It is very sad that the Oldham Chronicle has ceased publication after 150 years. It is the latest local paper to fall victim to the surge in on-line advertising and falling readership. For years local newspaper owners have cut the journalists to save costs and then been surprised when the thin content drove away even more readers. Most local papers used to have a correspondent who was an expert on local government and aware of what was going on at the Town Hall. Now they are nearly all gone. The media concentrates excessively on national politicians leaving the leaders, even of some large cities, largely unknown.

The assertion is made that local politics is boring. That is lazy thinking by people who are not prepared to scrutinise the way billions of pounds of our money is spent. It is true that people in one council area don’t really care about what goes on next door but in the great days of local papers, they were the go to places for people to get information on their council alongside coverage of other authorities.

Does this matter? After all a new world has opened on line with a vast range of people offering their opinions about what is going on at national and local level. This blog is one of them. But we will miss the dedicated, independent local government correspondents who exposed scandals like Newcastle’s John Poulson and Westminster’s Dame Shirley Porter. Town Halls still provide many of the services we rely on and are often left to sort out the consequences of ill thought through Whitehall decisions.

But who is keeping an eye on our councillors? Council meetings are rarely reported. The Cabinet system has left most councillors with little to do. The scrutiny they are meant to carry out is a pale shadow of the Westminster Select Committee system it was meant to replicate at a local level.

So, can we rely on central government to do the job? Not really. Eric Pickles, the worst Local Government Secretary in recent history, abolished the Audit Commission. It was responsible for audit and inspection of local government. It reported publicly.

The vast majority of councillors and officers do a great job in difficult circumstances. They are subject to big cuts in their budgets and are dealing first hand with tricky personal services like allocating school places to children and elderly people to a care home.

That said local relationships and big money contracts can lead to corruption. Who’s going to report it consistently and professionally to a wide audience in the future? If the answer is nobody then we should worry.


Well at least the, Downtown inspired, crisis conference on the future of the Northern Powerhouse(NP) managed to get the Chancellor to come north this week.

Philip Hammond can be in no doubt at the anger directed towards the Transport Secretary who simultaneously cut back on promises to northern rail while giving the go ahead for Crossrail 2 in London. But it led to no promises while he was here, just a hint that there might be something in the Budget.

Well, Phil the Till, there better be or the NP will be dead in the water.

Follow me @JimHancockUK





I never expected to say this after Eric Pickles destroyed our regional development agencies, but the party has a chance next week to position itself as the defender of the North.


The private consensus in Brighton was that Ed Balls was preparing us for a Labour government to scupper HS2. His remarks, and those of other party spokesman after his speech on Monday, went beyond legitimate worries over escalating costs. Balls has got his eyes on the £50bn projected cost of HS2 for other projects. The problem is that in practice that money has been assembled for this scheme and would not automatically be available for health or schools.


How depressingly familiar all this is. I thought the Olympics marked an end of timid party squabbling Britain unable to take the big decisions at the right time. In fact we are late with this scheme. The West Coast main line is already over capacity south of Rugby. That’s why places like Blackpool are denied a direct service. North of Rugby HS2 would connect our great northern cities like Leeds and Manchester and crucially allow the existing rail network to improve the service to towns and cities not directly on the HS2 line.


There are broadly three groups opposed to HS2. There are the small but vocal number of people directly affected by the line who’s homes are already blighted. We must sympathise with them and compensate them very generously. I know how it feels. My home was demolished for a roundabout in the 1960s.


There is the London lobby already campaigning for Crossrail 2 oblivious to the historic scandalous imbalance in transport investment between the capital and the rest of the country.


And now we have elements of the Labour Party and others who want to spend the money elsewhere. Their argument ignores the point I made above that £50bn won’t be available to be transferred, and it fails to answer the question of what will happen when we are trying to use a Victorian railway two hundred years after it was built.


So in Manchester next week I would suggest the Tories seize the initiative. They will be meeting in a building that symbolises the need to move on when it comes to rail investment. Manchester Central station closed in 1969 and is now their conference centre. The government are investing in the Northern Hub, the Ordsall Chord, and electrifying the Liverpool to Manchester line to dramatically improve services on the existing network across the North.


The Transport Secretary Patrick Mcloughlin should burnish his credentials as a former miner and claim that it is the Tories who have the best interests of the North at heart in backing HS2. They certainly need some arguments after Labour’s conference in Brighton.




I asked last week for some distinctive policies for Labour to campaign on and to be fair we got some. The promise to scrap the bedroom tax and the energy price freeze are the best indications yet of how different an Ed led party is from how his brother would have run things.


These are concrete proposals with a definite left wing thrust. The more the energy companies squeal the more will people identify with Ed. The claim that, in response to world market forces, energy prices go up like a rocket and down like a feather rings true with hard pressed families in the North.


The question is how broad this appeal will be? Are there enough struggling voters in the South to join Ed’s crusade or will they be frightened off as they were when Neil Kinnock was in charge?







Eric Pickles seems to be relishing his role as the axe man in chief of Town Hall spending. The Communities and Local Government Secretary was in typical form addressing the parliamentary press the other day, telling us that councils knew the cuts were coming and that they had the capacity to be “enormously adaptive.”


He left his most substantial jibe for northern councils complaining about the unfairness of the cuts. He said their leaders were like the characters in the famous Monty Python sketch where they compete in telling each other what a deprived background they had. You know the one. “You were lucky to live in a slum; we lived in a cardboard box!”


Mr Pickles referred in particular to the comments of the Mayor of Liverpool. Joe Anderson. He has led the charge against, what The Mayor sees, as the disproportionate impact the cuts are having on northern cities. The Minister said the problem with this approach was that having painted a picture of poverty and deprivation, the Mayor would then say what a great place Liverpool was to invest in. Pickles then made a similar criticism of the leadership of Bradford Council, an authority he once led.


So has he got a point? Well the Liverpool Mayor and the leaders of our great northern cities like Leeds and Manchester are in a bind. Politically they have to speak up for their communities. They also have to try and lure investors in. If too bleak a picture is painted of the impact the cuts are going to have, it could well put off some potential employers.


Meanwhile Mr Pickles continues to rough up the councils. He is after all one of the token northerners in a cabinet of posh boys. He is frustrated that some authorities like Manchester have managed to get around his 2% council tax limit because levies by police and fire authorities are not under Town Hall control. He is already threatening fire and brimstone for the rebels next year.


“Sooner or later councils are going to have to sit down with their electorates and decide what to spend” said Mr Pickles.


Then there is the Graph of Doom. That’s not something out of an Indiana Jones movie. Instead it is a forecast that at the current rate of cuts and the growing need for elderly care, it won’t be long before councils will only have sufficient funds to empty the bins and look after the old. They won’t be able to do anything else. What does Indiana Pickles say about this Graph of Doom?


“Share services, end duplication, adapt. You knew it was coming,” that’s his uncompromising message.


Added to all these challenges, councils are soon going to face the ending of restrictions on Bulgarians and Romanians coming to Britain. How many school places and houses should Town Halls prepare for?


Eric Bloodaxe’s answer is honest if not helpful. “Nobody knows. All that government can do is be careful of the ‘pull factors’ like housing and health benefits.” He then added an awkward truth about the Eastern European immigrants: “very few carrots would be picked without them.”