Hancock’s Half Page

GEORGE AND THE BATTLING GRANNIES

You’ve got to hand it to the toff from Tatton, he doesn’t lack political courage.

At one stroke George Osborne has knocked the walking stick out of the hands of pensioners and rewarded his millionaire friends with a massive tax cut.

And yet for all the controversy the income tax cut and the age related tax allowance freeze will create, the Chancellor gave a confident performance. The signal was given out that the government’s determination to bring down the deficit was on course and the Coalition was holding together.

The ludicrously leaked budget was all about Tories and Lib Dems showing how much influence they had on the decision making process. Both parties got prizes. The Tories cut the 50p rate, the Lib Dems are now close to their pledge that people earning less than £10,000 should not pay income tax.

Osborne must now pray for growth and that the newly enriched millionaires will not only “stay and pay” but will invest to help the recovery. We must remember the government has only just begun the cuts agenda. There is the prospect of a further £10bn cut in welfare benefits.

The Chancellor ran up the white flag on the 50p rate effectively saying that private sector accountants had outwitted Treasury officials who draft our tax laws. We’ll see how effective the government’s pledge is to clamp down on aggressive tax avoidance.

He must also hope there will not be a big backlash over the “granny tax”. There is an argument that the golden generation born into the welfare state after the war, enjoying full employment and retiring on good company pensions should share the burden with the young suffering from tuition fees, unemployment and the prospect of retiring at 70 on average salary pensions.

The problem for politicians is that the old vote and the young don’t. The scrapping of the age related allowance is going to hit soon-to-retire couples really hard.

Labour still isn’t trusted on the economy but Ed Miliband did well in the House of Commons when he invited Tory MPs to acknowledge they would personally benefit from the income tax cut.

 

BUDGET IN THE NORTH WEST

The Chancellor’s announcement of investment in the Preston-Blackpool, Manchester-Bradford and Manchester-Sheffield rail lines is welcome. The links between Manchester and South Yorkshire are particularly bad. The full commitment to the vital Northern Hub at Piccadilly Station is still awaited though.

Manchester has done well, getting £150m over five years from the Treasury in return for promised economic growth through tax increment financing. The city is also to be part of the government’s superfast broadband project.

Surprisingly Liverpool wasn’t  included, another blow after the city’s failure in its bid for the Green Investment Bank.

 

VIV BINGHAM OBE

The funeral was held yesterday of one of the finest Liberals the North West has produced.

Although he never made it to parliament, Viv Bingham served the party at every level from fighting hopeless seats to becoming Party President.

A principled man, he was sometimes a thorn in the side of his party leaders particularly on the issue of nuclear weapons. He was a confirmed unilateralist.

But overwhelmingly people responded to his friendship and warm hearted personality.

Over thirty years he fought a range of seats from Heywood and Royton and Hazel Grove to West Derbyshire and Stalybridge and Hyde.

The highlight of his career was his year as President of the Liberal Party 1981-82.

Viv brought all his diplomatic skills to bear in his party’s sometimes difficult relations with the newly formed Social Democratic Party.

The many tributes in recent days are eloquent testament to the passing of a true Liberal.

HILLSBOROUGH AND MEDIA MATTERS

HILLSBOROUGH

A brief word on the latest revelations around Hillsborough, and then I’ll move on to my main topic.

It appears a senior police officer in the Merseyside force helped to fuel the slander against Liverpool fans while rank and file bobbies were expressing their disgust at the accusations in The Sun.

It’s worth bearing in mind that the force was led by Chief Constable Ken Oxford who, it appears, was troubled with Anfield being turned into a shrine for the victims. With someone like that at the head of the police force, perhaps the revelation is not such a surprise.

Policing has moved on and the Merseyside force is now hopefully more sensitive to the community they serve.

Anyway it is not the papers relating to the Merseyside force we want to see but South Yorkshire. Why haven’t they leaked? Why are we now told it could be late this year before we get the full release of documents? I hope it is only personal details that are being redacted. The suffering has gone on long enough. Let Bishop James’ Commission report without further delay.

 

MEDIA MATTERS

Peter Salmon should be the next Director General of the BBC. I’ve spent the last few days with people involved in one of the most important job creators in the North West…. the media.

The Nations and Regions TV conference was held in Salford this week and there was the suggestion that our very own Peter Salmon should leap into the top job at the Beeb.

Salmon’s career has equipped him for the post. He went from Granada to a range of top jobs in the BBC and ITV culminating in him masterminding the corporation’s move to Salford in the face of fierce, prejudiced hostility from the southern based national press.

