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.


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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Where does the billion pound bribe for the Democratic Unionist Party leave the drive for devolution in the North? It is not just a question of where the government will put its money. It is also a question of political purpose.

There are plenty of reasons to fear that the May government will take their eye off the Northern Powerhouse (NP) project, but as I found out this week, the answer may lie within our own resources.

First, let’s look at the downside. The NP Minister, Andrew Percy, quit at the reshuffle. That suggests he didn’t see the post as being regarded as important in Whitehall. Then comes news that David Brown is leaving his post as Chief Executive of Transport for the North (TfN) to go to the private sector. Brown has done a good job in translating all the fine talk around the NP into something the public can see as a benefit. TfN will soon have statutory status as the voice of northern transport, will have a big say in rail franchising and this autumn common ticketing will start to be rolled out on our buses and trains. But will Brown’s successor be as good?

In further assessing the drag factors on the NP we have a weak government which will be forced to pay more attention to Belfast than Bradford. Brexit will consume vast amounts of ministers’ time until it hopefully grinds to a halt. While Greater Manchester and Merseyside have got their act together on elected mayors, the rest of the North is frankly a structural mess. George Osborne, the architect of the NP now spends his time using the London Evening Standard to get revenge on Theresa May for sacking him.

It is no wonder that Lord Adonis, head of the National Infrastructure Commission, joined top business organisations in demanding a high priority for infrastructure investment.

I think the government is distracted and we will need to raise our game to compete with those deal makers from Northern Ireland. For instance, why is it going to take till the autumn of 2018 to get the North’s Strategic Transport Plan approved? This emerged at a major transport conference in Manchester this week. We have talked for years about the need to upgrade east-west rail and road links. That is a higher priority for us than HS2. We know this, the government knows that is our position. David Brown told me this week that we’ve never had a statutory plan before. Well OK but delay on our part will just play into the hands of a government distracted by Brussels and Belfast. A government who sent a clearly unprepared Minister to the Manchester conference. In post for eight days junior transport minister, Jesse Norman, had no answer at all to a question about poor quality rolling stock in the North.

Things looked up thereafter though. Council leaders set out an impressive list of priorities. Cumbria wants to improve coastal rail, Lancashire the M65 corridor. Liverpool; resolve the opposition to links between the motorway network and the port. Cheshire; Crewe regeneration around the HS2 hub and Manchester preparing Piccadilly station for the combination of HS2, the northern Hub and improved links to Leeds.

Mayor Andy Burnham, quickly settling into his role as the voice of Greater Manchester, called for HS2 and Northern Powerhouse rail to be done together and Emma Degg, the new boss of the North West Business Leadership Team called for smaller northern towns to be remembered. It was a timely call in an era when there is a fixation on big cities.

There remains a huge gap between transport investment in the South East and North because it is much easier to satisfy Treasury cost benefit criteria when you can produce millions of commuters for any scheme. The conference was told of a vision and validate approach that should be adopted to get northern transport investment off the ground. The private sector will have a vital role in this.

So, we need to use existing powers to keep the Northern Powerhouse moving forward and if you want an acid test of how things are going look out for this. Will Northern Powerhouse rail or Crossrail 2 in London be first to get approval?

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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.


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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George Osborne was in New York this week apparently. However, his ghost haunted the UK Northern Powerhouse (NP) conference with some suggesting that without him as Chancellor the NP project was doomed.

Well the formidable Lord Kerslake had the answer to that as he challenged business and local politicians to step forward to head up the project. The problem is that there is nothing tangible to head up. Transport for The North is the only statutory body covering the North of England. Progress on skills, growth, culture and productivity all depend on business and councils getting together on an ad hoc basis. We need a Council of the North to decide priorities and focus media attention. The NP also needs to get some achievements under its belt. Richard Leese, the leader of Manchester Council, rejected a suggestion of a big public relations drive to get people talking about the NP. By your deeds will ye know them, is a good maxim.

That said the conference has become the annual event where you have a real sense of the northern family getting together with business getting done in the exhibition hall. Although women were scarce on the speaker panels, two stood out. Judith Blake, the leader of Leeds, insisted that if we are to improve the skills base improvement needs to start in the primary school. The government have only given devolved powers after 16 so far. She also said that NP sometimes had too great an emphasis on transport. Housing and health mattered too.

Fiesty Kate Willard from Stobart also had skills in her sights, calling for the abolition of the Skills Funding Agency. She should be the next chair of the Liverpool Local Enterprise Partnership.

The conference saw the last appearance of Sir Howard Bernstein as Chief Executive of Manchester Council although when I used the word “farewell” to him, he assured me he would still be around. Watch this space. His political colleague all these years Sir Richard Leese was encouraged by the publication of the Northern Economic Review as a sign of NP progress but claimed work on the northern hub and trans Pennine rail links “were stuck”.

There were expressions of frustration throughout the two days at the long timescales for infrastructure projects. It is likely to be 2025 before new trans Pennine links will be fully operational. In the meantime however we won’t have to put up with the pacers, Arriva had good news on new rolling stock.

A number of people I spoke to expressed anxiety that NP was still too Manchester focused. Furness Enterprises told me that Barrow’s submarine contracts would be adding more GVA to the north’s economy than some cities. One Leeds businessman has begun a campaign to take a whole new look at the trans Pennine bottleneck. Lance Christie wants the M65 extended from Colne to East Leeds improving links to Leeds Bradford airport and opening a new gateway to the North West from the North East.

The effects of Brexit on the NP was on everyone’s minds with Ged Fitzgerald, the Chief Executive of Liverpool reflecting the current uncertainty. He said the vote was already having an adverse impact on the city’s universities. On the other hand, the port was now facing the right way for global trade as it had in the days of empire before the EU interlude.

Andrew Percy, the new NP Minister, convinced the conference that Theresa May was behind the Northern Powerhouse and claimed the concept was being recognised from Canada to China.

Spades in the ground might to be some way off, but as delegates left at least they could see the Ordsall Curve bridge which had been put in place while the conference was on to link Victoria and Piccadilly stations.

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