End of year reflections…

Reflections Liv

The last twelve months has seen the economy slowly, if not surely, start to go in the right direction; business confidence returning; our mainstream national politicians continue to struggle to win back the trust and credibility of the voting public; Scotland remaining as part of the Union, but nationalists still pushing for separation; and on the back of that Scottish referendum a significant move towards devolution for England’s city regions.

Downtown celebrated its tenth anniversary and as ‘metro mayors’ and devolution has been an issue we have advocated for many a year, it was with some satisfaction that our decade in business coincided with this agenda being genuinely discussed and debated by political leaders from all parties.

Manchester has, once again, stolen a march on the rest of the North, with its ‘Devo Manc’ deal, but there is no reason why Liverpool can’t get its act together in the New Year and begin to map out a new governance structure for the city region that will give us the new powers and additional resources that would surely be welcomed by even the most parochial of local politicians….or will they?

The one negative in a year of many positives for Liverpool this year has been the sad and untimely reminder that at a senior political level we remain disconnected and poorly co-ordinated despite the fact that all six local authorities are Labour controlled.

From the debacle over what to call the newly formed Combined Authority through to the decision to have not one but two campaigns operating to try and secure high speed rail to the city, our civic leaders have demonstrated a unique ability to shoot themselves – and our city region in the process – not so much in the foot but through the head.

On the back of much heralded events such as the Global Enterprise Congress and the International Festival for Business, not forgetting the ‘Giants’, Liverpool is in a fantastic place to continue the momentum it has developed since hosting the European Capital of Culture in 2008.

A wonderful retail, leisure and hospitality offer, a regenerated city centre, a BID company that is starting to make a lot of sense, an Arena that will soon be complimented by a conference centre and the most spectacular of waterfronts are the ingredients that help make a great city.

Through its Linking Liverpool campaign Mersey Travel have proved that we really are ‘better together’, and the Local Enterprise Partnership have been doing some good, ‘joined up’ things under the radar too. But such projects are the exception rather than the rule, and for the private sector it is all getting a little tiresome. News that the Marketing function that has been managed at a city region level is to possibly be broken up again simply adds to the frustration.

In 2015 I would plead with the political leaders of all six councils to demonstrate some maturity and Leadership and take advantage of the wonderful landscape that has been created during the past ten years. It is, quite literally, all to play for with a more buoyant, confident business community, Westminster politicians wanting to devolve more powers to the city region, and Liverpool able to boast being the best visited city in the UK outside of London and Edinburgh, and preparing to host IFB 16.

But, as we have learned to our cost over many years now, there is every possibility that Liverpool will look the gift horse in the mouth, and miss a once in a lifetime opportunity to secure its place as a central player in the new Northern Powerhouse that is being established, instead simply be an envious observer.

At the Liverpool city level I am optimistic that there will be more positives than negatives in the New Year, with another visit scheduled for MIPIM, the Liverpool in London project continuing to grow, and the city, ironically given our more local difficulties, forging closer links with Manchester for the common good.

Nonetheless, the cuts agenda that has to be implemented will have a huge impact; the thorny issue of business support is still to be sorted; and I have an increasing fear that the once private sector led, independent Liverpool Vision will find itself being consumed into and by the council, thus losing the energy, innovation and entrepreneurial spirit that has made it such a successful organisation since the mid 1990’s. It may not get everything right, but Vision is still seen by business leaders as THE business- friendly arm of the burgeoning public sector, and to diminish its ability to engage in similar fashion in the future would be a big mistake.

I have heard it said that Visions move into shared space with the council will result in local government staff leaning a different culture that will enhance performance. I am not convinced that the reality won’t be Vision staff having the life sucked out of them. I hope I am wrong.

Whatever, the glass is most certainly half full. In 2015 Downtown will continue to discuss and debate these issues and more besides I’m sure. We will ruffle a few feathers, no doubt fall out with one or two people – but we will remain a force for good.

We are passionate about this city. We are passionate about the North of England.  It is why we do what we do, making this the best business club in the city, the most relevant, the best connected and never afraid to speak our mind.

Have a fantastic Christmas, a prosperous New Year, and don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!

An audience with Sir Richard Leese

Richard Leese

Downtown members were among a small group of business people invited to Manchester Town Hall this week to meet with city leader Sir Richard Leese to discuss the Devo Manc deal.

He is an impressive character, Manchester’s head political honcho, who has masterminded his city regions development and growth masterfully in partnership with his chief executive Sir Howard Bernstein for over twenty years now.

