A couple of weeks ago I questioned the excessive concentration on cities in rebuilding the economy of the North. I stand by what I said but two events I have attended in the last few days have shown that the scale of networking possible in Manchester and Liverpool is bearing fruit.


The launch of the Heseltine Institute at Liverpool University and the range of inspirational speakers at our own Downtown Smart City event in Manchester pointed to a more optimistic future. That optimism extends to Preston which hopes to build on its success attracting private sector jobs with plans for new developments in a central business district, the markets and around the bus station, not forgetting elegant Winckley Square. Then there is Leeds. The opening of Trinity Leeds retail development and the First Direct Arena is to be followed by another major retail scheme at Victoria Gate while the Aire Valley Enterprise Zone is expecting to benefit from the upturn in the economy.




But Manchester leads the way in the North, a fact acknowledged by Emma Jones of Enterprise Nation when she spoke at our Smart City conference. She seemed slightly irritated that there was any question that London didn’t take Manchester seriously. However it was the contribution of Mike Emmerich that made the biggest impression on me. He is boss of the New Economy. It’s a think tank going research into the Greater Manchester economy. He was talking about how his organisation, Manchester City Council and Manchester University were all working to exploit the isolation of the wonder product graphene on campus in 2004 . One atom thick, the product’s strength and potential for use in displays, electronics and energy storage is going to be truly revolutionary. But is it going to follow most of the other great discoveries made in this country and be exploited elsewhere? Not if Mike and Nancy Rothwell (Vice Chancellor of Manchester University) have their way. But think tanks, councils and universities can only do so much. Jobs have to be created by private firms moving in. Well, there’s good news on that front.


The decision by graphene manufacturer Bluestone to locate on the campus in a £5m research partnership is great news for the city’s economy especially when one bears in mind they could have located anywhere in the world.


Manchester city centre is sorted in terms of regeneration but what about the zone between the city and the suburbs? Gavin Eliot of BDP Architects told the Smart City conference that this was the fragmented zone and outlined its potential. He pointed in particular to the developments around the City Of Manchester Stadium.

Finally, if there are any climate change deniers left after the Philippines storm, they should listen to Vincent Walsh. His Biospheric Foundation offers Manchester a chance to recycle virtually everything to produce food and heat.




Liverpool University have taken the brilliant decision to set this up before the grim reaper takes Tarzan from us.


In the gritty surroundings of the Camp and Furnace arts space in the city’s Baltic Quarter Lord Heseltine reflected on his 35 year association with the city. In the words of its director Prof. Alan Harding the Institute will be drawing on experience from round the world and applying them to the practical problems of how places operate to try and make them better for us all.


It will sound a bit pie in the sky until it produces some solutions for us but Liverpool Council’s Chief Executive was there and it is another example of a city bringing together its experts to look to the future for the North in the 21st century.


I suggested their first report could be into the way England is governed. With Wales getting more power and Scotland being bribed to stay in the UK, we need to look at the mess around English governance. Two tier councils, Combined Authorities, Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), talk of localism whilst centralising much decision making, let the Heseltine Institute get its teeth into that!


Lord Heseltine told me afterwards he regretted the government’s abolition of the Government Office North West which he had set up, but felt now efforts should be directed to beefing up the LEPs. He remained convinced of the importance of northern cities which he believed created our wealth in the nineteenth century and could do again.




This was to be the month when the government rolled out universal credit across the nation. Six benefits merged into one with employers keeping the tax authorities up to date with rapidly changing staff earnings on a real time computer system.


In fact the scheme has only had a full trial in the small Pennine town of Ashton Under Lyne. Recently that was cautiously extended to Warrington, Wigan and Oldham. Why the timidity by Iain Duncan Smith? After all the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions likes to turn up the volume.


What’s happened in Ashton gives us a clue. 78% of claimants needed help filling in the forms for relatively straightforward claims. The pilot schemes are not even attempting to deal with people with complex personal circumstances.


