CHOP THIS TALL POPINJAY !

WEEDS UP NORTH

The Prime Minister’s propensity for U turns and muddled thinking is well illustrated in Downtown MD Frank McKenna’s blog this week.

I want to concentrate an a particularly egregious example of that relating to the levelling up policy.

Having promised his new Red Wall voters that the unbalanced economy of England would be sorted by devolving power and providing resources for the North, Johnson has “failed miserably in translating a political soundbite into a deliverable programme”. Those are the words of a report today from the Commons Business Committee.

It only took one by election defeat to see a government once more retreating from its promises to the North on devolution. We had it under New Labour when Tony Blair lost interest in regional devolution in England once Scotland and Wales were done. We saw it under Theresa May when she sacked George Osborne and the voltage went out of the Northern Powerhouse.

Now Johnson is at it with the striking phrase in a speech last week about not wanting to “decapitate the tall poppies.” Here’s what’s behind the Prime Minister’s thinking using that phrase. The people of Amersham have fallen out of love with us because of HS2, planning and all this stuff about helping the North. HS2 is being built, can’t do much about that. Planning, may have to U turn on that. Promises to the North? That’s the easy one to compromise on. So now instead of the government having a laser focus on sorting the major problems of the North, devolution and regeneration initiatives will be weakened by a need to show that the South is not being left behind.

To be fair money is being injected into transport schemes and through the Towns Fund. But as the Business Select Committee says it is all coming from disparate pots across government with no one department clearly in charge. Everything from obesity initiatives and police funding to bus stops and football pitches is all described as “levelling up”.

The key finding of the committee is that regional and local devolution is “incoherent and inconsistent”. The mishmash of councils, mayors, Northern Powerhouse and Local Enterprise Partnerships, not to mention counties like Lancashire and Cheshire which have no real devolution structure, needs sorting.

There is meant to be a White Paper in the autumn. I suspect it will be weak and an effort to kick the can towards the next election. What it ought to do is provide a strong regional tier of government accountable through elected assemblies with unitary local government below it in the shires and powerful mayors for the conurbations. They should have big, devolved budgets (larger in the North and Midlands than the South) to spend on skills, housing, roads, and rail. They should report to the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government.

BRADY STILL IN CHARGE.

It was good to see Altrincham’s Sir Graham Brady retain his place as Chair of the 1922 Committee. It is an important sounding board for backbench Tories and Brady has been prepared to openly criticise the Prime Minister on lockdown.

An attempt to silence him with a government stooge candidate failed and it is to be hoped he will be in place for the centenary of the committee next year. In 1922 they brought down Liberal Prime Minister Lloyd George who led a Coalition with the Tories. They concluded his time was up. Perhaps history will repeat itself.

FOOTBALL WON’T BE COMIN’ HOME.

YOB RULE

I was at Wembley for England’s only triumph at a major football tournament. It was a wonderful occasion, and not just because of the result.

It was wonderful because my father and I didn’t have to run the gauntlet of boozed up thugs littering the concourse with broken glass. People didn’t storm the gates depriving legitimate ticket holders of their seats. There were sufficient police to see that order was kept. I believe the West German national anthem was not booed. Nor did we have to wait until 8pm in the evening for the kick-off. It was a time convenient for USA TV apparently, although I wonder how much interest there was there. It was less convenient for people trying to get home from London, young children and the stewards who had to confront thugs who’s been boozing for 12 hours.

Before I am accused of living in a nostalgic haze, I want to come to the issue of racism. It wasn’t an issue in 1966 but not for a good reason. There were no black players in the England team. Perhaps that was a legacy from the shameful incident in the 1920s when Plymouth Argyle’s Jack Leslie was selected for his country until the FA discovered he was black. In 1966 racial discrimination was widespread in housing and jobs. Black and Asian British citizens were unprotected by the law and two years later Enoch Powell received a lot of support for his “rivers of blood” speech.

I like to think we have made progress in this area as the great response to the defacing of the Marcus Rashford mural in Manchester shows. The number of racists may have reduced but the remaining ones now have social media to spread their toxic message be it from abroad or here.

 I have lived through the 1990,1996 and 2018 periods when England has whipped itself into a patriotic frenzy, only to face bitter disappointment. When it reached the point of the Queen reminiscing about presenting the Jules Rimet trophy to Bobby Moore, I feared the worst.

The good things to come out of the tournament are the diversity and accessibility of the talented England team, the dignity of Gareth Southgate and the opportunity for us to have had some pleasure and excitement after 16 months of Covid.

So where are we on the world football stage. Not in a great place I am afraid. There was already discontent that England played so many games at home, the rest of Europe was willing Italy on. The scenes of drunkenness and disorder on Sunday make it very likely that UEFA will back Spain/Portugal as the preferred European option to host the 2030 World Cup. I think it should go to Uruguay, the first hosts in 1930, but that’s another matter.

MOW BABY MOW.

I love wildflowers but there is plenty of countryside where farmers can be incentivised to turn over their meadows to buttercups and poppies.

Grass allowed to grow wild on road verges and in the public realm looks ugly and is dangerous when it obscures signs and junctions. I suspect “wilding” is being used by councils to save money.

Also, nobody is going to convince me that an untidy, overgrown mess of grass and flowers is more attractive than a well-trimmed lawn in our gardens, setting off the flower beds which can have an abundance of plants for the bees to enjoy.