Indeed, he reminded his audience on Tuesday that though the Scottish referendum on independence had possibly accelerated the process of the devolution deal Manchester has secured, the city region had been working on winning such a package for many years now.

Leese was clearly more interested in the additional powers and resources that this ‘settlement’ with Chancellor George Osborne and Westminster provides, rather than the establishment of a Metro Mayor, and he made it clear that only the creation of this post allowed Manchester to unlock the significant wave of new powers that were announced a fortnight ago.

He conceded that other city regions would inevitably win more powers from Whitehall in the coming months and years, as the ‘English votes for English issues’ debate gathers momentum. But he warned that without a recognition that a directly elected figurehead was required to oversee these new powers, then other city regions will have to accept a diluted version of the Manchester deal.

He was also quick to defend the potential challenge of a ‘two speed’ Northwest emerging, with Manchester clearly in the ‘box seat’ to attract and win not only extra government monies, but private sector investment too. It was up to the Liverpool’s and the Lancashire’s to get their act together and catch up. We had to go at the pace of the fastest and most advanced region he argued – and he is right.

If Devo Manc doesn’t give the surrounding city and county regions the kick they need to focus on working in a cohesive and co-ordinated way, you have to wonder if anything ever will.

Leese also expressed the view that for Manchester this is just the beginning. The city wants to make further progress on the devolution agenda, and that lobbying and campaigning process will be helped by having a directly elected figurehead at its helm.

Exciting times for Manchester. Let’s make sure Lancashire and Liverpool are not left behind.

Sexy Politics?

Sexy Politics

Our latest poll is asking Downtown members and supporters if they support for the introduction of a Metro Mayor Governance model for Leeds, though at the moment there is little inclination from our region’s civic leaders to adopt this structure and a rather ambivalent response from the wider community to the idea.

There is certainly little mileage in the argument that just because Greater Manchester is to have a Metro Mayor means that Leeds should have one. This is the lowest common denominator narrative that must be resisted by those of us who believe that a figurehead to lead on the strategic issues for the city region and act as a genuine champion for the Leeds City Region on the national and international stage would be a force for good.

The purpose of the role, in part, ought to be to widen the democratic process, engage people in a more exciting and meaningful election, and provide a more transparent and accountable city region leadership than the one we have at present.

It is odd that council leaders claim that the imposition of a Metro Mayor is ‘undemocratic’ whilst supporting the existing structure that sees the leader of the regions Combined Authority elected by small groups of council leaders in behind closed doors deals.

Nevertheless, there is no denying that if we are to enjoy the type of political renaissance that was witnessed during the Scottish Referendum this year, make politics sexy to the majority rather than just the ‘anoraks’ and activists, then we should not simply have party candidates selected in the same old fashioned way, with constituency associations and Trades Unions stitching things up. We must do better than that.

That is why I like the idea of ‘Primaries’ to select candidates of all the mainstream parties, particularly for these ‘new’ positions that are set to be created in all city regions across England sooner or later.

Primary elections would allow a much broader number of the electorate to take part in seeing candidates, quizzing them, and supporting the nominee that they felt was best for the job. It would open up the democratic process to a whole range of people who have become disillusioned and disengaged from politics, partly due to the party machines basically selecting candidates who will inevitably be elected in the many ‘safe’ seats that exist, not only in Leeds, but in all English cities.

The suggestion, as was made by several delegates in Manchester at our conference there last week, that the Metro Mayor should not be ‘a bloody Councillor’ may strike a chord for those who think that a Russell Brand type character would shake things up and get things done. The reality is that some experience of political management is not only an advantage, but an essential component to the job – otherwise we will just have faceless, unaccountable regional civil servants running the show.

However, that doesn’t mean that we should just accept the Status Quo for selection purposes, or rule out some new people throwing their hat in the ring for these potentially exciting new posts. You never know, we may even get a woman or two having a go. And as Ken Livingstone proved in the first London Mayoral election, a decent Independent can stir things up too.

If we are talking about a new way of doing politics, a sexier way, then surely Primaries are at least worth considering.

The North needs ‘Devo Met’!


The corridors of Westminster power have been shaken and stirred following the fallout from the Scottish devolution referendum campaign, with those in favour of independence losing the battle but, arguably, winning the war.

The ‘solemn vow’ from the three mainstream party political leaders that promised additional powers TO THE Scottish Parliament on a whole range of issues from welfare to tax will have to be delivered, and this has left Whitehall mandarins and (mostly) Tory MPs banging on about fair votes for the English and an even playing field.

