The Confederation of British Industry has a confused position on devolution. This week its Director General, John Cridland,described the plethora of regeneration schemes like City Deals and Growth Funds as “a tower of Babel” that business had to try and cope with. He also complained about the multiple tiers of government, particularly with local councils in the shires, and accused politicians of doing devolution by deadline with back door deals. He told an audience in Manchester we needed to take things gradually and allow all voices to be heard.

So I asked Mr Cridland whether he would support a Constitutional Convention so that the CBI, along with everyone else, could have their say in shaping a coherent solution to a range of issues from the governance of the North and business support to the future shape of local government and the Local Enterprise Partnerships; he refused to commit himself. This was because we are in a General Election campaign and it is Labour Party policy to have a Convention. However in other answers he made it clear he favoured the sort of piecemeal approach to devolution which is likely to lead to the continuation of the confused picture of Combined Authorities, two tier councils, elected mayors and centralised government support schemes that we have now.

Despite this muddled thinking Cridland did make an important speech outlining how business sees devolution. Its central purpose had to be getting the regions to perform better. The CBI chief reckoned they could contribute £56bn towards the deficit of £90bn.

For the UK as a whole he regarded it as essential that we retain common business taxation and financial rules as well as a common energy and labour market.

For English regions he had three criteria for growth friendly devolution. They were evidence that it would boost growth, better local leadership and the minimisation of bureaucracy and complexity.

The CBI is dead against tax varying powers in City Regions. He reminded his Manchester audience of the years before uniform business rates when companies had to lobby each local council and rates varied wildly.

He however did support local tax retention schemes like Manchester’s buy back arrangements.

He praised the devolution deal that Greater Manchester had negotiated but posed the vital question about what happens to the rest of the North? Well Mr Cridland that’s the sort of issue that could be addressed in a comprehensive Constitutional Convention which the CBI needs to support.


Could we see the Straw dynasty survive in the new parliament? Jack Straw is standing down in Blackburn and there had been speculation that his son, Will, would succeed him.

But, unlike America where you can be President providing you are called Clinton or Bush, here we don’t care for dynastic politics. So Will is trying his hand in the much more marginal nearby seat of Rossendale and Darwen. Part of the constituency has Blackburn as its local council but it includes the south Lancashire communities of Rawtenstall and Bacup as well.

It has swung between Labour and the Tories over the years. Currently Jake Berry holds the seat with a majority of under five thousand having ousted Labour’s Janet Anderson in 201




Forty years ago this week local government boundaries across the North were ripped up in a major reform of how we are governed locally. It was meant to herald a more efficient system of administration with functions being carried out at an appropriate level reflecting communities that people could identify with.


In fact the last forty years has seen continued tinkering with the system, the scrapping and then the reinventing of city regions and, in some areas, a refusal of people to come to terms with the 1974 settlement. There is still much to do.


In 1974 local government across the north consisted of a patchwork of county boroughs covering the main population centres with a series of small urban and rural councils around them with boundaries that did not reflect the urban expansion since the Second World War.


In 1969 very wise man called Lord Redcliffe-Maud proposed that most people should have one tier of local government. His idea was rejected but it remains the obvious solution to this day. Instead the Heath government decided to create metropolitan councils for West Yorkshire, Greater Manchester and Merseyside. They dealt with transport, police, fire and structural planning whilst metropolitan districts handled schools, housing, social services and collected the rates.


The old shire counties had chunks taken out of them. Yorkshire lost Saddleworth to Oldham and Todmorden to Lancashire. The Saddleworth White Rose Society still campaigns for the old historic boundary. Cheshire lost Wirral to Merseyside. Lancashire,who’s southern border had been the Mersey, lost communities from Stretford and Whiston and Ashton and Droylesden to the mets and in the North the Furness area to Cumbria. Perhaps most contentious was the incorporation of Southport into Merseyside. A Southport Party campaigning to return the resort to Lancashire has enjoyed poll success in Sefton Council elections.




Cities like Manchester were never happy with an upper tier authority over them and shed few tears when the metropolitan counties became collateral damage in a war between Margaret Thatcher and Ken Livingstone, leader of the Greater London Council in the mid 1980s.


