Hancock’s Half Page

BUDGET GETS THE VIRUS.

Next Wednesday’s Budget was set to be a defining statement of the new Boris Johnson government. Administrations are at their most powerful immediately after an election victory, particularly one as decisive as last December. The opposition is weak and the mandate clear.

However, a range of uncertainties have crowded in and the Chancellor Rishi Sunak may have to be more cautious and less visionary than his short-lived predecessor Sajid Javid. The postponement of publication of the national infrastructure strategy is a sign of the uncertainty.

The Coronavirus impact on the economy is unknown and the outcome of the EU talks is uncertain. There is a major spending review due in the autumn and probably another budget.

So, the Chancellor may conduct a holding operation next week. That said we should begin to see how the government propose to square the circle on promises for major infrastructure development with their fiscal rules. Perhaps Mr Sunak will be more willing to break them than his predecessor, pointing out that borrowing is currently so cheap that it is the best time to “level up” the country.

It is time we saw action on the Northern Powerhouse agenda.The delay in publication of infrastructure plans is so frustrating and so predictable. “Go big or go home”, Lord Kerslake advised in launching his major document on devolved spending last week. He is right although even if the government splash the cash, there is concern that there are the construction workers and engineers to carry the projects through.

Somehow, we will have to pay for the investment and disruption caused by the virus and our EU exit. Mansion taxes and limits on pension tax relief have been floated. The most likely is the ending of the freeze on fuel duty. Petrol prices have been depressed by the virus and it is a green thing to do.

However, it is not always easy to stick to the green agenda. Air Passenger Duty helped to bring down Flybe, and the aviation industry is one of the most affected by the virus epidemic. Should APD be cut or reformed and how would that sit with our carbon neutral objectives?

Remember that the IR35 off payroll rules are being extended to the private sector next month. It aims to stop people dodging tax by operating through personal service companies. It was a device much used by TV celebrities, but the taxman is after them.

It would be great if the Chancellor had the courage to use the first budget of the Johnson premiership to show some vision on the great problems our country faces, housing, business rate reform and social care.

UP THE TOWNS!

Downtown hosted an interesting event at Shape Consulting Engineers in Tuebrook this week. The panel were all champions of boosting our towns rather than always concentrating on the big cities.

Steven Broomhead, the CEO of Warrington Council, has headed up a grouping of towns in the North West and the meeting heard of good work being done in Warrington Skelmersdale and Birkenhead.

Special mention must go to the regeneration potential of the Shakespeare project in Prescot. It is Max Steinberg’s latest project after his success with the International Festival of Business. He told the meeting of the great regeneration and educational potential of the project.

Max didn’t use this appropriate quote from Julius Caesar, so I will, “There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries”.

That one for the Chancellor to ponder on this weekend.

NANDY TRIUMPH IN MANCHESTER.

The Wigan MP Lisa Nandy may not win the Labour leadership, but she will be a big player in the decade long attempt to make the party a credible candidate for government.

Based on what I saw at the Manchester hustings this week, if the contest was just based on the quality of the candidates and their policies, Nandy would win. However, we can’t ignore the strategic battle that is going on.

It mirrors exactly the Democrats dilemma in America. Do you want ideological purity, or do you want to win? Tories and Republicans find this an easy question to answer. Their desire to govern is much more important than individual policies. Labour has always had a lively debate between pragmatists and activists. It has sharpened in recent years as Tony Blair, who delivered three election victories, is denounced as a traitor whilst Jeremy Corbyn is given ten out of then for two defeats. The Labour Party is 120 years old this year and has been in power for a pitiful 33 years.

Despite this the ideological battel rages on and is likely to damage Nandy’s chance of the top prize. Purists see Salford’s Rebecca Long-Bailey as the woman to cherish the Corbyn legacy. The argument is that the radical policies that were so popular in the 2017 election were only thwarted by Brexit in 2019. The fundamental flaw in this argument is that, although Mrs May was thwarted in her attempt to increase the Tories majority, she still won and 2019 wasn’t just about Brexit. It was also about Corbyn and an incredible list of manifesto promises.

If Long-Bailey wins, Labour members will have decided to be an irrelevant pressure group that can never win power, so who out of Starmer and Nandy is best to stop her? The indications are that most support is going to Starmer as people fear splitting the anti Long-Bailey vote if they plump for Nandy.

Things may change especially if the Wigan MP continues to perform as she did in Manchester. Nandy is prepared to tell the party some home truths whereas Starmer is often equivocal. I wonder whether he will be strong enough to expel the anti-Semites and Trots.

An example of Nandy’s clarity came when the candidates were asked about the idea that every Labour MP should face an open selection before every General Election. Long-Bailey favours it whereas Nandy said no. She added that if Jo Platt had not been distracted by a reselection battle, she might have saved the Leigh seat from going Tory.

I asked the candidates about devolution. In my opinion Labour have lacked a clear devolution plan since John Prescott’s regional structure. It is part of the reason areas of the North have deserted them. We now have the mess of elected mayors, Local Enterprise Partnerships, two tier and one tier local government.

All the candidates agreed it was a mess, but their answers were instructive. Keir Starmer talked vaguely about a bottom up approach. Long Bailey wanted to abolish the House of Lords, but to be fair did speak of regional government offices. However, Nandy had the most thought through answer. She supported elected mayors but more needed to be done about accountability to outlying town s like Wigan. She would abolish LEP’s and give the powers to councils and felt the model of the RDA’s in economic development had merit in the future.

