Questions remain unanswered about the decision to “pause” the electrification of the rail line from Leeds to Manchester. Passengers facing the prospect of overcrowded and slow trains between these major cities well into the next decade deserve to know how they were deceived in the run up to the election. We all deserve to know because connectivity is meant to be at the heart of the Northern Powerhouse.

The people who should be answering the questions have gone to ground. I listened to an excellent report on our rail problems recently. It was BBC Radio Four’s File On Four produced in Salford. They were investigating the Leeds-Manchester fiasco along with the recent chaos at London Bridge and the fact that new trains can’t be used at Bristol Temple Meads because the carriages are too long not to scrape on the curved platform. About ten times the reporter, Allan Urry, had to say nobody had been prepared to face his questions.

In relation to the decision not to go ahead with the electrification of the Leeds to Manchester rail line, some interesting facts are emerging which appear to show that Ministers and rail chiefs knew fine well before the General Election that the project wasn’t going ahead.

There has been a long running war of words between Network Rail (NR) and the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) which approves all NR’s investment plans. Before he moved to head up HS2 in the spring of last year, NR’s Chief Executive David Higgins was scathing about ORR’s approach of requiring him to do far more for far less money. Last year Higgins claimed NR was being asked “to deliver too much, too quickly” and the prospect of achieving ORR’s targets was “unrealistic.” So I doubt if David Higgins was surprised when the Transport Secretary paused the electrification.

We now move forward to last September when NR’s inability to deliver became clearer. Transport for Greater Manchester have told a source of mine that the franchise invitation to tenders were delayed by two months once the Department for Transport and Rail North (a body of councils and MPs) became aware of NR’s difficulty. Bidders were instructed to assume that TransPennine electrification would not be completed during the franchise term of TransPennine Express and Northern Rail. This indicates that a year ago Network Rail were saying that the train companies should assume that rail electrification would not take place until around 2024 when bidding for their franchise renewals.

Now can I introduce you to the little known MP for Harrogate, Andrew Jones. He used to chair the Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin’s Electrification Task Force which has now had a spectacular power failure. Its purpose was to advise McLoughlin on how schemes could be accelerated. Andrew Jones biography on the Department of Transport website says he provided “advice on the next steps for electrification of railways in the North of England”.

So are we to assume that Mr Jones didn’t advise McLoughlin in March that electrification wasn’t going to happen when he was chairing a task force with the specific purpose of advising on electrification? Mr Jones has now been promoted to a junior ministerial position in the Department of Transport.

I’ve given Patrick McLoughlin a lot of stick in this blog so I leave you with a suggestion that has been made to me. The government may be looking at a vastly more ambitious tunnel option instead of electrifying the existing line. If so, why don’t they level with us?

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Emily Thornbury has increased the impression that Labour is tightly run by a middle class bunch from North London out of touch with working people and immune to advice from all but a tight circle of inexperienced advisers. 

She had to go. That said, the now almost non existent British National Party, is a factor in this row. I remember when houses in Burnley were draped in Union Jacks or English flags as a definite statement of support for the BNP. They appropriated the symbols of our patriotism. The very sad result is that there can be doubts about why flags are being displayed and ordinary patriots can be misunderstood.

On the by election itself, it wasn’t the landslide UKIP hoped for. Let’s hope that ,”I make it up as I go along” Farage, continues to be questioned on all the policies a party needs to be convincing on, if it wants to hold the balance of power






That household name Niilo Jaaskinen has spoken for the millions of people across Europe and the UK still suffering the consequences of the reckless banking practices that nearly wrecked western economies six years ago.


The Advocate General of the EU Court of Justice has rejected Britain’s challenge to its cap on bankers’ bonuses. Not that it was very draconian. These bankers get paid a fortune in salaries in the first place. The cap is only to restrict bonuses to 100% of banker’s pay or 200% with shareholder approval.


Yet George Osborne indulges in the old shroud waving about bankers taking their business away from Britain. They won’t do that George. They love the London lifestyle, the overheated property market that they can speculate in and a British government that still has some way to go in curbing the reckless behaviour that still continues. As this week’s fines indicate these people have learnt very little.


The indictment list is long and disgraceful. Reckless lending followed by unjustified refusals to lend to small business, mis-selling of payment protection, currency and lending rate manipulation and at a local level the closure of branches, attempts to scrap the cheque and force people into on line banking.





I chaired a good debate on the future of the BBC licence fee this week at the Nations and Regions Media conference in Salford. It is going to become a hot topic right after the election when the BBC’s charter is up for renewal.


I think we would be crazy to put in jeopardy one of our finest institutions, admired the world over. We export British culture and values all over the world via BBC programmes, and earn a lot of revenue. The creative flow is dependent on a well resourced BBC in this country and that is what is under threat.


The BBC has many media enemies who envy the £3.7bn of public money. They see the BBC as a threat to their commercial interests and take every opportunity to pour bile on the BBC. £3.7bn is a lot of money and the corporation has given its opponents plenty of opportunities to criticise in recent years.


Massive pay-offs to executives and the Savile scandal have tarnished the brand but set against that are excellent programmes like Sherlock, The Fall, Strictly Come Dancing, Radio 4 comedy and any British State occasion. All this for 40p a day. Compare that to your sky high Sky package cost.


The licence fee negotiations will be fraught, particularly if the Conservatives are the majority party. Some Tory backbenchers still regard it as the Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation and are backing a bill to decriminalise non payment of the fee which lands people with a criminal record. Then there is the issue of technology. You can now access recorded BBC programmes on I Player without a licence. Will decriminalisation and the growth in new media access undermine the principal of paying to watch the BBC?


