Is Liverpool happy to just be Manchester’s playground?

IFB Mipim

Last week I referenced an event I had attended with Manchester City Council leader Sir Richard Leese. Among the many great insights he offered into the success of his city was his analysis of how Manchester used to be marketed.

“We were very good at marketing ‘fun’ Manchester” he said. “But we needed to find a way in which we could promote corporate Manchester, and demonstrate why it was a place to do business and invest.”

It is a point that Liverpool’s leadership may wish to take account of as it plans its next business growth strategy. Because, for all of the improvements, regeneration and enhancement of reputation the city has undoubtedly enjoyed in the past decade, there is a concern among some of us that we are focussing a little too much on ‘fun’ Liverpool and not enough on the commercial offer.

Liverpool can proudly boast that it is now the best visited city in the UK outside of London and Edinburgh. It can evidence a track record of putting on a great show through events such as Capital of Culture and the giants. Our hotel, bar, restaurant and hospitality sector is quality. The Arena has been an unqualified success. But it is now time to move on, progress the agenda, and invest a little less in ‘fun’ and a bit more in the business of the city.

This was a topic I picked up on at Downtown Liverpool’s post MIPIM forum on Tuesday morning; and it has also been highlighted by the Think Tank led by former Liverpool Walton MP Peter Kilfoyle.

In his report ‘Damage Limitation on Devolution’ Kilfoyle argues that “often Liverpool is content with its new label as a party town, a place where people go for a stag night or hen party. Whereas once it was a great and important commercial centre, it is now happy to build ever more apartments for transient investors, rather than create jobs and houses for its deprived communities.”

I can only subscribe to a small part of this narrative, as I know how hard the city’s business and civic leadership is working to win jobs and investment, but it would be fair to say that Liverpool is now perceived more cultural than commercial. If the city wants to be front and centre of the Northern Powerhouse, then that has to change.

First off, we need to look at how we better manage the limited resources available and find a way of putting additional cash into economic development, business support, policy and research. That means a long overdue conversation about merging Liverpool Vision with the Local Enterprise Partnership; and reviewing the wisdom of huge spend on ‘showcase’ events such as the giants.

I’d rather see a Million pounds invested in policy and business case planning than on a three day ‘fun’ festival that may generate short term cash and a feel good factor, but leaves little behind in way of economic growth and legacy.

Liverpool City Region has much to learn from our friends at the other end of the M62 – but the starkest lesson for now is that government in Westminster, of whatever colour, will only hand over the cash when you can guarantee a Return on Investment and present a business case for additional resource. Saying ‘It’s not fair’ is just not good enough anymore.

As Sir Richard Leese said, having ‘fun’ is great; but having a job is often a pre requisite to enjoying yourself!

North needs to be united

Reflections Liv

We’re all in this together…

It is a phrase that the chancellor has trotted out regularly during his near five year tenure in number 11 Downing Street, to explain and justify the austerity programme he has embarked upon since taking office, but it is now a mantra that should be adopted by northern cities as the devolution bandwagon continues to gather speed – but with only Manchester in a position to take full advantage of the progressive plans that are being presented.

I have had the opportunity of speaking with both the Leader and the chief executive of Manchester City Council in recent weeks, and they are naturally delighted with a ‘Devo Manc’ package that now gives them budgets, powers and responsibilities over a whole range of services including housing, health, business support and economic development; and following the budget on Thursday the local retention of business rates raised in Greater Manchester too.

But, far from cocking a snoop at their northern neighbours, who have failed miserably in grasping similar offers made to them by central government, Sir Richard Leese and Sir Howard Bernstein are desperate for others to ‘get with the programme.’

For, as Leese pointed out at the Northern Powerhouse dinner hosted by PwC in Manchester on Wednesday night, it will be much more difficult for any future government to dilute the Manchester devolution package if several others are enjoying the same or similar devolved powers.

