Sir Howard Bernstein and I have had our differences over the years, chiefly concerning his prioritisation of cities over the region. So, when I say it was a real privilege to sit next Ito him at a Downtown dinner last week, I mean it.
It was a Downtown event at its best. Great food in the excellent Lowry Hotel in Salford, the movers, and shakers of Manchester around a table where all could participate and Sir Howard ranging over a series of issues that business throughout the region cares about.
Let’s start with the Northern Powerhouse and Levelling Up. He thinks the Prime Minister is in no man’s land with this project. He saw it as a way of retaining support in the Red Wall only to find it alienated the Blue Wall. Sir Howard reminded us that George Osborne (the only leading Tory who really believed in devolution) is still chair of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership and called on business to continuing to articulate the need for meaningful levelling up and devolution.
Although the Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove was doing his best, Sir Howard believed the government’s approach was inconsistent. Being surprisingly frank, he believed only a Labour government would really embrace regional inequality. I am still waiting to find out what Sir Keir Starmer’s devolution policy is.
Bernstein still insists that towns are incapable of succeeding without the success of cities but concedes there is better local leadership now leading to the revival of places like Wigan and Bury. He stressed that success didn’t lie in the begging bowl approach. Manchester invested £1.5bn of its own money into transport before getting other grants.
As the dishes were cleared away, Bernstein was getting into his stride. He believed that Johnson lacked real empathy and felt Liz Truss would make a formidable opponent for Labour next time. But who will their leader be, I asked? It is possible a fined Sir Beer Starmer would have to stand down. Sir Howard thinks Andy Burnham has acquired new skills as Mayor that would fit him for the highest office. I raised the “slight” problem that Burnham isn’t an MP and holding up the Labour leadership contest whilst an ageing MP stood down and a by election was held, was clunky. Bernstein did not think it would present a problem.
Sir Howard ended by discussing three specific matters. Manchester Airport has had a rough time. First its business was badly affected by the pandemic. More recently it has been overwhelmed by returning passengers. Bernstein praised the work of Manchester Airport Group Chief Executive Charlie Cornish and believed the airport would soon regain its reputation.
I asked about Mayor Burnham’s volte face on charging motorists entering the Clean Air Zone, now saying the government would have to impose it. This is a sensitive area for Sir Howard who suffered a rare defeat when backing a congestion charge for the conurbation in a 2008 referendum. He now believes devolution of road taxation is the way forward.
Finally on the controversy over how HS2 should come into Piccadilly station, Bernstein backed Mayor Burnham’s demand that it should be underground while Ministers favour an elevated approach.
A lot of ground covered, let’s hope the former Manchester Council CEO is a Downtown guest again soon.