As I mentioned last week the decision to go ahead with a third runway at Heathrow is better for the North than the Gatwick option. Not as good as using Birmingham and Manchester, but the choice that first faced Harold Wilson’s government in the 1960s has been made.

But now we are going to have a hugely confused by election. Tory Zac Goldsmith has resigned as an MP because his constituency is under the flight path. He will stand as an Independent but won’t be opposed by his former party. Why are the Conservatives giving him a free passage? The bigger issue is the Lib Dems claim that this will be a by election about Brexit. They base their argument on the high Remain vote in Richmond at the last election. I am second to none in wanting a fresh vote on Europe but I’m pretty sure that Remainers will put their opposition to the runway above their support for Europe. The Lib Dems risk damaging the Remain cause if Goldsmith (who backed Leave) is re-elected. Brexiteers will claim a victory that will actually be about the runway.


A few months ago I thought Manchester born Steven Woolfe could be the terror of the Labour Party in Northern England on behalf of UKIP. Without rehearsing the overused cliché about time and politics, Mr Woolfe has spectacularly disqualified himself from such an opportunity. In a matter of weeks he flirted with the Tory Party, was hospitalised in Strasbourg after an “altercation” with a fellow MEP, and finally quit the party calling it ungovernable.

The North West MEP is now reported to be living in Hampshire and sitting as an independent in the European Parliament. There is a recent precedent for a North West MEP changing colours but continuing to hold office. Saj Karim was elected as a Lib Dem MEP in 2004 but switched to the Tories in 2007. He was elected under his new colours in 2009 and still represents the region very well in Brussels. Throughout Karim lived in the North West and there was no question of him being able to do his job. Mr Woolfe should consider resignation if he is not going to live in the North West.

As Mr Woolfe slinks away, another North West MEP has emerged who might appeal to disaffected Labour voters. Paul Nuttall, a true scouser who tells it like it is, has thrown his hat in the ring. Nuttall is positioning himself as the middle of the road candidate in this faction ridden party. On the right is Donald Trump supporter Raheem Kassam and on the left is Tory lite Suzanne Evans.

It is tempting to hope that after all the leadership antics, UKIP will suffer the fate of most ultra right parties. But we live in strange times where many voters are so disillusioned with mainstream parties and candidates that they will ignore damaging behaviour in order to send messages to the establishment. It may happen in America and it could possibly happen here because of Labour’s problems.

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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 Scottish independence vote and immigration into the UK were dominant themes in 2014, but for all the talk little has been resolved. The Scots voted no but the Scottish National Party could soon be holding the whip hand over a weak minority government at Westminster.


Then there’s the issue of our national identity. It is becoming clear that we are not going to be able to stop free movement of labour within the EU. So do we feel so passionately about immigration that we want to risk our economic future outside the EU?


Both these questions remain unresolved at the end of a year which has seen much debate on how we should be governed both nationally and in the North. Even before the Scottish vote Chancellor George Osborne had launched his northern powerhouse concept. It was the beginning of a period of extraordinary activity by Osborne on this subject. There can be few hi tech or manufacturing plants in the north of England that has not had a visit from George. It culminated in the devolution deal done with Greater Manchester and his insistence on imposing a mayor for the conurbation to be elected in 2017. Similar deals for Leeds, Sheffield and Liverpool have not been concluded as wrangling continues about elected mayors and leadership.


The prospect of a powerful Scotland to our north has stimulated debate on what happens outside the city regions. There are signs that Lancashire’s fourteen councils may be getting their act together to bid for a county region and a Yorkshire Party has been formed. I remain of the view that a council of the whole north is the answer. It is already in embryonic form in organisations like Rail North and One North but it should have powers beyond transport.


The economy has continued to recover with unemployment falling along with inflation to the point where people are asking if a 1% inflation rate is a bad thing. Strange days indeed for those of us who lived through the roaring inflation of the 1970’s. But issues like low wages, the budget deficit, low growth in Europe, China and Russia remain dark clouds on the horizon.


Politically the year has been dominated by the rise of UKIP. In the North West and Yorkshire they secured six MEPs in the European elections, ending the long European career of Lib Dem Chris Davies in the North West. Tory Sir Robert Atkins also left the stage whilst Labour have a completely new team in the region, although little has been heard from them so far. In Yorkshire two stalwarts Richard Corbett (Labour) and Tim Kirkhope (Conservative) survived the UKIP surge.


Labour held its two by elections in the North West (Wythenshawe and Heywood) but UKIP’s John Bickley stood in both and came second, indeed he nearly won in Heywood and Middleton. UKIP also got councillors elected, spectacularly so in Rotherham. People keep asking if they have peaked. Not yet it seems.


So where do the parties stand at year end. The Conservatives have had a better year because of the economic recovery but still show no sign of getting enough support to win outright in 2015. David Cameron remains unloved by many of his backbenchers.


