It is very sad that the Oldham Chronicle has ceased publication after 150 years. It is the latest local paper to fall victim to the surge in on-line advertising and falling readership. For years local newspaper owners have cut the journalists to save costs and then been surprised when the thin content drove away even more readers. Most local papers used to have a correspondent who was an expert on local government and aware of what was going on at the Town Hall. Now they are nearly all gone. The media concentrates excessively on national politicians leaving the leaders, even of some large cities, largely unknown.

The assertion is made that local politics is boring. That is lazy thinking by people who are not prepared to scrutinise the way billions of pounds of our money is spent. It is true that people in one council area don’t really care about what goes on next door but in the great days of local papers, they were the go to places for people to get information on their council alongside coverage of other authorities.

Does this matter? After all a new world has opened on line with a vast range of people offering their opinions about what is going on at national and local level. This blog is one of them. But we will miss the dedicated, independent local government correspondents who exposed scandals like Newcastle’s John Poulson and Westminster’s Dame Shirley Porter. Town Halls still provide many of the services we rely on and are often left to sort out the consequences of ill thought through Whitehall decisions.

But who is keeping an eye on our councillors? Council meetings are rarely reported. The Cabinet system has left most councillors with little to do. The scrutiny they are meant to carry out is a pale shadow of the Westminster Select Committee system it was meant to replicate at a local level.

So, can we rely on central government to do the job? Not really. Eric Pickles, the worst Local Government Secretary in recent history, abolished the Audit Commission. It was responsible for audit and inspection of local government. It reported publicly.

The vast majority of councillors and officers do a great job in difficult circumstances. They are subject to big cuts in their budgets and are dealing first hand with tricky personal services like allocating school places to children and elderly people to a care home.

That said local relationships and big money contracts can lead to corruption. Who’s going to report it consistently and professionally to a wide audience in the future? If the answer is nobody then we should worry.


Well at least the, Downtown inspired, crisis conference on the future of the Northern Powerhouse(NP) managed to get the Chancellor to come north this week.

Philip Hammond can be in no doubt at the anger directed towards the Transport Secretary who simultaneously cut back on promises to northern rail while giving the go ahead for Crossrail 2 in London. But it led to no promises while he was here, just a hint that there might be something in the Budget.

Well, Phil the Till, there better be or the NP will be dead in the water.

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Turbulent times require grey politicians and we have two at the top of government. Theresa May has turned off the daily flow of government initiatives to keep the press happy. A good thing too, the constant announcements from the Blair, Brown and Cameron regimes rarely amounted to much and were initiated in the vain hope of distracting hacks from the real stories.

Her next door neighbour and Chancellor, Philip Hammond makes John Major look exciting. But that’s not a problem for me. There is so much uncertainty in the world that we need a cautious person in charge of the money and that approach is likely to inform next week’s Autumn Statement.

Business in the North will want clear indications around the new Chancellor’s approach to the uncertainties of Brexit. Leavers are crowing at the moment because the economy hasn’t apparently suffered from initial Brexit damage. Let’s wait and see. If Hammond is wise he’ll be preparing the British economy for slower growth and higher inflation as the folly of us leaving the EU becomes more and more apparent. He will be hampered in shaping our economic future by the total disarray that is being revealed within government about what future relationship we actually want with the EU.

On taking office Hammond moved away from his predecessor’s deficit reduction targets. Price Waterhouse Cooper predict a gap of £67bn this year, a huge figure but will it matter to the Chancellor? We seem to be in a time when politicians prefer to forget the legacy they are leaving to future generations. That certainly seems to be the case with the incoming Trump administration in America where he breezily talks about a trillion dollar infrastructure programme.

While the Donald deals with his crumbling bridges, Hammond has a number of areas crying out for cash should he wish to spend it. Adult social care is at the top of the list, followed by the NHS and then councils.

Anyone with eyes to see can observe the plight of Town Halls. Libraries and bus services are being closed in a desperate attempt to support the growing needs of the elderly.

Then there is the housing shortage which is so badly affecting the young. I say young but in many cases married couples in their early thirties are still not able to afford a home of their own. The levels of stamp duty are being identified as a problem that the Chancellor might wish to address.

Then there is the Northern Powerhouse and Transport for the North. The latter is becoming an increasingly important organisation headed up by the former CBI boss John Cridland. He gave an impressive presentation to the North West Business Leadership Team recently about his vision for improved connectivity involving east-west rail and road links and simplified ticketing. The government revealed new route plans for HS2 this week. That project is seventeen years away. Next week the Chancellor needs to support some shorter term wins along the lines of the Cridland plan. It will also be interesting if Philip Hammond mentions the Northern Powerhouse. It was frequently mentioned in Osborne budgets. Despite denials there remains an impression that the May government has cooled on the idea or pivoted to the Midlands Engine.

Wednesday will be an important one for Philip Hammond and could define his whole Chancellorship.





You’ll look for an ideological thread in the Chancellor’s budget in vain. On the one hand he regards it as acceptable to cut disabled benefits whilst cutting Corporation Tax again. On the other hand the sugar tax is an intervention in the free market that met with the immediate approval of Jeremy Corbyn.

