The State of Britain

The North West leads the fall in UK unemployment, sees the establishment of the first deep coal mine for decades move a step closer, and at last the bollards begin to disappear on the M6 between Crewe and Knutsford.

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Unemployment in the North West fell sharply by 19,000 to 131,000 between November and January; the drop of 0.5% to 3.6% was the best in the UK. At 2.9% and 5.2% the SW of England and Yorkshire and the Humber had the lowest and highest unemployment rate in the country respectively. The UK unemployment rate stands at 3.9%.

In March average earnings in the North West increased to £564 per week. London had the highest average earnings of £846 whereas the North East had the lowest of £523. In the UK average earnings grew by 3.4% or by 1.5% after inflation.

North West average property prices fell by 1.3% to £160,811 during the month which trimmed the annual growth rate to 3.4%. In comparison UK prices dropped by 0.8% to £228,147 during March which cut the annual growth rate to 1.7%. The North West market was also slower with the latest figures to September 2018 showing volumes down by 2.7%.

The extent to which the North West’s economy was impacted by March’s weather – with severe gales and heavy rain brought by Storm Gareth – remains to be seen. The storm caused flooded train lines, flooded roads and disruption to ferry services from Heysham.

Despite the weather some regional bright spots included the potential first deep coal mine in the UK for decades after councillors backed the plans of The West Cumbria Mining Company. The firm wants to extract coking coal from the seabed off St Bees, with a processing plant on the former Marchon site at Kells – the new Woodhouse Colliery could create 500 jobs. The coking coal – potentially up to 750m tonnes in a 75 sq mile area around the colliery – is needed to produce steel. The futuristic looking mine would replace the Haig Pit in Whitehaven which was shut in 1986 with the loss of 3,500 jobs. More immediate regional job creation will come with roles in on board crew and ticket office staff as one hundred seasonal vacancies are created at Windermere Lake Cruises. Essar Oil’s plans to decommission the Shell Higher Olefins Plant in Ellesmere Port has threatened the jobs of 184 workers at the Stanlow site – staff are to be balloted on whether they wish to take industrial action.

One of the region’s most high profile infrastructure projects is nearing completion. The £265m project to upgrade the M6 to a smart motorway between Crewe and Knutsford, has seen a fourth lane been built in each direction with new signage, traffic sensors and CCTV cameras to help tackle congestion for the 120,000 drivers who use it each day. According to Highways England it is the biggest upgrade to the M6 since it opened in Cheshire about 60 years ago. But drivers should not expect to wave goodbye to the bollards anytime soon as the upgrade on the 19-mile stretch is only the first of four smart motorway schemes to be finished. The Agency aims to increase the M6’s capacity by a third on 60 miles of motorway between Coventry and Wigan. On a smaller scale, the administration of construction company Dawnus halted work on the £15m Manchester-Salford Inner Relief Route improvement scheme, forcing Manchester and Salford City Councils to put in place contingency plans.

Notable regional transport developments included the Stobart Group’s laudable but tortuous attempt to offer scheduled passenger flights from Carlisle (now Carlisle Lake District) Airport for the first time in more than 25 years. Loganair will operate routes to Dublin, Belfast and London Southend from 4 July. The airport received a £4.75m public subsidy via Cumbria’s LEP to upgrade its terminal and runway in 2017 but had difficulty recruiting air traffic control staff and was unable to launch services in June 2018. On the railways, Northern’s plans to bring in 10 services a day between Barrow and Manchester airport have been delayed. The firm will instead run six services until late spring. Extra hourly services linking Manchester to Northwich, Knutsford and Mobberley which were due to begin in May 2018 have also been postponed. A £4m project to try to reduce the risk of landslides which closed the Cumbria Coast railway line last November is underway – 50,000 tonnes of earth are being shifted. The campaign to reopen Fleetwood’s station suffered a setback this month as a feasibility study into the issue was rejected by Wyre Council and £50,000 of funding for the study from Lancashire County Council was also refused.

Key developments in the North West met with varying degrees of success this month with plans for a £100m upgrade of Chester Racecourse being rejected after councillors decided the project could harm views of the historic city. The scheme included a new six-storey grandstand, a 1,000-seat conference venue and multi-storey car park. Regional wins out of the Government’s Coastal Communities Fund include £2.35m towards a £5.55m project to create visitor attractions along Morecambe Bay. Given the ‘publicity’ Morecambe has received following ITV’s drama The Bay, the award will be welcomed warmly. Other successful projects were £3.64m for The Beacon Arts Village to modernise a disused Victorian town hall in Hoylake and £772,000 awarded for a £1.22m scheme to link the economies of Cleveleys and Fleetwood. One of the North West’s flagship tourist developments got a further £1.75m to add to the £4m pledged by the Government last year; Blackpool Museum – set to open in 2020 – will be located on the Golden Mile in the former Sands Venue and will showcase the resort’s history. It is hoped 300,000 visitors a year will be pulled in.

Economic development and regeneration in Cumbria will continue to be overseen by the district councils, county council, Cumbria LEP and the Northern Powerhouse after plans to create a unitary authority which would merge Allerdale, Carlisle, Copeland, Barrow, Eden and South Lakeland district councils with the Cumbria County Council were scrapped. Unanimity amongst the seven councils could not be found so efforts are now focusing on a combined authority such as Greater Manchester or Liverpool Region which would mean the end of Cumbria County Council and the devolution of its services to the districts.