Incidentally on that subject did you spot the howler in the Telegraph the other day? While running one of their anti-BBC in Salford stories, they said Media City was in the MIDLANDS!

Now that error was written by a journalist and passed by a sub editor in one of our main quality papers. The North is a land of which they know little and the error is a powerful argument for redressing the media bias with a critical mass of production up here.

 

LOCAL TV

Do you want local TV? Jeremy Hunt does and has identified Preston, Manchesterand Liverpool among the first places for its roll out.

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has a poor opinion of regional television. He told the Salford conference that we only had it because it was based on where the transmission masts were in 1955 when ITV got underway. He says major cities in the USA have 6 local TV services providing much more local content.

The problem with this idea has always been making it pay. Channel One in Liverpool and more recently Channel M in Manchester failed the viability test.

Hunt believes he’s cracked the problem by getting the BBC to stump up £30m for the 44 stations which the Secretary of State believes can operate on a half million pound budget a year.

 

RED CARD FOR THE LOWER DIVISIONS ON THE BEEB?

If you support clubs like Morecambe, Preston and Oldham you will be concerned about rumours that the BBC may be dropping its coverage of non-Premier League football.

The Football League Show and Late Kick Off give vital coverage to the lower leagues at a time when much of the media is obsessed with the Premiership.

At the conference I had a chance to question the BBC’s Head of Sport Barbara Slater who said “discussions were ongoing”.

I understand the Football League are desperate to keep the BBC on board and are only asking for a modest amount for their coverage.

For the BBC to claim they can’t afford to continue covering the lower leagues would be a desertion of their public service duty.

TROUBLED WATERS AND FAREWELL TMP

English Heritage isn’t the only organisation that Peel Holdings have to worry about now that they’ve got the go ahead for the Liverpool Waters scheme.

Lindsey Ashworth, the bullish development director for Peel, devoted much of his time at Liverpool’s Planning Committee to lashing English Heritage for their opposition to his plans for 150 acres of derelict dockland north of the Pier Head.

It is part of the much larger Atlantic Gateway project which stretches from the Wirral, up the Ship Canal to Salford Docks. That makes it an issue for the mighty Combined Authority of Greater Manchester and they have just fired a broadside across Peel’s bows.

A report suggests Wirral and Liverpool Waters should not be given priority by the Atlantic Gateway Board unless there is more robust evidence in its favour.

The authors are Mike Emmerich, boss of the New Economy policy think and Barbara Spicer, the Chief Executive of Salford Council.

They want evidence that there is market demand for such a large amount of Grade A commercial floor space outside a city centre. They demand an investment plan that shows the level of private investment and the cost of public support particularly in relation to infrastructure. They also question whether Liverpool/Wirral Waters will really contribute to the region’s Gross Value Added at minimum cost to the public purse.

We’ll see how significant these reservations are. Mr Ashworth is not a man to be easily put off his stride as he demonstrated in Liverpool Council Chamber this week.

He told the planning committee that he was seeking outline permission for the £5.5bn project after months of detailed work. Peel had tried to respond to heritage objections. The historic Dock Wall was being preserved although it put constraints on the scheme. But Ashworth claimed that English Heritage was still not satisfied. They seemed happy to leave the old docks to rot away. Peel would compromise no further and if there was a public inquiry, the company would walk away.

The planners gave the scheme the go ahead and take Ashworth’s threat so seriously that Liverpool Council leader Joe Anderson is seeking talks with the government to try and prevent a public inquiry.

It is possible to interpret this as over mighty behaviour by Peel Holdings which must recognise that it is operating in a democracy. Alternatively one can admire the commitment of this organisation to transformational change in North Liverpool.

It is now an issue in the mayoral election campaign with Joe Anderson backing Peel and independent candidate Liam Fogarty expressing his concern and not wanting to be elected mayor of “Liverpeel.”

The Liverpool City Region now has no excuse but to get its act together.

This week I went to the final event organised by The Mersey Partnership (TMP). Its economic review of the sub region was comprehensive and helpful.

Absent of course was Lorraine Rogers the organisation’s former Chief Executive. It took her resignation to break the log jam and pave the way next week for TMP to transform itself into The Liverpool City Region Local Enterprise Partnership under the leadership of Robert Hough. He will bring his renowned diplomatic skills to the task of welding the 6 districts together.

Rogers wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea. It’s been suggested staff cheered on the news of her departure. Whatever the truth of that, Rogers deserves a lot of credit for the good work done by the TMP. The world of economic regeneration is far too dominated by men and it is a shame that Lorraine had to be a casualty of the process.

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!