A small step for mankind – a huge one for Lancashire

Northern powerhouse

This week the government invited city and county regions to submit their devolution ‘asks’.

It is part of George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse agenda, although, post-election, councils’ from across the country are all being given the opportunity to ‘have a Manchester’ now.

For some time I have bemoaned the fact that Lancashire has been side-lined by the emphasis on cities as the principle economic drivers. As the leader of Lancashire County Council Jenifer Mein pointed out at a Downtown event last week the county region is the third biggest economy in England, and therefore needs to be seen at the heart of any powerhouse, rather than on its periphery.

The government, with some justification, could argue back and say that, unlike Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield and Newcastle, Lancashire had done little to progress a devolution programme itself.

However, at a meeting earlier this week the leaders from twelve districts, the two unitary authorities and Lancashire County Council came together and have devised a strategy to present to the Whitehall mandarins that at least gets the red rose county in the mix.

There will be a consultation with business organisations and other stakeholders about the type of Combined Authority Lancashire should be looking to create, and given the inevitability that a first wave of devolved organisations will go to conurbations with big city hubs, the county is unlikely to be at the vanguard of this initiative.

However, the fact that leaders are talking constructively about progressing a much more efficient, effective and co-ordinated governance structure is a credit to them, and great news for Lancashire’s future.

DEVO LANCS – Have your say!

Devo Lancs

In September the government will be consulting local authority leaders from across the country and deciding which areas will be offered the type of devolution deal that Manchester secured earlier this year.

It is time for Lancashire’s businesses to get involved in this important discussion, because if we don’t then there is every likelihood that our county will miss the opportunity of making any progress on an agenda that is part of chancellor George Osborne’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’ aspirations.

Devolved powers do not simply hand additional resources and extra responsibilities to political leaders. They offer the local business community a far greater say in how those resources are utilised, and how those additional policy making powers are shaped.

So on the many issues that Downtown members often express frustration with; the skills gap, poor transport links, planning, access to finance and business support, there is potentially a governance model that would establish a direct engagement between Lancashire’s decision makers and the county’s private sector.

To give our members a voice in this crucial debate, Downtown has organised a special breakfast event on the morning of Thursday 27th August at the Tickled Trout. ‘Devo Lancs- What Next?’ will explore the impact devolution could have on Lancashire, particularly in relation to the local economy and business. You should come along and have your say.

To register for the event and have your say please CLICK HERE.

Let’s stick together

Power to the North

“If you’re in this city, the competition can be Everton versus Liverpool. If you’re in my city its City against United. In business terms we often see the competition as Manchester versus Liverpool. But then if the cockneys start make disparaging remarks about the North, we all bond together and have a go back at London. Then if the French slag off England, we unite with London to fire back at France.”

The delivery of this excellent observation came from Mr Deansgate, Nik Maguire, addressing the digital forum which was part of the series of excellent Liverpool Business Week events hosted by Downtown this week.

It was a point that was well made at a time when, in trying to compete in a global market and establish a Northern Powerhouse, the necessity for us to identify common goals rather than focus on traditional rivalries is increasingly obvious.

The good news is that, a few notable parochial internal spats in Lancashire and Merseyside notwithstanding, our regional business and political leaders have taken note.

The degree of co-operation taking place between Leeds, Manchester, Lancashire, Liverpool and the other core cities of the north on transport infrastructure is significant.

Equally, arguably the greatest of city rivalries between Liverpool and Manchester, has been put aside on many occasions over the past eighteen months, with the cities sharing platforms, marketing collateral and policy development in a whole range of areas. The London based MIPIM UK property festival in October will see Manchester and Liverpool share exhibition space for the second consecutive year.

And, as Liverpool gears up to host the UK International Festival for Business in twelve months’ time, the man tasked with making a success of this unique three week jamboree, Max Steinberg, is reaching out to the rest of the country, in particular other parts of northern England, to help showcase what is the best of British.

The festival is a great opportunity for businesses from across the country – but also a chance to show that we can genuinely establish a Northern Powerhouse where our great cities and counties work together when needed for the greater good.

End of year reflections…

Reflections Lan

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 Lancashire can’t get its act together in the New Year and begin to map out a new governance structure for the county that will give us the new powers and additional resources that would surely be welcomed by even the most parochial of local politicians.

