Hancock’s Half Page

ROUGH ROAD FOR CAR INDUSTRY.

FEARS FOR ELLESMERE PORT

The car industry is a vital component of North West manufacturing with thousands of jobs in the plants and supply chains for Ellesmere Port, Halewood, Crewe and elsewhere.

Brexit caused a cloud of uncertainty for the sector creating long term fears that plants could be relocated to the centre of the European Union.

The Vauxhall factory at Ellesmere Port has been a particular focus for concern. Ever since the takeover by the PSA Group, there have been worries about the long-term priorities of the French management.

New threats are now looming in the shape of the government’s 2030 ban on petrol engines and British capacity to produce batteries for the new electric cars.

The boss of the Vauxhall factory’s parent company, Carlos Taveres, has serious concerns about the petrol ban. He complained this week that if the rules under which the company operated were changed completely by the British government “there is a limit for the headwinds”. He went on to refer to “many barriers” to create value which could lead the company having to make “an ethically responsible decision”.

Read into that what you will, but it sounds to me like the combination of Brexit and the petrol ban is raising more and more questions in the minds of PSA’s management of the British government’s commitment to the car industry.

On that subject the former boss of Aston Martin, Andy Palmer, claimed this week that Britain was falling behind in the development of gigafactories to make electric batteries. The European Union is expected to build 11 plants by 2030. Britain needs four according to Mr Palmer who believes otherwise we could lose the entire British car industry to countries where the batteries are produced.

The government have a £500m Automotive Transformation Fund in place and speak of thousands of jobs being created as the car industry goes green.

Our exit from the EU and the transition to electric cars is making great demands on the car industry in the North West in particular. The government need to keep a close eye on developments.

FROM WHITHALL TO BRAMHALL.

The Northern Policy Foundation think tank was set up in the wake of the Tory breaching of the Red Wall at the General Election.

It may be a new organisation, but its first policy initiative is based on an old idea. They want 50,000 civil servants moved to the North West. Large parts of the Department of Health could go to Liverpool, Education to Lancaster, with Culture and Justice coming to Manchester. Ominously they say “core teams” would stay in Whitehall.

The government are committed to moving 22,000 civil servants out of London by 2030, but over the decades progress has been slow and has often meant that only back office functions have been moved.

This policy will only benefit the North when the “core teams” headed by top mandarins make the move and view the nation’s problems from a different point of view.

KEEP NORTH TRANSPORT PLANS.

TOO SOON TO DECIDE LONG TERM PANDEMIC EFFECTS

Northern regeneration leaders continue to support full implementation of transport plans for the North despite major changes in people’s behaviour during the pandemic.

Continued support for HS2, Northern Powerhouse rail and a host of road schemes emerged during a Downtown virtual meeting this week.

Things might return to normal when Covid-19 is brought under control, but many commentators believe permanent changes have been accelerated by the crisis, particularly in retail and home working. If most shopping is done online in future, bosses scale back on city centre offices and climate change targets dictate less travel; will we need the road and rail developments planned for the North?

The Downtown panel were clear that for our regions to compete on a global scale, improved communications remained essential. Lucy Winskell, chair of the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), said it was too soon to predict how things would settle down, while Newcastle Council leader Nick Forbes remains a big fan of HS2. He forecast that form of rail travel would increasingly replace our Victorian rail system.

On the subject of Nick Forbes, he is a man who speaks with great authority and has obvious leadership qualities at a time when the Labour Party is struggling for such people. I don’t know if he harbours parliamentary ambitions, but meanwhile we are fortunate to have him as Leader of the Convention for the North as well as being leader of Newcastle.

Inevitably the discussion with LEP leaders from Cheshire, Leeds and the North East focussed on the impact of three lockdowns. Business had had to cope with unjustified uncertainty and false dawns and there was a feeling that it is going to take the whole of this year for us to approach normality.

There was also concern about government policy on devolution. The panellists felt Whitehall’s centralising tendencies were coming back along with “beauty contests” for government cash. What was needed was devolved decision making based on long term criteria without the need to capture tomorrow’s headlines.

REPUBLICAN DILEMMA.

One never expected to speculate on the possibility of civil war in America. It remains highly unlikely, but the “cradle of democracy” is in big trouble. The main threat is not from the mob of boneheads who invaded the Capitol, but from the sizable minority of American opinion that broadly supports Trumpism. This despite the alarming demonstration of where Donald Trump’s toxic mix of ego, charisma and contempt for institutions can lead.

The outgoing President may eventually be convicted of incitement of insurrection and banned from running for election in 2024, but conventional Republicans are still faced with a major decision.

Since the emergence of the Tea Party, Republicans have been moving to the right. Until last week’s appalling events it seemed to have been captured by Trump’s politics with its neo-fascist tendencies.

A big decision now faces moderate Republicans. Do they try and return the party to the centre right? That seems a big task. Alternatively, they could form a new party. The danger with such an approach is that, with the right split, the Democrats could enjoy prolonged periods in office.

WE’LL KEEP THE EU FLAG FLYING HERE.

THE BATTLE IS LOST,BUT THE CAUSE REMAINS.

