An almighty shot has been fired across the bows of Lord O’Neill of Gatley ahead of a major business conference on The Northern Powerhouse (TNP) next week.

Jim O’Neill as he’s better known up here is now a Treasury Minister on the back of writing a highly influential report identifying cities rather than regions as engines of growth.

He’s coming to Manchester next week to give a boost to the two year old project that’s beginning to attract critics. One is Jen Williams, the talented political correspondent of the Manchester Evening News. In a recent article she claimed NTP was just a slogan, if one cared to look at the record rather than the rhetoric of Lord O’Neill and his boss the Chancellor, George Osborne. She cited the flagrantly biased recent award of extra cash to southern councils while northern authorities like Lancashire made massive cuts with talk of the Red Rose council withering altogether. She went on to say that these cuts damaged attempts to solve deep seated social and poverty problems engrained in the North for so long. The NTP’s emphasis on building things was not enough. Finally there was the unbelievable closure of the government’s skills department in Sheffield with the loss of 250 jobs..

The attack clearly went home because Lord O’Neill didn’t wait to get to Manchester to hit back claiming employment was growing faster in the north than elsewhere, power was being devolved through elected mayors, Transport For the North would deliver connectivity improvements and good things could be expected from the Infrastructure Commission shortly.

But the criticism isn’t just from journalists. Jim McMahon was the leader of Oldham Council and tipped to run for elected mayor of Greater Manchester until he unwisely took the Westminster route by becoming MP for Oldham West. He has been closely involved in the devolution negotiations and recently told MPs of his deep unease over TNP. He feels it does not empower communities, a criticism felt by many who say all the deals have been stitched up by councillors and ministers with no public consultation. McMahon called for a national framework for devolution rather than the highly complex and differentiated pattern of powers that have been handed out across the North. The government call it responding to local factors. I call it a dog’s breakfast.

Next week’s UK Northern Powerhouse International conference aims to tell ministers what northern business leaders think has to be done to really rebalance the UK economy. There is a feeling that TNP is not yet scaled up to do this. I would argue this has been the flaw in the strategy of both the Coalition and Conservative governments. They broke up the large development agencies which were in the process of creating the Northern Way to really counter the powerful London economy and we have been struggling ever since with a patchwork of Local Enterprise Partnerships, Combined Authorities and Growth Funds.

There is also the haunting question “will it last?” When George Osborne ceases to be Chancellor will the London centric civil servants start to unravel the project with a weaker politician in charge? Regional policy has been notoriously at the whim of ministers. I asked Manchester Council leader Sir Richard Leese about this at a recent Downtown event. He replied that that was why Manchester was grabbing as much power as it could while the policy is intact. Wise man.



Jim McMahon, the new Labour MP for Oldham West is right to express his “deep unease” about the Northern Powerhouse. However it is the only game in town right now and just over the Pennines from his town the pressure is on Leeds City Region to get a similar deal to Greater Manchester’s.

Last week a conference in Leeds frankly discussed the difficulties involved. The background is that there are broadly two rival views on the way forward for Yorkshire. One believes that the county has a brand to die for and needs a single area covering West, North and East Yorkshire. Sheffield and South Yorkshire already have a deal. The other vision is for a Leeds City Region which includes Harrogate, Craven, York and Selby. The argument here is that the North’s best hope is in harnessing the energy of its cities whilst the more rural areas take a slower path to devolution.

Tom Riordan, the able Chief Executive of Leeds City Council is in no doubt he needs the power and resources devolution can bring. The city is without a tram system or adequate flood defences for instance. He is not obsessed with rivalry with Manchester pointing to major differences between the two cities. Leeds is five times as large geographically with large communities nearby like Bradford and Huddersfield. He thinks press reports of infighting are exaggerated but acknowledges there is a problem with the government’s insistence on an elected mayor. The concept was rejected for the City of Leeds three years ago and it is an arguable point whether Chancellor George Osborne can say he has a General Election mandate to insist that his mayoral model covers a wider geographical area.

Riordan insists he is not anti the Yorkshire concept pointing to the county wide cooperation that brought the Tour de France to the county with such brilliant success but the city versus county argument remains fierce. Peter Box, the chair of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority thinks the county has four distinct economies and with South Yorkshire having already gone its own way, the Greater Yorkshire model is flawed. This is contested by Lord Haskins, the former boss of Northern Foods and now chair of the Humber Local Enterprise Partnership. He is a firm believer that the Yorkshire brand has worldwide recognition and should have governance structures to match to promote the county particularly for business in Europe.

While the rest of the county struggles to get its act together it is interesting to look at what is happening in Sheffield. Events there may portend issues that may arise in the Liverpool City and Greater Manchester regions as elections approach for an elected mayor next year. A row has broken out over whether the elected mayor for the whole city region has a veto over all matters within the city itself.

It is also worthy of note that each of these devolution deals is different. Sheffield’s City Region mayor has not been combined with the Police and Crime Commissioner nor could they get vital powers over 16 to 18 year old skills powers. This is why MP Jim McMahon is deeply uneasy about the devolution project which lacks a national framework and coherence.





I would like to see the ex Chancellor Nigel Lawson and his fellow climate change deniers walk down the streets of Carlisle, Keswick and Kendal and tell the stricken residents that climate change is a myth.

