Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Stockport’s Market - a step in the right direction

I was delighted to learn last week that Stockport Borough Council have selected Steve Pilling to develop the Produce Hall opposite the market. We're frequent visitors to the market area, which to my mind is brimming with potential. Creating more buzz around the market, the other neighbouring property assets and bringing interesting ideas to play is the key to taking this whole area to the next level. There are limited levers that councils can pull, but this is just what Stockport Council have started here with an active intervention. 

Over the years there have been loads of small initiatives in Stockport that have been "alright", but when added together have not been transformational. I don't think anyone can claim that the dribble of money that the Mary Portas project provided has made anything like the splash that was hyped, nor could it ever have done.

Inevitably, this being Stockport, it's caused a rumpus, with one of the unsuccessful bidders to operate in the building expressing particular upset. This is a shame. If Steve Pilling were in fact Wetherpoons, I could see their point of view. It would be a wholly inappropriate use of the space and be a regressive step in how the Old Town area should be going. But he isn't. He's a credible and creative leisure entrepreneur with some great plans to open through the evening. I love what he did with the Chop Houses in Manchester, with Damson, the Dock House and during his tenure at the Red Lion in High Lane.

Building a place is about doing so in a gradual and authentic way. Adding new things to what exists is smart planning, rather than torching the past. I'm pleased then that Foodie Friday (on the last Friday of each month) will continue, so too will the Council's small subsidy towards its running costs, and I truly hope that the organisers use this opportunity to expand it and think even bigger.

I hope all of the unsuccessful bidders for this opportunity - and I understand there were several - remain excited by the momentum of what's going on in Stockport centre. The by-ways and nooks of the market area have a genuine character, something to be built around and enhanced. In turn the market can evolve into something sustainable beyond being a collection of competitive alternatives to B&M and Poundland.

By the by, I hesitated to post this last week when the supporters of one of the losing bids were lashing out in a state of frustration. I understand that, but it got too personal. Allowing comments on a Facebook page to go unmoderated, when they allege malpractice and corruption, isn't on. It is always possible that someone else made a better application, and that the door is always open.

A podcast on the future of work - should we be afraid of the robots?

I enjoyed chairing this podcast with Grant Thornton's Karen Campbell-Williams and Herb Kim from Thinking Digital about the future of work. It was recorded around the first Vibrant Economy lecture with Matthew Taylor of the RSA. Enjoy.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Pity Poor Bury - The Forgotten Fifteen and relative decline

Honestly? It was a poor game on Saturday at Gigg Lane, Bury. After everything we've been through I should learn to celebrate our wins with more enthusiasm. I was genuinely pleased we won, and with three really good goals as well and a clean sheet. And I'm excited every time Bradley Dack gets near the ball. He's the difference we need at this level. He got some physical attention, but he seems to just get on with it and lets his goals do the talking.

But I felt bad for Bury, not simply that we beat them, but that the club is in such a mess. Managerless, bottom of the league and dumped out of the cup by non-league Woking, they are in a poor state. True, four teams have to be relegated and only three will judge the season a success if they go up, but they looked to be a hopeless cause on Saturday, another club made worse by Lee Clark.

Into this story I'd like to mention a remarkable book I read a couple of years ago called The Forgotten Fifteen. It's a reminder that every club has a history, a period that makes fans swell with pride, but that things never happen in isolation. Bury's "glory year" was 1984-85 when a squad of just 15 players won promotion from the fourth division. But it was also amidst the decay and violence of football's worst year.

The author is James Bentley, a Bury supporter of my acquaintance, and it's a real gem. It not only deals with the matches and the players, but the lead up to the 1984-85 season and Bury's history. It includes an eclectic collection of contributions, including a foreword from Alastair Campbell and I ought to point out that I have some quotes in the book initially recollecting the former manager Jim Iley. But my principal contribution is describing a riot when Blackpool fans smashed up the ground in March 1985, just a few days after the end of the Miner's Strike and later caused mayhem on the streets of Bury. It was a season that James rightly points out, football was truly on the brink, ending so tragically in Bradford, Birmingham and Heysel.