Ed Miliband has had a poor year as Labour leader, but may have picked on a gem of an idea in suggesting the Tories want to make deep cuts for ideological reasons to create a smaller state. However the people’s minds are largely made up against him and the party will have to try and win despite him.


There has been little comfort for the Lib Dems in the north. They did hold on to their councillors in places like South Lakes, Southport and Stockport but look set for the day of reckoning nationally in May. The Greens have begun to benefit by attracting disillusioned Labour and Lib Dem supporters particularly on the issue of fracking.

We marked the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War this year. Our horrors are on a smaller scale than theirs but ISIS and the Taliban remind us that we live in a world where we can land a probe on a distant comet but still resolve our differences in ways little changed from the Dark Ages.


Have a peaceful Christmas.








There is a danger that an historic opportunity to reform our governance structures is going to be missed in the rush to settle the well named EVEL (English Votes for English Laws) issue.


We should take time, but not spin it out as some Labour Party politicians would wish.


I have tried to put together a whole range of issues that need to be addressed in a constitutional conversation with the people over the next 12 months. This could lead to legislation in the second year of the new Parliament. The purpose is to indicate the huge scope of change that politicians should be addressing rather than adopting our usual piecemeal approach to the subject.


I start from the lowest level of our democracy, on through what should happen in England and then deal with the House of Lords.




Every part of England should have a parish or community council with enhanced powers to deal with the really local issues that people care about.


Above them the whole of England should be run by unitary local authorities. It is unsustainable to have a situation in the North West for instance where Cheshire has four councils and Lancashire fourteen. The district/county model has always confused ratepayers and should have been swept away in 1974 at the time of the last reorganisation. This proposal would also deal with a major charge thrown against those of us who want a strategic tier for those parts of England that want it. The charge is that we would create more politicians. We would not. Hundreds of district councillors would be abolished. I don’t underestimate the political difficulty of combating the vested interests that will oppose this, but it should be tackled with courage.




The city regions have become embedded and have all party support. Elected mayors for the whole city regions would bring them the direct democracy and transparency that they sadly lack at the moment. However the City Regions do not cover the whole country. The priorities of major towns and whole swathes of suburban and rural England are excluded from the City Regions. Supporters of cities say outlying areas should become commuter dormitories for the cities. This is unacceptable. The Local Enterprise Partnerships do not have the scale to tackle the big challenge facing parts of England.


The challenge is this. Scotland will soon have powerful enhanced powers. London and the South East are on a different planet of prosperity. The other regions of England need strategic bodies to match Scotland and the South East. Here we encounter major problems. Regions are a dirty word to the Tories because they are the administrative divisions used by the European Union. The boundaries of regions also present problems. Cornwall does not want to be in a region with Gloucestershire. Oxford has nothing in common with Kent. Should Cumbria be in the North West or North East?


These identity issues play into the hands of centralising civil servants in London who are hostile to any devolution. They helped to prevent John Prescott giving real power to the North East in 2004 with the resulting defeat of the plan for an elected regional assembly. It is a major falsehood to suggest people rejected regionalism in 2004. They would have voted for it if it had meant real power.


We need the people’s consent to the regional map of England so the legislation should be permissive. So I would favour a Northern Council, an idea I will develop in a moment. The Midlands and East might want smaller strategic bodies. There could then be a tier of government covering the Thames Valley. The real South East could get together. Wessex could emerge once again and perhaps it is time to recognise Cornish identity.


Returning to my patch I would like to see a Northern Council. It would stretch from the Scottish Border to Hull and Crewe. It has the economy and population of some of the smaller states in Europe and should have powers to match. These would cover transport, health, strategic planning, skills, economic planning etc. They would get a block grant from London without strings and would benefit from resources currently going to Scotland as the Barnett Formula is replaced by the Scots raising their own taxes.


The Northern Council would be a democratic body with people elected from constituencies based on groups of Westminster seats.




I don’t want to go into the complexities of EVEL here. My solution would be for the designation of truly English legislation that could only be voted on by English MPs. There would be less of it than Labour fear, but they are right to demand that EVEL is conditional on a wider constitutional settlement.


Wales and Northern Ireland should get more devolved powers.


The House of Lords should be reformed once and for all. It should have 75% of its members elected from the English Regions. 20% should be appointed to allow for doctors, scientists, engineers to give their expertise . Such people might be reluctant to stand for office. 5% should be reserved for the faith communities.


We live in a time when the old party structure is crumbling. The voting system needs to reflect this. All elections for local, regional and national government should be by single transferable vote.


These changes can be dismissed as too radical and too challenging for vested political interests. The alternative is to patch up our existing arrangements against a background of growing alienating of the people from their politicians.

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