Manchester has firmly resisted the government’s backing for elected mayors, but that could be about to change. Tory sources at their conference in Birmingham were suggesting that in return for extra powers for the city region, Labour would concede the concept of an elected mayor for the Combined Authority.


The Scottish Referendum aftermath has sparked a feverish debate about how the North of England should be governed. On Merseyside it has caused a fresh outbreak of tension between Liverpool and Wirral. The city’s mayor Joe Anderson, denied the leadership of the Combined Authority by Wirral leader Phil Davies, declared that if the government was going to decentralise powers and fiscal responsibility “it would need to know that this is not being managed by a group of part time councillors who meet every four to six weeks.”


The Mayor claims that the Liverpool City Region is in danger of being left behind when the government devolves extra powers because the area views things through “the short-sighted prism of local politics”.


Wirral Council would see things differently and is spearheading a drive to widen the debate about how the whole of the North can benefit from devolution, not just the city regions.


It is very much in the interests of business investment and people’s welfare, that the North’s politicians representing both city regions and the large number of towns and rural areas in between can speak with a united voice on a complete blueprint for the future government of the north. If they can’t then the winners will be a more powerful Scotland and Borisland to the south!




The Conservatives left Birmingham in upbeat mood despite polling predictions that they can’t win May’s General Election.


They’ve decided to take UKIP on following the latest defection. Delegates delighted in telling me how ex Tory MP Mark Reckless had been chased out of a Rochester pub along with UKIP leader Nigel Farage by Conservatives angered by their former MP’s treachery.

This must be the right approach. There is no appeasing people who want to take us out of Europe. They must be opposed and the British people warned about the prospects for UK business outside the EU.

In an otherwise excellent speech, David Cameron laid a trap for himself over Europe by promising that the free movement of immigrants would be sorted. Free movement is an integral part of the free market and he will find it very difficult to get concessions when he goes into negotiations if he wins the election.


At a number of fringe meetings I attended, Tory delegates were advised that if the UK goes into the talks with threats and ultimatums, it will get nowhere. The better approach would be to find allies who want change as well and work with them.


Many Tory representatives felt it was the first really conservative speech David Cameron had made with no mention of gay marriage or green issues but plenty on tax cuts. Just how they will be paid for whilst fulfilling much delayed promises to bring the deficit down to zero remains to be seen. Also for all the signs of recovery, it is not being felt in the pay packets of people in the north.


That’s a message that Ed Miliband hopes will keep Heywood and Middleton out of the clutches of UKIP in Thursday’s by election.




Alex Salmond will be hoping that the Commonwealth Games now under way in Glasgow will help his flagging campaign for Scottish independence.

But just before the sporting contest got started I had a chance to catch up with him on his last foray into England before referendum day. Salmond seems to like Liverpool. Last year he got a great reception in St George’s Hall when he shamelessly played to Scouse antipathy to London by saying Scots and northerners all suffered from remote government from the capital.

He was at it again last week but the difference is the game’s afoot big time with the referendum now just eight weeks away. The Scottish Labour Party had brought down a red double decker bus with Vote No slogans all over it and parked it outside St George’s Hall. Batteries of TV cameras were in attendance along with BBC luminaries like Alan Little and Laura Kuenssberg.

He was speaking to a smaller audience of northern business people but the message was the same; Scotland and the North suffer economically from centralised government. He prayed in aid the former Liverpool Walton MP Eric Heffer who he claimed supported a young Alex Salmond in his efforts to get Scottish independence in the 1970s. Heffer’s successor Peter Kilfoyle seemed to be of the same mind. He told me he’d been on the Mersey Ferry earlier with Salmond who’d got a warm reception from the passengers. “If I was in Scotland, I’d vote for independence” declared Kilfoyle.

Salmond’s speech consisted of a battery of statistics designed to prove his case for independence but he also sought to address a growing anxiety that we in the North are going to lose out between a powerful Scotland and a dynamic South East of England. He had plans for high speed rail connections between the North and Scotland and wanted northern business people to cooperate in a cross border forum.