Harriet Harman, the Shadow Media minister spoke in Salford and said nobody had come up with a better model for funding the BBC that had convinced her. Of course there are other models including sponsorship and subscription, but how much would you be prepared to pay? Then, God forbid, there is advertising. My enjoyment of ITV drama is considerably reduced by the quarter of an hour per hour of adverts. Let that not come to the BBC.






Some years ago regional papers managed to block the BBC improving their local websites with more news and video content. They claimed their circulation figures were being hit by the publicly funded broadcaster and this would be made worse if the BBC was allowed to upgrade its local website. The net result has been impoverished BBC local websites, the dropping of plans for a BBC Radio Cheshire and a continuing steep decline in traditional newspaper sales.


The threat to the local press came not from the BBC but the availability of on line news and the loss of advertising to the internet. The public who want news of the North were not well served by this ridiculous spat.


There are now signs of a truce between the BBC and local papers. On BBC sites in Leeds and Liverpool “Local Live” is a new initiative which signposts stories from non-BBC outlets including the Huddersfield Examiner, Yorkshire Post and the hyper local Leeds site The City Talking.


This thaw in relations can be put down to the new BBC Director of News James Harding. He came from the editorship of The Times and as a newspaper man was well placed when it came to handing out the olive branches at a recent conference in Salford. He correctly observed that the BBC and local papers were in the same business of informing people about what was going on in the North and holding people to account.




Let’s hope that row is over and the BBC initiative to share stories isn’t cynically connected to charter renewal, but we are still left with an uncertain future about how the North is going to be reported. There is still a strong appetite for local news. Five million people tune in each night to look North, Look North West and the other regional BBC programmes.


While newspapers are seeing their readership of traditional papers haemorrhage, they claim there is a huge migration to reading stories on line. But what is the quality of the journalism available in profusion at the click of a button. There are certainly less professional journalists around to hold our councillors to account and little money for expensive in depth investigations. The internet gives everyone a chance to be a “citizen journalist” but where does fact end and opinion begin?

The newspaper publishers are in a vicious circle. They sack the journalists to maintain profits. There is less quality news, more readers are lost and the cycle begins again.


Who cares if the papers die? I see very few people under 30 actually reading a paper. Alison Gow used to work on the now defunct Liverpool Daily Post. She put the question starkly at the recent Salford conference, “why would you have newspapers when you have better delivery methods by computer, tablet and phone?” The key question is can the newspaper owners make the new model pay? The jury is still out on the limited experiments to make people pay to access content.




We may be looking at a future of papers exclusively on line, social media, citizen journalists, hyper local TV and social media to report the North. Will local TV be part of this? Franchises were issued across the North over a year ago but the owners are struggling to make the economic model work. Good luck to Bay TV in Liverpool which is run by some excellent people that deserve more backing than they have been getting from local business. We wait to see if the stations in places like Manchester and Lancashire get off the ground.




The year ends with the Chancellor smirking and Ed Balls going red in the face.


The Tory baiting of Ed Balls during the Autumn Statement debate brought parliament to a new low, but Balls had wound them up for years with his flat lining gestures. They are now redundant. 2013 saw the debate move from double and triple dip recessions to modest optimism about growth. It would be handy if the recovery could be based on manufacturing and exports rather than consumer and housing spending in 2014, but at the moment George Osborne is winning the plaudits. Labour ends the year relying heavily on their argument that the cost of living is the real issue.


This Christmas the Conservatives find themselves in a strange position. They lag behind Labour in the polls but in normal circumstances, they would expect to be able to surge past the opposition with the usual pre election sweeteners in the last full year of the parliament. However uncertainty over UKIP and how they will perform against Lib Dems has led to a pessimistic spirit this festive season.


When the tuition fees issue was at its height, there were forecasts that the Lib Dems would be sending their MPs elected in 2015 to Westminster in a taxi again. This year they showed signs that the darkest years that saw them virtually cleared out of Town Halls in the north may be over. They held the Eastleigh by election and leader Nick Clegg got support for policies at his party conference that would have seen grass roots revolts under previous Lib Dem leaders.


Ed Miliband is never likely to gain the adulation that Tony Blair enjoyed before he took office in 1997 but this year he has strengthened his position as party leader. By focusing on the cost of living he struck a rapport with voters and forced Ministers to take notice. There are many questions around his promise of an energy price freeze but it has made the political weather this autumn.


Miliband also won plaudits for his stance on military intervention in Syria. It led directly to the Americans having second thoughts. Whilst the war drags on and the poor refugees suffer, we are in a better place in the Middle East overall. Chemical weapons have been removed in Syria and the Iranians are coming in from the diplomatic cold.


In local politics we saw the Conservative regime of Geoff Driver defeated in Lancashire whilst two leading females departed in less than happy circumstances. Marie Rimmer lost her battle for the leadership of St Helens Council whilst Salford Chief Executive Barbara Spicer fell out with the Mayor of Salford. Happily Barbara has a new job heading up the Skills Funding Agency. Personnel changes are the least of the problems for Town Halls set against the continuing rounds of spending cuts.



The possibility of an energy gap has become more real this year as we wrestle with the problem of keeping prices down whilst dealing with global warming. The weather was rarely out of the headlines in 2013. A bitter winter was followed by a great summer. The Philippines typhoon was followed by a major battering for the coasts of the North West and Yorkshire. Fracking and nuclear power have risen up the agenda this year.


We are likely to be better connected after decisions taken in 2013. Final plans for the new Mersey Gateway Bridge were approved; the northern Rail Hub in Manchester got the green light; and consultations began on HS2.


The year saw the death of two of the twentieth century’s great figures; Nelson Mandela and Margaret Thatcher. Their politics were very different but they both made a difference and that’s all we can hope to do each in our own way.


Have a peaceful Christmas