Transparency International

The world really does seem upside down, and not just because of the current pandemic. I looked with astonishment at the list of the most recent additions to that well known place of privilege – the House of Lords. Whilst some of the former Labour leader’s nominations were blackballed against convention, his political enemies and a row of carpetbaggers were ennobled. There was even a hint of the infamous “lavender list”, penned by Marcia Falkender on behalf of Harold Wilson, in the nomination of former Unite leader, Tony Woodley. He has never displayed to my knowledge any interest in politics, but Unite had people placed in powerful places in the last Labour leadership.

Meanwhile, here in our city-region, much continues as before despite the warnings of respected NGO, Transparency International. Highlighting the unresolved scandal of the New Chinatown debacle, they have issued a report on corruption in local government. In this, they place Liverpool in category five (out of six) in councils open to corruption. This is hardly surprising when even the failing Echo headlines the approval given to “an unnamed investor” for a seven storey block of flats in the city centre. Little wonder observers presume this is because it is the same set of crooks who have already besmirched the good name of the city with bogus developments.

Speaking of crooks, Thomas Mee, who, we are told by the Echo, is “a well-known local businessman” (what a euphemism!), has been imprisoned for his role in the burglary of the homes of high profile sports and show business stars. This “well-known local businessman” has already done time for, amongst other things, firearms offences. This same man “worked” with disgraced developer Elliot Lawless on the murky deal done with Liverpool Council back in 2016, on the Percy Street project.

In fact, it does not take much digging to make official connections of Mr Mee to other “well-known businessmen” hereabouts, such figures as Samuel Beilin (Liverpool), Billy Kearns (Knowsley) and Terry Reilly (Sefton). It is of no surprise to those who seek to ferret out the truth of civic probity, that there are tight circles of such “business” personalities repeatedly flagged up for their involvement in controversial proposals.

The interest of many concerned citizens is in discovering whether or not fair and equitable deals are being negotiated by authorities on their behalf. Looking at the history of one such project – Fox Street – it is impossible to say, despite a special council committee having been set up to examine the sorry affair. That committee’s final report has just come into the public domain, after the council sat on it for a year. There are worthy recommendations about how the council ought to proceed in future, but most of them ought to be current good practice in any decent council. However, we are yet to discover who – if anyone – is to be held responsible for creating the problems at Fox Street; and this is just one of the dodgy deals and developments.

Meanwhile, other financial issues raise their heads over and above the usual headaches. Halton is being questioned over the extraordinary amount being spent by the borough council on behalf of staff crossing the Mersey between Widnes and Runcorn. We are told that Mayor Anderson is tearful at having to pull out of support for Liverpool to host a Special Olympics National Games in 2022. What a letdown that is, especially given the Section 106 monies which the council has failed to collect from developers.

Sadly, the malaise seems to be spreading. The Combined Authority has voted a £34 million loan to a failing Liverpool Airport, a private company where Mayor Anderson sits on the board. Of course, its owner is actually Peel, which in turn is owned by tax-dodging billionaire John Whittaker. A resident of the Isle of Man, Mr Whittaker has almost turned dipping into the public purse for private profit an art form. I wonder just how many small and medium companies on in the city-region might have benefitted from such largesse. Unfortunately, they will not have the clout in accessing public funds which Peel does.

Quiet Times

The summer has always been the quiet season for politics, as politicians and their officers alike look forward to their regular holidays. This Year of the Coronavirus is even quieter than usual, of course, as the general focus remains on the pandemic, even after four months of crisis. There seems to be relatively little which can be done locally by those ostensibly responsible for local government, other than to exhort residents to observe central government’s guidelines. Needless to say, there remain many who are either too stupid or too selfish to follow good advice.

Nevertheless, politics, in the way that life itself does, continues to trundle on. That is why I and others have questioned the strange purchases of Personal Protective Equipment by Liverpool City Council.  In themselves, these deals exemplify why so many view all council activities with suspicion. Very simply, council tax payers are cynical because of the council’s repeated duplicity and lack of transparency. If only those in public life recognised that at the very least, openness and honesty make life very much easier.