On Saturday, during the stop start match I drifted off and my thoughts turned to that day over 30 years ago. Gigg Lane's good features are still intact and the old stadium has retained its charm and setting. Back then, in 1985, there must have been several hundreds of people intent on mayhem being barely controlled by the police. On Saturday, it was quite laughable watching Greater Manchester Police manhandling kids for celebrating a goal and lining up as if to stop a riot as Bury's fans drifted off and the only intent of any Rovers fans getting on the pitch was to ruffle Bradley Dack's hair.

Football has changed, in so many ways for the better, but it's been a mixed blessing for clubs like Bury. It must be hard enough to survive in the shadow of Manchester United and Manchester City, then there's the insidious creep of the Checkatrade Trophy where the "big clubs" get to play their reserves. In a couple of years they'll have Gary Neville's Salford City challenging them for support and sponsorship in the local area.

I've been in touch with James since Saturday to remind him that however bad he thinks it feels for Bury, it could be worse. You could be a fan of Stockport County.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Golden Arrow, or golden funnel? and blocking on Twitter - my (polite) questions for Andrew Adonis

I asked Andrew Adonis two questions on Tuesday night. The first was about the progress of the Metro Mayors, of which he has been a staunch supporter. The second was the one that got a roar of laughter from the chair. Will you unblock me on Twitter? It's on the video (above) at about 55 minutes in.

His inaugural lecture was entitled 'Never forget - Rome fell, what London needs to do to remain the world's greatest city'. There's a link to the whole thing here if you don't want to watch the video. As it was curated and presented by Dr Jon Davis from the Strand Group at King's College London, my inspiration and muse as the nation's foremost academic entrepreneur, the lecture was lavish in scope and impressive in range, particularly about London's history and power.

Here's a taster: "Consider for a moment what has made London so great. Political stability and military security unmatched by any nation in Europe – indeed the world – for 330 years since 1688. Huge and generally secure international trade also since the late 17th century, first by British naval dominance and the British empire, and more recently by the European Union and a benign international regime for trade. When the French captured Amsterdam in 1795, much of the city’s wealth fled across the Channel, as it did from Antwerp during the Napoleonic wars and from Paris itself and other cities of continental Europe during the wars and revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries."

He built up to a vision for an ambitious infrastructure project - the Golden Arrow - connecting all points North to our nation's capital.

"I suggest turning the “golden triangle” of universities in London, Oxford and Cambridge into a “golden arrow” of urban innovation, which includes Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds as the “shaft” of an arrow uniting the North, Midlands and London. This is possible because of HS2, which will treble transport capacity while also cutting the journey time between these destinations to under an hour. This will boost economic activity and help fix the housing crisis by bringing more homes within easy distance of London."

It includes, by the way, the case for better east west connections, but the purpose is to grow London. And that's my problem. I've never quite bought the argument that HS2 is necessary to free up capacity on the present West Coast line. In 2013, my own reservations about it were that the link would become a talent funnel. It's arrival hastens the need to develop a thriving necessary Northern Powerhouse with a clear and distinct interlocking purpose. As I said back then: "The shorter journey time to London starts to shrink the reach of the talent pool. As Manchester and Leeds are two hours from the capital then it makes sense to have a physical presence in the North. Cutting journey times to an hour undermines the case for that. I think the flight of senior corporate finance professionals from Birmingham to London has been evidence of this."

No other country has all its core economic, political and cultural power so concentrated in one city. Developing alternative constellations that connect better with one another, and basing the case for doing so on a social benefit model is a pressing issue. It's refreshing that a discussion about London's future takes into account the North, and the Midlands, as he did so admirably, but my weakness, my most grievous fault, is to look at each problem through the other end of this telescope, from Manchester. I want a shift in this metropolitian London-centric thinking. Expecting it at a lecture about London was a stretch, I get that, but I'm not convinced that trickle down will work any more effectively when we've got a dirty great train line.

I have form for saying I like Andrew Adonis and very much enjoyed chairing an event with him, which I wrote about here. I thought he was treated appallingly by Ed Milliband, who gifted the Tories a 2-0 lead on the Northern Powerhouse, which then cost him the 2015 election. Adonis is a thinker, a strategist, someone for whom thinking big about knotty challenges is exciting.

