Whether it’s the power to direct the skills agenda that would best benefit northern business or yet another report recommending northern rail between Manchester and Leeds (HS3), there a feeling abroad that devolution is a half-hearted business as far as the government is concerned.

That feeling emerged from two excellent Downtown in Business events that I attended this week, along with another one in Manchester looking forward to next week’s MIPIM gathering in Cannes and the sub regional mayor’s forthcoming crucial spatial strategy.

First up was the event with the two sub regional mayors. Andy Burnham has several frustrations. The Greater Manchester mayor believes the English regions are being ignored by the government in the Brexit talks. He wants HS2 and HS3 built at the same time but is dealing with organisations like Highways England and Network Rail that are not accountable locally.

Finally, Burnham thinks the Department for Education are as much use as a chocolate teapot when it comes to the skills agenda.

Steve Rotheram, mayor of the Liverpool City Region, shared the Downtown platform with Burnham and shares his frustration over the skills agenda. Both men want a clear pathway for youngsters who choose not to go to university, to access the vocational training that will lead to good jobs without student debt round their necks.

Burnham claimed that the lack of skills meant £40,000 computer coding jobs were going unfilled in Manchester but youngsters in Oldham and Rochdale weren.t being given the vision to apply for them.

The route to university is clear but the vocational path is not, and the Department for Education is to blame, according to the mayors because they are not in touch with local needs.

And in case Whitehall believes this is a Labour winge, apparently Tory West Midlands mayor Andy Street is equally critical.

The mayors should be given control of post 16 education.


At least Manchester and Liverpool have devolution deals, the already chaotic picture in Lancashire went from bad to worse this week when Pendle announced it wanted to break away from Lancashire and the Northern Powerhouse Minister, Jake Berry, opined that it would be a good idea.

Geoff Driver, the Conservative leader of Lancashire, was not amused. It is a distraction from his efforts to try to get the county to unite around a devolution proposal that would be lead by whoever was leader of Lancashire County Council. Driver told the Downtown lunch that it had to be that way. The county’s budget was £750m compared to a district council like South Ribble that was administering £13m.

His economic case is sound, but I fear that the districts will not agree to county leadership in this form. It might work if there was a leader of the Lancashire Combined Authority that could be from anywhere presiding over a Cabinet that was weighted to reflect the heft of the county council.


This is another area unlikely to agree a devolution deal. Meanwhile Warrington itself goes from strength to strength. It is determined not to be overwhelmed by its proximity to the Manchester and Liverpool sub regions.

Business networking that is commonplace in the cities, has been piecemeal in Warrington….till now. Let’s welcome The Business Exchange by Warrington&Co which will see events and get togethers with the lively group of entrepreneurs in the town


Perhaps Warrington will soon be represented at MIPIM, the world’s property market, which meets in Cannes next week. Downtown hosted a preview of the event in Manchester which has had a presence at the resort for years. Simon Bedford of Deloitte and Tom Higgins of Laing O’ Rourke said the key value of MIPIM was that people there had time to network with each other and while final deals weren’t necessarily done, the initial approaches were certainly made on millions of pounds of property deals.

The panellists also gave their observations on the Greater Manchester economy that they said was buoyant despite Brexit doubts. Tom Higgins suggested that the London market had become saturated and investors were keen to put their money into the city centre. It was agreed that if families were going to be attracted to town centre living, councils would have a big part o play in providing schools and health centres.

Homes would need to be affordable, but land values were shooting up. Would home buyers benefit from streamlined off site house building methods? We’ll see.

There was recognition that the picture outside the city centre was more stressed with high streets suffering from the retail crisis brought on by on-line shopping.

Andy Burnham’s spatial strategy, expected shortly, would need to address the needs of Bolton, Rochdale, Stockport etc.

So, the current comment on devolution and the Northern Powerhouse is that progress is patchy.