For example, the current buzz in Knowsley is that the former head of estates for the borough – Mike Fagan – has made very serious allegations against past and present senior Knowsley Council officers. Now, I have no idea whether or not there is any substance to the claim that such allegations have been formally made. If they have, I am unable to comment on their veracity. What should bother those who care about the standing of local government, is the fact that residents are no longer shocked at such reports. They seem to take it for granted that local politics is wholly corrupt.

Much of this comes down to communication. For many years now, there have been attempts to open up public discourse with more accessible language to go hand in hand with a citizen’s right to information. The latter was supposed to have come with the Freedom of Information Act. However, public authorities at all levels have deliberately set out to negate the positive elements of the latter. Even when information is made available, it is either in an indigestible form or so vague as to be virtually useless. The jargon-laden missives emanating from town halls are extremely frustrating to interested residents given the mind-numbing effect they can have on the average citizen. I am not apportioning blame but merely describing the outcome of this contradiction of transparency.

With plenty of time on my hands last week, I took a light read (I joke!) of the contracts register which records all of the contracts which all public bodies (including councils) enter into. Browsing through those of our six local councils in the city-region, there seemed to be a hugely disproportionate distribution between them. In part, this is explained by the different sizes of the six boroughs, but that is a discussion for another day. I was more taken by the weird and wonderful contracts themselves. I took a closer look at those involving Liverpool City Council. There are literally hundreds of these of all costs and subjects so I picked five at random –

          Terrorism insurance for the Cunard Building                £150,000

          Consultancy to improve pedestrian crossing design   £196,000

          Provision of a gig boat service                                         £90,000

          Coroner’s removal service in Wirral                               £127,000

          Fraud Advisory Service (with Wirral)                              £320,000

            -for process serving and investigation

Do not misunderstand me – I am not suggesting that there is something untoward here. However, given the sheer volume of such contracts, there is little if any explanation of what they are for. Officers and some very experienced councillors may appreciate what they are. I doubt whether the majority of councillors, much less the average taxpayer,  would have a clue where city funds are going.

People in Denial

In the United States, people have finally woken up to the fact that most services are delivered by local government rather than national government. Admittedly, with such a dreadful president as Trump – and the sycophants with whom he has surrounded himself – it is little wonder that the urgent matters of the moment are being addressed solely at a state or city level. Nationally, there is no lead whatsoever. We have a similar situation here with what will, at best, be recorded as a woefully inefficient government facing the pandemic. It needs everyone else to do their bit, especially the NHS and local government.

As Trump blames everyone else for his own failings, so now Johnson and his inept cabinet have started the blame game, beginning with Leicester, our own latest hot spot (so look out local government!). You know that old saw that while success has many fathers, failure is an orphan? Needless to say, I am more taken by matters closer to home. I have written before about Liverpool City Council and its award of contracts for PPE. There are no quibbles from me in the council doing what is necessary to protect front line workers battling the coronavirus – no one in their right mind would take issue over this. What I do question is how this PPE has been sourced, and for whom.

We all know how slack LCC is when it comes to procurement; and I have already commented on the strange suppliers of PPE – one contract went to a Manchester company which deals in ladies’ fashion and another to a tiny and dormant telecomms company which is reduced to crowd funding to stay afloat. Now another telecomms company – 1st Communications and Maintenance – has been given a contract to supply PPE. These firms come up with hugely inflated prices without any rational explanation as to why that is. We may be in the middle of a pandemic but there are more experienced and reputable sources than these to meet our needs. It causes me to reflect on the recent revelation that the council’s accounts have not been signed off by auditors Grant Thornton, for five years!! Mind you, I am told that the principal reason for this strange refusal of the auditors relates to a hole of £24 million in the areas of property sales and teachers pension funding.

It is hard to believe that the accounts of a council could be in such a parlous state, but we should not be surprised. If we hark back to the huge drain on LCC funds which began with the empty Speke school – built under PFI and sucking the blood from LCC’s finances. Since then, council tax payers have been outraged by one financial scandal after another. We have had the purchase of properties from Finch Farm to the Cunard Building by a mayor who spends our money like a drunken sailor. We have watched the scam artist developers leave a trail of devastation behind them with ruined investors and defrauded contractors. They owe the council millions and seem able to operate with impunity – the same old names with the same old accommodation business addresses. The council does not seem to practice any due diligence with these cowboys who continue ripping people off and besmirching the good name of the city. Nigel Russell was just one person who was able to buy St Andrew’s church in prestigious Rodney Street for just £1 despite having an unspent conviction. How can that be??

