Here’s one person who’s prepared to be joyfully enthusiastic about our remaining a member of the European Union. Somebody needs to get away from the grinding negativity of both sides in the referendum campaign and state boldly why they are proud that Britain is in the EU and would be ashamed if we left.

Yes ashamed that a country like ours with so much to give to the EU in terms of common sense and our different perspective, should turn its back on our 27 friends and try our luck in an uncertain world.

I am proud that two million Brits are comfortable working in the EU, that many of our elderly are able to move easily to Spain to get some sun in their retiring years and that British Ministers and MEPs are at the negotiating table when trade negotiations are done. We are not done down all the time in these votes by the way. 95% of the time our partners see it our way.


The North has benefited hugely from its EU membership. Merseyside was pulled back from the brink of collapse by the EU regional and structural funds. We remain a major recipient of such aid currently worth £800m. Leave claim it is “our” money coming back. However there was no guarantee British governments would have given Merseyside that priority, indeed Mrs Thatcher’s administration was advised to manage the decline of Liverpool.

The International Festival of Business(IFB) is about to start in Liverpool. It is supported by organisations like Downtown and the North West Business Leadership Team (NWBLT). The conference continues right through the drama that will be Referendum Day so will provide a fascinating forum for instant business reaction to a result that could have momentous consequences for northern business. Our own Chief Executive Frank McKenna has made his position clear on wanting to remain and the NWBLT is now putting its shoulder to the Remain wheel. Its Chief Executive, Geoffrey Piper points out that the Midlands and North are most dependent upon our trade links with Europe particularly in respect of the car and engineering sectors. Membership of the Single Market (which Leave now admit we couldn’t be part of) gives us real clout with the rest of the world.

Piper addresses the argument of Leave that there is a world beyond the EU waiting to do deals with an isolated Britain. He points out that the major trade negotiation with the US and others, like Japan, will soon mean that 80% of the world will be covered by EU agreements. He concludes we would get less favourable global deals on our own.

Freeing ourselves from EU red tape is the cry of Leave, superficially attractive to any business person. But this “red tape” usually ensures that workers aren’t exploited over their hours, that they get maternity/paternity leave, that machines are safe and products reliable. As Piper points out there is one set of regulations for 28 countries. Leave and we’d soon be in a blizzard of red tape.

The NWBLT also address the thorny issue of immigration with a brave assertion that, whilst the vast majority of our northern workforce is recruited from UK nationals we do need specialists from the EU in the boardroom and staff from the EU to keep the NHS running.


Whatever NWBLT, Downtown, most economists and international organisations think, the polls are showing Leave edging ahead. Immigration is becoming more salient than economic common sense.

Everyone who believes in 28 nations bound together in harmony and with a common purpose must get out and campaign for Remain. That’s especially the case with Labour and young Remain supporters. Every vote is going to be vital. It will be very close and there is no going back from Brexit.




For years business has moaned about our poor productivity figures in the North. So what are we actually going to do about it?

The North West Business Leadership Team(NWBLT) have come up with some practical suggestions but also some stark analysis of the scale of the problem. People in this country work some of the longest hours in Europe but our output is below the average of the G7. Although we have recovered from the 2008-12 recession with growth reasonably healthy and unemployment and inflation low; productivity has remained flat. The NWBLT warn that if this remains the case as the Living Wage comes in, unemployment will be on the way up again.

Manchester is seen as the heart of the Northern Powerhouse yet it still has big problems with its in-work productivity which is £8.2 bn below the UK national average, the greatest shortfall of any of the core cities. As NWBLT Chief Executive Geoffrey Piper recently pointed out only Cheshire and Warrington are above the national average in the North. Manchester’s problem is due to poor skills levels of course, but also shortcomings in transport. Manchester is getting a reputation for chronic congestion on the roads and trains. Recent announcements may address the latter but regarding the endless traffic jams, do you hear murmurings about another attempt to introduce congestion charging?

