Wednesday, June 26, 2013

School's out - the idiocy of the teachers' strike

Tomorrow schools in the North West will be closed because of a strike by teaching unions. Without even breaching the reasons behind this, the whole fiasco is totally avoidable. The very threat of a strike, irrespective of whether individual teachers choose to withdraw their labour for the day, means schools will have to close. Schools can't ask who is going to strike and who isn't. Schools can't open with a provisional staff. And yet the very risk that kids will be left unsupervised will mean parents have to take a day off work and kids will miss lessons.

The barmy thing is that all the teachers could turn up to work and still get paid, but have no lessons to teach. But the school won't know in time to make the decision on whether to close or not. As I said, stupid.

As for the reasons why they're striking, I don't agree with that either. That's my personal view, of course, not that of the governing body I sit on. Reform has to come in teaching. Reform has to come to public sector pensions.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

MOSI - a cautious welcome

Downtown Manchester in Business offers a cautious welcome to the announcement today from Ed Vaizey, the culture minister, over the future of MOSI.

However, the very fact that the future of this fine Manchester asset has been called into question is unacceptable.

Businesses in the city have been galvanised into action to protect MOSI, but also wish to partner with the board and trustees to ensure that the financial future of MOSI is guaranteed for future generations.

I hope that a new spirit of partnership can grow from this period of confusion and turbulence.

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Friday, June 14, 2013

Scotland the braver – the North of England’s noisy neighbour

I was up in Glasgow this week for Scotland’s Technology Show. It was an exhibition of a wide range of technology companies and featured a large presence from Scottish Enterprise, of which there is no equivalent in England, or in our Northern cities. And on the back of BBC’s Question Time from Edinburgh last night, I came away with 5 thoughts that have shifted my view of our Caledonian cousins.

Maybe it’s because I’m a political anorak, but I kept musing about what difference an independent Scotland would make to this event in the future, and to the business owners I met up there. I’ll be honest with you, I just don’t get Scottish nationalism. I thought any ambitions of a new independent nation joining the “arc of prosperity” from Norway to Iceland and Ireland would have been buried in the rubble of the financial crisis of 2008. The rhetoric of the SNP is also of a bygone era of high state spending with no real understanding of the kind of dynamic economy an independent Scotland will need to be. Plus, most of the oil is in English waters if you draw the line correctly.

Yet there is still a momentum behind this most implausible of political projects, one that will grow stronger as the gap between London and the other regional cities grows larger. I am pretty sure that full independence will be bad for Scotland, even though I’m not really entitled or required to have a view on that. But I’m still not sure as to whether it will be good for the North of England, or not.

What I am sure of, however, is that the institutions that Scotland has are making a better job than I previously thought of creating the kind of economy that it needs, whether a devolved part of the UK, or a small independent member of the European Union.

As we prepare for the Northern Revolution conference in Salford Quays, on the 4th of July it’s as well to learn from other places where policy and planning are working.

Here are five things I learned this week that show Scotland is heading in the right direction. And maybe Northern cities, or a collaboration between them, could study a bit closer.

1. The Scottish Investment Bank (SIB) – I like how the umbrella body of SIB operates a suite of investment funds. It provides clarity, a relatively lean and no nonsense model and does co-investment with a well established network of business angels through both the three equity funds and is also the lead investor in the privately managed Scottish Loan Fund.

2. Scotland’s Technology Show – the spirit of co-operation and excitement amongst disparate companies in Scotland to show off their products at a domestic trade show was impressive. It wasn’t to meet buyers of subsea marine engineering products, but it was to share ideas and meet other technology companies with similar ambitions.

3. There are more entrepreneurs in Scotland than ever – this was a trend that surprised me, but beyond the headlines, start-up rates are still way behind the rest of the UK. According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, Scotland is retaining start-ups and has a high proportion of people of working age who have started a business. Sir Tom Hunter, who endowed the Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship at Strathclyde University, thinks there is a reason for this: “Ultimately it seems we need to continue the cultural shift towards enabling our people to recognise entrepreneurialism as a real career option. We are in the teeth of a recession but when I started out in a similar recession there was very little by way of support. Today it’s different and I really do believe that we are finally integrating the support network for aspiring entrepreneurs.”

4. Entrepreneurial Spark – I led a panel debate with Jim Duffy, the CEO of this incubator and accelerator, and he had a great story to tell. His free Start Up Accelerator takes businesses through a tough 5 month process to get them in good shape.

