Thursday, 30 June 2011

Why the Council leaders are right and big business is wrong on LEPs

I was disappointed to read the news that the chair of the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), the former chief executive of the Sage computer software company, went to government to stall a decision of the board which went against his views. He seems to have persuaded the government to postpone a decision until the board becomes dominated by colleagues from the tiny circle of North East business titans, including Greggs pasty tycoon Ken McMeikan, who back the alternative plan.

The difference between the Sunderland Echos take on this to the Newcastle Journal is striking. The LEP has to propose plans for an enterprise zone. New businesses in the zone will get five years of free business rates if they start up in the area in the next five years. After that the business rates will be given to the LEP to spend on regeneration.

The choice was between a Newcastle Gsteshead dominated scheme or an A19 corridor bid that ran through much of the North East (excluding Newcastle Gateshead). The COuncil leaders, including our leader in Northumberland, voted for the A19 bid apart from, guess who, the leaders of Gateshead and Newcastle.

The business leaders want to make sure the LEP gets the most tax revenue in the future. The Newcastle dominated zone claims to generate 32,000 jobs and generate £900m in tax take. The A19 bid was projecting 11,000 jobs and £200m. So you can see why businesses were miffed that what they perceived to be parochialism from local council leaders against a greater number of jobs and income.

Leaving aside the fact that I have learnt never to trust outlandish predictions of job generation (if all the jobs that were claimed would come from regeneration projects had done so, the North East would be thriving), I think business leaders are being naiive and do not have the best interests of the North East at heart.

The A19 zone was generating the types of jobs the UK and the North East needs. A zone in Seaham for components manufacturers supplying Nissan UK, money for port regeneration in Sunderland and a new business district, off shore wind turbine manufacturing in North Shields and 1000 jobs in green energy manufacturing in Blyth. Manufacturing jobs in things we can export and take a lead in new industries. 

And the Newcastle Gateshead supported bid? A new shopping district in Newcastle, a new Gateshead town centre and conference centre, a four star hotel in Newcastle, new homes in Sunderland and sports and leisure facilities at the Stadium of Light. Now I would like to see many of those schemes but they are re runs of lots of other residential and leisure dominated regeneration we've seen in the North East. But lot's of new shopping units are not generating new jobs when there is no wealth being generated. And concentrating all development on our city centres repeats the faults of previous "trickle down" models of regenerations where we have sparkly town centres but massive poverty outside of our city centres.

Neither of these proposals will benefit Prudhoe, my home town, much but I want to see us prioritising sustainable manufacturing jobs. That is real growth rather than leisure jobs that rely upon more personal debt fuelled spending and hen parties coming to our towns. This may generate less jobs overall and less money for LEPs to spend on yet more gentrification of our towns but it is what people keep telling me they want. The elected leaders of our councils got it right this time but the unrepresentative scions of big business look like they will get a chance to repeat the mistakes of the past 30 years on regeneration and overturn that vote. That's a shame.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Time for the Lib Dems to "Man Up"

Along with a lot of Liberal Democrats in the North East, I was disappointed to read the increasingly isolated former parliamentary candidate Cllr Dr Ron Beadles column in the Journal today where he advocates that it “is time for the Lib Dems to reclaim the party”. Quite who we are to reclaim it from I'm not sure. According to Ron it seems to have been stolen by a tiny clique of renegade pseudo Tories and the only way to get it back is to get rid of any “sell outs” and start again with a pure year zero party. But it did get me thinking of what the temperature of our party and how we need to “man up” by which I mean stop whining and get on with what needs to be done.

As a party many Liberal Democrat activists are in a new place. After years of national “critic” politics, where we say how we could make the world a better place if only we had some power, we are back in the world of real politics. In short we could “talk the talk” now we need to “walk the walk”.

Those of us who, as Liberal Democrats, have run or are running local councils understand that running public bodies is hard and that the right thing to do is not always the easy or immediately popular thing to do. In a county like Northumberland, where like in Westminster no one party has a majority, you learn that even the parties that share your overall aims on issues will be quite happy to hit you when you make a tough choice that they really agree with.

The Liberal Democrats and their predecessor parties gradually fought back from electoral irrelevance by building a reputation street by street, neighbourhood by neighbourhood. We proved we could be trusted with national power by showing we could be good councillors and then by running councils well. However, when you are involved in trying to change society in the most centralised state in Western Europe (apart from Malta I am told!) that is not enough to make the difference. Parties in national power take a hit in mid term local elections. We experienced this in May for the first time in 80 years. As a councillor, that upsets me but if we have to be the fall guys in exchange for making the changes that are needed, we need to “man up “ and take that on the chin.

Divided parties are hated by the electorate. The Tories learnt that in 1997 and Labour did in 1983. If we think it's bad now a messy factional internal rebellion that will not succeed will result in total rejection by voters.

I'm not sure that many Lib Dems really opposed the coalition in May 2010 or do now. The myth peddled by the tiny minority of activists who do so is that somehow our national leadership tricked our activists. But we are a democratic party. Unlike many of these people, I attended the historic Special Conference in Birmingham where the party as a whole moved forward on this.

Nothing has changed since then. The course is right, this country has to get it's structural deficit down and get the state off peoples back. We have also made impressive progress on human rights and helping the working poor. Where I do agree with Ron and others is that seeing Lib Dem government ministers try to attack their colleagues over synthetic differences is not edifying. We need to defend our alliance with the Conservatives nationally. It was the right thing to do now. People respect people in the long run who don't act like quarrelsome children. So we need to improve national communication. But his idea that we need to reclaim our party means in reality a bitter turf war over synthetic differences that will have the reverse effect.

The siren voices to pull out of the coalition and should be ignored. The overwhelming majority back this – we will be rewarded for integrity not internecine politics. This message will not play with the local and national media as much as a sensationalist statement urging internal conflict but it is the one I believe that is right.

We may lose a few council seats and voters may not like the necessary changes this country needs, when a fairy land alternative is put forward by the Labour party. Long term though, we will do better by maintaining the course, manning up and winning a hard won reputation for integrity.