The NWBLT feel that the vision of a Northern Powerhouse as a truly competitive global economy will remain a distant dream until productivity is improved. So they have come up with some sensible, but quite tough policies. One is to link early introduction of the Living Wage directly to enhanced training for relevant qualifications. Another is to channel government research and development money into Performance Bonds and remove it from under=productive assets. The NWBLT want a Regional Productivity Index to measure performance every quarter by Local Enterprise Partnership area; and they want support for the national Productivity Leadership initiatives on process efficiency, digitalisation and working practices.

Juergen Maier, the Chief Executive of Siemens UK is chair of the NWBLT and wants urgent implementation of his report because he sees caution returning among business leaders. This is due to a number of factors including volatility in the Chinese economy, Middle East conflict and uncertainty over the E.U referendum. Maier believes there are other domestic factors that are unsettling business including the implementation of the apprenticeship levy on larger firms, cuts in industry support and the need for a stronger narrative about the aims of the northern Powerhouse beyond transport.

The Chancellor clearly shares Maier’s analysis of the economy. In November at the time of the Comprehensive Spending Review, George Osborne was bullishly confident that he’d repaired the roof while the sun was shining. Perhaps it was the floods or a fear that he had induced complacency, that has lead to his current reminders that the austerity programme is far from over.

Whatever the prospects for the Northern economy in 2016, they will be improved in the long term if everyone if everyone implements the NWBLT report” Unlocking our Potential: Solving the productivity puzzle.”





Can we hope that business people and politicians are once again thinking about regions like Yorkshire and the Humber and the North West? The Shadow Chief Secretary and Leeds MP Rachel Reeves told a Downtown event in the city a year or so ago that Labour would work with the Local Enterprise Partnership structure. But according to Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, his colleague Lord Adonis is devising an Infrastructure Commission that will devolve power to regions as well as cities.


It is high time the prevailing doctrine that cities are the only drivers of the northern economy was challenged. Without a strong regional policy, towns around our big cities are going to suffer. Leading academics of my acquaintance, who support the cities agenda, openly say that people in places like Burnley are going to have to travel to Manchester to get a job in the future.




It was so refreshing to attend a North West Business Leadership Team (NWBLT) event where we had a chance to survey our excellence in science from Cumbria to Crewe. Present was the Director of the Department for Business Innovation and Skills North West. It is the only regionally based government body to avoid the insane culling of everything else regional by the Coalition when they came to office.


The NWBLT report won’t be launched until the end of next month. It is in draft form and further views are welcome, but the title will be “Exploiting the Excellence” England’s North West: Where World Class Science underpins wealth creating innovation. So you get the drift. It emphasises throughout, not only our heritage of scientific invention, but the large range of science based businesses that can take us forward with the proper support.


The region’s assets include advanced materials and cancer research in Manchester and Liverpool, cutting edge nuclear research in Cumbria, oil and gas research in Lancaster and world class astronomy at Jodrell Bank.


NWBLT Chairman Juergen Maier of Siemens called on government to make it easier for SMEs to access government funds. He added that leadership would be needed as market forces alone would not bring the region’s economy back to health.


Andrew Miller, the Ellesmere Port MP, who has done so much to promote science, spoke of the need for eco systems and catapults! The former refers to the need for businesses to cluster together and feed off each other’s expertise. The latter relates to innovation centres which can help get embryonic science companies off to a flying start.

Of course everything hasn’t been rosy on the North West science front. The decision to locate the 3rd Generation Light Source at Harwell and AstraZeneca’s relocation of its research facility from Alderley Park to Cambridge have been big blows.


Chris Doherty is responsible for the sale and redevelopment of the AstraZeneca site and had some interesting things to say about the company’s relocation decision. Apparently the reasons were far more social than economic. The new AstraZeneca CEO was from California and felt Alderley Park was an isolated place compared to the dynamic environment of Cambridge. Doherty said the site had become isolated from Manchester.


That’s the danger of the City Region policy as opposed to a wider strategy taking care to be aware of Cheshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire’s needs as well as Liverpool, Leeds and Manchester.