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Friday, 25 April 2014

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Re-working his magic

Roger Liddle, adviser to Commissioner MandelsonSUBMITTED

It was, says Roger Liddle with understatement, “quite a good year for the school”. In fact the class that started in Carlisle Grammar School in 1958 contained at least three youngsters who were to go on to forge careers of great distinction – in Roger Liddle’s case, as a special adviser to then Prime Minister Tony Blair and as an expert in European economic and social issues.

In Eric Robson’s instance as a broadcaster, maker of TV programmes and chairman of Cumbria Tourism.

The third member of that distinguished trio was Roger Bolton, a leading television producer and presenter.

However Roger Liddle remembers a time when all three were recognised for their acting and dressing up talents rather than for educational excellence.

Carlisle Grammar School was a single sex school and, as Mr Liddle recalls, there was a shortage of females to play the women of Canterbury in TS Eliot’s play about Thomas a Becket, Murder in the Cathedral.

Thus Liddle, Robson and Bolton, as junior pupils, were dressed up for the school play to act the women’s roles. Quite a talented threesome.

For Roger Liddle, the Carlisle born son of a railwayman, it’s now time to come back to Cumbria and play a new role — this time in helping a notably under-performing county to find its economic feet again.

As new chairman of Cumbria Vision, the organisation charged with leading the economic regeneration of Cumbria, he has been out and about meeting council chairmen and chief executives and this week attended his first board meeting.

For someone who has figured at the very fountainhead of British and European politics and travelled the world to dispense his expert knowledge, this new post in his native county represents “the most exciting challenge” of his career.

After many years of Cumbria under performing, at last its cup appears to be “half full rather than half empty” and there are encouraging signs for the area’s recovery.

Mr Liddle is married to Caroline Thomson, who is chief operative officer at the BBC. Their son Andrew is about to go to university.

Roger Liddle’s father was a railway clerk. His parents, now aged 90 and 89, still live in the Currock district of Carlisle.

His family links with the county are deep rooted. His grandparents on his father’s side came from Drumburgh where they worked on farms.

Mr Liddle’s maternal grandparents were from Bolton Low Houses. His grandfather was a collier in West Cumbria, working in Siddick and Fletchertown, which is where his mother was born.

He said: “My family has lived in Cumbria for generations and I suppose in a way it was fate that brought me to this post with Cumbria Vision at just the right time in my life. I have spent my life in politics and policy making, and this is an exciting new challenge.”

Seven pupils from Roger Liddle’s year at Carlisle Grammar School went on to study at Oxbridge. He was awarded a Wyndham Scholarship, for sons of men born in the county of Cumberland, to Queens College, Oxford.

“I went to Oxford and never came back to Carlisle to work,” he said. “I didn’t fancy being a schoolteacher, which was the likeliest option in those days, so I spent my life in the south, in Oxford and London. I had a happy and interesting time, although we always came back to see my parents a lot and four years ago we bought a house at Abbeytown, a lovely old rectory.”

Splitting his time between Cumbria and a high powered job with the European Commission in Brussels, where he was a key part of the think tank of the president, Jose Manuel Barroso, there was the increasing lure of spending more time in the county.

Having turned 60 in June, Mr Liddle gave up his European Commission role three months later and “began looking at the job ads in The Sunday Times”.

That was when he spotted a notice which said Cumbria Vision was looking for a new chairman, preferably a local businessman. He applied and got the job. “I am paid a small amount of money and the contract is to work one day a week, although so far about half my time is devoted to it,” he said.

“Hopefully the little bits of clout I have, perfectly properly of course, can be put to use to help Cumbria. I think we will have succeeded if we bring people together and hold them to achieving big things that can really change people’s lives in Cumbria. It is important to get people to focus on the big picture and recognise that they have interests in common and work for the long term common good.”

Mr Liddle is still involved with a think tank called Policy Network in London and plans to write a book — he already has four books under his belt including one jointly written with Peter Mandelson — about the future of Britain in Europe.

Coming from a “tribal Labour” background – his own description – he became involved in politics in Oxford, where he remained after university to do academic research for the Oxford School of Social and Administrative Studies. At the age of 23 he became an Oxford councillor and, in 1976, he was appointed special adviser to William Rodgers, then Secretary of State for Transport.

Mr Liddle went on to be director of the Public Policy Centre, working on the regulation of privatised industries, exchange rate policy, regional policy and science and industry.

For 10 years he was in the private sector as managing director of Prima Europe Ltd, a consultancy company advising on the impact of politics and regulations at European and national level.

He had joined the Social Democrats in 1981 and directed their think tank. He stood (unsuccessfully) for Parliament but rejoined the Labour Party when Blair became leader.