Labour members are now voting, and let’s hope there’s a late surge for Nandy. If not, she must have a senior place in the Shadow Cabinet.

SOLUTION TO BBC FUNDING.

Just as the nation went under water and BBC local radio stations provided round the clock information and help, “government sources” (Dominic Cummings) said they should all be sold off as there were plenty of commercial local radio stations.

When I started in journalism at Piccadilly Radio in 1974, we did indeed have a fully staffed newsroom and we were based in the heart of Greater Manchester. Independent radio’s connections with local communities is now tenuous as mergers have seen control exercised from London.

This latest cheap shot across the BBC’s bows is all to do with a cocky new government settling old scores with the Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation as many Tories see it. The boycott of the Today programme by ministers even extended to no government appearance about the floods, which amounts to a dereliction of duty.

With Britain’s reputation in tatters after Brexit, we must defend one of the few remaining institutions that commands global respect.

That does not mean the BBC is perfect. The salaries of top management and star presenters is unacceptable and there is room for some slimming down. For instance, what is BBC 4 for. It mainly consists of history documentaries that used to be shown on BBC 2.

We also must recognise that younger people claim they never use BBC services, although on closer examination this doesn’t always prove to be true. Nevertheless, the BBC is living with a very different broadcasting landscape than a hundred years ago. I would be happy for the licence fee to continue after 2027 but if it must go, what are the alternatives? Scrapping the BBC altogether would make some of the press happy. Rupert Murdoch has always seen the Corporation as an obstruction to his media empire. In addition, papers like the Mail and Telegraph run anti- BBC stories every day rather like their anti-EU coverage which proved effective.

Other solutions include the BBC taking advertising. I think the BBC should make far more of the fact that its drama shows are not interrupted by five minutes of ads. The fantastic CBeebies and CBBC are free of commercials Finally such a move would be a massive financial blow to ITV.

Funding the BBC by subscription would mean the corporation serving a narrow section of the community whereas its current remit is to offer something for everyone. It covers areas of national life that the market wouldn’t touch.

My solution would be state funding in such a way as to protect the BBC from the politicians. I would accompany 7-year charters with an annual block grant to the BBC that would be protected in law from a greedy Chancellor. The BBC would choose all its top management. Currently the Chair and four members are government appointments.

The BBC has traditionally opposed state funding as it fears being seen as an arm of the state. The current position is hardly satisfactory in that respect with the government deciding on the level of the licence fee, appointing the chair and telling the corporation to fund over 75s licence fees.

I had the chance to put my idea to the Director General, Tony Hall, at a recent BBC Showcase event in Liverpool where he delivered a powerful defence of the BBC against the newcomers that are disrupting the broadcasting scene. Hall claimed that whilst Netflix had 73m viewers for The Crown, the BBC’s Killing Eve got 100m worldwide and Blue Planet a billion.

The BBC, he said, was the greatest supporter of British creativity and he posed the question whether media companies with global interests would show a similar commitment.

CUMMINGS,THE SACKER OF CHANCELLORS.

After Dominic Cummings lost the battle to scrap HS2, there was speculation that the Prime Minister’s aide was losing influence. Well he came roaring back today. The Chancellor refused to sack his aides and put the Treasury more under the influence of No 10 and resigned. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown battled it out for ten years without resignation, Sajid Javid has lasted months.

Cummings will relish the destabilisation of the government. That’s how Trump behaves in America. Business and the markets might be less impressed, although Rishi Sunak may be a better choice than Javid in the long run.

Two other sackings also raise eyebrows. Julian Smith has been the first Northern Ireland Secretary since Mo Mowlem to achieve anything and I thought Andrea Leadsom was an articulate Business Secretary.

 COUNT THE SPOONS ON RAIL INVESTMENT.

The government have made a massive and welcome commitment to rail and bus investment, particularly in the North. It is a victory for Downtown and other organisations that finally seem to have got Whitehall’s attention on the North South divide.

However, it is essential that we remain vigilant and read the small print from the Prime Minister’s announcement this week. Concern centres around the introduction of the description “Phase B2” to the HS2 project. The government want to wrap Northern Powerhouse rail and the HS2 lines from Crewe to Leeds/Manchester. This may be fine as supporters have always said the north/south line must be integrated with east/west. But along with that integration comes a strong signal that the government want to bear down on the cost of the northern arms of HS2.

Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester has warned that we want the same gold standard for the whole project from London and not a silver standard substitute. There has been speculation that the trains might run slower north of Crewe to save money.

Burnham has also pointed out that there remains considerable disagreement with the government over Northern Powerhouse Rail. He backs a completely new line to Leeds via badly connected Bradford, whereas the government seem to be focused on an upgrade of the line through Huddersfield.

It will be up to the “Red Wall” Tory MPs to hold their government’s feet to the fire over this.

COME OFF THE FENCE FOR NANDY, ANDY.

Andy Burnham was on with Andrew Neil this week and after discussion on rail, the interview turned to the Labour leadership. The Great Inquisitor reasonably asked Burnham to confirm he was supporting Lisa Nandy. After all she ticks all Andy’s boxes being from the north, isn’t a Corbynista and supports devolution.

The mayor said he hadn’t made his mind up yet, implying it was because he wanted to exercise maximum leverage on the candidates. Nandy needs your support now Andy, so come off the fence.