The big worry surrounds the ability of a major government computer system eventually to deal with the benefit claims of millions of people. It’s not only the numbers but the rapidly changing personal circumstances of people on zero hours contracts or temporary employment. It is going to place an extra burden on employers if it works well.


And if it doesn’t? The history of big government computer projects is not good. Remember the millions wasted trying to get all our health records onto one computer system.? The prospects are truly alarming. Thousands of people could be left with the wrong amount of money or none at all. The political backlash could be severe. The Chancellor George Osborne knows this. There was widespread speculation earlier this year that he wanted The Quiet Man removed from the DWP so that the policy could be reviewed.


As it is Iain Duncan Smith remains, blaming his officials as the National Audit Office says the programme suffers from “weak management, ineffective control and poor governance.”




Joe Anderson is the bluff, can-do, in your face elected mayor of Liverpool. Paul Brant was his deputy and in charge of the finances. He brought a lawyer’s calm deliberation to the job. He reassured people that the “wild” had been taken out of this western city for good.


His shock resignation for personal reasons is a major blow for Joe who was in fine form at a Downtown event in Manchester days before Brant’s departure.


His message was that Liverpool is as business friendly as the noisy neighbours down the M62. The problem for Joe is that Manchester keeps getting the big spondoolies. The £800m joint deal between Manchester Airports Group and the Chinese government was the most eye catching announcement from the Chancellor’s week long visit to China.




The government is clearly on a charm offensive in the north. It’s easy to see why. Pollster Peter Kellner this week published a survey showing the entrenched view of northerners that the Tories don’t care about our part of the country.


While the Chancellor headed for Beijing and Hong Kong, Cameron was in Halifax and Leeds. He said he was convinced the North/ South divide could be bridged and reiterated his support for HS2 in achieving that.




Well done Rainford Solutions of St Helens which has won a major contract with CERN, the Swiss scientific plant researching the Higgs particle. It is named after Professor Peter Higgs who for forty years has led the search for this particle which explains why atoms and stars exist. It is arguably the most exciting discovery in theoretical physics ever.


So I felt really privileged to be in his presence as he got an honorary degree at Manchester University this week.

He was in stellar company because also honoured was Professor Mario Molina who discovered the danger of chlorofluorocarbons which was destroying the ozone layer increasing the threat of skin cancer.


The quartet of honorary graduates was completed by Frances O’Grady, the first woman General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress and Sir Bobby Charlton.


A great night for Manchester University and its Vice Chancellor Nancy Rothwell.






The nuclear industry is a vital part of the northern economy, but recent events have cast a shadow over its future.


The vote by Cumbria County Council to reject deep storage of nuclear waste and the decision of Centrica to abandon plans to build new reactors in the UK raises major questions for an industry that the North has great expertise in.


From the hi tech skills being taught at UCLAN and Manchester University’s Dalton Institute to the “difficult” end of dealing with the waste legacy at Sellafield, from the uranium enrichment plant run by URENCO at Capenhurst to a string of supply chain companies across the North, we are looking at a major industrial asset.


There are two major issues. The need to build a new generation of nuclear power stations to avoid a UK energy gap in the 2020s and a solution to the long term disposal of radioactive waste.


On the latter issue, the government’s reaction to the decision by Cumbria Council to pull out of the exploration of underground sites seemed remarkably casual. Ministerial reaction was to say the search goes on as if there are a queue of other local authorities across England waiting to host the toxic legacy of 60 years of nuclear power generation.


The fact is that Cumbria is the only county in the country where there is the remotest prospect of building a consensus to locate a deep storage facility for nuclear waste. Actually that conclusion needs refining. It is only in West Cumbria, around Sellafield, that there may be public support. Copeland District Council voted to continue exploration and there is talk of them now going it alone.


It would require a change in the law as Cumbria County Council is the superior planning authority, but in the national interest this should be explored.


Cumbria councillors are facing elections in a couple of months. That brought its own pressures, along with a strategy by some anti nuclear campaigners to “scare the crap out of them”. But the vote still leaves the nuclear waste in place.


