An agonised call for the elected mayors of Merseyside to stop their power battles and get on with promoting the city region was made at a Downtown event in the city this week.

Many of the movers and shakers in the area were kind enough to give their time to look at the city’s development in the ten years since Capital of Culture and what the next decade has in store.

The overriding desire was for Liverpool City mayor Joe Anderson and City Region mayor Steve Rotheram to end their rivalry, agree on who does what, and get on with attracting business and tourism to the area.

The main frustration focuses on the many agencies that are doing bits and pieces to attract jobs and visitors. The demand is for one point of contact, particularly for tourism. The consensus was that this is a job for the city region. Acknowledging that Liverpool is the brand, it was felt that the city region should have this strategic role.

The way in which successive governments have devolved power in the UK is partly to blame. At the Downtown meeting, it was pointed out that the Scottish Government and Welsh Assembly could put major funding into attracting business and tourism. Aberdeen and Cardiff are building new conference centres on the back of that. In England, limited power and money has been given to a complex model of Local Enterprise Partnerships and Combined Authorities. In Merseyside and Greater Manchester, the structure of elected city regional mayors over the top of the proud cities of Manchester and Liverpool is a recipe for rivalry. There are some signs of tension in Greater Manchester but the ten districts generally rub along together. Merseyside on the other hand has had a controversial history at local government level with Wirral and Southport wanting to break away, not to mention the Militant era. The business community had hoped all that was well in the past. Liverpool is transformed compared to twenty years ago but this model of city and city region mayor couldn’t have been better designed to revive the old dysfunctional problems.

Added to the structural problems we have two strong personalities. Joe Anderson, passionate for his city, has done great work since 2010 but he wanted to move on to the wider city region stage. In his way was his old friend Steve Rotheram. A way out would have been for Joe to take over from Steve as MP for Walton. That elegant solution was blocked by Unite The Union who wanted their man in Walton.

Now business people in Liverpool are confused about the powers of both mayors at a time when they know that more will be expected of them in terms of promoting jobs and tourism as the cuts continue to bite in the public sector.

The Downtown event concluded that the next ten years are going to be harder after the rapid progress of the last decade. Specific attention was paid to the continuing problems of accessing the city centre from the M62 and the need to fill hotels during the week. In this respect the city seems to have an opposite problem to many other places who find attracting weekend guests a challenge.

One of the most striking views at the Downtown meeting was that, in respect of tourists visiting Britain, the national image was being tarnished by Brexit. It was thought this could be an opportunity for the Liverpool City Region to promote itself separately.

Let’s hope the mayoral problems can be sorted out because the meeting agreed that the Liverpool City Region with that to-die-for waterfront, friendly people and the enduring power of the Beatles gives it potentially great prospects for the future.

Follow me @JimHancockUK.





An almighty shot has been fired across the bows of Lord O’Neill of Gatley ahead of a major business conference on The Northern Powerhouse (TNP) next week.

Jim O’Neill as he’s better known up here is now a Treasury Minister on the back of writing a highly influential report identifying cities rather than regions as engines of growth.

He’s coming to Manchester next week to give a boost to the two year old project that’s beginning to attract critics. One is Jen Williams, the talented political correspondent of the Manchester Evening News. In a recent article she claimed NTP was just a slogan, if one cared to look at the record rather than the rhetoric of Lord O’Neill and his boss the Chancellor, George Osborne. She cited the flagrantly biased recent award of extra cash to southern councils while northern authorities like Lancashire made massive cuts with talk of the Red Rose council withering altogether. She went on to say that these cuts damaged attempts to solve deep seated social and poverty problems engrained in the North for so long. The NTP’s emphasis on building things was not enough. Finally there was the unbelievable closure of the government’s skills department in Sheffield with the loss of 250 jobs..

The attack clearly went home because Lord O’Neill didn’t wait to get to Manchester to hit back claiming employment was growing faster in the north than elsewhere, power was being devolved through elected mayors, Transport For the North would deliver connectivity improvements and good things could be expected from the Infrastructure Commission shortly.

But the criticism isn’t just from journalists. Jim McMahon was the leader of Oldham Council and tipped to run for elected mayor of Greater Manchester until he unwisely took the Westminster route by becoming MP for Oldham West. He has been closely involved in the devolution negotiations and recently told MPs of his deep unease over TNP. He feels it does not empower communities, a criticism felt by many who say all the deals have been stitched up by councillors and ministers with no public consultation. McMahon called for a national framework for devolution rather than the highly complex and differentiated pattern of powers that have been handed out across the North. The government call it responding to local factors. I call it a dog’s breakfast.

Next week’s UK Northern Powerhouse International conference aims to tell ministers what northern business leaders think has to be done to really rebalance the UK economy. There is a feeling that TNP is not yet scaled up to do this. I would argue this has been the flaw in the strategy of both the Coalition and Conservative governments. They broke up the large development agencies which were in the process of creating the Northern Way to really counter the powerful London economy and we have been struggling ever since with a patchwork of Local Enterprise Partnerships, Combined Authorities and Growth Funds.

There is also the haunting question “will it last?” When George Osborne ceases to be Chancellor will the London centric civil servants start to unravel the project with a weaker politician in charge? Regional policy has been notoriously at the whim of ministers. I asked Manchester Council leader Sir Richard Leese about this at a recent Downtown event. He replied that that was why Manchester was grabbing as much power as it could while the policy is intact. Wise man.





Over the next few years businesses across the North could be set to benefit from a major revolution in the way that councils are funded.

By 2020 central funding of local government through the revenue support grant will be replaced entirely by business rates income. At the moment councils keep half the business rates collected in their area. The uniform business rate, set in Whitehall, will be scrapped and the Combined Authorities around Manchester and Liverpool will be able to increase the tax, but only if business agrees.

But in the new regime local councils will be able to reduce business rates too, giving the opportunity to encourage new firms into their area, boost growth and increase their rates income. This is certainly the intention of the Chancellor who is behind this change. However there are a couple of snags. Councils will have to carefully balance the impact of new firms moving in and swelling their coffers, attracted by competitive business rates, and the pressures on their spending on services like adult care.

The other problem is that all this may widen the North South divide. While it will be relatively easy to attract businesses to move into council areas in the south, further north it is a different story. Calculations have been done about the impact of the new regime in the North. These show what proportion of the national share of business rates an area would need to retain to replace the current central grant. Scores below 100% mean an area will cover its lost grant. London scores 52% whereas the North West score is 104% Relating these “self sufficiency” scores to specific councils makes even more dramatic reading. While Westminster is quids in because it can cover its lost grant with just 8% of its business rate, Knowsley scores 241% and would experience a massive shortfall of income. Even within the North there are sharp contrasts with Trafford on 38% whilst Wirral is on 187%.

Safety net mechanisms will be put in place to even out some of the disparities. Next month’s Budget is likely to reveal the details of how it will be done along with the outcome of the government’s review of business rates. It’s expected to confirm that rates will still be linked to property values.

The government’s overall intention is that councils should be incentivised to boost their business rates by competing to attract firms in their area.


I see the former Crosby MP Shirley Williams has retired from the House of Lords. Roy Hattersley did the same recently. They were both politicians of the highest quality in the Labour governments of the sixties and seventies. Shirley Williams should have been our first woman Prime Minister.

It says a lot about them that they think it is time to retire with dignity, although I think they both still had a great deal to contribute to the House of Lords.




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