He and Bernstein are also acutely aware of the need to connect the north far more effectively and efficiently through big infrastructure projects on road, as well as rail, if their city is to meet its full potential. And, they will also know that Manchester is now the undisputed capital of that Northern Powerhouse, meaning that they can be far more generous in supporting and ‘coaching’ other city regions to improve both in economic and governance terms.

To this end, I hope Leese and Bernstein continue to explain to Leeds and Liverpool that it is not only pragmatic to accept the notion of a directly elected leader to oversee and be accountable to the electorate for all the additional powers that are available, but it is, democratically, the right thing to do.

What government in its right mind would hand over billions of pounds in resources to a bunch of largely faceless councillors, who may or may not be in a leadership position in twelve months’ time, depending on the whims of not only the local electorate, but their own political group as well?

The idea that you can ask for radical changes to your power take, without accepting an equally radical change to your governance arrangements is clearly a nonsense.

Politicians in Merseyside and Yorkshire may cry ‘it’s not fair’ – but without any movement on the governance agenda from them, then it is most certainly right.

Greater Liverpool needs a Seventh Leader

Liverpool Seventh leader

One of the details of the deal that Greater Manchester has done with government to achieve its outstanding devolution package is that the Combined Authority will appoint an interim ‘eleventh leader’ who will chair the organisation through to the transition that will see the city region elect a metro mayor.

It has been largely assumed that the ‘interim’ chairman would come from the existing group of council leaders who make up the Combined Authority. However I understand that it is now more likely that an additional person will be appointed to head the organisation for the next two years.

This got me thinking about the impasse that has been reached here in the Liverpool city region, and whether the appointment of a ‘seventh leader’ for our Combined Authority may assist in breaking through what is becoming another bun fight among the six men who currently run Merseyside. This latest Liverpool drama, with the pro and anti- metro mayor campaigns becoming increasingly vociferous and antagonistic, has left the rest of us as frustrated by-standers who can only watch with a combination of admiration and disappointment as the civic leaders of Manchester trail blaze on the devolution agenda; whilst Liverpool’s six Labour leaders fall out very publically on an almost daily basis.

What value could a ‘seventh’ leader add? Well perhaps if it was the right personality they could act as a much needed negotiator in an increasingly bitter battle that sees Liverpool and Sefton up against Wirral, St Helens, Halton and Knowsley in an almighty row over the notion of a metro mayor for Greater Liverpool.

A new face, a fresh pair of eyes, and if at all possible a character who would command the respect of all parties would surely only help what is becoming a debilitating disagreement among the city region leadership.

Identifying who that man or woman is and getting unanimous support for that person could prove as equally fractious, but I think it’s worth a discussion. There are certainly no shortage of candidates, though they may not thank me for suggesting their involvement in what external observers perceive as a ‘permanent and typical Liverpool problem’.

The MP for Wirral West and Employment Minister Esther McVey has the ear of ministers and would be well placed to act as an influential and, in the Labour leader’s case, non-partisan chair. She could give the Combined Authority the benefit of her ‘inside’ knowledge as to what Chancellor Osborne really needs to relinquish additional powers and resources; and draw on her experience as an entrepreneur in the city region when she will well recall the bewilderment the private sector feels when this type of nonsensical row is going on.

Another potential parliamentarian who would be eminently qualified to play a part in progressing the devolution debate is Liverpool Riverside MP Louise Ellman. Currently the well- respected chair of the influential Transport select committee in Westminster, as the former Leader of Lancashire County Council and a strong advocate of regional devolution for the Northwest over a twenty year period, there are few politicians who know their way around local government and the potential prize- and pitfalls- of the devolution deal that is being offered than Mrs Ellman.

Of course a less radical approach would be to appoint an individual already involved in the existing structures of Merseyside governance, and that would open the door for the chair of the Local Enterprise Partnership Robert Hough, or the talented head of Mersey Travel Councillor Liam Robinson.

The chances of this ‘seventh leader’ option being adopted are slim, to say the least. But in the absence of any positive movement on an issue that is the most important the city region will face politically in a generation, we need to do something that will break the existing log-jam. Does anyone else have a better idea?

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!

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.