A government weakened by scandal and divided over its approach to Europe continues with its ill-starred attempt to leave the European Union.
Immigrant workers, vital to our caring services, are staying away, jobs are going at British Aerospace in Lancashire and Vauxhall in Ellesmere Port. Both industries rely on the easy movement of parts across borders. Thousands of lawyers and civil servants are being taken on to deal with the whole miserable negative exercise of Brexit. (No doubt their wages will be coming out of the £350m a week that was promised for the NHS.) The port of Dover is making plans for the huge congestion that will build up after March 2019.
So how is all this affecting the heart of the Northern Powerhouse? What is the economic outlook in Greater Manchester as the Budget approaches? I’ve been testing economic opinion which indicates that the crash that was forecast immediately after the EU referendum didn’t happen because of a credit boom and the growth of car leasing. It is felt that is now coming to an end as inflation and now the rise in interest rates kicks in. There is a fall in business confidence amidst the chronic Brexit uncertainty with a demand that the 2019-21 transitional agreement be broadly in line with the final agreement.
Northern economists believe we are looking at a growth rate of 1.5% not 2.5% that was previously hoped for. Looking further into the future we need to prepare for automation, robotics and paying more for UK workers as immigration falls.
In Greater Manchester next year jobs growth is expected to be flat. Employment in retail and financial services will be weak. Mike Blackburn, boss of the Local Enterprise Partnership, is worried that ministers don’t realise the impact Brexit will have on an area which exports 58% of its goods to the EU compared to a national average of 42%. He wants powers returned from the EU devolved to the North.
The Chancellor will be under severe pressure in the Budget to do more on housing. Steve Rumbelow, CEO of Rochdale Council, wants a major programme of council house building. He points out that permission for 50,000 houses in Greater Manchester are not being exercised.
Joanne Roney has had a quiet start since succeeding Sir Howard Bernstein as CEO of Manchester Council. She has indicated her priority is people rather than infrastructure development which characterised her predecessor’s tenure. She identified poor school starts for a large section of Manchester pupils fed into poor GCSE performance leaving colleges to teach Level 2 skills.
Eamonn Boylan is charged with looking at the picture across Greater Manchester as CEO of the Combined Authority. The spatial strategy which deals with the use of green belt and brownfield land is being rewritten after running into opposition from Mayor Burnham, is being rewritten.
Boylan points out the devolution deal is much more about powers than giving the city region money. Promises over devolving power over adult skills had still not been delivered. Local politicians and officers had many bright ideas about what could be done locally. For instance, there was an abundance of advice on how to get to university but very little on taking up vocational courses.
So that’s a sample of the thinking of people charged with putting the concept of the Northern Powerhouse into reality. But they are handicapped by the shadow of Brexit. Let’s hope for a substantial change in popular opinion that would allow Labour to oppose our leaving the EU and we could have an Exit to Brexit.
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