russian state backs a disinformation campaign grossly exaggerating refugee flows, immigration into the UK and the role of MI5 and the CIA in backing the EU. Ten million tweets spread discord. Pro Leave bots outnumber Remain three to one. The National Bureau of Economic Research calculates it could have put 1.76% on the Leave share of the vote. We narrowly vote to get out of the EU.

The British government, negotiating to leave the bloc, is largely deaf to the clamour for an investigation. Over three years after the referendum, a report is finally ready last October. It is not published. The excuse given by Boris Johnson is that there is an election coming. Polling over, the next ruse was not to set up the Intelligence and Security Committee that could publish the report.

Then panic! Independently minded Julian Lewis wants to chair the committee. Against the rules the government interferes, and Chris Grayling is backed by the whips instead despite his appalling record as Transport and Justice Secretaries. Lewis wins and is kicked out of the Tory Party. Undeterred Lewis publishes the report which shows that the UK government didn’t try to find out about Russian interference in the EU campaign.

Of course they didn’t. After Cameron’s departure they wanted us out of the EU just like the Russians did. They certainly didn’t want to help the cause of those calling for a second vote by casting doubt on the validity of the 2016 Referendum.

USA ELECTION LIKE NO OTHER.

Covid19 is already having a dramatic effect on the race to the White House. Campaigning is restricted, the conventions drastically scaled back and there’s the prospect of increased postal voting to save people going to the polls.

The latter development has raised the possibility that President Trump might refuse to accept the result if he is defeated. Without evidence, he thinks postal voting will introduce fraud into the process and favour his opponent Democrat nominee Biden. Trump says he is a bad loser. Nothing can be ruled out from a man who has so demeaned his office, this week wishing Ghislaine Maxwell well when he should have stayed silent until the guilt or innocence of the friend of paedophile Jeffrey Epstein is determined.

Meanwhile Biden has a very important choice to make, that of his Vice-Presidential running mate. It is important because, at 77, he would be the oldest person elected to the presidency. He has not enjoyed the best of health and so the person chosen could become President with the world never having heard of them. Remember Gerald Ford or further back Harry Truman.

To confirm how unusual this election is, it is highly likely that Joe Biden is going to choose the first black woman to be on any major party ticket for President.

THE NORTH AND CURBING THE CHINESE DRAGON.

THE COST OF PRINCIPLES

George Osborne saw the Chinese as vital partners in the Northern Powerhouse. Prime Minister David Cameron spoke of a golden age in our trade relations with the Far East giant.

Many will still argue that nothing must get in the way of trying to revive the economy of the North after the double whammy of Covid-19 and Brexit. If Chinese financial heft will make the difference, then bring it on.

I am afraid such views are not acceptable and the government is right to reset our relations with China. The most visible manifestation of this is the Huawei decision. The Prime Minister originally ignored unrest on his backbenches and embraced Huawei as a major investment partner in 5G, but the crackdown on protest in Hong Kong has led to a U turn, something this government is getting used to.

During the Cameron/Osborne “golden era”, China had the opportunity to use its economic power whilst respecting the fact that it was dealing with democratic governments who have always been uneasy about the devil’s bargain that the Communist Party of China has struck with its people. It goes along the following lines. We will give you economic prosperity, but we don’t want your opinions.

The West tolerated that position but now that the full crackdown on free speech has been extended to Hong Kong that was meant to operate on more democratic lines until 2047, it is right for us to reset our business relations.

China’s aggressive behaviour has also extended to the Indian border and South China Sea. It cannot be business as usual in the Northern Powerhouse or the nuclear power stations in the south.

Our cooling of business relations does not need to associate itself with the crude xenophobia of Donald Trump, but it probably means it will be a while before we see large Chinese delegations at Manchester Airport of Joe Anderson leading a trade delegation to Shanghai.

WRONG CALL ON BBC CUTS.

The BBC is under big financial pressure. Making the corporation pay for over 75 TV licences was a crude political stunt. But the answer isn’t to make cuts in regional TV and local radio.

One of the main justifications for the licence fee is that the BBC provides services that others won’t.

During this pandemic, BBC local radio has once again shown its unique value as it did during the floods. To cut reporters or niche evening programmes makes tiny savings in the grand scheme of things but undermines the BBC’s unique place in our national life.

Inside Out on Monday evenings has provided a rich mixture of investigative journalism and heritage films. The North West unit is being merged with Yorkshire.

For months during the pandemic Politics England has replaced the bespoke North West Sunday political programme. It has tried to bring a local flavour to national stories, but I’ll give you a glaring example of how it isn’t the same as before.

A few weeks ago, Salford’s Rebecca Long-Bailey was sacked by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer as Shadow Education Secretary and replaced by her neighbour in Stretford, Kate Green. A great story to get local reaction to but it doesn’t fit the brief of this all England programme.

Let’s hope the regional political programmes can return because the journalistic scrutiny of local affairs is disappearing at an alarming rate whether by local papers or the BBC.