It looks as if AstraZeneca is safe, for now, but the attempted takeover by Pfizer begs some important questions about our politicians relations with big business. This came to a head as I watched MPs trying to hold these mega companies to account last week.
Down the corridor they came for all the world like prize fighters heading for the ring. Large security men with ear pieces and stern expressions escorted the Pfizer representatives into the Commons committee hearing.
Pfizer make Viagra and it shows. AstraZeneca’s representatives entrance was equally impressive. Big Pharma was on display but Andrew Miller was ready for them. He’s the MP for Ellesmere Port, close to Cheshire’s chemical industry and he was once a lab technician.
Early in the hearing Ian C Read, CEO of Pfizer, (all top American executives have a middle letter) admitted there would be less scientists if the takeover went ahead.
“Shouldn’t there be more not less scientists?” asked Mr Miller.
Ian C Read said he didn’t know enough about AZ to answer that.
“You knew enough to make a £50bn bid” retorted the former lab technician.
And so it went on. MPs in the committee room asking detailed questions of Pfizer and Astra Zeneca executives followed by the Science Minister “two brains” David Willetts. The day before the hearing the Business Secretary, Vince The Cable, had hinted darkly that public interest legislation might be strengthened to protect vital British industries. Two Brains kept telling MPs he couldn’t go further than his master.
Exasperated a bearded West country Liberal Democrat David Heath put the killer question. “If the takeover goes through and promises are broken, there is nothing the government can do about it is there?”. Wlliett’s called that “an excessively bleak view” , in other words no.
That isn’t entirely true. I met David Rutley outside the committee room. We both agreed that we couldn’t get too worked up about poor little Astra Zeneca getting gobbled up by Pfizer after they took most of their work away from Alderley Park to Cambridge. Nevertheless Rutley pointed to research and development grants that are in the government’s gift. He wanted some sabre rattling from Vince The Cable.
As it is it looks as if AZ have seen off the takeover for six months at least. They still employ 700 staff at Alderley Park and the worst effects of their moving the rest of their business to Cambridge has been mitigated by the takeover of Alderley Park by Manchester Sciences Parks. AZ are putting £5m into a fund to nurture talent on the site.
Alderley Park is to become a campus for bioscience companies and we must hope some brilliant discoveries are made there because that is the way to protect our science excellence.
Although they mean well our national politicians, of all parties, believe in Britain being an open country to foreign investment and ownership. They will always make the right noises when these takeovers arise but the truth is we will have to take the rough (Kraft /Cadbury) with the smooth (TataTata/JLR).








Can we hope that business people and politicians are once again thinking about regions like Yorkshire and the Humber and the North West? The Shadow Chief Secretary and Leeds MP Rachel Reeves told a Downtown event in the city a year or so ago that Labour would work with the Local Enterprise Partnership structure. But according to Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, his colleague Lord Adonis is devising an Infrastructure Commission that will devolve power to regions as well as cities.


It is high time the prevailing doctrine that cities are the only drivers of the northern economy was challenged. Without a strong regional policy, towns around our big cities are going to suffer. Leading academics of my acquaintance, who support the cities agenda, openly say that people in places like Burnley are going to have to travel to Manchester to get a job in the future.




It was so refreshing to attend a North West Business Leadership Team (NWBLT) event where we had a chance to survey our excellence in science from Cumbria to Crewe. Present was the Director of the Department for Business Innovation and Skills North West. It is the only regionally based government body to avoid the insane culling of everything else regional by the Coalition when they came to office.


The NWBLT report won’t be launched until the end of next month. It is in draft form and further views are welcome, but the title will be “Exploiting the Excellence” England’s North West: Where World Class Science underpins wealth creating innovation. So you get the drift. It emphasises throughout, not only our heritage of scientific invention, but the large range of science based businesses that can take us forward with the proper support.


The region’s assets include advanced materials and cancer research in Manchester and Liverpool, cutting edge nuclear research in Cumbria, oil and gas research in Lancaster and world class astronomy at Jodrell Bank.


NWBLT Chairman Juergen Maier of Siemens called on government to make it easier for SMEs to access government funds. He added that leadership would be needed as market forces alone would not bring the region’s economy back to health.


Andrew Miller, the Ellesmere Port MP, who has done so much to promote science, spoke of the need for eco systems and catapults! The former refers to the need for businesses to cluster together and feed off each other’s expertise. The latter relates to innovation centres which can help get embryonic science companies off to a flying start.