5. Royal Bank of Scotland edging towards privatisation. Stephen Hester has done a good job getting RBS ready for a return to private ownership, even though he won’t get any thanks for it. But the reach of the bank into Scotland’s business base means it desperately needs clarity of its future if it is to be effective. It either shrinks and withers, or it is managed to a sustainable size. Never again can it be allowed to be sprawling empire Fred Goodwin spawned.

From a lower base, and with a much weaker entrepreneurial culture the picture in Scotland is looking brighter. It’s as well to keep an eye on this noisy neighbour, whether we need our passports to do business with them or not.

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Friday, June 07, 2013

Why Downtown says: "Save MOSI"

There’s a danger that once any regional business ties its fortunes to a London centre – its chances of survival diminish. That’s why a campaign to save Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) has so taken root in the city and has fuelled a strong sense of injustice.

MOSI isn’t just a ‘nice to have’ attraction in the city centre, it’s an integral part of what Manchester is all about. The start of the world’s first passenger railway service and a valuable educational resource for our children.

Downtown Manchester in Business has had no hesitation in taking a leading role in the “Save MOSI” campaign and have already begun the process of lobbying and voicing our view on this issue. I was on BBC Radio Manchester with Graham Stringer MP drawing a line in the sand on this issue and we have sat down with a number of other businesses in the city to kick off a campaign and agree its scope.

We must from the outset applaud Yakub Qureshi from the Manchester Evening News in bringing this story to the public’s attention and for Downtown members in expressing their outrage on social media sites.

The threat to MOSI comes as the national Science Museum Group is considering shutting it and the National Media Museum in Bradford and the National Rail Museum in York.

The Manchester Evening News reported: “The three northern visitor attractions, which are all part of the London-based museum group, have been put on the chopping block because of funding cuts.”

The last thing any of us in Manchester want to do is engage in a tawdry competition with Bradford and York about who deserves to survive more. Frankly it should never have got to this. It may suit the trustees of MOSI and the Science Museums Group for everyone to target the collation government and the ‘cuts to the arts” agenda. But that’s not the point either. What is the issue here is how important institutions are run and how they are supported and for who.

This campaign is only at the beginning, but it will also throw to the fore some important questions about MOSI and what it is for and how it can be improved too. That’s why we call on businesses and members of the public to start from the premise that MOSI is vital to future scientists and engineers and for the curiosity of Manchester and its visitors.

We also need to remind The Science Museum Group that they have a commitment to transfer all existing Grant in Aid on the condition that the site and collections would be preserved for a minimum of 25 years.

While we appreciate the trustees have a difficult job to balance their budget in the teeth of cuts to their budget, it is not acceptable that MOSI can be sacrificed, or that it can be even considered for closure.

As Graham Stringer MP told the Manchester Evening News: “I’m appalled at the idea we will end up with only museums in London. Something like 90 per cent of the funding for art galleries and museums goes into London already. It’s an extraordinary amount.”

Andrew Stokes, chief executive of Marketing Manchester, says: “MOSI is a museum of national significance and its visitor figures speak for themselves. Its location on the site of the world’s first passenger railway station adds to its appeal and provides a real tourism hub for the Castlefield area. Marketing Manchester will support wholeheartedly any campaign to keep the museum’s doors open – not only for the people of Greater Manchester, but also for the million international visitors a year that the city attracts.”

Jonathan Schofield, tour guide, and Manchester Confidential editor, says: “What is certain is that proposing something as blatantly unfair and desperate as closing all the Science Museum Group’s northern properties while keeping on the equally struggling London one looks shocking.”

So, stay posted, stay close and above all, Save MOSI.

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Saturday, June 01, 2013

A few more thoughts on how to enjoy the Hay Festival
Kids at Hay, joining in. Pic by Finn Beales

A good pal of mine described Hay as where the earnest reek of self improvement collides with the overwhelming stench of smugness. Of course he's right. Entirely. But, I like it for no other reason than it can throw up the possibility of enjoying someone sharing an idea you had never, ever thought of before. What's so bad about that?

Here are some thoughts I had from this time.

