Osborne prepares to kill Labour – and become PM


It is a long time since a northern constituency could boast a Prime Minister. The late Harold Wilson, who represented the Merseyside constituency of Huyton, was the last northerner to hold the highest office, and he vacated number 10 back in 1976.

However, the regions wait for another PM is coming to an end, certainly if chancellor George Osborne MP for Tatton, Cheshire, has anything to do with it.

His Northern Powerhouse agenda has dominated the debate and discussion of local government and many in the media for over a year now. The powers he has ceded to Manchester, and is prepared to offer other local authorities who are able to provide proof positive that they can deliver – with a metro mayor – has won him the reputation as an innovator who wants to genuinely try new things to re-balance the UK economy.

That he has done this in partnership with (mostly) Labour council leaders is testament to his impressive negotiation skills, matched only by his ability to spin.

A whole list of announcements on spending in the north, most particularly on infrastructure projects, looks like ‘new’ money. Often it is cash that local councils’ themselves have had to find from ‘efficiencies’.

His incredible persuasiveness in convincing his former treasury colleague and coalition mate, Lib Dem Daniel Alexander, to do the tour of television and radio studios every time there was bad news to sell, whilst Osborne himself saved his brief appearances for the ‘feel good’ pronouncements should be noted too. I’m sure it is something the now former MP Alexander has reflected upon since being permitted by his constituents to spend more time with his family.

But, it is the chancellor’s activity since the election that is most impressive. Surprised though he and his next door neighbour Dave were in securing a victory, he has had the air of a man who has hit the ground running, and has a plan to get on and deliver.

His spring budget included a host of policies that will see a greater acceleration of the shrinking of the state and public sector services. He has cut taxes, and will continue to do so during the lifetime of this parliament. And he unashamedly stole Labour’s ‘Living Wage’ policy whilst he was at it.

Now he is preparing a blitzkrieg on the official opposition’s next leader. If, as is predicted, it is Jeremy Corbyn, he knows that his only problem will be weighing the votes that his party will get in the marginal constituencies across the country.

However, he is not one for complacency, George. So expect legislation around Trades Union laws; immigration; the economy and welfare throughout an autumn that will be set full of Westminster traps for the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Osborne wants to cement in voters’ minds the notion that Labour has turned into a ‘loony left’ protest group that is as out of touch with reality as Lord Sutches old ‘Raving Loony’ party.

Once this mission is accomplished, he will be quickly on to his next project. Succeeding Dave in an orderly manner and, in the nicest possible way, ‘doing in’ his closest rivals for the number one job, Teresa May and Boris.

Prime Minister Osborne? At this stage, you wouldn’t bet against him.

Will Councillors Become Extinct?

Councillors Extinct

There are huge changes taking place in local government at the moment. In fairness, there have been huge changes taking place in local government for well over a quarter of a century.

In the name of making local democracy more efficient, more transparent, or more effective, Westminster politicians have meddled in the affairs of council’s big and small, always in the name of ‘supporting’ the strengthening of local authorities and their autonomy.

It is nonsense of course. Most of the changes that have been implemented have undermined local government, and simply resulted in increasing power to Whitehall mandarins.

From the abolition of metropolitan county councils such as Merseyside and Greater Manchester in the 80s – motivated by Margaret Thatcher’s hatred of the Ken Livingstone led Greater London Council – through to a shake-up of governance structures by New Labour that placed most powers and decision making in the hands of a few councillors on what we now call council ‘cabinet’s’, leaving the remainder of our elected representatives as glorified ‘scrutineers’, Parliamentary assistance to local authorities has been anything but helpful.

In more recent times, the government’s austerity programme has meant a huge hit to the resources of council’s, particularly in the north, whilst the cap that has been imposed on council tax increases that has been long imposed, has robbed local authorities of any fiscal ability to map out comprehensive, genuine long term plans and strategies.

Cynics may suggest that our wonderful civil service, who have to be admired for sustaining its own power and influence throughout a whole range of ‘modernisation’ initiatives over the years, have been undermining local government to justify their own positions for all eternity.

However, more reasonable observers may concede that though the methods employed to try and drag local government into the twenty first century are ineffective at best, at worst cruel, there is little doubt that a massive and radical review of local democracy is long overdue.

George Osborne addresses some of the issues through his Northern Powerhouse agenda, which devolves strategic powers to city region bodies and, eventually, to elected metro mayors.

However, for counties and areas that cannot boast a city ‘hub’, there seems to have been little thought given as to how they will contribute to this new world order.

In simple terms, I believe that we need fewer council’s and far fewer Councillors. The world has changed, and the days when we needed a council for every small town, and a councillor for every street has long gone.

As the old saying goes, chickens don’t vote for Christmas, and so the chances of local authorities addressing this issue themselves voluntarily appear remote.

However, Merseyside authority Knowsley is currently reducing its number of Members by a third, for which they should be applauded; Birmingham will go from 120 to 100 councillors in two years’ time. It seems inevitable that more of the smaller borough and district council’s in the country will be forced to merge just to survive at some point in the foreseeable future.

If this pragmatic approach gathers momentum, and local government leads in providing its own solutions to the challenges it faces, it may survive as we know it. If not, the notion of civil servants being dispatched from their London desks to look after us needy souls in the rest of what remains of the Empire, will be a more attractive proposition for a government that is more interested in cutting the deficit than increasing local democracy. Why do we need councillors, they will ask, particularly as so few of the electorate even bother to take part in local elections.