If the floods aren’t enough to convince him, perhaps he could note the summer like temperatures we are having or the fact that plants have spring buds on them already.

There is nothing we can do to avoid “100 year rain events” happening every decade for our lifetimes. Let'[s hope the decisions taken at the Global Climate Change conference in Paris can stop things getting worse for our grandchildren.

There were many firms lobbying the conference and rightly so. The business opportunities for green and renewable industries is huge although it would help if the government didn’t keep interfering with the economic profitability of the market in this area.


Michael Jones, the larger than life leader of Cheshire East Council has resigned. It happened to be over a personal matter but one always felt the career of this controversial politician would end like this. He didn’t let people get in his way and whilst this led to a number of positives for his council including the Crewe HS2 hub and the rescue of jobs at Alderley Park, he also made enemies with his autocratic behaviour.

It’s a shame because local government needs visionary and colourful characters but they need to know the limits.


Talk amongst Blairite Labour MPs of ousting Jeremy Corbyn has been muted since the party’s victory in the Oldham West and Royton by election last week. It failed to provide them with the narrative that Corbyn was such a liability that even safe northern seats would reject him.

It has to be said that Jim McMahon was an ideal safe candidate. It would be interesting to see what would happen if Corbynistas took over the National Executive by election candidate selection panel and chose an ultra leftist from London for such a contest; what would happen.

But for now we must conclude that some people like Corbyn’s principled approach, his unspun image or just want to give him a fair chance. The next challenge will be the London mayor. I met the Tory candidate, Zac Goldsmith, this week. He is pleasant enough, without Boris’ flamboyance and none the worse for that. He will give Labour’s man Sadiq Khan a run for his money.

Meanwhile UKIP showed their nasty side. Nigel Farage’s “bloke in a pub” image was replaced by a snarling implication that there had been mass fiddling by the South Asian community in the postal vote. The party infighting is taking its toll and they may be in decline. The sad thing is that their legacy may be our leaving the European Union.





A Labour contact of mine in the Oldham West by election says on the doorstep traditional Labour voters are raising Corbyn’s leadership all the time. This could be significant as “Westminster bubble” issues don’t always resonate with voters.

The feedback from this northern seat is that Corbyn and his close advisers are all perceived to be from a London clique who haven’t a clue about the North. This impression will be compounded by Corbyn’s decision to cancel his planned Friday visit to the by election as he tries to sort out serious divisions over his party’s policy on bombing Syria.

All this means that we would be unwise to rule out UKIP doing very well next Thursday night in Oldham West and Royton.



George Osborne’s shameless U turn on tax credits and police cuts will be long forgotten if his gamble in believing in a continuing world of low inflation and interest rates pays off. In his six years as Chancellor, he has shown himself generally to have a pragmatic and politically sensitive approach. Made a mistake over pasties or tax credits? Make a change and move on. His upbeat approach at all three budget statements this year raises the morale of backbench Tories who think he’s a winner. They also like the ideology which runs underneath the pragmatism. Osborne is determined to create a smaller state. By 2020 it will have shrunk from 50% to 35% of gross Domestic Product.

This is most clearly seen in housing policy. The private sector is to be incentivised to build 400,000 homes with a strong emphasis on making them available to buy not rent. Along with the right to buy for Housing Association tenants, the thrust of government policy is clearly away from social housing to home ownership. First time buyers with incomes of up to £80,000 in the North will be able to benefit from the subsidies offered. The policy will not help the poor who are most in need of housing.

On education George Osborne explicitly said the days of local councils running schools would be a thing of the past. 500 new free schools are to be built.

So ideology to please the Tory backbenches, pragmatism to please the voters, could this be a combination that allows George Osborne to see of Theresa May or Boris Johnson in the leadership election? At the moment he has to be favourite but what if things go wrong.


The Treasury are spinning that this isn’t the end of austerity. Well a strategic decision has been taken to take advantage of the more optimistic outlook offered by the Office for Budget Responsibility to ease the cuts in the early years of the parliament and breach the welfare cap. There is a heavy reliance on continued low inflation rates and growth of around 2.5%. If “events” happen like a further downturn in the Chinese economy, Osborne’s gamble could unravel just when he’s seeking to become Prime Minister. In that respect it is strange that he has decided to defer more painful cuts till nearer the election rather than getting them over now.


Sir Richard Leese, the leader of Manchester City Council had challenged the Chancellor to put the flesh on the bones of the Northern Powerhouse particularly in relation to transport. Well there is £200m for transport including £150m for an “oyster” card system. This is brilliant news. Anyone who uses London Transport knows that card makes the use of public transport so easy. The M6 between junctions 16-19 is to upgraded. The motorway which enters the north through the important gateway of Cheshire and Warrington is often overlooked when connectivity is discussed. There are major investments in science and nuclear power. New Enterprise Zones are being created in Leeds, York, Greater Manchester Life Science Park, Cheshire Science Corridor and Hillhouse Chemical on the Fylde.


Labour can claim to have forced the government to retreat over tax credits and police cuts but they still shoot themselves in the foot.

Liam Byrne’s 2010 message left on a Treasury desk saying there was no money left, Ed Miliband’s headstone and Shadow Chancellor John MacDonald’s brandishing of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book are a woeful series of unnecessary public relations gaffs.

The tragedy is that the issue that MacDonald was trying to raise, the worrying amount of our infrastructure owned by the Chinese is a valid one.