Go to a live recording of a radio programme. It's good fun, professionally run and as it has a multitude of guests from all around the festival. On Suzie Klein's Radio 3 Drivetime programme we had Peter Florence, the founder of Hay; maths guru Marcus du Sautoy, psychologist Oliver James, historian and writer of a new book on 1913 Charles Emmerson and my favourite of them all, Amit Chaudhuri who was talking about his new tome on Calcutta. We also saw the brilliant Ian Macmillan with band called Wora, writers Rupert Thomson and Tiffany Murray and a Welsh language poet Menna Elfyn.

Get kids to do stuff. Doesn't matter what, but it helps them get something out of a poet, writer or an illustrator if they can join in. We saw Dan Abnett, a writer of comic books do a whole session on how to draw a dragon.

Talk to people. OK, so my kids thought the risk of talking to a Tarquin was too much of a stretch out of their comfort zones, but it's always really nice to chat to people in queues and at the shop about their experience. And I have yet to regret stopping to chat to an author you recognise. They are always pleased to do so.

Some events are seemingly unrelated to books, ideas or anything at all, but they work. Take Michael Vaughan on the Ashes. He said more about team work and workplace psychology than any amount of experts.

Travelling through Wales, or England? We drove there via Wrexham and then through mid-Wales. It was beautiful, but exhausting. The drive home via Leominster and Shopshire and Cheshire was quicker and easier. We did the train in a day last year and it was harder work than it should have been.

Asda and the College scrap their plans - so what now?

It was announced this week that Asda and Cheadle and Marple College have scrapped their plans to build a supermarket on Hibbert Lane. I welcome this news as it was a bad scheme, badly thought through, poorly located and the wrong solution to local challenges.

However, it throws into the mix the possibilities of what should happen now. I liked the conciliatory line in the statement about consulting with the community about the best use for the site, but ultimately it is a matter for the governors of the college to fulfill their duties to provide education in a sustainable way and be responsible for their estates, here's the statement:
"Following the refusal of planning permission at the planning and highways committee, both the College and Asda have been carefully considering their position and contractual obligations.  Both parties have been in discussions with each other and their respective Boards about their appetite to proceed and the prospect of an appeal.  Both parties have indicated a preference to withdraw from the contract by mutual consent and have instructed solicitors to draft  an agreement in this respect.

"The College has been considering a number of options of how to proceed and would very much like to work with the Marple Community to explore a way forward.  It is our intent to collaborate and consult with key stakeholders in this respect." 
So here are a few new challenges for the community leader who articulated so powerfully what needs to be done next.

The College. There is no doubt that the College needs to do something new, and it needs to get a move on. Other colleges and schools are so much better equipped. Resources are tight, but the need to have a new campus, possibly on Buxton Lane will have to be costed within what is possible from developing Hibbert Lane for housing.

Chadwick Street Site. This development will also encourage Kirkland to proceed with plans for a town centre store. I've pondered before whether Marple is an Aldi or a Waitrose kind of place. I'm pretty certain the store was designed with Waitrose in mind, it is now a commercial decision as to whether they want to proceed.

Traffic. Something needs to be done about the roads round here. They just don't function properly. The traffic management is all wrong. I like what's been done in Poynton, but there are too many complicated one way routes at the moment and unflowing movements for it to flow round here.

Independent retailers. Free markets throw up the possibility of risk that a business won't work. I don't necessarily just shop at local independents just because they are independent. I welcome well run branded multiple retailers: I go to Greenhalgh's because I like their Broccoli soup, I get repairs done at Zipyard because they are friendly and cheap. This is not the devil at work. Everywhere has empty shops too, good ideas will come to the fore. But it's important that a college is supported in Marple, or many of these butty bars and pie shops will go out of business. 

Sports facilities. The football pitches and sports grounds round here are woeful. Marple Hall School astroturf is a misnomer, it's concrete with a thinning carpet. The swimming pool and gym are pretty ropey too. So, in working out what next for different land sites, surely this should be factored in. The set  in Woodley is good, but it's 4 miles away, and it's expensive. It should be factored in. And I don't accept that putting up full size posts on an unplayable pitch on Hawk Green is a meaningful contribution to local sports.

The media. How rubbish is it that the local weekly paper is so stuck in the cycle of weekly news there is no news outlet for news of this importance for Stockport and for Marple? Even the press statement seems to have been sent to the local messageboard.

I don't like saying NO to progress, so I look forward to the day when I can have a YES poster in my window for something positive and bold in Marple.