Thursday, January 31, 2013

Downtown on BBC's Sunday Politics

Downtown on BBC's Sunday Politics:

I was on BBC’s Sunday Politics on the 27th of January 2012 discussing Enterprise Zones.

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Saturday, January 26, 2013

Councils to run the trains?

Manchester Airport Group’s bid for Stansted Airport is yet another example of how the city region leadership is challenging orthodox practice, and applying imaginative and strategic thinking to regional challenges. The next one will be an audacious bid for the regional rail franchises.
Rail franchising is a mess. The usage of rail services is often held as a success, but the customer satisfaction is rating will be poor.
Call it a gut feeling, but the train operating companies don’t strike me as happy places to work. I see too many miserable ticket inspectors and grumpy drivers for whom the general public are an inconvenience.
Notionally, these are private companies, run for profit and in a competitive environment. In reality they are heavily subsidized and tightly regulated.
And yet a major change is now on the cards. Work is already underway for the a consortium of metropolitan authorities in the North to form a new company to run the rail franchises currently controlled by Transpennine and by Northern Rail. The leadership for the project, as mapped out in a report submitted to the Combined Authority board last year, is Manchester.
It may strike many of us in the private sector as odd, that in an era of austerity and cuts that the councils are still able to operate in such a bold and creative way. It also shows how important transport is to the strategic development of the city region - and doesn’t always have to include an unpopular congestion charge. 
There will be risks – for a start they may not win. But as the report stated the upsides are massive and the flexibility offered to a body whose objectives are strategic, rather than simply running it for a subsidised profit are clear.
“Upfront capital investment may be necessary to find ways of delivering long‐run improvements in the efficiency of local services. Examples of such investments might include electrification, smartcard, turn‐around facilities and potentially some tram train conversions. As part of the GMCA city deal central government has committed to define a list of capital investments to reduce the cost base of the railway in the North of England.”
We are once again reminded of how fortunate we are in Greater Manchester to have a local leadership with vision and ambition. As Sir Howard Bernstein said in a national newspaper last year: “Working in a co-ordinated fashion means we can be not only strategic but also, crucially I believe, imaginative - coming up with new ways of doing things which challenge orthodox thinking.”
Finally, a few words on Europe. What if David Cameron doesn’t get a fulsome reform of the European Union and of Britain’s deal with Europe. Firstly, would he even admit it? and if he did, would he then campaign to leave, and what would that do to his personal standing? He’s right to grasp this nettle, but why leave it lingering for so long.   

Sunday, January 20, 2013

When 76 out of 92 means 29 to go

We went to Chesterfield last week to watch Adebayo Akinfenwa, Northampton's massive striker and the strongest player on FIFA13 on the Xbox, or so I'm told.

That was why the kids wanted to go. My motive was to visit a new home ground - my 76th of the current 92. Except it isn't, it was my 63rd. I've lost 11 who have new stadiums, and then there is the Wimbledon situation which I'm not sure how I count that.

So, there we are. On the Punk 92 I'm at 76.

Of the rules, it's 63.

Of total grounds visited it's 135.

Friday, January 18, 2013

HMV, Blockbuster, Comet - the property challenge

Another dismal chapter in Britain’s economic history. Another series of platitudes and posturing from politicians. It was depressing but predictable this week to see the reaction to the collapse of HMV and Jessops. Banks have been blamed, the lack of an industrial strategy for retail has been cited by Labour’s Chuka Umuna, while no-one seems willing to grasp the self-evident fact that the underlying weakness in retail is rooted in the distribution of land. Simply put there is far, far too much space being used for shops we don’t use any more.

We can all be nostalgic for the local record store – I know I am. We can cherish the experience of personal service. But as the staff at Jessops know to their painful cost, they were enthusiasts for their products and massively helpful, but deep down they knew that every other camera demonstration they performed resulted in someone buying online.

HMV and Blockbuster have been struggling for a while - poor decision making hasn’t helped, but they are businesses being disrupted by the onward march of online retail.

