Hancock’s Half Page

WILL ANDERSON BE ABLE TO STAND?

A POLICEMAN’S LOT

There must be a real possibility that Joe Anderson will be unable to stand in May’s mayoral election in Liverpool.

The city leader was arrested earlier this month on suspicion of conspiracy to commit bribery and witness intimidation as part of a Merseyside Police investigation into development and building contracts. Mr Anderson says he is cooperating fully with the police and believes “time would make it clear that I have no case to answer”.

Time is the key word there. How long will it be before these matters are resolved? Cllr Wendy Simon is standing in as acting Mayor and Anderson’s bail period runs until December 31st. It is possible matters will be resolved by then. However, the police do not have a good record for speedily resolving local government issues like this.

It was nearly four years ago that Lancashire Police arrested the then Chief Executive of Liverpool Council Ged Fitzgerald, the leader of Lancashire Council Geoff Driver, ex Liverpool interim boss David McElhinney and former Lancashire Chief Executive Phil Halsall. They were arrested as part of that force’s seven-year probe involving the now defunct One Connect organisation. All four deny charges and were released under investigation in October.

Now incidentally Geoff Driver is suing the Crown Prosecution Service for allegedly revealing,improperly, that investigators were weighing criminal charges against him.

I’m going into this detail to illustrate that the police do not appear to find the world of local government easy to investigate. The result is that officers and politicians can be left for years in limbo with an unresolved shadow over their reputations.

As I say it might be different in the Anderson case but if it follows the path of the Lancashire probe then it is possible Mr Anderson will be denied the chance to stand for office in May. He is under administrative suspension by the Labour Party which he supports. However, that surely would debar him from standing? He could then be cleared laterbut his political career would be finished, potentially, through no fault of his own.

SIMPLE…IT’S SIMON

There is no immediate urgency to choose a new Labour candidate. With due respect to the other parties, Liverpool will have a Labour mayor in May. The Liberal Democrats say the crisis shows the need to abolish the post. Meanwhile it is important for business in the city to know who they might be dealing with in the longer term. It currently looks as if the acting Mayor Wendy Simon is in pole position. She is loyal to Anderson and hopes he will be cleared to stand but if not, she is regarded as a safe pair of hands. That will be an important factor. The government has been taking a keen interest in the events in Liverpool, seeking assurances of stability from the Chief Executive Tony Reeves. Mr Reeves then had to reassure councillors that investors in regeneration schemes like Paddington Village and the Knowledge Quarter had been told the city remained a sound partner to work with.

The fact that such reassurance was needed is a sad commentary on a city that can’t quite leave its past behind.

HIGH STREET….OUR STREET.

BACK TO THE FUTURE

Not seventy years ago, our high streets looked quite different. Retail was key of course, and gaining in importance as people got more spending power and demanded more choice after the war

But in between British Home Stores and Woolworths, were signs of community activities. Churches, clubs, people living over the shop. A day and night economy was sustained.

But as shoppers became more and more demanding, shop rents shot up and many small retailers lost out to national chains so that every High Street looked the same. Meanwhile the temples to consumerism were going up out of town. Meadowhall and the Trafford Centre did serious damage to places around them like Altrincham to which I will return.

The final perfect storm for our high streets has been created by on-line shopping and now the pandemic.

DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’VE GOT TILL ITS GONE

The collapse this week of Arcadia and Debenhams has left no doubt that a massive rethink is needed in our town and city centres. But in this darkest hour is there reason to hope. National and local politicians are focused on the issue. The major Tory revolt on Tuesday has historic resonance for the Conservative Party. Its roots lie in supporting the small Victorian entrepreneurs and more recently it worshipped the values of a grocer’s daughter from Grantham. They don’t want pubs and shops swept away after this pandemic.

But more important than political attention, there seems to have been a change in public mood this year. Whilst not denying the lure of online shopping, there has been a real yearning for the small shops to reopen, a sympathy with what they have been going through. The pandemic has made us all appreciate the hard work involved in running retail businesses. When it has been taken away from us, perhaps we value it more.

There seems to be general agreement that the high streets of the future must be a mix of retail, culture, food, and public realm. A few years ago, Altrincham had tumbleweed metaphorically blowing down George Street. With the revitalisation of the market, things are on the up.

Central government can help. There is currently a Future High Street Fund and a Towns Fund, but local knowledge is important. Councils and smaller community groups beneath them must be empowered by law and money to shape their destinies. I am not particularly optimistic on this front having seen the failure of the government to appreciate how Town Halls could have helped much more in the pandemic crisis, but we shall see.

Difficult choices lie ahead. Take for instance the controversy over cycle lanes going into Manchester city centre. It has been introduced under the cloak of COVID-19, but it is part of a long-term strategy to get people to stop travelling into town by car. Will cycle lanes and high parking charges help the revival of our high streets/ Perhaps they will. People appreciate pedestrian zones….when they get there.

Then there is the challenge of the vacated massive department store buildings. People may want the ground floor. Up above there are opportunities for performance art and flats. How will landlords react to that? Are they going to be prepared to reshape their economic model to one of more reasonable rents and lease reform?

In the meantime, our hearts go out to the thousands of retail staff facing a bleak Christmas, the latest group f front line workers to feel the force of Covid19.

MORE NORTHERN AGONY

TIS THE SEASON TO WEEP.