The answer, they suggest, is an English Parliament. Quite frankly I can think of nothing worse. I have sleepless nights imagining the type of country my kids will grow up in with a cabinet made up of John Redwood type characters, ably supported by a rump of Nigel Farage –led UKIPers no doubt, in the unholiest of unholy alliances.

It is also incredible to me that those politicians that have happily gone through the voting lobbies to bludgeon through austerity budgets that have so clearly hit the north of England harder than the south can be whinging about ‘an even playing field’ now.

What London centric politicians, civil servants and commentators need to understand is that it is devolution beyond Westminster that is needed, not devolution within an archaic institution that is no longer fit for purpose.

If Scotland is to get Devo Max then we in the North need to demand Devo Met! The city regions of England north of the Watford gap have to be given the same powers, responsibilities and opportunities as our Scottish counterparts.

Labour is right to object to the Prime Ministers bid to rush through legislation that would create a new constitutional settlement that none of us have discussed, let alone signed up to. Nevertheless, the idea that we need a ‘constitutional convention’ to sort a new governance structure for the UK is highly uninspiring too – and unnecessary,

A whole range of senior figures, including Lord Heseltine and Lord Adonis, have written extensively on city region led decentralisation that would bring together leading decision makers with business leaders to create a genuine ‘localism’ and Authorities that can deliver on what is important to their own regions economic growth and social agendas without going cap in hand to central government.

As Sir Howard Bernstein said at the Downtown Leeds event last week, it is beyond nonsensical that he has to get permission from a pen pusher in London in order to simply close a road!

Progressive politicians and business leaders should be arguing for a timetable to deliver city region and county region governance models. We need an action plan to deliver this – not another talking shop.

Change is now inevitable, but what type of change? The North of England needs to make sure Scotland’s gain does not lead to Northern pain, with a stitch up that would still see us governed and dominated by the Westminster elite! Downtown will be campaigning for Devo Met – I hope you join us.

We Are Ten…

We Are TEN

Next week Downtown celebrates its tenth anniversary. We will be doing a lot over the next seven days, hosting a birthday party for 300 people, launching a new website and introducing an APP.

It’s all exciting stuff, and part of what I would describe as a growing movement rather than a growing business.

We have come a long way in the last decade, and much of what we have been involved with and achieved has been covered in the latest edition of our quarterly magazine DQ – in the printers now, and on your desks in about a week.

For me personally it has been, and continues to be, an incredible journey. When I set Downtown Liverpool in Business up in 2004 I would not have imagined having a presence in Lancashire, Manchester and Leeds. Indeed, I was told by a senior official of Liverpool City Council that ‘Downtown won’t last five minutes’.

I thought it would work in Liverpool, but I doubted if the brand was ‘exportable’. Four cities and 800 member companies later, and I am beginning to think it is.

Reflecting and reminiscing is not something we tend to do very often at Downtown Towers. We spend most of our time thinking of what we can do next, rather than what we have achieved in the past. This is the main reason why we maintain vibrancy, dynamism and a spirit that no other organisation in our space can match in my opinion.

However, on this occasion I hope you forgive me for some self indulgence. Here are my personal highlights of Downtown life over the last ten years.

  • Interviewing Lord Michael Heseltine in 2010.
  • Tony Wilson interviewing James Barton at the very first Downtown event at the Racquets Club, Liverpool in 2004.
  • The making of our ‘Relax’ video for the 2008 ‘Livercool’ Awards.
  • Steve Broomhead, then chief executive of the Northwest Development Agency, proclaiming that Downtown was ‘the business club with attitude’ at the City of Liverpool Business Awards in 2006.
  • The launch of Downtown Manchester at Cloud 23 with Sir Howard Bernstein and 200 Manchester business leaders in 2009.
  • The inaugural 2013 Lancashire Business Growth Conference, one of the most dynamic business events I have ever attended – and it was ours!
  • John Bishop, who performed at three awards dinners for Downtown before he made his fame and fortune (it’s all down to us).
  • The launch of Downtown Leeds in 2012 at a very noisy and challenging Corn Exhange with shadow minister and Leeds West MP Rachel Reeves, and 200 business leaders.
  • Manchester’s singing icon Rowetta and her performance at our ’24 Hour Party People’ inaugural ‘City of Manchester Business Awards’ at the spectacular Cathedral in 2011.
  • Sexy Networking 2004 onwards, and upwards!

I hope you remember some of these too, have many more of your own, but most importantly work with us to create new memories in the future. Here’s to the next ten years!