As I mentioned last week the decision to go ahead with a third runway at Heathrow is better for the North than the Gatwick option. Not as good as using Birmingham and Manchester, but the choice that first faced Harold Wilson’s government in the 1960s has been made.

But now we are going to have a hugely confused by election. Tory Zac Goldsmith has resigned as an MP because his constituency is under the flight path. He will stand as an Independent but won’t be opposed by his former party. Why are the Conservatives giving him a free passage? The bigger issue is the Lib Dems claim that this will be a by election about Brexit. They base their argument on the high Remain vote in Richmond at the last election. I am second to none in wanting a fresh vote on Europe but I’m pretty sure that Remainers will put their opposition to the runway above their support for Europe. The Lib Dems risk damaging the Remain cause if Goldsmith (who backed Leave) is re-elected. Brexiteers will claim a victory that will actually be about the runway.


A few months ago I thought Manchester born Steven Woolfe could be the terror of the Labour Party in Northern England on behalf of UKIP. Without rehearsing the overused cliché about time and politics, Mr Woolfe has spectacularly disqualified himself from such an opportunity. In a matter of weeks he flirted with the Tory Party, was hospitalised in Strasbourg after an “altercation” with a fellow MEP, and finally quit the party calling it ungovernable.

The North West MEP is now reported to be living in Hampshire and sitting as an independent in the European Parliament. There is a recent precedent for a North West MEP changing colours but continuing to hold office. Saj Karim was elected as a Lib Dem MEP in 2004 but switched to the Tories in 2007. He was elected under his new colours in 2009 and still represents the region very well in Brussels. Throughout Karim lived in the North West and there was no question of him being able to do his job. Mr Woolfe should consider resignation if he is not going to live in the North West.

As Mr Woolfe slinks away, another North West MEP has emerged who might appeal to disaffected Labour voters. Paul Nuttall, a true scouser who tells it like it is, has thrown his hat in the ring. Nuttall is positioning himself as the middle of the road candidate in this faction ridden party. On the right is Donald Trump supporter Raheem Kassam and on the left is Tory lite Suzanne Evans.

It is tempting to hope that after all the leadership antics, UKIP will suffer the fate of most ultra right parties. But we live in strange times where many voters are so disillusioned with mainstream parties and candidates that they will ignore damaging behaviour in order to send messages to the establishment. It may happen in America and it could possibly happen here because of Labour’s problems.

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Debate has opened up on the future configuration of the Northern Powerhouse under Theresa May’s government. Should the project be less focused on our cities and cover a wider canvas? Will we play second fiddle to the Midlands Engine? What is the key to providing sustainable jobs in the middle of this century?

On the latter point, the Centre For Cities think tank have opened an interesting debate suggesting in the words of their Chief Executive “the calls of some politicians to recreate the North’s glory days by focusing on a resurgence in manufacturing will not be sufficient to transform the North’s economy.”

Does Alexandra Jones have a point? I felt a wave of pride this week when Sir David Attenborough was present at the keel laying ceremony for the first large ship to be built at Cammell Laird’s yard in Birkenhead for many years. It was a reminder of a past era when Birkenhead made ships, Manchester spun textiles and Sheffield forged steel and sold the products round the world. There is something special about making things. Flying sparks, liquid metal, the clatter of weaving machines will always beat the tap on the keyboard and the silent transfer of information from one computer screen to another. Much of this is sentimental tosh when considering what the North needs to do to make the Northern Powerhouse a reality.

Centre For Cities is right to focus our attention on what happened to London which used to be a major centre for manufacturing with its docks nearby. It transformed into a hi tech and service based economy with excellent communications and high skills. That is what we need to do, particularly the latter.

But there needs to be a balance. A major apprentice fair was held in Manchester this week where youngsters were being urged to get skilled up not just for hi tech and service industry jobs but ones involving construction and hydraulics. There will still be a place for manufacturing in the North if we can identify the opportunities in sectors like energy and aerospace.


A third runway at Heathrow has been under consideration since 1968. It is pathetic that the Prime Minister, who came in stressing the need for a new industrial strategy based on infrastructure spending, is delaying a final decision for another year.

It is pretty clear that Heathrow will get the nod over Gatwick. Why else would these elaborate plans be drawn up to allow Cabinet ministers like Boris Johnson to express their continued opposition and remain in the Cabinet?

The Davies Commission should have backed a regional expansion strategy, particularly with HS2 in mind, but with only Gatwick and Heathrow on the table, the North has to choose which to back.

Gatwick is simply on the wrong side of London for most of the country with Heathrow offering much better connection to the North.

But we need to get on with infrastructure spending on HS2, housing and Heathrow and if people find it too noisy and congested in West London then come North where the quality of life is infinitely better!

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The debate about the future of our northern airports is about to take off as a number of issues come to a head and the incoming government next May is challenged to decide on a new runway at Gatwick or Heathrow


Up North the big player is Manchester. Brimming with confidence as part of an airport group that also owns Stansted, it is seeing Airport City being constructed to massively increase its retail offer and freight handling capacity. It wants more international slots to fill its unused capacity.


