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.

Culture bid is just Capital

Culture Leeds

News that Leeds is considering a bid to become the European Capital of Culture for 2023 should be encouraged, embraced and supported by the city’s business community.

In an age of council cuts and austerity, investing scarce resources in a campaign that may or may not be successful is clearly a risk, but if Leeds is to demonstrate that it has an entrepreneurial approach to its future then this is exactly the type of project that the city has to go for.

Following the superb hosting of Tour de France I wrote here that it was important for Leeds to create a momentum and legacy to this event, and a bid for the Culture title would put a marker down that tells the rest of the UK that Leeds is ambitious and means business.

Liverpool spent over £150m on the European Capital of Culture in 2008. In the event year itself, the badge enabled the city to generate income in excess of £750m. That is a success by anyone’s standards, but it only tells a small part of the story.

What CoC did for Liverpool was to re-establish the city’s self-confidence, win much needed inward investment, create a strong visitor destination economy, and act as a catalyst that has seen Liverpool become the best visited city in the UK outside of London and Edinburgh.

Economically Leeds is in a much stronger position in 2014 than Liverpool was when it decided to bid for CoC in 2004. Nevertheless, Leeds has built a reputation as a centre for professional services that has a strong retail offer, rather than a place that has a broad cultural offer to complement its healthy commercial activity. The fantastic gems the city does have tend to be hidden, and a year in the sun would unearth some of Leeds’ fantastic cultural assets.

This is an opportunity for Leeds to add an additional bow to its marketing package. The city should go for it.

Can Leeds Airport Survive?

Manchester Airport announced record passenger numbers earlier this week. Blackpool Airport announced it was closing. Airport’s in other provincial cities like Liverpool and Leeds now have to seriously ask if they have a sustainable future over the next decade, as airlines look to ‘hubs’ in order to gain the best commercial bang for their buck – with the pressure on their costs only likely to go one way!

For Leeds in particular, the debate is pertinent, and already on the agenda. Council leader Keith Wakefield has already raised the prospect of the Airport being relocated, with almost everyone accepting that if we were building it today, the Airport would not be located where it is.

The cost of such a move is likely to prove prohibitive, and so the next best option is to develop a significantly improved infrastructure that starts to connect the Airport to surrounding towns and cities.

Unsurprisingly this is the strategy favoured by the Airports management team, but is a huge investment in this type of infrastructure regeneration wise?

The debate over the Airports location has arguably been overtaken by its ability to compete with a genuinely International Airport just over an hour away.

Since Manchester got over its snobbery towards budget flights, the low cost airline owners have flocked there, and it is difficult to see how this trend can be reversed given the development of Airport City on the back of an enterprise zone, and the high speed link from Manchester to London.

It is too early to advocate throwing the towel in yet. But it’s not too early to have the debate about the future of Leeds Airport.

Farewell Lurene – Apparently You Won’t Be Missed


No sooner had the Leeds and Partners Stakeholders AGM finished last week than its chief executive Lurene Joseph had announced her plans to move on to pastures new.

An event that was rich in content, though dull in terms of presentation and delivery, meant that Joseph went out with some good news stories to tell – but not enough to outweigh the controversies that have dogged her since her appointment to the post eighteen months ago.

Cynics suggest that even the good news stories were a case of L&P claiming the credit for the work of others, but that criticism can be levelled at almost any quasi public agency, such are the blurred lines and complimentary (or duplicated) activity that often takes place across city region based organisations.

Nevertheless, it is fair to say that few tears have been shed by many since the announcement was made, and given the allegations over bullying, expenses and even her own personal financial affairs, Joseph may be as relieved as anyone that her time in Leeds is nearly done; short, and not so sweet.

The cautionary note I would add to what has clearly been a challenging relationship between the city and the ‘outsider’ would be this.

Joseph had good credentials, and seemingly a London and international network that has proved particularly useful. She did not know who the local luminaries were, nor did she seem to care. Surely that was the point.

If Leeds is to meet the ambitions that it has set itself in recent times then the new Lurene Joseph should not be a ‘safe pair of hands’. That doesn’t mean it has to be an ‘outsider’, but unless Gary Verity can be convinced to take the role, is there anyone who is Leeds based that is an obvious candidate to be the next L&P chief?

Now Osborne Targets Labour’s Core Vote


Following a surprisingly low key Labour Party conference in Manchester last month most objective commentators quickly reached the conclusion that Ed Miliband and his team have decided that the ‘35% strategy’ is their best hope of winning the next General Election in May 2015.

This plan supposes that Labour can win a small, but workable, overall majority in the House with just a thirty odd per cent vote, such are the anomalies within our first-past-the-post electoral system, and the likelihood that the Tory vote will be split because of UKIP.

To this end we heard a lot from Labour about fairness, social justice, increasing the minimum wage, the NHS, and, lest we forget, sticking it to the ‘rich’ with a Mansion tax and the re-introduction of a 50p tax rate. We did not hear too much about the deficit, though Ed did mean to refer to it – he just forgot.

Targeting its core vote may not seem like the party is taking the principled high ground here, but as pragmatic strategies go, it seems a reasonable approach for the opposition to take.

It was more of a shock to hear Chancellor George Osborne target the same audience in his speech to the Tory faithful in Birmingham on Monday morning though – although he did so in a much less friendly manner.

Many of Labour’s natural supporters, 10 million families according to some reports, will suffer from a child benefit freeze, welfare cuts and a further period of austerity as the Conservatives try to tackle a budget deficit that has actually gone up on its watch during this parliament.

It was not the sort of pre-election give away that many have come to expect from the man who sits in number 11 Downing Street, but George is gambling that we believe the economy is still on the critical list, and must continue to be nursed back to health with another dose of hard-nosed austerity.

For the first time in many a year we appear to have some clear blue water between our two major parties, with not quite a return of ‘class war’ but certainly the threat of a skirmish.

It is oh so depressing, and gesture politics at its worse.

Labour know that a 50p tax rate will generate LESS not more revenue for HMRC. Independent research has consistently shown that at 50% people start to actively seek ways of legal tax avoidance, and I have to say, who can blame them?

The idea that the only people who earn six figure salaries are boy racer bankers and sweat shop bosses is an insult to this country’s entrepreneurs and indeed to the wider electorate.

Most of us in business, millionaires or not, work tirelessly and deserve the rewards we earn. It is absolutely right that we pay our fair share of tax, but taking half of someone’s income isn’t fair, and many of Labour’s core vote understand that. Chuka Umunna, Labour’s shadow business minister, is doing his best to balance his party’s anti-business narrative, but his task will get harder if the two Ed’s continue to cheer lead for the politics of envy.

Osborne too is being dishonest when he suggests that greater means testing and benefit freezes bring huge savings. He is as bad for helping to peddle the nonsense that everyone on benefits is a scrounger or a cheat as Labour is in trying to paint every millionaire as a wide boy. He is as likely to raise the money he claims he will accrue from his welfare budget proposals as Labour is from its planned 50p tax hike. Indeed, welfare reform, or more means testing, as introduced by the Coalition is costing us MORE not less.

The big saving in welfare spend is actually in pension provision. The problem for George and the Tories is that pensioners tend to vote – and most of them vote Conservative.

One of the criticisms I often hear of politicians and political parties is ‘they’re all the same’. Well, that can’t be said anymore. However, that other well-worn phrase ‘they’re all as bad as each other’ may be more accurate now than in many a year.