Follow me @JimHancockUK





Let us hope 2016 represents the darkest hour for the centre left in Britain, Europe and the world. It is not just the defeats suffered by people like Hillary Clinton and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and the victories of Donald Trump and re-election of Jeremy Corbyn. It is the inability of the centre left to have any convincing answers to the problems of globalisation, terrorism and immigration. Because of this, Leave won in Britain, Putin was strengthened in Russia and President Obama became impotent in the Middle East.

2016 has seen a weakening of belief in organisations that have become part of the post 1945 architecture particularly the European Union, NATO and free trade. Comparisons have been made with the 1930s. They are exaggerated because we do not, yet, have large overtly fascist parties backed by tacit or overt military support that prevailed in that troubled decade. What we do have is a growing populist movement headed by politicians from right field offering to sweep away the old parties with their jaded remedies. The populist right offers simple solutions to complex issues to voters disillusioned by politicians who have failed to deliver for all. The other valid comparison with the thirties is even more worrying. These populist politicians have people to blame, usually immigrants. This has led to increases in racial abuse and worse.

The demand for instant solutions is made worse by social media with its opportunities for “echo chamber” fervour and vile abuse. There is a weakening support for democracy. The warning signs of how quickly things can disintegrate came with the razor wire fences erected in the Balkans against immigrants and refugees.

Our own EU Referendum showed how foolish David Cameron was to put a highly complex issue to a binary vote. His departure is one of the best things to happen this year. As the Brexit crisis drags on he will be increasingly be seen as one of the worst Prime Ministers in our history.

The centre left needs to assert the value of international and domestic cooperation, express enthusiasm for the European ideal, point out that we are in a global world whilst developing policies on immigration, a tough approach to tax havens and bank control.


The year has seen major figures at the heart of this important project leave, or prepare to leave, the stage. The Chancellor George Osborne paid the price for calling the EU Referendum, although he has formed the Northern Powerhouse Partnership think tank. That’s not to be confused with the Northern Powerhouse Partnership set up by Andrew Percy, the Minister in charge of devolution to the North.

There was a period of uncertainty about the government’s commitment to the Northern Powerhouse which saw the sad loss of Lord Jim O’Neill of Gatley who’d been a strong advocate of more power for the cities. We are also now in the final months of Sir Howard Bernstein as Chief Executive of Manchester Council who has helped shape the major devolution deal in his city and in wider areas.

With government uncertainty and local tensions a complex patchwork of devolution has developed during 2016 across the North. Greater Manchester has most powers with the Liverpool City Region resolving some of its internal difficulties to gain a reasonable devolution package for the incoming city region mayor.. Leeds has not resolved its issues with surrounding districts. HS2 was confirmed but despite the growing importance of the organisation Transport For the North, the Secretary of State, Chris Grayling, is saying he’s waiting to hear about the plans we have for improving East West connections over the Pennines. They’ve been around for years!

People need to see practical benefits from all this and want a say in what has been a behind closed doors exercise. The centrifugal forces of London are always there.

Despite everything I hope you have as merry a Christmas as possible.

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After the shameful “pause” in electrifying the Leeds-Manchester rail link, we now have the shamefaced about turn.

In June when the “pause” was announced, I described it as one of the most disgraceful decisions ever made because it undermined the Northern Powerhouse based on connectivity, it undermined companies’ procurement plans and finally politicians must have known before the election about the crisis in Network Rail that caused the decision to be taken.

Be in no doubt that the decision to reinstate the electrification is directly related to the fact that the Conservatives are in Manchester this weekend for their annual conference. The Chancellor George Osborne will want Ministers to make frequent references to the Northern Powerhouse. He didn’t want critics asking how meaningful the concept could be without better rail links between the two principal cities of the Powerhouse.

Two independent enquiries had been set up after the “pause” was announced. The hapless Transport Secretary Patrick McLaughlin told us no decisions would be taken until they reported. But George Osborne, who I understand wasn’t fully in the loop on the “pause” decision, can’t wait for the enquiries and has ordered the go-ahead to be given.

