RED ROSE RISING.
Lancashire and Cheshire want to be major players in the Northern Powerhouse. There is frustration that the project all seems to be about Manchester. I’ve been to Preston and Chester to find out what these areas have to offer the great project to bring power from Whitehall to the North.
Edwin Booth is the dapper boss of that excellent chain of supermarkets, Booths. He chairs the Lancashire Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) and is just the man for the job. His quiet charm is what is needed in a county notorious for local authority in fighting. If it isn’t Lancashire County Council v the districts, then its Blackburn and Blackpool v Preston. Then we have Chorley’s bid for unitary status and Wyre refusing to join the bid for a Combined Authority.
Mr Booth told me at a Downtown event last week that he is confident Wyre will come on side for the devolution bid although, as in Cheshire, the stumbling block could still be the government’s insistence on an elected mayor despite the more rural nature of these areas.
The LEPs are supposed to be driven by business with local councils playing a supportive role. The trouble was at the beginning the government were so vague about their structure and purpose when they were set up that councils were often forced to play a major role. Edwin Booth told the Downtown meeting that he soon hoped to detach the LEP from County Hall in Preston. There is speculation that he might take the council’s officers involved in partnership matters with him.
Booth is keen on good relations with Manchester and wants to improve connectivity to the M62 but he is also concerned about transpennine connections further north. He wants a new bridge across the Ribble near Preston but above all he wants to raise the county’s prosperity which is 75% of the national average. Enterprise Zones are up and running in places like Salmesbury and Blackpool, Fleetwood is next.
Booth sees the Lancashire LEP as an agent of transformation using city deal and growth funds but would like powers over skills training in secondary schools. The government’s offer at the moment only covers post 18s, when many argue it is too late.
CHESTER’S LEGIONS ON THE MARCH.
The Chester Forum at the impressive MBNA headquarters heard the Northern Powerhouse (NP) described as a sham by property developer Guy Butler who heads the city’s Growth Partnership. He was concerned that the NP was a distraction to cover for the fundamental change going on in local authority funding. The idea is that central grants will cease and councils will be able to keep all their business rates. It is a scheme that will massively benefit London whilst northern councils with much lower property values will suffer. Butler also wondered whether Chester should be part of the NP or should see itself as a hub for an area including North East Wales with its significant employment centre around Airbus in Broughton.
Phillip Cox, the CEO of the Cheshire and Warrington LEP was in no doubt that the area was part of the NP. The fastest growing LEP in the North, Cox pointed out that more people travelled into the area than out. The idea that the sub region was a dormitory for Manchester was a myth. As in Lancashire talks on a devolution deal continue, but once again the issue of an elected mayor may prove a stumbling block.
Sam Dixon, the new Labour leader of Cheshire West and Chester Council made an impressive début speaking out about the disruption that would be caused to local government by a Brexit vote. Rules on shared Town Hall services were in EU directives that would all have to be rewritten, and furthermore the LEP had received £142m in regional development grants.
So on the flanks of the Northern Powerhouse, the debate remains lively about its future.