Hancock’s Half Page

THE HEALTH BILL: THERE’S STILL A PULSE!

Next weekend those cocky members of the Coalition, the Lib Dems, are likely to try and crash the Health Bill into the buffers.

They nearly derailed it last year. Their Spring Conference forced the government to “pause” consideration of the legislation. The next few days will see a tussle between activists and Lib Dem party managers trying to keep the issue off the agenda at their Gateshead conference.

It is all too much for some Conservatives who are fed up to the back teeth with their Coalition partners. The Lib Dems have already begun their approach to the 2015 General Election, trying to remain in the Coalition but distancing themselves from unpopular measures. But the more they attempt to curry favour with their grassroots, the more they infuriate those Tories who have little time for this forced marriage with the Lib Dems.

This week I was at a meeting with a Tory councillor present. She was criticising government policy. When I pointed out that it was her government, the forces of hell descended on me. She glared at me and declared “It is not MY government.”

Whether the Health Bill is debated at Gateshead or not, the legislation is already causing casualties in Lib Dem ranks in the North West.

Paul Clein was a leading member of the Lib Dem administration that governed Liverpool for over a decade and a plausible candidate for leader of his group in the city. He has now resigned from the party that he has been a member of all his life.

He believes that although Shirley Williams has wrung some concessions from ministers on the health bill, the legislation should have been opposed by the party from the start because it was not in the Coalition agreement.

But Clein is not rushing off to join the Labour Party. In his resignation message, he says they “nauseate” him for “acting holier than thou”, pointing out how much private provision they introduced into the health service.

This criticism is unlikely to worry Andy Burnham. The Leigh MP is having “a good war” as Shadow Secretary of State for Health. When he stood for the Labour leadership 2 years ago, he was little known outside the North West. Now the fresh faced Everton supporter is growing in stature within the party and I wouldn’t rule out him becoming leader one day.

But let’s get back to the Lib Dems. Party President Tim Farron is set for a very difficult time in Gateshead. Having let slip on Granada’s Party People programme that the legislation should be dropped, the role of the Westmorland MP will be pivotal next weekend.

As will Shirley Williams, who is remembered in these parts for her brief period as MP for Crosby. Having achieved some concessions she might prove a problem for Lib Dem rebels trying to stop the bill. Altogether she has had a long career in British politics, and although she has never held the highest ministerial offices, Williams is widely respected.

The Conservatives remain convinced that the NHS is in need of reform and they are probably right, but not by this complex bill. Vested interests, including some doctors, have always opposed reform. That was true in 1948 when Labour’s Nye Bevan had to “stuff their mouths with gold” to found the NHS in the first place.

It is a right old mess. Following an unwelcome modern trend, there has been a presumption that the bill would become law. Many of the Primary Care Trusts have already wound up. So going back would be very difficult.

Like that other tortured soul, Macbeth, the Health Secretary Andrew Lansley is probably concluding “returning would be as tedious as go o’er”.

Bring on the witches!

EUROFIGHT ON AND MANCHESTER “YES” TO MAYOR?

The aerospace industry is vital to the North West economy, so the chance to partly assemble 126 Eurofighter Typhoon jets for the Indian Air Force must be fought for.

On a visit to Westminster this week I gained evidence that much is going on behind the scenes even though preferred bidder status has been given to the French.

Ben Wallace, the MP for Wyre and Preston North, along with his colleague Mark Menzies (Fylde) met the Prime Minister on Monday. Eyebrows had been raised when news came through that the French had stolen a march on us, because David Cameron visited India with a big trade delegation soon after coming into office.

Now more details are emerging about the situation which could have implications for the workforce at Salmesbury, Warton and beyond. The strength of the French bid apparently lies in their tie up with the Reliance Group, India’s largest private sector conglomerate. With annual revenues of $58bn it is far larger than Tata, the Indian company which owns the Jaguar plant at Halewood.

However this deal is far from done and with David Cameron on the case, efforts will be made to expose the weaknesses of the French position. I’m told Reliance has no track record in aerospace and there is very little detail on price which could be significant as the French are desperate to get a foreign order for their Rafale jet. 700 of the Eurofighters have already been sold.

Ben Wallace emerged from his meeting with the PM confident there was all to play for. Apparently in similar negotiations for these aircraft the preferred bidder has been overtaken on six occasions.