The list of revelations and failed projects is long – New Chinatown, the Paramount, Fox Street, Eldon Street, the Metalworks, the Rise, and so on. So are the big names associated with development in the city, like Lawrence Kenwright and Elliot Lawless, who have come unstuck. The list of failed developments has cost investors and the city hundreds of millions of pounds. Yet the scallywags behind the scams re-invent themselves and their companies to play the same tricks all over again. No answer to questions about this is forthcoming from the council or anyone else. Recently, I raised the odd case of the land deals done at great expense to itself by the council with King Construction. These were supposed to involve the proposed Tarmacademy which was in turn to provide training and jobs for the unemployed of north Liverpool. Instead, it only seems to have provided advantageous locations at give away prices for Kings and Cemex, in the heart of the proposed development area of the new stadium and the associated development.

Due diligence? Forget it. Competitive tendering? Not on your life. Transparent accounts? You must be joking. Accountability? Don’t make me laugh. What we do get from the Cunard Building is a deafening and ominous silence on this dreadful state of affairs. Meanwhile, LCC press releases, published in the failing Echo, continue to proclaim that all is well.

PS: Here is a more positive tale, you might say.

2015:       A small company is founded in August – Huyton Ashphalt Civils

2016:       It has a bank balance of £42 in March

2017:       Takes an office in Cunard Building and joins the Mayoral 100 Club

2019:       Shows a bank balance of £1,607,952 on a turnover of £19,464,217

Is that a success story or what?

Difficult Questions

There I was, like most people, bored out of my wits, when, for want of something better to do, I read one of Liam Thorpe’s messages to Merseyside. In case you do not know, he is what is laughingly titled political editor of the “Echo”. What grabbed me in his piece was the outrageous – and demonstrably false – claim that “we will keep asking the difficult questions”. Most people see him as more or less cheerleader-in-chief for the Liverpool mayor, with little or nothing to say about the other five boroughs in our city-region. Perhaps we should remind him of some of the most recent difficult questions which have been put to the mayor and the city council, but which remain unanswered. Invariably, these have been posed by disgruntled council tax payers. If Mr Thorpe and his colleagues had anything to say on these matters, it has been a bland echo of the council’s line of the day. Very often, our local media have failed to speak truth unto power.

Obviously, the current pandemic has overwhelmed all other issues facing the people of our city-region, but we must not forget that the urgency of local politics still demands a critical appraisal. Even these past four weeks have thrown up the same systemic failures repeatedly exhibited in our area, most graphically within the city of Liverpool. Let me remind you of some examples about which I would have expected some searching questions from the local media.

LCC describes itself – at least the mayor does – as an entrepreneurial council. If that was the case, it would have been deemed a failure long before now. Let us take its approach to land and property. In the last ten years, LCC has undertaken 1417 deals concerning land and property, yet it apparently has been unable to establish a central data base collating these many and varied deals. Whilst many will relate to the sale of individual houses, for example, there will be some expensive gems amongst this massive sell-off. However, the LCC culture remains obdurate in making it as difficult as possible for citizens to have a clear picture of this sale of the century.

What about the local media demanding clarity on the council’s recent purchase of PPE? No right-minded person would object to such a purchase but they have every right to know how the purchase was effected. Assiduous research has revealed that two of the three contracts awarded for this purpose are questionable. One firm was a fashion wholesaler; the other was a redundant electronics firm using an accommodation address. They were contracted to supply LCC with masks and gowns. On the figures available, it seems that the masks cost £1.29 per item for a product that normally sold for 19p each. Thus, one contracted supplier was paid £256,000 for items costing £46,000 at source in China (remember Liverpool’s close relationship with its twin city, Shanghai). Why was LCC so incredibly slack?

