Cumbria in the EU spotlight, Blackpool slated as a potential coastal towns pioneer and the North West ponders fracking

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Unemployment in the North West fell by 4,000 to 141,000 between December and February; a drop of 0.1% to 3.9%. The SW of England had the lowest unemployment rate in the country at 2.6% and the North East had the highest at 5.6%. The UK unemployment rate stands at 3.9%. In the UK average earnings grew by 3.5% or by 1.6% after inflation.

Cumbria was in the spotlight across Europe this month. In its assessment of regional unemployment rates across the EU regions in 2018, Eurostat – part of the European Commission that provides EU statistics to the EU institutions – stated the lowest rates recorded were two Czech regions, Prague (1.3%) and South-West (1.5%), then Mittelfranken (1.8%) in Germany, followed by Cumbria (1.9%).

North West average property prices increased by 1.3% to £163,758 during the month which increased the annual growth rate to 4.0% – the highest in England. In comparison, UK prices dropped by 0.8% to £226,234 during April which cut the annual growth rate to 0.6%.

The trade off between the UK’s anaemic productivity growth and record levels of employment was highlighted in Barrow this month. Kimberly-Clark’s proposed investment of £95.4m across its sites at Barrow and Kent will improve productivity but the efficiencies are expected to lead to the loss of 110-130 jobs in Kent and c20 at Barrow. The sites produce Kimberly-Clark’s Andrex and WypAll products; around 380 are employed at the Barrow mill.

Jaguar Land Rover shut down production for a week – blaming Brexit – impacting Halewood. The shutdown added to a scheduled closure for Easter. Better news for Merseyside was the completion of a new £10m freight ferry – built by Cammell Laird over nine months – which is now on its way to Southampton to join Red Funnel’s fleet.

On retail, Sports Direct is to close its warehouse in Wigan on 13 June. The 300 employees will be offered alternative work 80 miles away in Shirebrook, Derbyshire. Debenhams stores in Altrincham and Southport are among 22 stores earmarked for closure across the country.

There was a potential boost for regional rail when the UK government announced – as part of the Borderlands Growth Deal – funding for a feasibility study into extending the Borders Railway on to Carlisle. New North Wales and Liverpool rail services will also start in May. The services are being introduced after an upgrade of the 1.5 mile Halton Curve in Cheshire which has been virtually closed to passengers since the 1970s.

Virgin Trains’ proposal to end standing on long-distance journeys by managing rail services like flights received a mixed response. Unlike other franchises Virgin is consistently rated highly by North West travellers and is one of the few rail firms likely to be able to deliver innovative solutions like this. According to a report by The Rail Delivery Group, Transport for the North and other local groups across the region should take responsibility for regional train contracts. Transport for London has had some success with this model in the capital.

One rail decision regulators did get right 30 years ago was saving the 73-mile-long Settle-Carlisle line from closure. Transport Secretary at the time Paul Channon, told the House of Commons he was declining British Rail’s proposal to close the route, stating that the line now covered its operating costs after a public campaign which saw usage surge.

On infrastructure, reduced tolls through the Mersey tunnels for Liverpool City Region residents will initially cost Liverpool City Region Combined Authority £1m pa. It is expected 57,000 motorists a day will benefit; if usage and economic activity increases then a case can be made for additional funding to abolish the tolls. The Isle of Man government has been granted planning permission for a new £31.3m ferry terminal at Princes Half Tide Dock at Liverpool’s Pier Head. The terminal is due to open in late 2020 provided that the Tynwald approves funding for the project.

A number of regional water related infrastructure projects took a step forward this month, The first stage of a £25m flood defence scheme for Carlisle was approved; £6m will be invested raising the flood defences off Warwick Road. A £9.7m flood defence scheme for Egremont will create three new flood storage areas which will be able to contain enough flood water to fill 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools. The Environment Agency hopes it will reduce the flood risk to once every century rather than once every five years. United Utilities’ new water main from Thirlmere to West Cumbria has proved a boon for state owned Port of Workington which has handled the pipes for the project; also United Utilities’ £80m plan to improve the Haweswater aqueduct – which delivers water from Cumbria to Manchester and the Pennines – has been welcomed.

A House of Lords’ report ‘The future of seaside towns’ suggests Blackpool could be a pioneer in solving problems in England’s deprived coastal communities. The Committee recognised Blackpool had been successful in attracting tourists, with a revamped seafront, investment in its trams, a newly electrified direct rail link to London and investment in hotels; but a focus on this one sector may have hindered regeneration. Grimsby has received £67m to improve its dock area and to create thousands of homes which the report viewed as a more balanced approach to regeneration.

Regional prosperity would be enhanced by a relaxation of the UK’s rules on fracking which – according to the UK’s shale gas tsar who resigned after six months – was being throttled by rules preventing mini earthquakes. Under current rules, drilling must be stopped for 18 hours if it triggers earth tremors above a 0.5 magnitude. This compares with America where a 4.0 Richter scale limit is allowed and where, according to energy firm Ineos, c1m shale gas wells have been drilled safely. Ineos has exploration rights in Cheshire and believes the UK could emulate the shale gas boom in the US – most of the UK’s shale gas reserves lie under the north of England.

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