But he's also been wrong. He was wrong to push so vigourously the case for no-power city Mayors in 2010, when the case for Metro Mayors needed to be made. He is also wrong-headed in his assault on the UK's university sector, which he presumably thinks he is saving from itself. No, our university should not revert to being a poly again. And I'd cordially invite him to Manchester to show him exactly why.

My second question is linked to that point. It was simply, humbly, kindly, that he unblock me on Twitter. It has been hard to disagree well in this febrile, nasty environment. And if I've been rude, then it is with regret and I apologise. But I believe we can engage, respectfully, as I hope this blog has demonstrated.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Matt Forde live in Chorley

We needed a laugh this week. And by goodness we got one on Saturday night watching Matt Forde at the delightful environs of Chorley Little Theatre.

I saw him interview Tony Blair in 2015 and thought I'd like him, but given I've had so very little to laugh about in politics since, he rather passed me by. My mate off of the wireless Mark Webster mentioned him to me as someone he thought I'd know, never mind like.

We bought the tickets on impulse after watching his TV show on Dave. Since then I've enjoyed listening to his Political Party podcast, where he has both a wry wit and a penetrating interview style.

There are plenty of comedians who can do jokes about politicians. There are comics who do very good impersonations, but the reason I really like Matt Forde's particular angle on this is that, like us, he's a proper political anorak. But has also has respect for those who serve and he's also worked in the Westminster system. It gives him a fairly unique perspective that I worried would restrict his range. Happily, he has a very good grounding in life, which I suspect makes his observational style so sharp. He was bouncy and warm with the crowd, playful about local things like football and as far away from other 'political' comedians who dehumanize the objects of their derision. Full marks lad. See you again soon, I hope.

Monday, November 06, 2017

The model for a new northern economy in Preston? Not really

Preston's pride - BAE Systems at Preston Guild
Sometimes I think I've spent so long away from the coal face of business journalism that I've slipped into a new echo chamber where business owners are the bad guys, where entrepreneurship is a dirty word and all they're good for is to milk them for tax revenue. Yet I'm still a board director of three overtly commercial organisations where that characterisation remains an absolute and outrageous travesty.

The truth is it is the world that has changed. The concern for the left-behinds, the people who haven't benefited from globalisation, who live in communities riven apart by an economic and cultural decay, is righteous. But it has elicited all manner of easy answers and wrong-headed responses, not least that this anger ushered in Brexit, an answer to a problem it can't solve.

Soul searching for a proper response is now proliferating. The author Richard Florida's new book tests his own earlier theories of the creative super-city (think London, New York and San Francisco) which collectively have created 40 per cent of the world's GDP with just 7 per cent of the population. He asks, as I do on a daily basis, where does that leave the rest of us in a world of winner takes all urbanism?

The run-up to the CBI conference saw The Times report the frustration of business in the glacial progress of the government’s industrial strategy and whether it was being taken seriously in the heart of government. Hinting that nice guy Greg Clark was the right man to lead the sort of vocal industrial policy promoted in the past by the likes of Lord Heseltine and Lord Mandelson, CBI’s Carolyn Fairbairn said: “We want to see a real championing of business and of industrial strategy. It has to go beyond BEIS [the business, energy and industrial strategy department] right to the top at the Treasury and No10. We really do believe we are at a watershed moment.”

In the absence of anything concrete, usually down to civil service inertia and political paralysis, it’s allowed a number of fierce critiques of the entire system to grab airtime, many peppered with the code words and trigger warnings about "neo-liberalism", "failed models" and "alternatives to austerity".

There was a piece in the Economist last month about how Preston has used the power of its "anchor institutions" (that's the NHS, Preston's College and UCLAN to me and you), to create the model of a smart-procuring, entrepreneurial state for a guide to how Jeremy Corbyn will govern and encourage a thousand co-operatives to bloom.

It seemed like an attempt to do what economists (as opposed to The Economist writers) often do, look for something that's working and apply a theory to it retrospectively, but it has been the product of some interesting work with the Centre for Local Economic Strategies and Preston City Council.