The Chancellor has made it clear that there could be no shared currency after independence. Salmond continues to insist that Mr Osborne is bluffing. It is the greatest weakness in his case and one that could be decisive for wavering Scots.

I have always believed that Salmond’s real project was to get the maximum amount of devolved power without full independence. I reminded him that he had wanted a third question on the ballot paper to accommodate this. He denied my suggestion that this showed a secret lack of confidence by the Scottish Nationalists that they could achieve the ultimate prize.

The three main UK parties have all promised further devolution of tax raising power if the Scots stay in the UK, so I suggested to Mr Salmond he would be a winner whichever way the vote goes. He replied that you can never trust the promises of English politicians.

The Commonwealth Games will fill the Scots with pride in what they can do for themselves. This will be followed by commemorations of the start of the First World War when Scots played a noble part in fighting alongside the other nations that made up the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Then the Scots will vote.


Over 200,000 golf fans attended the Open at Hoylake with Phil Davies, the leader of Wirral Council and the Liverpool City Region, telling me £75m had been spent in the local economy.

Wirral Council staff were busy lobbying international guests about economic projects ranging from offshore wind to the massive Wirral Waters redevelopment. They are hoping for a major announcement shortly about a car components plant at the end of the M53 to service Halewood, Ellesmere Port and Crewe.

Along with the International Festival of Business promoted by Liverpool Council, our local authorities have done their best to promote the city region to the world this summer.


Where ever I go it’s a chapter of woe. In the last few days I’ve been to Winsford, Manchester and Liverpool to witness councils struggling to fix next month’s annual budget against a background of swingeing cuts.


The problem with this story is that I’ve been covering this sort of issue for forty years. Councils complaining that these are the worst cuts ever and forecasting doom and gloom for the services people need. This time I don’t think they are crying wolf. The scale of the cuts means that they are having to completely rethink the way they provide services.


With health authorities, the police and fire service also facing the same pressure; there is a willingness for them all to get out of their “silos” and talk together about providing us with a joined up service. This may be the only good thing to come from the government’s squeeze on the Town Halls. It was a point I put to Manchester Council leader Sir Richard Leese. He had been explaining to a conference in Manchester that “troubled families” often had thirteen different people contacting them in the past. Now management restructuring and greater cooperation with other agencies would mean one person would be put in charge of a case.


It begged the question why hadn’t it been done before? His reply was revealing. Until now public sector bodies had been reluctant to cooperate. The budget pressures facing them all had changed that.


So credit Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles with one point, but little else. The man is a disgrace. The relish with which he is stripping councils of millions of pounds and suggesting that savings on providing mineral water at meetings will solve the problem is fatuous. His attack on authorities like Manchester for holding £120m in reserves is frankly dishonest. He knows that this money cannot be spent on the revenue budget.


Things are so bad in Liverpool that Mayor Joe Anderson has called for divine inspiration. This week he hosted a summit with the Bishop of Liverpool to protest at government demands that the city reduce its spending by 52% over four years. Mayor Joe has been attacked for forecasting civil unrest if this goes on. The criticism is probably right because the last thing his city needs is rioting but there is a burning sense of injustice among civic leaders from Liverpool to Leeds that the local government financial settlement appears to favour southern councils at the expense of the north.


Be that as it may, new thinking is required. Cheshire West and Chester Council saw this crisis coming and on Wednesday night in Winsford they began a series of public consultation meetings (which I am chairing) on their budget plans. They include their “Altogether Better” programme which aims to reduce duplication between agencies operating in their patch.


Apart from the general cuts, Wirral Council has suffered historic internal management failures not helped by political instability. There is a proposal on the table to scrap the election of a third of councillors every year and go for an all out election every four years. Sources indicate it may not be approved which is a shame. It would end the confusing system that applies across the metropolitan areas of West Yorkshire, Greater Manchester and Merseyside. It would be better if Leeds, Bury, Wirral etc. had one big election every four years when the future control of the council would be at stake. It would also save money for other services which is what this crisis is all about.