HEZZA: CLERK OF WORKS.

AS SHARP AS EVER

The pressures of modern politics mean that ministers are often “here today, gone tomorrow”. By the time awkward questions are asked, they have handed over to someone else and the responsibility trail goes cold.

Not with 88-year-old Michael Heseltine who spoke at a Downtown lunch this week. He was appointed Environment Secretary 42 years ago and immediately began tackling Liverpool’s dereliction by getting private investment to match the government’s derelict land grant. Two years later he really became focused on the city as Toxteth went up in flames.

With everyone blaming everyone else he came up for weekly meetings to get projects going like the Garden Festival, Albert Dock renewal and the Mersey clean up. He was the Clerk of Works he told the lunch.

30 years later David Cameron asked him to have another look at Liverpool. Heseltine says the city was transformed, not just physically but in the attitude of people. The blame culture had been replaced with a can-do spirit so that he and his aide Sir Terry Leahy had little to do.

But enough of Hezza’s history, he has interesting views on the present and future. With Vauxhall and Nissan getting major investment to stay in the UK, I asked him if the suggestion by Remainers like him, that such companies might quit Britain if we left the EU had been proved unfounded. Was Project Fear discredited? He replied that I could point to individual decisions, but he was unrepentant that it was a bad move particularly for young people and with tension in Northern Ireland.

I also asked him about the imminent prospect of Liverpool losing its World Heritage status in a row over plans to develop the North Docks. He said he had written a fresh letter to UNESCO, calling on them to visit the city before a final decision is made. He told me that whatever happened, Liverpool would thrive.

He felt the government had brought the devolution agenda to a standstill. He remained convinced in local decision making and having an individual who could be held accountable for decisions. No reference was made to the planned 2023 referendum in Liverpool which could see the abolition of the post of elected mayor after just a decade.

We might think that Lord Heseltine is hardly a Tory at all with all his support for big spending on regeneration. In that context what he had to say on the dangers of inflation was interesting. He claimed Covid had masked underlying issues for the British economy and too much government spending would bring inflationary dangers. He said private investment was crucial.

It was another great Downtown event with the old maestro, let’s hope it won’t be the last.

AN UNDISPUTED GOAL.

Now let me make myself really unpopular. I was at Wembley in 1966 when controversy erupted over whether a ball from Geoff Hurst had crossed the line. I know we got a fourth, but people were on the pitch and the game should have been stopped.

My point is that once again we have won with a disputed goal. It was a very soft penalty and I think the Danes behaved with great dignity.

Let’s win the Euros on Sunday with a fantastic open play goal from Raheem Sterling that cannot be disputed.

NISSAN GREAT,BUT WHERE’S THE REST?

JOHNSON DEFIES MORAL GRAVITY

The billion pounds Nissan investment in the North East is great news, and one in the eye for us Remainers who thought the plant might shut after Brexit.

It gives momentum to the government still getting credit for the vaccination programme and economic recovery. Those two successes seem to outweigh concern about the pandemic’s effect on school attendance and lifting Covid restrictions.

Will the jab programme and Nissan’s investment even turn Batley Tory? You will know the answer probably when you read this.

It is a remarkable state of affairs that Boris Johnson can write to Matt Hancock saying, “your contribution to public service is far from over”, and still have the affection of large sections of the British people.

When the former Health Secretary was exposed for flagrantly breaching guidelines that people with dying or lonely relatives had followed, Downing Street (i.e., the PM) said the matter was closed. Johnson, with his rakish history was in no position to hand out moral reprimands to Matt Hancock but his desire not to bend to the media, blinded him to the absurd possibility of Hancock continuing to lecture us on the need to keep our distance.

Then when Hancock resigned, Johnson pretended the 36-hour delay was all part of a plan to give the ex-Health Secretary some space in a pandemic. Lie after lie. The rules of public conduct trashed time after time. Will there be a day of reckoning? Will the scales fall from the eyes of Red Wall voters?

STATE OF NORTHERN POWERHOUSE

Possibly if the proceedings of a joint meeting between Downtown and the Cities Restart organisation this week are anything to go by.

A great panel of business leaders and senior local council officials from the North and Midlands were discussing the pathway to recovery. There was general agreement that the steam had gone out of the Northern Powerhouse, the government still wasn’t acting on the skills crisis and there were big problems getting city centres going again. To the question “Is the government focused on recovery, they voted no 90% to 10% yes.

Steve Rotheram was the main guest. The Liverpool City Region mayor laid out an impressive green investment programme which includes the Mersey Tidal Scheme. That project needs skilled workers, and training them requires joined up thinking between central and local government. It wasn’t there said Steve.

There was general agreement that we have got delegation not devolution in the north. Pots of money handed down, not real power across broad spending programmes. Also, we have seen the return of divisive bidding for funds.

Two other key points arose at the meeting. One was labour shortages. A small business spokesperson said some had not been able to reopen because of it. The other is the slow recovery of city centres linked to the issue of working from home. A representative of a leading telecoms company told us he foresaw big problems with workers who had become used to domestic comforts and gym appointments. He claimed, and I agree, that there will be major issues for productivity and accountability if most workers get the idea that they can work form home for most of the week when the pandemic is over.