Leeds Airport is considering a £38m investment package but road links to the A65 remain an issue. Newcastle now has a daily flight to Dubai but are concerned about the Scottish government potentially reducing Air Passenger Duty.


Elsewhere the picture is less rosy. Blackpool Airport recently closed altogether although there are hopes that it might be re-licensed particularly to service the Morecambe Bay gas industry. Finally there is Liverpool where passenger numbers are falling from 5.3 million in 2011 to 4.2 million in 2013.


When the Davies Commission was set up to decide on the options for maintaining the UK’s role as a major international hub, airports in the North and Midlands pointed out their available capacity to take more international flights. In contrast Heathrow has been full for years.


The option of including Birmingham and Manchester in particular in a dispersed huge hub that would also include Heathrow and Gatwick was dismissed by the chairman Sir Howard Davies. The reasoning was that airlines wanted to fly out of London and if attempts were made to bribe or give them an incentive to go elsewhere then they had other “hub” options around the world. Hubbing is crucial for airlines, finding the airport that can offer the best options for interconnections. The airlines take a global view and therefore the UK is in hub competition with not just Amsterdam and Frankfurt, but Dubai as well.


More recently the Davies Commission rejected Boris Johnson’s idea for a new airport in the Thames estuary which would have cost £90bn.


Final consultation is now under way on the remaining options which are two alternatives at Heathrow and one at Gatwick. Sir Howard Davies has been deliberately told to make his final report just after the General Election as this is a decision politicians don’t want to take. There have been years of prevarication already because whichever decision is taken residents will be up in arms over the noise issue.


It is on the cards that no decision will be taken by the new government. The Blair/Brown government, with working majorities funked a decision. If we have a minority government in May, how likely is it that a decision will be made? The Times reported Sir Howard’s somewhat intemperate reaction when I put this possibility to him recently. It was along the lines of what do you expect me to do? It was the understandable reaction of a man trying to do a very difficult job.


That won’t worry northern airports. Sir Richard Leese,chairman of Core Cities, told me recently that he rejected the hub concept, wanted the whole issue of a new runway in the South East to be put off yet again and wanted Manchester’s case to be considered once again. He pointed out that HS2 would have its own airport station which strengthened the case for Manchester solving the South East runway capacity problem.













Now we see more clearly what we are going to have to contend with as we try and bring power to the North.


We knew about Boris land in the South East and London with its power to drain the brightest talent southwards and its vastly disproportionate transport spending.


Now we see the full dimension of the challenge north of the border. The Scottish Government will retain all the income tax raised in Scotland, a share of VAT and power over areas of welfare. Air Passenger Duty will be a devolved power and expect it to be cut. APD is an issue that Manchester and Leeds airports have been campaigning on for years without success. Now they face a competitive disadvantage which could be significant in the border region, particularly Newcastle.


The city regionalists have written to The Times along the lines of what’s right for Scotland is right for the cities. Quite right but even our northern cities are not fit for purpose in the new economic landscape. We need to build on the Rail North and One North concepts, adding functions that apply across the North and make it a democratically elected body so that ordinary people have a say.


Meanwhile, as I write, we await the Combined Authority deals for Leeds and Sheffield promised by Nick Clegg before the Autumn Statement. On Merseyside the problems continue. Phil Davies, the leader of Wirral and the City Region has now stated that the concept of an elected mayor should be put to a referendum. That is unlikely to please Liverpool Mayor Joe Anderson.




Business leaders usually recoil when it is suggested they become involved in politics. But with an elected mayor for Greater Manchester on the horizon, it is interesting to see some of the non political names coming forward. For instance Scott Fletcher of ANS Group, and lively contributor to Downtown events, has not ruled himself out.


Another man who impressed me this week with his wider skills and vision was Juergen Maier, Chief Executive of Siemens UK. He is also Chairman of the North West Business Leadership Team, an organisation that takes a region wide view on the big issues facing business.


It published its business manifesto this week. It calls for action in the areas of skills, transport, world class science and emphasising our energy resources.


Speaking to MPs at Westminster Maier made a number of key points including the fact that there are too many skills initiatives for business to cope with. He said devolution had to operate within a national framework to preserve coherence (that is why a constitutional convention is essential). He also showed how far behind we are in only now arguing for HS3. Essen, Dortmund and Cologne were linked 25 years ago. He also hoped the autumn statement might bring economic catapults in precision medicine and energy to the North West.


The North needs leaders like Juergen Maier.




Next week’s statement by the Chancellor will be important for northern business. With the election looming we can expect further measures in connection with the “northern powerhouse” as George Osborne seeks to confirm his position as a friend of the north.


But we mustn’t be distracted from some hard underlying truths. There are signs that the fragile recovery is stalling, the government has missed its deficit reduction targets by a wide margin and all these city region councils that are going to get devolved powers are facing remorseless cuts in their budgets.