Vast swathes of the north are to remain in virtual lockdown following the government’s latest change of course as it grapples with COVID-19. As the newly formed research group UnitedCity have said it is going to be “cataclysmic” for pubs and restaurants during what would have been their busiest time of the year.

The Tier 3 status was not unexpected as infection rates remain high, but business organisations are demanding more financial support and greater consistency. This must be right. Business is finding it very difficult to cope with the constant changes. Although a further review is promised for Dec 16th and there is the Christmas interlude; it looks as if the north is going to be under tough restrictions until Easter. Further financial support for the hospitality industry, in particular, is needed.

A word about Liverpool where Mayor Joe Anderson will have his critics for being the subject of more praise from Tory ministers.

Joe’s enemies need to reflect that there are fine margins here in terms of political tactics. Joe gets Tier 2 through cooperation; Andy Burnham is still in Tier 3 after a showdown with ministers.

CREDIT WHERE IT IS DUE.

The new tier system is an immediate headache for business but this week it is vital to look at important developments which will frame our economic world for years to come.

The government deserves credit on a number of fronts. The change in the Treasury criteria for backing infrastructure projects is hugely significant. The north has lost out for years because its case for investment couldn’t deliver the immediate economic development available to London and the South East. Now civil servants will have to consider other criteria like the government’s levelling up agenda when deciding on projects.

Next Ben Wallace, Defence Secretary and Preston North MP. Westminster gossip had this affable and competent minister for the chop, no doubt because of lingering resentment that he had supported Remain in the referendum. Not only is Ben still in place but he has negotiated a £24bn four-year defence spending deal that will help with a vital industry in the North West.

There was also good news in the Chancellor’s statement about a UK Infrastructure Bank to be based in the north. But just when you think the government is getting the devolution message it decides to operate the levelling up fund centrally. That old begging bowl approach must go.

The Chancellor’s statement was as chilly as the Great Frost of 1709 when the economy was last in this state.

The government has been right to borrow these eyewatering amounts to support jobs and will need to do yet more (see above). However, the government must look to some level of prudence as it props up employment.

Therefore, I back the reduction in foreign aid. We will still be a generous contributor at 0.5% of GDP and we are better equipped than most to deploy our forces in the event of natural disaster. It must also be said that not all this aid has been spent well by recipient countries.

It has been a week of major developments across many fronts and we’ve had no chance to discuss the minor matter of a Brexit trade deal!

CUMMINGS WAS BAD FOR THE NORTH

CUMMING AND GOING.

Fears have been expressed that we’ve lost our northern champion at the heart of government with the departure of Prime Ministerial aide Dominic Cummings.

I disagree. What is needed to promote the levelling up agenda in Whitehall is a combination of a high-ranking member of the Cabinet, with the backing of the Prime Minister and the obedience of the anti-devolution civil service.

Cummings thought he could drive through the Prime Minister’s levelling up agenda by being insulting to MPs and civil servants. It was always going to end in tears.

NORTHERN POWERHOUSE.

Over the years we came closest to effective support for a regional agenda when the then Chancellor, George Osborne, invented the Northern Powerhouse. Prime Minister David Cameron was mildly supportive and for a while the civil service got on with building the infrastructure through elected mayors and limited investment to make it work. Then along came Theresa May. She wasn’t interested and three years were wasted.

ON THE LEVEL.

Boris Johnson won the General Election with extraordinary success in breaking down the northern wall and was more or less obliged to promise a levelling up agenda for the North. The pandemic has slowed that initiative which is perhaps understandable. What is less excusable is the inaction over the Shared Prosperity Fund whereby the UK government is meant to replace the current regional support given by the European Union to a host of projects in the north.

THE PRESCOTT PLAN

The biggest champion of the north was John Prescott who, in the late nineties, put in place regional development agencies (RDAs) backed by civil servants in regional government offices. He wanted to give the RDAs democratic responsibility and media profile by having elected regional assemblies.

This excellent framework was destroyed by Tony Blair and Dominic Cummings. Blair’s enthusiasm for devolution didn’t stretch beyond Scotland and Northern Ireland and he stymied the setting up of assemblies by requiring referendums. This played into the hands of a young activist, Dominic Cummings, who already had a contempt for elected politicians. Despite the fact that Prescott’s proposals would have swept away hundreds of councillors by creating unitary local government under the assemblies; Cummings mounted an effective, but dishonest, opposition campaign against an assembly in the North East by saying it would just mean an extra tier of politicians.

JAKE BERRY, THE NEW NORTH CHAMPION?

The Rossendale MP Jake Berry served for three years as Northern Powerhouse Minister and has now formed the Northern Research Group of MPs. They say they will hold the Prime Minister to his promises to level up the north.

These northern Tories know how desperate things are becoming with businesses folding under the pandemic pressure and people getting more and more frustrated with the government’s mishandling of the crisis whilst it indulges in Downing Street faction fighting.

Meanwhile Ministers have work to do to repair relations with the only tangible signs of regional power, the elected mayors.

I have issues with the mayoral model over the regional one. For instance, the saga over a housing plan for Greater Manchester. However, these mayors are champions of their patches, as long as they don’t get stroppy, as Andy Burnham showed the other week.

The demand for more devolution for the north is growing as the pandemic goes on. We will see if Whitehall finally gets it.