Now the government should concentrate on exploring for a site in West Cumbria so that this part of the work of the nuclear industry in the north can regain momentum and they should give Copeland Council the guarantee that they could pull out of the project at a late stage. Cumbria councillors claim they were not reassured on this point.


Now we come to the other issue which has implications across the economy of the north. After years of burying its head in the sand the Blair government acknowledged that we would need a new generation of nuclear power stations. This was good news for the North and Manchester University was quick to spot the opportunity to start training a new generation of nuclear engineers.


But forward momentum has been slow, partly because of the balance of risk to be taken by the private and public sector and the agreed price for electricity generation from the power stations.


Centrica’s decision to withdraw means no major UK company remains involved in plans for new nuclear reactors in England. The government point to Hitachi’s purchase of the relatively new UK nuclear power company, Horizon, as evidence of confidence in the UK nuclear industry by the Japanese.


For the sake of jobs in the north, we need rapid progress on plans for nuclear power stations and deep storage.



In the week when we are celebrating the two hundredth anniversary of Charles Dickens, I’m writing about two cities; not London and Paris but Manchester and Liverpool.

If you want to know the real issues facing business in Manchester city centre ask Pat Karney.

He’s the councillor responsible for the heart of the metropolis and everyone beats a path to his office.

At a major gathering of city centre employers this week, Cllr Karney gave them an insight into the diverse range of problems that came across his desk in just one morning. In addition to the uproar over charging for Sunday parking, one shop keeper came to complain about human excrement outside the Hidden Gem church and representatives of the gay community objected to a club being turned into a budget hotel.

Despite these minor inconveniences, Manchester seems to be surviving the recession very well. Indeed council leader Sir Richard Leese suggested that the city centre could accommodate a thousand new residential units a year for the next decade. There is 96% occupancy of the existing provision. Leese claimed that Manchester employment had returned to pre recession levels.

Leese does not want the city to vote for an elected mayor, he prefers the Combined Authority model that has been in place for nearly a year now. All the local authorities in Greater Manchester are working together to drive an impressive range of projects.

There’s the enterprise zone at Manchester Airport where the infrastructure for a major retail, leisure and warehousing scheme will be in place by next year. In addition there’s MediaCity and the Sharp Project in east Manchester for budding media businesses. So successful has the latter been that Sharp 2 is planned. Nearby Manchester City football club is developing the Etihad Project.

At Manchester University a government backed plan is underway to capitalise on the discovery of graphine (very thin and very strong). Are we going to make some money for once out of a product developed in Britain?

Salford’s soon to be elected mayor will inherit a city still struggling with some big social problems but with a number of infrastructure schemes including the Chapel Street gateway and a plan to open up a riverside route from MediaCity up to Salford University.

Meanwhile Liverpool Council took the formal decision to go for an elected mayor. Liberal Democrat opposition to scrapping the planned referendum was half hearted and the debate did not match some that I have witnessed in the historic council chamber.
Council leader Joe Anderson had the wind in his sails having just signed off the £130m deal with the government that he insists was only possible because the city was going to have an elected mayor.

One felt the politicians already had their eye on who was going to stand. Joe Anderson will clearly be Labour’s candidate. He might face ex leader and Lib Dem peer Mike Storey. The suggestion was certainly not denied by a senior party source. If Storey can’t be lured from the best club in London, then Cllr Richard Kemp might consider standing.

The Liberals will field Cllr Steve Radford who gave his support to the new post on Tuesday night, and there is likely to be a Conservative candidate.

But the campaign will be enlivened by independents. There are two at the moment and they make an unlikely couple. There’s former broadcaster Liam Fogarty who has campaigned for the last 10 years for an elected mayor. A clever man of substance, he cares passionately about his city. It will be fascinating to see how he stands up to the robust style of bruiser Anderson.

Then there’s celebrity hairstylist Herbert Howe who has promised to take no salary and to be independent of all party factions.

Before you dismiss his chances remember that Robocop got elected in Middlesbrough. H’Angus the Monkey won in Hartlepool and an English Democrat became mayor of Doncaster.