Lancashire is no stranger to experiments in economic planning and innovation. In much the same way, Lancashire County Council in the 80s was hailed as the cradle of New Labour. Under leader Louise Ellman in 1983, the council created Lancashire Enterprises, whose chief executive was urban regeneration visionary David Taylor (no relation).  It was the very model of a pump-priming activist state, much of the thinking leading to the structure of the regional development agencies under Blair and Taylor's friend John Prescott. The longer-term corporate legacy was a utilities support business Enterprise PLC, now part of Amey PLC, in turn, the UK subsidiary of Ferrovial. But it also spawned Enterprise Ventures, now part of Mercia Technologies, an active venture capital investor in growth businesses in the North, the Midlands and Scotland.

Preston City Council's recent ambition has been created out of a response to local government cuts to its budget, just as Lancashire's response in the 80s was to the wholesale collapse of northern industry. One is a brave, necessary and innovative response, that feels strategic, but is intensely tactical. The earlier one, similarly, fashioned an ambitious response that grew and grew as it proved to have relevance and need. It's not to spot the virtue in a locally based procurement strategy, supporting local businesses.

Much of the work on the Preston example, has been done by Neil McInroy from the Centre for Local Economic Strategies, who has commented in the media that more of the £1bn plus public sector budgets are now spent locally.

Taking that on a stage, Neil's outline case is here, where he argues for 'a new economic agenda', that can replace failed neo-liberalism. But I found myself asking at the end of each paragraph, but what about the businesses who'll create the jobs?

The four pillars of Neil's argument are: to recognise decline; understand technological shifts; build on local strengths; and invest in the economy of care. In many ways, it's a bold and suitably broad synthesis. But I kept coming back to a common niggle I have with many conversations with people on the left, wouldn't life just be so much easier if everyone worked for the NHS?

And then the other question, but where are the businesses?

This is a blog, not a Masters thesis, or even an article worthy of the Economist, so I'll restrict my criticism to the new economic orthodoxy to one single baseline point. Where are the businesses? My starting point is that wealth is created in a business by someone having an idea, spotting an opportunity, selling that service or those value-added goods for a surplus and growing that enterprise, employing people, their families spend that money locally, pay their taxes, replicate that across the entire economy and that's what makes the world go round. Larger existing businesses are enticed to stay, to relocate, and careful coordination of their presence almost certainly contributes to the conditions for even more people to take risks, build another business, which in turn makes that place even wealthier. The fewer people want to do that or do it well, then that place gets poorer.

There's a line at the end of paragraph three that says: "Cities need to invest in social infrastructure and social enterprise and above all, support indigenous small business activity." My question, therefore, is how? To use Lancashire as an example again, the red rose county isn't short of initiatives from the public sector to "support" small business activity. There's the very noble Boost Business Lancashire for a start, which I should declare I have done some work for. But despite these valiant efforts and more, many of the same systemic issues continue to hold northern towns back and no amount of smart procurement can patch it up.  

It brought to mind something Peter Mandelson said as long ago as 2013, that all too frequently ambitious industrial strategies are little more than 'pea-shooter' initiatives; haphazard and ineffective programmes too small to make any kind of difference.

And in this context, are we facing something similar? And what does "democratise" the economy mean, other than letting committees of part-time councillors decide where to spend money? Spending more state money locally isn't a new economic strategy, it's arguably a good thing to do, but it isn't a paradigm shift it's been cracked up to be. 

There is also a need for a regulating, guiding and protecting state, more than has been previously fashionable. But my sense is there are two elephants in the room that the "new economics" thinking doesn't acknowledge. The first is big business. In Lancashire, again, the major anchor institution of Preston isn't even in Preston, but the city would be stuffed were it not for BAE Systems at Warton and Salmesbury, and its supply chain.

The second is that hard infrastructure works. It's not neo-liberal economics to build better roads, rail links and make housing an integrated strategic plank of an industrial strategy, it's sound social investment. The Treasury methodology needs fixing, and an industrial strategy needs to reach deep into all parts of government, including the Treasury if it is to be effective. After all, the return on investment model for Crossrail will not be the same for the Todmorden Curve, but both are necessary.

How we solve a problem like the northern towns and smaller cities haven't been taken seriously enough for decades. But we start from where we are, not where we'd like to be.