May's Assembly meeting broke away from the traditional format and took the form of a pre-election Business Question Time with a panel of local politicians answering questions about what their parties would do following the election to help business in Greater Manchester.
Chaired by Phil Cusack - the Chamber's Immediate Past President the panel consisted of John Bickley (UKIP), Graham Brady (Cons), Kate Green (Lab) and Simon Wheale (LibDems).
The session opened with each candidate having 5 minutes to answer the following question: "As part of the next government what will you and your party do to help business in Greater Manchester?"
Each candidate gave a reasoned description of what is contained in their party manifestos and highlighted some consistent issues - post- election further devolution of powers and control would be important; further attention as to how the skills issues in the UK could be sorted is a priority; infrastructure investment is needed though John Bickley restated UKIP"s opposition to HS2 and all recognised that successful businesses stand at the heart of a thriving local, regional and national economy.
Quizzed further by the audience several interesting themes began to emerge. Whilst the drive to greater devolved local powers all found favour with the panel the next step into possible local setting of taxes and business rates was felt to be a step too far with many stating the immediate focus should be on getting the local economy stronger before considering further expansion. Graham Brady made the point that the lack of a business "vote" would also mean that any ambitions on a true local taxation model would never be a realistic proposition. Kate Green also sounded a note of caution that the race to devolution shouldn't be a race to isolationism. All agreed though, with businesses in the room, that the current business rates system is broken and needs urgent attention.
All panelists recognised the great improvements made on local transport over recent years but also there was much more to do. Despite differences of opinion with UKIP's stance on HS2, the panel agreed that local investment was an urgent need and also that the speed of delivery is currently not sufficient. A key element picked up by Chamber members in the pre-election campaign work. There was also agreement that investment in all forms of infrastructure - including digital, road and energy was an urgent priority.
As regards Skills and Employment the panel did have some significant differences. Whilst all recognised that Greater Manchester was more than holding its own on job creation there was a general consensus that more needs doing. Simon Wheale defended the governments record at a national and local level as did Graham Brady. John Bickley stated UKIP's plan to scrap the 50% target for university graduates and made clear their desire for Grammar school education to be re-introduced across the UK to better equip and educate young people.
Kate Green highlighted the need to put more funding into apprenticeships and highlighted Labour's concerns over Zero Hours Contracts as opposed to introducing fair flexible working policies. Other panellists and members in the room stated that in some sectors it was impossible to run businesses effectively without Zero Hours Contracts especially in the care sector though all agreed that any employment contract should not exploit employees.
All agreed that stronger links with business and education was needed.
Asked to summarise what they want from the election for GM the candidates responses were:
Simon Wheale - control over job centres as part of the devolution deal to effectively target jobs, apprenticeships where they are most effective.
Kate Green - devolve fully the skills budget to GM to help business and education plan and work together.
Graham Brady - stability and a balanced budget
John Bickley - a fair EU referendum voted on by British-only citizens.
The meeting was brought to a close with a summary of campaign activity so far and plans for developing the next phase of the Chamber's Campaign for Business, immediate contact with the regions new MP's on 8th May and some key issues for immediate action.
The next Assembly meeting is on 10th July.
For more information contact:
Chris Fletcher, Policy & Marketing Director
The GMCC Assembly meeting on 6th February was the first to take place in its new home at the Chamber's offices in Elliot House on Deansgate. The new GMCC Assembly Room will host all future Assembly meetings and will become the focal point for all discussions on the policy issues and campaign activity that the Chamber is working on.
The meeting was dominated by the issue of the elected mayor for Greater Manchester and also what the devolution deal signed by the Combined Authority and the Government would mean in practice for business.
Issues raised in the discussion centred around the role of the Chamber acting on behalf of business in Greater Manchester in dealing with the mayor and making sure that active engagement starts now. That way there is a degree of certainty that when the elected mayor is voted in, following the election in 2017, that they will be fully aware of the big issues that GM business want to see tackled. From early indications transport and skills are already high on the agenda.
The role of the LEP was also discussed at the Assembly and following feedback from members it is highly likely a future meeting will take place with representatives of the LEP and other business groups to establish how the new governance structure will be accountable and effective for the whole of the GM business community.
Members used the Chamber's interactive voting system to give their views on whether they felt that a shift in local financial control would prove effective. It should be noted that at no stage in the current devolution proposals are there any indications that changes to local taxation (including business rates) are being discussed however previous feedback from members has indicated they feel this should be a necessary part of the whole devolution programme.
When asked what they felt the impact of locally decided taxes would be, members were pretty evenly split with 30% saying they felt there would be a decrease in taxes whilst 23% felt there would be an increase. When asked if they agreed to higher local taxes if they were retained for local spend on business 64% said they agreed with this. The final question asked was whether they felt that more local control would be beneficial for business - 93% said yes even though the exact details of how the devolution offer would work in practice are still, at best, sketchy.
The issue of devolution and the elected mayor will continue to run and there will be further papers and briefing notes on this issue from the Chamber in the coming months. For further information and to download our initial briefing paper click here.
As well as the devolution debate members had an update on the Chamber's skills work including a viewing of the Skills Video that can be found on our skills campaign page.
Ideas for future meetings included:
A pre election question time event followed by a similar event after the election when the shape of the government - coalition or otherwise - is decided.
There is also a need to begin to link with other Northern cities - part of the Northern Powerhouse - to make sure the activity matches the needs of the private sector and it doesn't become a public sector dominated agenda.
Finally, the issue of high speed broadband came up again with further examples of where access to adequate broadband is sadly lacking and hindering business. We will pick this issue up again.
If you have any comments or ideas on the above, or want to know more about the Assembly or the other forums for members to meet and discuss issues please get in touch.
Director of Policy & Communications
At the Chamber Assembly meeting on 17th October, Infrastructure was the main item for discussion and led to a healthy debate. As well as identifying top level strategic priorities –there was also the opportunity for local issues to be identified. Whilst it is important the “big” strategic projects don’t get ignored it is often the case that the everyday areas get overlooked. Chamber members we have spoken to are keen to make sure that this doesn’t happen as part of the current campaign.
Below are some of the issues raised from the Chamber Assembly:
Strategic Infrastructure :
Local Areas for Action: