The city regions
Whether it’s the power to direct the skills agenda that would best benefit northern business or yet another report recommending northern rail between Manchester and Leeds (HS3), there a feeling abroad that devolution is a half-hearted business as far as the government is concerned.
That feeling emerged from two excellent Downtown in Business events that I attended this week, along with another one in Manchester looking forward to next week’s MIPIM gathering in Cannes and the sub regional mayor’s forthcoming crucial spatial strategy.
First up was the event with the two sub regional mayors. Andy Burnham has several frustrations. The Greater Manchester mayor believes the English regions are being ignored by the government in the Brexit talks. He wants HS2 and HS3 built at the same time but is dealing with organisations like Highways England and Network Rail that are not accountable locally.
Finally, Burnham thinks the Department for Education are as much use as a chocolate teapot when it comes to the skills agenda.
Steve Rotheram, mayor of the Liverpool City Region, shared the Downtown platform with Burnham and shares his frustration over the skills agenda. Both men want a clear pathway for youngsters who choose not to go to university, to access the vocational training that will lead to good jobs without student debt round their necks.
Burnham claimed that the lack of skills meant £40,000 computer coding jobs were going unfilled in Manchester but youngsters in Oldham and Rochdale weren.t being given the vision to apply for them.
The route to university is clear but the vocational path is not, and the Department for Education is to blame, according to the mayors because they are not in touch with local needs.
And in case Whitehall believes this is a Labour winge, apparently Tory West Midlands mayor Andy Street is equally critical.
The mayors should be given control of post 16 education.
At least Manchester and Liverpool have devolution deals, the already chaotic picture in Lancashire went from bad to worse this week when Pendle announced it wanted to break away from Lancashire and the Northern Powerhouse Minister, Jake Berry, opined that it would be a good idea.
Geoff Driver, the Conservative leader of Lancashire, was not amused. It is a distraction from his efforts to try to get the county to unite around a devolution proposal that would be lead by whoever was leader of Lancashire County Council. Driver told the Downtown lunch that it had to be that way. The county’s budget was £750m compared to a district council like South Ribble that was administering £13m.
His economic case is sound, but I fear that the districts will not agree to county leadership in this form. It might work if there was a leader of the Lancashire Combined Authority that could be from anywhere presiding over a Cabinet that was weighted to reflect the heft of the county council.
MIPIM, the world’s property market, meets in Cannes next week. Downtown hosted a preview of the event in Manchester which has had a presence at the resort for years. Simon Bedford of Deloitte and Tom Higgins of Laing O’ Rourke said the key value of MIPIM was that people there had time to network with each other and while final deals weren’t necessarily done, the initial approaches were certainly made on millions of pounds of property deals.
The panellists also gave their observations on the Greater Manchester economy that they said was buoyant despite Brexit doubts. Tom Higgins suggested that the London market had become saturated and investors were keen to put their money into the city centre. It was agreed that if families were going to be attracted to town centre living, councils would have a big part o play in providing schools and health centres.
Homes would need to be affordable, but land values were shooting up. Would home buyers benefit from streamlined off site house building methods? We’ll see.
There was recognition that the picture outside the city centre was more stressed with high streets suffering from the retail crisis brought on by on-line shopping.
Andy Burnham’s spatial strategy, expected shortly, would need to address the needs of Bolton, Rochdale, Stockport etc.
So, the current comment on devolution and the Northern Powerhouse is that progress is patchy.
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