I'm live blogging today from the New Statesman conference. Opening proceedings is the impressive Michael Heseltine with a keynote address.
Highlight: He opened by saying how much he regretted getting rid of Metropolitan County Councils in 1986, but praised Greater Manchester's leaders for keeping the practice of them, in the absence of the structure. Manchester too is an example of what real devolution can achieve. He also reminded us that the ambition to reduce the number of councillors and the blockages of local government remains a pressing agenda. He was fairly optimistic and generous about Boris Johnson's recent speech on devolution because it reflects the need for better leadership locally. He ended his formal talk on a more pessimistic note, believing the White Paper on regional devolution is too late to be passed into policy in this parliament. In answer to a question from the audience, he bemoaned the ineffectiveness of business organisations, a subject that has long frustrated me, and how that has impacted the reality of Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs).
A fireside chat with Baroness Verma and Tom Forth from the Open Data Institute highlighted how important digital inclusion is to so many other agendas. I always like Tom's contributions to events and he makes lively observations of everyday life that really bring subjects to life. This time it was about kids jumping on bus company wifi, highlighting the power that comes from access to a scarce resource.
The most impressive and well-articulated contribution to the panel discussion on levelling up was by Lisa Nandy MP. I have heard her before making the same point about how much devolution effort effectively is about getting kids in Wigan better access to the assumed riches in Manchester city centre. Henri Murison from the Northern Powerhouse Partnership said in response that his priority is working to bring high paid jobs to places like Lisa's community, but none of that can happen without the success of a core city (like Manchester). She also made a powerful point about how the social richness and social capital of places is underestimated and misunderstood; their level of ambition isn't matched by government, something we talk about a lot in the People's Powerhouse.
You can't have a regional development conference without a discussion about transport. The talk pivoted around the 'car-based recovery' and the challenge of policy to find another way to get people around. EV charging infrastructure also seems a bit of a mess, patterns of funding aren't clear, with little recognition of how few people can access home charging. My head was turned by hydrogen fuel as a result of working with the team at Manchester Met, a sensible way to fuel buses is a gateway fuel, but I'm disappointed at the lack of knowledge on hydrogen cars amongst policy experts.
Innovation investment starts from the premise that the golden triangle between Oxford, Cambridge and London is a good thing and that we, therefore, need more of them. I took from a pacey and rushed discussion with Lord Bethell that there is more going on in the NHS and in private industry than is possibly given credit. Seamus O'Neill from the Northern Health Science Alliance made the point that the long term commitment to a life sciences cluster in the North requires big system thinking, and its importance can be part of how society matches challenges like global warming, anti-microbial resistance as well as how future viruses can be tackled.
A common policy theme is how industrial and economic solutions to wider societal issues can solve two problems at once - giving a new sense of purpose and prosperity to a place, but making sure we can quickly reduce carbon and improve health outcomes. Gillian Keegan MP and Henri Murison mentioned this, with Henri making a strong case for Metro Mayors having the resources and levers to deliver skills and investment in their areas. Returning to the theme of sustainable developments, and that lack of joined-up thinking, she cited the failure to harness incentives to create a solar industry a decade ago.
After lunch, the discussion pivoted towards future devolution with a thinker each from both sides of the House, Devolution and Constitution Minister Chloe Smith MP for the Conservatives and Ian Murray MP for Labour. The latter made the point that Levelling Up was pretty thin and not much more than a slogan. Smith made some attempt to define levelling up as spreading opportunity for everyone, not hugely convincingly, or assuaging Heseltine's fear that the timing has slipped. Murray says the English question is now urgent, but that his job is to make it central to Labour's future offer. Obviously, Smith pushed back by saying the government is doing a number of things through the Community Renewal Fund, City Growth Deals, Towns Fund promoting alternative land use, Shared Prosperity Fund as a successor to European Funds, and of course, Levelling Up Funds. All of which adds up to change that people will benefit from, she says. Here's the issue though, without fiscal devolution it feels like it's all just delegation with strings attached.
That the pandemic has shone a light on health inequalities, as all the panellists on the next topic agreed, is obvious. But as an earlier speaker pointed out, health outcomes are governed far more by the economic quality of the lives people lead than their local NHS and care services. Both Debbie Abrahams MP (Labour) and Lisa Cameron MP (SNP) were pretty disappointed with the Social Care plan they voted against in parliament yesterday, partly said Abrahams, because of widespread misunderstanding of what public health actually is. Professor Graham Lord from the University of Manchester says the same pushing of resources through the same bodies, local government and public health, and expecting a different outcome won't work.