Of course, LCC has always avoided transparency as if it was itself a virus. It is not – it is one of the best antidotes to corruption and inefficiency. Nevertheless, the council remains steadfast in maintaining its secretive ways. It refuses to publish the salaries paid to the board members of wholly owned businesses like the ACC and Liverpool Foundation Homes. The latter, for example, was launched with a grant of £900,000 and a loan of £1.7million, all from the city’s coffers. Why then do we not know what we are paying the cosy little groups who sit on their respective boards?

Perhaps some searching questions from the “Echo” might open up the ongoing scandal of the links between the mayor, the council and various developers? A passing reference to the fact that the Merseyside fraud squad is looking at LCC’s property deals is not enough. Why not try to pin down the absentee landlord that is our invisible (but highly paid) Police and Crime Commissioner on these matters? Whilst the Echo’s finest are at it, can they not look in depth at the extremely dubious financing of council land occupied by King Construction, Cemex and the fabled Tarmacademy? Indeed, those same on-the-spot reporters might examine the curious case of the hugely expensive Fire Marshals (once known to we older observers as cocky watchmen!) employed by Tory billionaire tax exile, Lord Ashcroft, to monitor the Fox Street fire trap.

The list goes on; there is much for our brave local fourth estate to question. They may choose to consider the sale of the Wishing Well apartments in Bootle; the link between our home grown coronavirus spike, and the Atletico Madrid-Liverpool match; and many others. There are so many serious questions which ought to put to those in power, but beginning with one to itself. Why has the “Echo” failed so abysmally in exposing the corrupt culture which has overwhelmed so much of local “regeneration”?

Tougher Times Ahead

A hasty missive from Mayor Anderson to Labour Party members in Liverpool ensured that he was associated with the latest round of Labour group disciplinary action. It repeated the news that two members of his cabinet – Barry Kushner and Lynnie Hinnegan – were suspended due to their breach of the coronavirus guidelines concerning social distancing. In both instances, the councillors stood accused of having a party at home. Given the times that we are in, few will take issue with the chief whip’s decision on this. After the Dominic Cummings fiasco, nothing else would suffice, even on a local level. All the more surprising, then, that the mayor has yet to see fit to say anything from his Old Swan redoubt about the ballooning concern regarding so-called developers in the city.

To recap, just before Christmas, Elliot Lawless was arrested along with the city’s director of regeneration, Nick Kavanagh. Since then, several of his projects have collapsed as his companies have gone bust, leaving him struggling to stay afloat. His “success” had been remarkable, given his age and apparent lack of real business experience. In themselves, his difficulties came as no surprise to keen observers of the exploitation of the city in the name of development. However, more was to come.

Another favoured pal of the mayor, Lawrence Kenwright (he even co- hosted one of the mayor’s political fundraisers) has watched helplessly as one after another of his companies has failed – as have his attempts to flog off his properties to raise cash. Kenwright had a remarkable resurrection from bankrupt in 2010 (the year Anderson came to power) to self-styled success story although sensible business figures saw that his business model was unsustainable. Promised returns to investors were grossly exaggerated and now the chickens have come home to roost. I think of his approach as akin to a Ponzi scheme. His most recent news appearance was related to a Belfast property of his planned for conversion to a hotel, but which police say has been torched in an arson attack.

Now we come to the Fox Street development. Like the Paramount project in the city centre, it was shown to be a firetrap. The developers went bust owing £10 million but having let the properties to unsuspecting tenants. Apparently, the council undertook to monitor the development until the necessary repairs could be effected. According to residents, the monitoring consisted of two men in high visibility jackets keeping a weather eye on the property like a modern pair of “cocky watchmen”. The council is showing the cost of this exercise as £340,000! This was for a period of eight months! Figure out the hourly rate for that nice little earner!

You may recall that LCC has already established an investigative committee under the chairmanship of Cllr Corbett (another cabinet member) to look at the Fox Street scam. Unfortunately, it operated in total secrecy with no published committee minutes, no published concluding report and no answers to questions from council tax payers. Is this surprising when the whole culture of the council is dedicated to avoiding any kind of legitimate scrutiny? Sadly, the answer is no.