By 1997 he had become special adviser on European matters to Prime Minister Tony Blair, developing a new UK policy of positive engagement in the European Union and liaising with business and trade unions on European issues.

The man widely acknowledged as Peter Mandelson’s closest working friend, Liddle was identified by Derek Draper in 1997 as one of the 17 strong “magic circle” and the “only people who really count in the Blair government”.

“I was an advisor in a supporting role for Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson,” Mr Liddle said. “After the 1997 election I got the job at No 10 where I was to spend seven and a half years.

“I did a lot of travelling in Europe building relationships with other governments and trying to strengthen Britain’s influence in the EU. I also worked on the Defence Review for two years with George Robertson.

“Although I wasn’t part of the inner, inner circle as you might call it, decision making like Alastair Campbell, Jonathan Powell and Mandelson, I was in the next circle around Blair and saw a lot of him so it was a very privileged position to be in.

“I got to a lot of meetings with ministers and if Tony Blair had a meeting with relevant ministers I would be at it. I attended a lot of meetings with visiting Prime Ministers and went on a number of the Prime Minister’s visits to Europe.”

Although he was out of the office a good deal, Mr Liddle said: “I would always write a long weekly note for the Prime Minister and would get feedback from that. I would see Mr Blair two or three times a week.”

Roger Liddle had seen the inside of a government department before, whereas the New Labour government still had the habits of opposition when they came to power.

“It was amazing that they made a success of running the country,” said Roger Liddle. “Most people in their position in the past would have had a lot of experience but they had hardly any.”

During his time in Downing Street Mr Liddle saw the “ups and downs” of the Brown-Blair relationship at close quarters. “That is what life is like,” he said. “What Tony Blair said on television last week I agree with. They managed to keep the show on the road very successfully. They didn’t walk out on each other and I think it will be judged a successful period of government.”

Mr Liddle wrote a book with Peter Mandelson called The Blair Revolution which deals with a lot of what the government did after 1997.

“I would like to write more,” he said. “I have a visiting fellowship at the London School of Economics and I am interested in the bigger questions of policy.”

He admits: “I have done a lot of being an adviser and writing other people’s speeches and I don’t miss it. I enjoyed it enormously and have no regrets but at 60 I wanted to do something which is different and on my own account.”

He believes that the key questions for Cumbria are not entirely removed from the same political questions he tried to answer a lot of the time in London and Brussels.

“It’s how to get a successful, dynamic, innovative economy that offers opportunity for all and is environmentally sustainable,” he said.

Higher skills levels are required to command higher wages in places like Carlisle where the average wage is about £5,000 below the national average.

Unemployment figures for Cumbria are relatively low but Mr Liddle says there remains a lot of inactivity among working age people of whom about 15 per cent are on benefits.

But what worries Mr Liddle most is that, with the county having been in relative economic decline and under performing over the past decade, there is likely to be a massive underspend of funding coming through the North West Development Agency and Europe.

About £80m a year, for each of the next three years, is earmarked for Cumbria.

“Cumbria is doing well out of the NWDA but there is a forecast £20m underspend and this is money we won’t get again,” said Mr Liddle.

In the first six months only about £20m has been spent on projects. It’s forecast that £42m will be spent in the second half of the year but he sees a “waste of a massive opportunity” for Cumbria if the county can’t deliver mechanisms to realise the plans people have got.

“We are not spending money we have been allocated,” he said. “I don’t simply want spending for spending’s sake.

“But there is a gap between the goals and the means of effectively spending the money and that is a challenge for the whole of the county. We are entering a much tighter public spending environment and we may not get that sort of money again.”

Mr Liddle sees the building of an effective team involving councils and the private sector as a priority to create an overall vision for the county and offer decentralised delivery.

There are more than 90 different bodies in Cumbria which have some kind of responsibility for economic delivery and Mr Liddle says the strength of Cumbria Vision is that it is bringing local authorities and business interests on board. One of its important roles is to recommend to the NWDA which projects should be backed.

Roger Liddle says there are a lot of organisations doing a good job within the area but Cumbria Vision has the strategy and influence over funding from the NWDA.

“It’s not an argument about which area is getting the most money. We are not spending the money we have,” he said.

At last it seems Cumbria’s decline has stabilised with, as examples, West Cumbria’s expertise in nuclear and renewable energy, the hope that the University of Cumbria will lead to better job prospects and Barrow’s shipbuilding industry more secure plus the possibility of expansion of Carlisle Airport.

It is Roger Liddle’s hope that Cumbria will become the fastest growing economy in the country. That means getting the movers and shakers to “think Cumbrian”. And recognise the different challenges communities face within the bigger picture.

The cup is, at last, half full, he says. The big test for Cumbria Vision is whether it can pull all the strings together and be the catalyst for the county to achieve rather than talk in circles as has often been the case in the past.

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