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