Certain products just aren’t bought in store anymore – music is one. Books may soon follow. In San Francisco last year I struggled to find a decent city centre bookstore to buy some thought leading titles. There was, depressingly, plenty of bad coffee and free wifi, loads of branded stores you could find in any western city (Gap, H&M, Urban Outfitters) – I found City Lights – which didn’t have a business section, but a tantalising range of anarchist poetry. But Barnes & Noble and Borders have long since fled.

The problem, put starkly, is the determination of landowners, and property portfolio managers and their agents, to flog this dead horse as if it could be wished back to life. It can’t be. But equally it would take real bravery to construct policy incentives that encouraged alternative land use in centres and a move away from retail. Free car parking might help, so too could more flexible view of planning.

I agreed with most of what Mary Portas said about how high streets can be animated and empty shops brought into different use. It’s actually so obvious it shouldn’t really need saying. But landlords won’t or can’t accept that their high yielding assets won’t continue to bring continued rent roll. In many ways they are reaping what they have sewn. Upward only rent reviews, poorly maintained estates, covenant protection, risk aversion, quarter days, regular yields. Game over guys, and the problems haven’t even begun to be addressed.

Looking around Greater Manchester some regional town centres are dying – Bury got its scheme away before the banking crash, Stockport didn’t. And the squabbling now over how their Portas pittance is distributed sounds horribly like the passengers on the Titanic putting their towels down on the best deckchairs (were Germans on the Titanic? Maybe not). No, the draw of a confident and colourful experiential Manchester city centre as a place to enjoy a day out is always going to outstrip the concrete wasteland of a regional town centre with arcades, pound stores, pie shops and the depressing long lines of charity outlets which all tell a tale of inexorable decline. Much as it baffles me, even the Trafford Centre is a preferred destination to that.

Before anyone pipes up with the example of Manchester’s Northern Quarter just bear in mind how microscopic it is on the overall map of the wider city region. Much as I love the likes of Oi Polloi, Piccadilly Records and Soup Kitchen, it’s a minority pursuit in a handful of streets in a city region of 2.5 million souls. There’s been talk of economic rebalancing in the air for the last five years. Urban land use is the hardest and most urgent one of all.

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Friday, January 11, 2013

A voice for business

Business has a voice in the narrative of Manchester. It may sometimes jar with other stakeholders, but this is a city that seems to embrace enterprise and commercial innovation.

It was with a certain sadness that we recorded the last BBC Radio Manchester business programme before Christmas. The format, where two private sector people, drawn from a rotating group of about 12, comment on the issues of the day and interview a couple of guests with interesting things to say.

I thought we were properly getting into our stride over the last six months, especially since we moved to a new shorter half hour format with no music. Interspersing the items. There was something quite comical about finishing an interview with a business owner about a new invention, or arguiung the toss over tax policy with a great business voice like Steve Falder of HMG Paints, and then the presenter elegantly calling time for a bit of Phil Collins.

But, all good things come to an end and I just hope the station is serious about the claim that they are keen on maintaining the level of coverage of business issues throughout their output.

As a city Manchester continually demonstrates a great maturity in the level of debate about where the city is heading. Growth, ambition for our young, opportunities for all and having the chance to showcase what we’re good at is important. Some BBC local radio has resigned itself to talking about nostalgia, last night’s TV and having phone ins for moaning football fans. Having a city radio station with the reach of BBC Radio Manchester is a real asset and I hope he vibrancy of the city continues to have a voice on it.

One of the other great achievements of the programme has been to coach and nurture a cadre of business people in the skills required to be good broadcasters. With BBC Radio5Live and the BBC1 Breakfast programme now produced from Salford Quays.

At Downtown we have good connections with the production teams on both of these national programmes. Both me and Frank have been on television at ungodly hours of the day and night to make the case for all manner of issues from banking reform, tax policy, transport and making a northern balance to the metropolitan agenda.

These are also opportunities for members to come on the radio and tell their stories. The team are never happier than when they get their wellies and hard hats on and visit the kind of grafters on a business park in the sticks that is bucking the trend. So, the more you tell us about what’s important, the better we can help you.

It’s a frequent complaint from business people that the national narrative doesn’t reflect the difficulties that businesses face. We may have lost one opportunity to make the case, but there are plenty more.

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