Then there was the missed opportunity to increase petrol duty at a time when the slump in world oil prices meant motorists would hardly have noticed. He didn’t do it apparently so as to appease Tory backbenchers who he wants to vote for him for leader. But earlier in his speech he referred to the Office of Budget Responsibility’s warning that leaving the EU would lead to “disruptive uncertainty.” The OBR are right, Osborne was right to refer to the biggest issue that could disrupt his Budget strategy, but it didn’t go down well with many of those Tory backbenchers.


It was a complex, somewhat incoherent Budget which nonetheless had some good things in it for small business and the Northern Powerhouse. I thought the Leeds-Manchester rail line had been given the go-head a few times already but, anyway, it was in the Budget along with creating a 4 lane M62 over the Pennines. News that a case will be developed for a Manchester-Sheffield road tunnel is good news too. Greater Manchester once again gets more powers, this time over justice issues. But ominously whilst elected mayoral deals were announced for some rural areas, there was silence on Leeds, Greater Yorkshire and Cumbria. Knowsley is to get the northern Shakespeare Theatre which is brilliant and a reward for the lobbying work of local MP George Howarth. Perhaps he could play Lear in the first production!


600,000 small businesses will pay zero rates from next year when the payment threshold is lifted £15000. This is even higher than campaigners were hoping for but there was more good news in George Osborne’s red box. The annual rise in business rates will in future be pegged to the consumer price index rather than the higher retail price index. There are also likely to be more frequent reviews. Due to government delays, businesses are still paying tax based on property values dating back to the financial crisis.

The elected mayors of Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City Region are to be given full powers over spending business rates but there is a downside for them and all local government. Town Halls will soon depend on business rates for their income rather than central grant. If Chancellor’s keep reducing the rates, council services will suffer further.

They will anyway because the Chancellor is looking for another £3.5bn of public spending cuts in 2019 as part of his desperate attempt to leap from a deficit of £20bn in 2019 to a surplus of £10bn in election year.

By then, the theory goes, George Osborne will be Prime Minister. There are just the little problems of Brexit, Boris and the good old British economy in the way.




From the seventies to the noughties the Liberals and then the Liberal Democrats came to occupy the space vacated by the Tories as the opposition to northern Town Hall Labourism. In many cities the Lib Dems actually came to power. Ten years ago I goaded a political commentator into predicting that Labour would lose its majority in Manchester. That didn’t happen and from its peak in the early years of this century, it has been a downhill slide for the Lib Dems.

It became precipitous after the Coalition government was formed in 2010. So going into these local elections Leeds and Liverpool councils have just ten Lib Dem councillors and Manchester nine. They could be all but wiped out as a serious political force in our big cities on May 22nd. That would be very unhealthy for Town Hall politics. With the Tories showing no sign of ending 40 years of impotence in our big cities, the result of a Lib Dem meltdown will be massive Labour majorities and the danger of arrogance and lack of scrutiny that goes with it.

Little attention will be paid to these local elections because, for once, the European Parliament elections held on the same day will command centre stage. That’s partly because of UKIP but also because Labour has already acquired supremacy across most local councils across the North. For four years they have been benefiting from being out of government. Their recovery began in 2010 . Even as Gordon Brown was leaving No 10, Joe Anderson was celebrating Labour taking Liverpool.

So there is less to fight for than usual in our local elections. Nevertheless there will be polls for a third of the seats on the councils that control our great northern conurbations around Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool. A third of the seats are also to be contested in the unitary authorities of Blackburn with Darwen and Warrington. A few councils outside our big cities also have elections including West Lancashire, Preston, Burnley and Harrogate.

There are some interesting contests. Trafford rarely lets us down for drama. The only Conservative controlled metropolitan council in the country, the Tories will surely lose their wafer thin grip on power. This will be a disappointment for the recently appointed Sean Anstee, the youngest council leader in the country. West Lancashire can also be expected to fall to Labour. Harrogate may remain a rare patch of blue in the North but the hung councils of Kirklees, Calderdale and Bradford are all being targeted by Labour.

In what is likely to be otherwise a grim night, the torch of Liberalism is likely to remain alight in South Lakeland where Lib Dem President Tim Farron has kept his party in power since 2006. The party is likely to continue holding the balance of power in Pendle where all three parties are almost equal. Stockport is the biggest challenge for the Lib Dems where one net loss could end their power deal with some ratepayers. Labour are the challengers with the Tories continuing to under perform in this leafy part of Greater Manchester. Adding spice to the elections here will be the return of Dave Goddard, the former Lib Dem council leader who was specifically targeted by his former Labour colleagues two years ago.

Overall Labour will find further gains hard to make. The Tories and Lib Dems will be hoping the economic recovery helps them to minimise their losses. All eyes will be on UKIP. They have made no breakthrough in northern Town Halls so far but may benefit from double support as people cast their European and local votes at the same time.

If UKIP do get a substantial number of councillors, it will be interesting to see if they are actually able to actually cope with issues like elderly care and planning.

Next week I’ll be looking at the fascinating European election contests in Yorkshire and the Humber and the North West.