I could go on (some think that I go on too much already!!) and I have done so for years; but it would add little or nothing to a prevailing view that there is something rotten at the heart of Liverpool City Council. The mayor remains silent – he has nothing to say about these matters which is remarkable if only because of the huge amount of money owing to the council by these dodgy developers. Remember, too, that this should not just be a worry for the good burghers of Liverpool. The city is the principal driver for the whole city-region. Thus, when things go awry in the city, there is a ripple effect which is felt in one way or another in each of the neighbouring boroughs. The sorry state of affairs in Liverpool should, therefore, be a matter of concern for each of the five neighbouring boroughs as well as for the people of the city itself.

As I said earlier, these are difficult times. They will get worse as the full effects of the extended lockdown and any renewed surge in coronavirus cases kick in. In addition, we have still to begin to feel the full ramifications of Brexit. I can see little immediate relief from austerity. The Public Works Loan Board appears to feel the same, given its recent hike in interest rates (thank goodness EFC turned down the mayor’s offer of a loan from the Board in the name of the city). Higher education looks likely to take a big hit with fewer students including those from overseas. A drop in numbers will mean fewer student flats occupied and reduced employment at the universities and a reduced night time economy. Given the city’s questionable standing with investors, we can only speculate as to the source of necessary future investment. Yet still, the mayor has only platitudes to offer the city and its neighbours.

I believe that we all realise that there are indeed tougher times ahead, perhaps of a magnitude outside of the experience of virtually all living people. The dilemmas facing policy makers and those charged with applying policy will be many and complex, far more challenging than those of recent years. It cannot be done without taking people with you in meeting those looming demands. Will that not entail a level of leadership and a degree of transparency and accountability too often missing in the local political arena?

Magic Numbers

I never cease to be amazed at how local authorities operate. They defy explanation other than to those employed as officers, it seems. Even then, it appears as if it is a select few senior officers who actually control all council matters, regardless of elected councillors who delude themselves that they are in charge. It is no different in Whitehall where ministers are often run ragged by real-life Sir Humphreys – I can personally attest to that experience!

It is one of the reasons that councillors should tread very warily when dealing with those who are technically servants of the council rather than its masters. One might believe oneself to be “in control” of a given brief without having a clue as to what is really going on. This thought occurred to me when I read of the declaration that Liverpool Council (LCC) – or rather, its mayor – would not allow schools to re-open in line with national government’s direction. At this point, I readily admit to a somewhat dated understanding of a local authority’s current remit with reference to schools. What I do know is that schools have been given a degree of autonomy which they never had in the past. Is that not what led to Mayor Anderson’s dismissal from his sinecure at a Sefton academy? Be careful, councillors, of uttering threats which you might not be able to deliver.

It is far more straightforward for councillors to maintain a diligent watching brief on what the higher echelons of their council are doing in their name. For example, in the name of the “Invest to Earn” policy, LCC have put over £1million into a small company, Briggs Automotive Company (BAC). It has a business address in Cheshire and two small buildings in Speke. By their own admission, BAC would not be in business if it was not for the financial support of LCC. So far, so good. Yet on inspection and in line with Contract Standing Orders, there are questions which ought to be asked relating to how the council operates in such cases. Who actually agreed the two payments made to BAC? Who signed off those payments? Why did those payments not go before Cabinet for approval as they ought to have done?

Getting Freedom of Information responses which are complete and meaningful from LCC is like getting the proverbial blood from a stone. Perhaps there are perfectly reasonable answers to these and many other questions which vague minutes of council meetings fail to answer. One must wonder why relatively new chief executive at LCC – Tony Reeves – has issued a contract (to Fraud Advisory Services Ltd), worth £320,000 for a forensic accountant. Is there some connection?

Back to BAC. It seems a regular company working in a niche market (high performance cars), although its accounts are not fully audited. It does have an exotic range of share holders based in Malta, Singapore and the British Virgin Islands. Others cannot be traced; LCC as a shareholder obviously can, yet it owes BAC £153,878! Payments to BAC by LCC do not show in the council’s payment list although the Local Government Transparency Code (2015) says that all payments over £500 should be so listed. I wondered whether this and similar cases explained the fact that LCC’s district auditors – Grant Thornton – failed to sign off the council’s accounts for the last four years. Who knows what to make of the magic numbers at the heart of any organisation, especially one as seemingly chaotic as LCC?