Council’s without councillors seems a bit of a barmy notion. But if local authorities bury their heads in the sand and ignore what is going on around them, including the very real attacks from Whitehall, then it is a very real prospect in the future.

One Lancashire – One Voice

Power to the North

The announcement of the creation of a ‘Super Power’ on our doorstep should be a massive wake up call to the civic leaders of Lancashire.

Greater Manchester’s devolution deal on Monday with the government gives the city region powers over a whole range of powers including transport, housing, social care and planning – plus an additional £1 billion of spend.

To unlock this incredible deal, Manchester has worked hard for over a decade to act in a mature, cohesive and co-ordinated fashion, delivered a huge number of regeneration projects, accelerated the growth of its airport and built a modern, twenty first century tram system that spans the entire city region. The first elected Greater Manchester Metro Mayor will be created as part of this ‘Devo Manc’ package.

The deal proves beyond doubt that Westminster is now prepared to devolve significant powers and resource to those who have a track record of delivery, and an ability to have grown up relationships and partnership across local government boundaries, and only a bloody fool would fail to see that there is a window of opportunity to win similar powers for other Northern regions.

If Lancashire is to be part of this exciting revolution, then its council leaders need to stop the petty squabbling and parochialism, forget talk of splitting the county into two, and get their act together quickly.

The Lancashire Local Enterprise Partnership has done a decent job, and this includes Blackburn and Blackpool. A new Combined Authority for the county should be based on the same boundaries, and we should agree to have an elected leader for that new Combined Authority model too.

If we fail to get our act together and miss out on this once in a lifetime opportunity to take control of our own economic destiny, then it will be nothing short of a scandal.

Leeds’ ambition deserves Westminster backing


The strategic economic plan recently produced by Leeds is evidence that innovative, entrepreneurial and deliverable policies can emerge from regional agencies – but equally demonstrates the frustration that Northern city leader’s face when trying to implement positive change.

An executive summary of the Leeds city region document can be read here and it is clearly an ambitious, realistic strategy that articulates the huge opportunities and potential of Leeds and its surrounding areas. It is a plan strengthened because of the broad support it has from an increasingly cohesive, co-ordinated public sector and a private sector that is keen to see economic growth accelerated.

In recent weeks there has been much talk about the growing North-South divide. To address that unhealthy chasm then, government should welcome and back ideas such as getting on with HS2, investing in major infrastructure improvements, building more housing and making Leeds an IT and digital centre of excellence. But more than this, Westminster needs to give the city region the tools to get on with the job.

Funding for transport projects, allowing Leeds to retain the receipts from the disposal of HCA assets across the city region, allowing the newly established Combined Authority to recover VAT and returning revenue funding to the Local Growth Fund are all reasonable asks that the government should agree.

Without these relatively minor changes at central government level, without a degree of decentralisation of finance, decision making powers and responsibilities, and without a recognition that Leeds knows what is best for Leeds, then this impressive plan will only be partially delivered – and that economic imbalance between North and South will get worse rather than better.

Don’t underestimate the university of life


Tony Blair famously stated that ‘education, education, education’ would be his government’s top priority, and it is fair to say that literally billions of pounds were invested into academia during the New Labour years.

Undoubtedly, some of this spend was absolutely essential. Decades of neglect, particularly in the North of England, meant that many primary and secondary schools were in an antiquated state by 1997.

The need for a huge spend to improve the infrastructure of education in our country did not come soon enough, and it is now the exception rather than the rule to see run down, dilapidated, inner city state schools.

The loosening of the grip of Local Education Authorities over the management of schools, the introduction of Academies and the shift in emphasis on the importance of schooling were positive contributions that the Blair government made to the education agenda.

However, as was the case in many areas where public sector spending was dramatically increased by New Labour, the government failed to maximise the impact of its investment.

Most obviously, many schools failed to modernise, both in terms of management and in terms of grasping the opportunity of flexibility to learning and the curriculum that Blair, if not all of his colleagues, wanted to see.

There was also a failure to introduce a more diverse range of teaching and teaching methods; the working practices of those in higher education was a joke; and the quality of tutors across the piece remained, at best, average.

Most disappointingly for me though was the government’s obsession with University. Further education is always to be encouraged, but why this must always end with students donning a cap and gown is beyond me. Far too many people who were not going to benefit from University were encouraged to attend. Degrees were being offered in everything from origami to allotment management!

This led to a generation of young people having a university education – but often lacking any basic skills that readied them for the workplace. A degree in common sense was clearly not an option if some of the university graduates I have employed in the past are anything to go by.

There may be good arguments against the introduction of high university fees, however it has put a stop to young people using the years of 18-21 to ‘find themselves’ and have not even one eye on what career they wish to pursue as an adult.

The new agenda that offers good vocational courses, apprenticeships, internships and on-the-job learning is to be welcomed and offers a much more comprehensive learning journey to students. It is also a more attractive environment for more mature learners who are in need of re-training.

The more innovative schools and colleges are now inviting entrepreneurs and business leaders into their classes. Even football clubs are getting involved, the likes of Everton establishing a free school and proving that hard to reach kids do not have to be written off.

Of course, university is always going to be a good option for some – but now graduates are more likely studying subjects that will enhance their career prospects rather than opting for courses that enable them to frequent the student union and city bars most regularly.

Getting an individual ‘work ready’ is not the only thing that education is for. But it is one of them. ‘Education, Skills and Training’ is a better mantra than that of Blair’s which in the end actually translated into ‘University, University, University.’ It was good for the academics, but bad for business.