Is Devolution drive slowing to a standstill?

Back in your box!

The government’s commitment to devolving power to the North was the subject of sharp disagreement amongst top speakers during the first week of the International Festival of Business in Liverpool.

Lord Heseltine said it was a casualty of Brexit and Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham said he felt the government was putting him “back in the box”. However, the Conservative Mayor of the West Midlands begged to differ. Andy Street told the audience of business people, he didn’t feel that he is being put back in any sort of box and, with the help of the private sector, the Midlands Engine was roaring with 12,000 housing starts and half a billion from the government to clear brownfield sites.

These exchanges came on a day when the Festival had lined up an impressive range of guests to discuss urban policy. Five English mayors joined forces to renew their call to demand greater devolution of powers particularly concerning apprenticeship funds.

The government’s Apprenticeship Levy Scheme is intended to fund new apprenticeships through a levy of 0.5% on the wage bill of large employers. It raises £3bn a year and is meant to pay for apprenticeships. However, over a billion is languishing in Treasury coffers according to Andy Burnham and the most recent figures show apprenticeships dropping!

The main challenge for these mayors is economic improvement, so what have they achieved in their first year. They are often dealing with strategic issues that don’t yield instant results. For instance, Steve Rotheram (Liverpool City Region) said his priorities were ultrafast broadband and the green energy coast around Liverpool Bay. Andy Burnham (Greater Manchester) saw the need for quick “retail” wins like a free bus pass for 16-18-year olds.

There are to be new regional industrial strategies for Greater Manchester and the West Midlands, but not elsewhere apparently. This is evidence of the piecemeal approach being adopted by the government and whilst Sir Howard Bernstein continued to criticise the Regional Development Agency structure at the Downtown Festival conference, the fact remains that it had the advantage of being coherent across the country.

Male and pale

All English city region mayors are male, and, except for London’s Sadiq Khan who attended the Festival this week, they are all white. So, theatre director Jude Kelly returned to the city of her birth to decry this state of affairs. She uttered a profound truth about the regeneration and devolution debate, that it seems to almost exclusively interest blokes. That is so correct. I attend far more conferences on this subject than is good for me and the absence of woman, and even more, the ethnic communities is so striking.

Kelly said this would only change through education and the use of female role models to inspire young women to take an interest in engineering, regeneration and devolution.

Andy Burnham opined that at least the mayoral model was rid of the petty point scoring of Westminster which he was happy to leave behind.

No time was given by the moderator for the audience to ask any questions, which was unfortunate. I would have asked if the Labour or Conservative Party would consider all women shortlists for the next round of contests in 2020.

There was evidence of international interest in the Festival, particularly from China. It has two more weeks to run which is shorter than previous Festivals, but I picked up a feeling that the next one could be consolidated into one intensive week of high quality events. That said, congratulations are due to Max Steinberg and his team for bringing the world of business to Liverpool.

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