Of course everything hasn’t been rosy on the North West science front. The decision to locate the 3rd Generation Light Source at Harwell and AstraZeneca’s relocation of its research facility from Alderley Park to Cambridge have been big blows.


Chris Doherty is responsible for the sale and redevelopment of the AstraZeneca site and had some interesting things to say about the company’s relocation decision. Apparently the reasons were far more social than economic. The new AstraZeneca CEO was from California and felt Alderley Park was an isolated place compared to the dynamic environment of Cambridge. Doherty said the site had become isolated from Manchester.


That’s the danger of the City Region policy as opposed to a wider strategy taking care to be aware of Cheshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire’s needs as well as Liverpool, Leeds and Manchester.








Who’s going to pull us out of this economic mess? Big companies, SMEs, or the North West’s answer to Mark Zuckerberg lurking on one of our university campuses like Lancaster or UCLAN?

Unemployment might top three million by year end according to some forecasters.

Certainly last week’s jobless figures did nothing to raise spirits in manufacturing areas like Lancashire.

Hard on the heels of the unemployment statistics came news of disappointing sales results at BAE Systems. That’s a big company employing thousands of people at Warton, Salmesbury and Chorley.

They’ve been hit by falling defence orders and may lose a major contract for Eurofighter Typhoons for the Indian air force to the French. It should be pointed out however that Dassault Aviation is only the preferred bidder and frantic efforts are being made to ensure all is not lost.

Then there’s AstraZeneca employing three thousand people at Alderley Park in Cheshire. There’s another giant in the job cutting business because producing new highly profitable drugs is getting more difficult.

Finally in this catalogue of tottering titans, we have General Motors which owns the Vauxhall plant at Ellesmere Port. Despite a highly efficient and cooperative workforce, the American based management is reported to be contemplating cuts in its European operations here and in Germany.

So what’s to be done? BAE, AstraZeneca and Vauxhall are big potatoes in the North West economic stew. If they are downsizing, where are the jobs to come from?

The Institute for Public Policy Research North published a report last week that might provide part of the answer.

The document “Beyond bricks and mortar boards: universities and the future of regional economic development”, points out that knowledge-based industries employing staff with high level skills will see the most significant growth in job creation by the end of the decade.

So universities like UCLAN will be central to skill creation, but the report says there needs to be wider recognition of the role universities can play in the North West economy.

As well as producing highly skilled people, the report identifies their economic impact in university towns like Lancaster where high incomes are generated and the institution is a significant employer.

Like everyone else, universities have had to adjust to the new regional policy landscape which has seen the Regional Development Agency and North West Universities Association swept away.

The report challenges the new Local Enterprise Partnerships to make the best use of the universities in this region.

At the launch of the report in Manchester there was an acceptance of this approach, but efforts by a few attendees to trash the reputation of the RDA were resisted. The Vice Chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan University, Prof. John Brooks, was not alone in criticising the lack of regional focus in the new arrangements.

From the rarefied company of academics in Manchester I was quickly back to low politics on Merseyside.

First I dropped in on Alec Salmond charming an audience in St George’s Hall with his demand for Scottish independence. The First Minister is a clever politician lacing his address with references toLiverpooland all the fine football managers his country has bequeathed the city.

I wanted to ask him a key question but wasn’t lucky enough to be called so I’ll ask it here. “Mr Salmond, you have a mandate for a yes/no referendum on Scottish independence. What you don’t have is a mandate to ask a question about ‘ devo max’ which could muddle the answer and would show your lack of confidence that you can get full independence. What’s your answer?’’

Then it was on to Wallasey Town Hall to see the latest chapter in the soap that is Wirral politics. Steve Foulkes has been deposed as Labour leader after just nine months back in office by a coalition of Tories and Lib Dems which may only have three months in power before Labour sweeps back in the May elections.

Wirral was one of the councils most opposed to a city region mayor. I fear they will become increasingly marginalised conducting their power struggles whilst Liverpool benefits from the cash that will follow the election of a mayor.

On that subject I have only one thing to say this week and it is to Phil Redmond. In a Liverpool newspaper, the Tarporley resident tells us he wants to be provided with a series of answers before he deigns to tell us if he’s a candidate or not.

Find out for yourself Phil, and then decide one way or the other. Unlike arty seminars, politics requires decisions.