All this faffing around comes at a price. It has delayed the project by three years so passengers can carry on standing until 2022.


I understand the Tory conference may also be used for announcements about devolution deals for Sheffield and the North East where agreement has been reached on elected mayors. The latter will be small consolation to the steel workers of Redcar.


At least the Tories are in power, Labour look a long way from it. That’s my conclusion after spending some sun drenched days in Brighton. The moon turned red but I fear that was more a sign of the Gods’ displeasure than a happy omen for socialism.

Much of the press coverage of the new Labour leader is over the top. Jeremy Corbyn has revitalised his party, he has caught the mood of public disillusionment with speak your weight politicians and some of his policies (housing and rail) have considerable merit.

But the Trident row has immediately highlighted the inherent instability of his leadership. In all honesty who really thought Prime Minister Corbyn would authorise the use of nuclear weapons? But by definitively saying he wouldn’t he has fatally undermined his chances of victory in 2020.

Most of the Shadow Cabinet criticised him as did the big unions whose members are employed in the nuclear industry. But most seriously Corbyn says repeatedly he wants the party to be more democratic. They voted, against his wishes, not to discuss changing the multilateral disarmament policy at the conference. Instead a defence review is under way when the issue of Britain, under a Labour government, becoming unilateralist would be discussed.

But what is the point of Maria Eagle, the Shadow Defence Secretary and Garston MP beavering away on her review when the would be Prime Minister has already told our potential adversaries that he will blink first?

Perhaps the truth is that Jeremy Corbyn is determined to shake up the Labour Party, give it back its socialist principles and then hand over to someone more electable in a few years time.





I have rarely been so angered as I was on hearing the government had pulled the rug on major rail plans including the electrification of the Leeds- Manchester line.

It’s difficult to know where to start with this act of betrayal, almost deceit, being perpetrated on the people of the North. So here is a brief list of the things that were wrong with the announcement of the Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin.

Number one, the fundamental principle of the Northern Powerhouse is connectivity, bringing closer together the great cities of Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Hull and Newcastle. This “pause” which is a Whitehall weasel word for cancel, drives a coach and horses through the whole proposition.

Number two, for decades businesses dependent on government contracts have complained about the stop start approach of Ministers. The reason why our infrastructure is so poor is that successive governments have kept turning the investment tap on and off, making long term planning impossible.

Number three, for a year in the run up to the General Election Tory politicians were promising more and more spending on our rail connections. They must have known at least some of the truth. No wonder people are utterly cynical about politicians’ promises.

Number four, the chairman of Network Rail is made the scapegoat when the Transport Secretary should have gone too.

And finally will Crossrail 2 in London be affected by this plan? I don’t expect so. In which case the huge disparity between transport spend in the capital and the North will widen still further.

The only answer is to to devolve most of the transport budget to a Northern devolved government where we can make decisions for ourselves.

So George Osborne, don’t dare to tell us how much you support the Northern Powerhouse when you announce your budget on Wednesday because few will believe you.


In his first budget this year George Osborne had Lib Dem Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander reminding him he was in a Coalition. Alexander has now gone back to his old job with the Highland Tourist Board for all I know. Anyway Osborne is now free to show us what the first fully Tory budget since 1997 looks like.

Will he implement £12bn of welfare cuts? Will he continue to hammer local council spending? Will he pursue an ideological approach to create a smaller state? The Chancellor has planned a roller-coaster of deep cuts at the beginning of the parliament followed by spending increases on the back of a surplus at the end. Great politics but it has attracted criticism from business that wants a smoother path to aid planning.

The Chancellor will have to fulfil his extraordinary promise to enshrine in law no increases in VAT, Income Tax and National Insurance. Other election promises centre around a rise in the threshold for Inheritance Tax and more measures on tax avoidance.

A growing issue is the UK’s poor productivity. Measures to tackle that would be good…..and that rail investment for the north.