There was turbulence in the shire counties too. In Lancashire, Blackpool and Blackburn became all purpose authorities in 1998. It was typical of the piecemeal nature of local government reform in recent decades. Why wasn’t Preston given unitary status? Why have 12 district councils in Lancashire and yet in 2009 reduce the number of councils in Cheshire to two?


There was a moment of hope that a real overall coherent vision would be given to all this when John Prescott proposed regional assemblies to democratise the work of the Regional Development Agencies. It would have required unitary local government throughout the North, reducing the number of politicians not increasing them as critics of Prescott mislead people into believing.


Prescott was replaced by the current Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles who vowed to oppose any more reorganisation. In fact under the current government we have seem the rise of Combined Authorities in Greater Manchester and soon in Merseyside and West Yorkshire. They are reinventions of the metropolitan councils of 1974 recognising that there is a need for strategic thinking in the mets.


In Greater Manchester the antagonisms of 1974-86 have been avoided. The jury is still out elsewhere particularly in the Liverpool City Region.


A plethora of initiatives have been launched by this government. Local Enterprise Partnerships, elected mayors, City Deals etc. It is a confusing mess which people don’t understand and have little democratic control over.


Forty years on from the reform of 1974 we await the government with the guts to override petty local politics and introduce root and branch reform of our constitution from the House of Lords to parish council.





On July 4th Downtown is hosting a vital conference to discuss how northern cities like Leeds and Liverpool can accelerate change and economic growth. It is well timed if an event I attended at the Commons this week is anything to go by.


The Smith Institute and Regional Studies Association were posing the question “Where next for Local Enterprise Partnerships?” LEPs were set up in the wake of the wholesale destruction of regional structures by the incoming Coalition government in the summer 0f 2010.


LEPs were to be slim, local, business led organisations to drive economic growth. The problem was,initially at least, they had little money or structure and their targets were unclear. Over the last three years they have largely been left to get on with it. The result is that across the North of England LEPs have evolved in very different ways.


In Manchester and Leeds they have been able to take advantage of the combined authorities of the local councils. Liverpool’s LEP, after a slow start, inherited the infrastructure of the Mersey Partnership. In Cheshire and Lancashire the organisations are smaller.


Despite the good work they are doing, the big question remains are they fit for purpose in trying to close the North South divide. The conclusion of the Commons conference I attended was that they are not.


As a convinced regionalist I found the discussion frustrating. There was frequent mention of the need for the LEPs to work more closely together to create a critical mass to be effective. The logic points to a need for a strategic organisation across the North to take major decisions on transport, planning and infrastructure. That’s not going to happen under this government or a possible Labour administration who’ve said they will work with the “patchwork quilt” of local structures. How daft is that?


Reference was made to a recent Ernst and Young report on direct foreign investment into the UK. There was much rejoicing when the report came out that the North West had seen a 13% rise with Yorkshire not far behind. However the comparable figures for Scotland Wale4s and Northern Ireland were respectively 49%,244% and 71%. What do they have in common? Powerful, well resourced devolved government. Simon Alport Ernst and Young’s North West senior partner concluded that the closure of the Regional Development Agencies may have undermined the performance of English regions. Not may Simon, it did.


The Commons conference concluded that the government lacked a coherent regional policy with a bewildering patchwork of initiatives from the Regional Growth Fund to Enterprise Zones, City Deals to community budgets.


Andy Pike from Newcastle University believes the government is torn between centralism as it battles austerity and a commitment to localism. The result is that LEPs operate in a world of multiple actors which is time consuming and lacking in accountability.


There were other opinions. Nigel Guy from Leeds LEP saw no problem with different LEPs going at different speeds and wanted more power for the City Regions.


Blackpool MP Gordon Marsden was sceptical of the argument that powerful City Regions in Manchester and Liverpool could help his town. He recalled a conversation with Manchester Council leader Sir Richard Leese when they were battling over who would have a super casino. Marsden had told him on a good day the “Manchester” effect would stretch to Preston, on a bad day to Bolton but never Blackpool.


An important indication of government policy will come shortly in the comprehensive spending review when the Chancellor announces the size of the single growth pot for local devolved spending. Will London let go of enough money to make a difference up North? Don’t hold your breath.