Wallace is a Conservative MP in the tradition of former members like David Trippier (Rossendale) and Malcolm Thornton (Crosby). They are Tories that believe that to be successful in the North West; it helps to come from the liberal One Nation part of the party.

Wallace has been in the House since 2005 but faces a brutal internal party battle to maintain his political career. Boundary changes are likely to see him, Mark Menzies (Fylde) and Eric Ollerenshaw (Fleetwood and Lancaster) competing for just two seats.

During our time together at the Commons  we bumped into Wallace’s neighbour Jack Straw (Blackburn). Jack seems to be almost equally concerned aboutIranand Blackburn Rovers these days. He feels his successor as Foreign Secretary, William Hague, is underestimating the growing crisis surrounding Iran.

On the crisis at Ewood Park Jack had made an unusual move for an MP, in calling for manager Steve Keen to go. He seemed unimpressed when I remarked that Rovers had been doing a bit better recently.

Around the Commons corridors much of the talk is about elected mayors and Police Crime Commissioners. Ben Wallace told me he’s lining up an ex-soldier colleague of his to contest the position for the Lancashire Police Authority.

On the mayoral front I had an interesting chat with former Labour Minister and Wythenshawe MP Paul Goggins. There has been a general feeling that Manchester will vote “no” in the May referendum on whether to have a directly elected mayor with council leader Sir Richard Leese being against the idea.

However Goggins does not rule out a “yes” vote in Manchester pointing out that in neighbouring Salford last month every ward voted “yes” in a referendum triggered by a local businessman. So although the turnout was low, support was consistent across that city.

Following the “yes” vote, candidates have piled in to be the Labour nominees. The former Eccles MP Ian Stewart, has been joined by Salford council leader John Merry and former Labour National Executive Committee member Peter Wheeler.

JOBS, MAYORS AND WIRRAL IN A WHIRL

Who’s going to pull us out of this economic mess? Big companies, SMEs, or the North West’s answer to Mark Zuckerberg lurking on one of our university campuses like Lancaster or UCLAN?

Unemployment might top three million by year end according to some forecasters.

Certainly last week’s jobless figures did nothing to raise spirits in manufacturing areas like Lancashire.

Hard on the heels of the unemployment statistics came news of disappointing sales results at BAE Systems. That’s a big company employing thousands of people at Warton, Salmesbury and Chorley.

They’ve been hit by falling defence orders and may lose a major contract for Eurofighter Typhoons for the Indian air force to the French. It should be pointed out however that Dassault Aviation is only the preferred bidder and frantic efforts are being made to ensure all is not lost.

Then there’s AstraZeneca employing three thousand people at Alderley Park in Cheshire. There’s another giant in the job cutting business because producing new highly profitable drugs is getting more difficult.

Finally in this catalogue of tottering titans, we have General Motors which owns the Vauxhall plant at Ellesmere Port. Despite a highly efficient and cooperative workforce, the American based management is reported to be contemplating cuts in its European operations here and in Germany.

So what’s to be done? BAE, AstraZeneca and Vauxhall are big potatoes in the North West economic stew. If they are downsizing, where are the jobs to come from?

The Institute for Public Policy Research North published a report last week that might provide part of the answer.

The document “Beyond bricks and mortar boards: universities and the future of regional economic development”, points out that knowledge-based industries employing staff with high level skills will see the most significant growth in job creation by the end of the decade.

So universities like UCLAN will be central to skill creation, but the report says there needs to be wider recognition of the role universities can play in the North West economy.

As well as producing highly skilled people, the report identifies their economic impact in university towns like Lancaster where high incomes are generated and the institution is a significant employer.

Like everyone else, universities have had to adjust to the new regional policy landscape which has seen the Regional Development Agency and North West Universities Association swept away.

The report challenges the new Local Enterprise Partnerships to make the best use of the universities in this region.

At the launch of the report in Manchester there was an acceptance of this approach, but efforts by a few attendees to trash the reputation of the RDA were resisted. The Vice Chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan University, Prof. John Brooks, was not alone in criticising the lack of regional focus in the new arrangements.

From the rarefied company of academics in Manchester I was quickly back to low politics on Merseyside.

First I dropped in on Alec Salmond charming an audience in St George’s Hall with his demand for Scottish independence. The First Minister is a clever politician lacing his address with references toLiverpooland all the fine football managers his country has bequeathed the city.