Despite a now tired campaign by some political leaders who still prefer to look backwards rather than to the future and are in their 99th year of calling for a split between the East of Lancashire and the rest of the county, the Manchester deal has woken most up to the fact that unity of purpose and scale is the only game in town.

West Lancashire’s flirtation with Liverpool, and the tiny fiefdoms Fylde and Chorley threatening possible UDI will surely be seen as what they are – a final hurrah from small time politicians who would be better suited to running a Parish Council.

One of few negatives in a year of many positives for Lancashire 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 government is demanding strategic unity.

The work that Marketing Lancashire has undertaken under the leadership of Ruth Connor has demonstrated that entrepreneurial spirit, innovation and an ability to ignore the peripheral nonsense and just get on with it can lead to impressive results.

The business support initiative BOOST has been a real positive too, as has the growth not only in the traditional sectors of manufacturing, but also in the creative and digital arena, and the hospitality sector, where there has been significant investment in new build and refurbishment across the county.

I am optimistic that there will be more positives than negatives in the New Year, with a shake-up of the well run but poorly marketed Local Enterprise Partnership promised; the forging of closer links between the county’s previous warring politicians for the common good, and the private sector hopefully working more effectively together too as Downtown initiates a ‘network of networks’ for organisations to come together and offer businesses a more consistent voice.

Nonetheless, the public sector cuts agenda that has to be implemented will have a huge impact; there may be two General Elections not just one if the existing polls are to be believed; and Lancashire has yet to punch its weight sufficiently to be in George Osborne’s Devolution plan.

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 county. We are passionate about the North of England. It is why we do what we do, making this the best business club in the region, 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!

Look at Manchester – and weep

Devo Manc

The Autumn Statement from the Chancellor on Wednesday provided yet more good news for the city of Manchester.

Following the recent ‘Devo Manc’ deal that delivered the Greater Manchester region with a significant devolution of powers with over a billion pounds of investment to match, George Osborne announced additional benefits to what he clearly sees as the hub of the Northern Powerhouse , with plans for the establishment of a huge theatre – named the Factory after Tony Wilson’s legendary label; a £235million national advanced materials centre, the Sir Henry Royce Institute, which will be set up at Manchester University; and a whole range of infrastructure projects around road and rail that will directly benefit the Manchester city region.

There were some crumbs off the table, by comparison, for Liverpool, Leeds and Lancashire – but once again the big winner was Manchester with an early Christmas gift from the Chancellor that is worth an estimated £1.3billion.

Rather than be envious of this remarkable deal, struck largely by Manchester Labour politicians with a Tory Chancellor, other northern cities and regions need to finally wake up and learn the lessons that Sir Richard Leese, Sir Howard Bernstein et al have been teaching us for twenty years or more.

City regions and county’s work ‘better together’. They can produce cohesive and consistent policy and strategy proposals that are then efficiently delivered. The economic benefits are tangible. The political fall outs are negligible, and anyway are always kept private.

Whilst Leeds comforted itself with the promise from Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg that it could have devolution without signing up to a ‘Metro Mayor’ (another broken promise Nick?) and Liverpool continues to indulge in a parochialism in politics that is more akin to the practices of a Parish Council than a super Combined Authority, the Chancellor and his Treasury officials took a look at the northern landscape and decided that, Manchester aside, the North simply isn’t mature enough to be trusted with a huge chunk of devolution and cash.

Lancashire’s civic leaders are at least now talking to one another, although there are still threats of UDI from places like Chorley and the Fylde, whilst West Lancashire is flirting with Liverpool and some in the East of the county delude themselves that splitting from the rest of Lancashire would be a genuine option.

By next May, devolution will be a big part of all the major parties agendas. By then it is imperative that the rest of the north gets its act together and has a narrative in place to take maximum advantage of whatever devolved powers and resources are on offer.

A ‘Me Too’ approach is clearly not going to be enough, and it is now crucial that the public and private sectors come together in each region to work up plans that will convince Westminster leaders and officials that we have the maturity to recognise the need for unity, innovation and reform of local governance structures.

If that doesn’t happen, we won’t just have a north-south divide; but a two speed north of England, where Manchester powers ahead, leaving the rest to watch and weep.