Lancashire and Cheshire want to be major players in the Northern Powerhouse. There is frustration that the project all seems to be about Manchester. I’ve been to Preston and Chester to find out what these areas have to offer the great project to bring power from Whitehall to the North.

Edwin Booth is the dapper boss of that excellent chain of supermarkets, Booths. He chairs the Lancashire Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) and is just the man for the job. His quiet charm is what is needed in a county notorious for local authority in fighting. If it isn’t Lancashire County Council v the districts, then its Blackburn and Blackpool v Preston. Then we have Chorley’s bid for unitary status and Wyre refusing to join the bid for a Combined Authority.

Mr Booth told me at a Downtown event last week that he is confident Wyre will come on side for the devolution bid although, as in Cheshire, the stumbling block could still be the government’s insistence on an elected mayor despite the more rural nature of these areas.

The LEPs are supposed to be driven by business with local councils playing a supportive role. The trouble was at the beginning the government were so vague about their structure and purpose when they were set up that councils were often forced to play a major role. Edwin Booth told the Downtown meeting that he soon hoped to detach the LEP from County Hall in Preston. There is speculation that he might take the council’s officers involved in partnership matters with him.

Booth is keen on good relations with Manchester and wants to improve connectivity to the M62 but he is also concerned about transpennine connections further north. He wants a new bridge across the Ribble near Preston but above all he wants to raise the county’s prosperity which is 75% of the national average. Enterprise Zones are up and running in places like Salmesbury and Blackpool, Fleetwood is next.

Booth sees the Lancashire LEP as an agent of transformation using city deal and growth funds but would like powers over skills training in secondary schools. The government’s offer at the moment only covers post 18s, when many argue it is too late.


The Chester Forum at the impressive MBNA headquarters heard the Northern Powerhouse (NP) described as a sham by property developer Guy Butler who heads the city’s Growth Partnership. He was concerned that the NP was a distraction to cover for the fundamental change going on in local authority funding. The idea is that central grants will cease and councils will be able to keep all their business rates. It is a scheme that will massively benefit London whilst northern councils with much lower property values will suffer. Butler also wondered whether Chester should be part of the NP or should see itself as a hub for an area including North East Wales with its significant employment centre around Airbus in Broughton.

Phillip Cox, the CEO of the Cheshire and Warrington LEP was in no doubt that the area was part of the NP. The fastest growing LEP in the North, Cox pointed out that more people travelled into the area than out. The idea that the sub region was a dormitory for Manchester was a myth. As in Lancashire talks on a devolution deal continue, but once again the issue of an elected mayor may prove a stumbling block.

Sam Dixon, the new Labour leader of Cheshire West and Chester Council made an impressive début speaking out about the disruption that would be caused to local government by a Brexit vote. Rules on shared Town Hall services were in EU directives that would all have to be rewritten, and furthermore the LEP had received £142m in regional development grants.

So on the flanks of the Northern Powerhouse, the debate remains lively about its future.





Later this month Lancashire County Council will finally decide whether exploration for onshore gas can go ahead at two sites in the county.

We know what a group of protesters feel about the idea. They have attracted widespread media coverage for their opposition activities in Lancashire and Salford. But do they speak for the majority of people in the county and beyond?

Centrica Energy is bringing together a panel of guests next Wednesday to take part in a live debate on the role of gas in the region. The panel members are all in favour of the go ahead but I will be the independent chair and all views are welcome. The phone in will take place on Wed June 10th at 5pm and anyone wanting to take part or find out more should register at

There are believed to be trillions of cubic feet of shale gas under Lancashire. To get it energy firms would need to use a process called fracking. Water and chemicals are pumped into shale rock at high pressure to extract the gas.

Centrica holds a 25% stake in energy company Cuadrilla’s Bowland exploration licence which will soon be determined by Lancashire councillors. They have a difficult decision because opponents have dominated the debate spurred on by the so called Blackpool earthquake in 2011, TV pictures from America showing tap water being set on fire and a belief that we should be cutting our dependence on carbon based fuel due to global warming.