Leavers must be allowed their moment of backslapping and self-congratulation as we sever our links with the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union.

Those of us who continue to think that Brexit was a profound mistake (a majority in some recent opinion polls) are going to have to live with this state of affairs for some years.

However, what I found most irritating was the invitation by Ministers for us all to forget past differences and come together as one happy family. Obviously, there is no point in maintaining the rancour of recent years, but I decline the implied invitation to renounce my belief that the UK would be better off in the European Union.

I assert my right to believe that the best interests of the UK are served by being a leading member of an institution that has brought prosperity, and above all peace, to the continent of Europe. An institution that has allowed our young people to feel part of a wider community, that has facilitated scientific and medical co-operation and has given aid to regions free of the petty prejudices of individual country’s ministers.

I therefore assert my right to associate myself with any movement that is started to rejoin the EU, not in an aggressive way or denying the result of the 2016 Referendum. But just as UKIP began as a small inconsequential force in the 1990s, so a campaign to return will I believe build as the stupidity of Brexit is revealed in the years to come.

THIN GRUEL.

Meanwhile let’s look at this great deal that the Prime Minister has achieved. There will be no tariffs, but business is having to cope with a massive increase in export form filling to cope with rules of origin regulations.

A treaty that deals in minute detail with the tiny fishing industry but is largely silent on the vastly more important financial services market, shows how thin the deal is. Johnson failed on his fishing targets, and financial services account for 80% of our exports.

A sovereign state? Not quite. Apart from our membership of NATO and the UN which did away with that idea; under the trade deal we must maintain EU health, employment and quality standards or we could be subject to a rebalancing mechanism to resolve disputes.

We are no longer subject to the European Court of Justice. Whoopee! Instead, we have the Partnership Council of EU and UK representatives and an international arbitration tribunal to arbitrate. Still feel sovereign?

There is no automatic recognition of professional qualifications or aerospace designs, our young people are excluded from the Erasmus learning scheme and taking a pet on holiday becomes really complicated.

It gets seriously worse when we come to security. We are out of Europol and Eurojust and there are fears that our ability to fight crime and terrorism will be more difficult now.

Finally, the agreement makes the breakup of the UK more likely. The Scots, having voted to Remain, are seething and Northern Ireland will still follow Single Market rules with checks across the Irish Sea and oversight by the European Court of Justice. The case for a united Ireland grows stronger.

A word on parliamentary scrutiny of all this. It has been a joke. One day at Westminster, no days in the European Parliament. That’s something MEPs need to change.

So, we’ll wait and see if these new arrangements are what a slim majority of people wanted. If not the movement to rejoin will grow, although next time it will be essential for us pro Europeans to make people feel much more a part of this great project.

2020:NATURE OVER MANKIND.

WHERE IS WUHAN?

It is almost surreal to think back to the beginning of this year. There was a major political story, our departure from the European Union, but in terms of our everyday life things were normal.

We met in large numbers at the football, attended busy theatres, met our mates close up in pubs, hugged our grandparents in care homes and commuted to work on those overcrowded northern trains. We’d always behaved like this; we took it for granted. Over Christmas there had been talk of a virus outbreak in some place called Wuhan in China. But that wasn’t going to force us to stay indoors, not get our education, not see the ones we loved, cost the economy £400bn…..was it?

The year began with a new government determined to get Brexit done. 2019 had been full of anger and constitutional crisis as those of us who believed in our membership of the European Union, made our last stand.

Although the most significant act for the future of our country in over 40 years happened this year; the bill was passed, and the deed done with barely a whimper. Perhaps the controversy will return next year when we face the consequences of leaving the EU; but not in 2020. This year’s central issue made the mighty Brexit row look puny. Covid-19 would remind us that we are not in full control of our destiny.

Early in February Arrowe Park hospital on the Wirral became an isolation hospital for people returning from China. But it all looked contained and people could go away on their skiing holidays. Big mistake, they returned with the deadly virus that rapidly spread, especially in London. What should Boris Johnson do? His popularity lay in his optimistic demeanour. Dealing with the detail of a pandemic and shutting the nation done was something he fatally hesitated about.

The early part of the epidemic was dominated by a lack of protective clothing, deadly policies in relation to care homes and talk of “herd immunity” being a good thing.

Hardly anyone noticed that Kier Starmer was elected leader of the Labour Party. Not surprising  really, the Prime Minister was in intensive care with the virus as the death toll peaked and we clapped every week for the NHS.

At least the weather was beautiful and eventually Johnson declared the pandemic was past its peak and restrictions could be eased.

A SECOND WAVE AND PERHAPS A THIRD.

But then children returned to school and students to university. The awful nightmare of restrictions, which hadn’t gone away for all, was back. The second lockdown lacked the national consensus of the first, indeed the mayor of Greater Manchester got into a confrontation with the government, the consequences of which are yet to play out.

The year is ending with people depressed and weary. The Chancellor’s economic statement in November portends a decade of difficulty. Then there was the collapse of retail giants like Arcadia and Debenhams. The approval of a vaccine lifted the gloom, only for a new mutation to ruin the festive season for millions.

The only ray of hope is that the western world is about to be led by a man we can respect.

Happy Christmas.