I wanted to ask him a key question but wasn’t lucky enough to be called so I’ll ask it here. “Mr Salmond, you have a mandate for a yes/no referendum on Scottish independence. What you don’t have is a mandate to ask a question about ‘ devo max’ which could muddle the answer and would show your lack of confidence that you can get full independence. What’s your answer?’’

Then it was on to Wallasey Town Hall to see the latest chapter in the soap that is Wirral politics. Steve Foulkes has been deposed as Labour leader after just nine months back in office by a coalition of Tories and Lib Dems which may only have three months in power before Labour sweeps back in the May elections.

Wirral was one of the councils most opposed to a city region mayor. I fear they will become increasingly marginalised conducting their power struggles whilst Liverpool benefits from the cash that will follow the election of a mayor.

On that subject I have only one thing to say this week and it is to Phil Redmond. In a Liverpool newspaper, the Tarporley resident tells us he wants to be provided with a series of answers before he deigns to tell us if he’s a candidate or not.

Find out for yourself Phil, and then decide one way or the other. Unlike arty seminars, politics requires decisions.

A TALE OF TWO CITIES

In the week when we are celebrating the two hundredth anniversary of Charles Dickens, I’m writing about two cities; not London and Paris but Manchester and Liverpool.

If you want to know the real issues facing business in Manchester city centre ask Pat Karney.

He’s the councillor responsible for the heart of the metropolis and everyone beats a path to his office.

At a major gathering of city centre employers this week, Cllr Karney gave them an insight into the diverse range of problems that came across his desk in just one morning. In addition to the uproar over charging for Sunday parking, one shop keeper came to complain about human excrement outside the Hidden Gem church and representatives of the gay community objected to a club being turned into a budget hotel.

Despite these minor inconveniences, Manchester seems to be surviving the recession very well. Indeed council leader Sir Richard Leese suggested that the city centre could accommodate a thousand new residential units a year for the next decade. There is 96% occupancy of the existing provision. Leese claimed that Manchester employment had returned to pre recession levels.

Leese does not want the city to vote for an elected mayor, he prefers the Combined Authority model that has been in place for nearly a year now. All the local authorities in Greater Manchester are working together to drive an impressive range of projects.

There’s the enterprise zone at Manchester Airport where the infrastructure for a major retail, leisure and warehousing scheme will be in place by next year. In addition there’s MediaCity and the Sharp Project in east Manchester for budding media businesses. So successful has the latter been that Sharp 2 is planned. Nearby Manchester City football club is developing the Etihad Project.

At Manchester University a government backed plan is underway to capitalise on the discovery of graphine (very thin and very strong). Are we going to make some money for once out of a product developed in Britain?

Salford’s soon to be elected mayor will inherit a city still struggling with some big social problems but with a number of infrastructure schemes including the Chapel Street gateway and a plan to open up a riverside route from MediaCity up to Salford University.

Meanwhile Liverpool Council took the formal decision to go for an elected mayor. Liberal Democrat opposition to scrapping the planned referendum was half hearted and the debate did not match some that I have witnessed in the historic council chamber.
Council leader Joe Anderson had the wind in his sails having just signed off the £130m deal with the government that he insists was only possible because the city was going to have an elected mayor.

One felt the politicians already had their eye on who was going to stand. Joe Anderson will clearly be Labour’s candidate. He might face ex leader and Lib Dem peer Mike Storey. The suggestion was certainly not denied by a senior party source. If Storey can’t be lured from the best club in London, then Cllr Richard Kemp might consider standing.

The Liberals will field Cllr Steve Radford who gave his support to the new post on Tuesday night, and there is likely to be a Conservative candidate.

But the campaign will be enlivened by independents. There are two at the moment and they make an unlikely couple. There’s former broadcaster Liam Fogarty who has campaigned for the last 10 years for an elected mayor. A clever man of substance, he cares passionately about his city. It will be fascinating to see how he stands up to the robust style of bruiser Anderson.

Then there’s celebrity hairstylist Herbert Howe who has promised to take no salary and to be independent of all party factions.

Before you dismiss his chances remember that Robocop got elected in Middlesbrough. H’Angus the Monkey won in Hartlepool and an English Democrat became mayor of Doncaster.