Councillors also will have in mind that their planning officers initially recommended that the drilling applications be refused. Crucially however their objections related to surface noise and traffic movements. They gave the green light to the drilling operation. Cuadrilla hope they have addressed those issues now.

There is the positive case for fracking in a county that has been meeting the nation’s energy needs since the days of the Lancashire coalfield. Heysham provided one of the first nuclear power stations and for thirty years offshore gas has been extracted from Morecambe Bay.

The UK is facing a potential energy crisis due to the closure of old nuclear plant, environmental limits on burning coal and a growing reluctance to rely on Russia for gas supplies. Our margins are slim and could be severely tested during a hard winter.

There is also the potential for extra jobs at companies like Centrica who already employ 5,000 people in the North West supporting 10,000 people in the supply chain.

I look forward to hearing your views next Wednesday at 5pm.


I reported on the former Lib Dem leader in his good times and his bad. His opposition to the Iraq War seems more justified every day that ISIS advances across Syria and Iraq.

He was the only Lib Dem MP to vote against his party going into coalition with the Tories in 2010. As they sit in parliament with their eight members now, perhaps he was right about that too.

My last interview with him at a Southport conference in 2005 was not a happy experience. He was clearly struggling with his alcohol problems and I prefer to remember his sunny smile and firm convictions.

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Do Peel Holdings have the voters of Eastleigh to thank for the government go ahead for the massive Liverpool Waters project?


The decision not to hold a public inquiry is a clear sign that ministers are pinning their hopes on infrastructure growth to get us out of this economic malaise. While it’s true that it will be years before the scheme is completed, the government want to create a sense of momentum and confidence with projects like the Northern Hub, High Speed Rail and Liverpool Waters.


The other reaction has been for some Tory ministers to flirt with ever more right wing policies in the face of the UKIP advance. The suggestion that the UK might quit the European Court of Human Rights is a disgrace. The spectacle of the country that stood alone in the Second World War to preserve democracy and liberty, quitting the institution that protects those freedoms is deeply depressing. It would have unforeseen consequences at home and abroad would send all the wrong signals to countries where attachment to democratic values is tenuous.


I forecast that the Lib Dems would hold Eastleigh, but that was before the accusations came up about Lord Rennard. Given that and the fact that the by election was caused by the lies of Chris Huhne. Neither of these issues prevented the Lib Dems holding on. Of course this was an ideal seat for them to defend, nevertheless it does suggest that people care less and less about the scandals of the Westminster village and more and more about practical local issues that affect them.


It is all part of the huge disengagement people feel with conventional politics. The scale of the disenchantment is now becoming clear whether it be a stand up comedian doing well in the Italian elections or UKIP in Eastleigh. Heaven knows what the American public are making of the continued deadlock between the President and the House of Representatives. I raised this issue with Jack Straw the other day given his long experience in high office and as MP for Blackburn since 1979. He had no clear answer to my question as to when people might trust their politicians again. He did agree with me that apart from issues like expenses and poor moral behaviour, the continuing recession meant that politicians can no longer promise a visionary future of prosperity because they just would not be believed.


So where do the parties stand after Eastleigh. Nick Clegg gets a reprieve and the Coalition remains stable but Eastleigh was an ideal seat for them and they won’t be able to put in that massive effort across the country where their poll ratings remain weak.


UKIP are on a surge. They have been accused of being a one man band in the shape of leader Nigel Farage, but I thought their Eastleigh candidate, Diane James, was the best of the bunch. Now they face the challenge of the county council elections. What are UKIP’s policies for running Lancashire County Council?


Tory backbench reaction remained muted after coming third, but backbenchers remain unhappy with David Cameron and a flat budget might see a summer of discontent.


Labour didn’t try in Eastleigh, putting up a candidate who had made highly offensive remarks about Margaret Thatcher. They are still blamed for the economic mess and need to start fleshing out their proposals for the future more.