Incidentally, on April 16th last, Mayor Anderson was quoting as ordering £1.7 million worth of PPE, including 2million facemasks – “this was done through a proper process and we expect the order to arrive within a week”. Very laudable. On April 29th last, the European Journal listed three individual contracts for facemasks made by LCC:

HBS Healthcare of Preston              – £1.9million

Plaza Collection of Manchester       – £850,000

Fonebox Assets Ltd of Liverpool     – £257,000

This is a grand total slightly in excess of £3million, just for facemasks. There was also another contract with Kingsmoor Packaging of Somerset for visors. HBS is a regular company in this medical supplies field, but Plaza lists itself as a dealer in the wholesale of ladies clothing (will we get designer facemasks?) and Fonebox, a dormant telecoms company whose last accounts showed £1 cash in the bank and assets worth £34,769.

Once again, one wonders how and why these contracts were agreed, and by whom. No one would quibble with any local authority seeking to plug the gaps in dealing with the current pandemic, given the government’s catalogue of failures. Remember, however, that this PPE was to go, among others, to privately-owned, profit-making care homes. Whether these items were to be gifted or charged, we still need clarity as to the details of these transactions.

Straight Answers

Day by day, we are assailed by “fake news” emanating from Downing Street or the White House. Unfortunately, we have our own local imitators practising what we generally refer to as “spin”. There is a distinction between the two, and not just based on scale. The local variation is very much identified by what is not said, rather than the gush of claims constantly pushed out concerning local government “achievements”. These are usually dressed up – especially on behalf of Liverpool City Council – by the Echo in particular. Yet all people want is some semblance of transparency from their representatives so that, in due course, we might have some accountability based on facts rather than fiction.

Perhaps LCC, for example, could clear up the mystery of the Tarmacademy. Council tax payers are getting nowhere in the search for the truth about Fox Street, Chinatown, and numerous other disastrous projects. They are, however, increasingly aware of the very real problems with alleged developers, and the blatant scams associated with them. It would seem as if the Tarmacademy issue is (unlike some of the others which are subject to police investigation) virtually wholly within LCC’s competence to investigate. After all, the bulk of this scandal lies within LCC’s remit. Firstly, a little background.

Amid much fanfare, land was bought by LCC in Brunswick Place, for the purpose of a joint venture involving King Construction and Cemex. The rent payable was to be £500,000 pa, but the first year was to be rent free. The promise was great. The site was to be home to Liverpool Highways Training Ltd. This “Tarmacademy” was to provide training and jobs for 1000 young people from north Liverpool over five years. The courses offered were all to be related to the highway construction and repair business.

The link man between LCC and King Construction was Mr Mark Doyle, a senior figure with the latter. King Construction (trading as Knowsley Contractors) is actually based in Goodlass Road, Speke. According to Companies House, so is the Liverpool Highways Training Academy. Unfortunately, the latter is a dormant company. This leaves outstanding questions concerning the £3.5 million loan made to the Academy by the council. No one seems to be either able or willing to account for this money.

Mr Doyle is listed as a director at Kings. The assistant director for Highways and Planning at LCC – Mr Andy Barr – is also connected to Kings through his stepson who has a senior position in the company. Surely with such good relations between the two parties it would be simple to establish where the £3.5 million has gone. Instead of straight answers, we are bombarded with often spurious claims about the council’s – or rather, the mayor’s – successes in handling the city’s budget.

Voters are not stupid. Brassed off, perhaps, but very tuned in to some of the more silly claims which they are force fed. For example, we are told the LCC has built “over 12,000 homes in the last ten years” (the mayor’s latest missive). This is palpably untrue as the mayor seems to agree in the same piece when he says “We can once again include council housing in our growing provision”. The 12,000 figure – if it is accurate –  is a total figure for housing associations and the private sector, which itself would consist to a great degree of student accommodation, buy to let, and yuppy apartments. We should not think of it in relation to those areas where there is most need – the low earners and the homeless.

This repeated exaggeration or spin does nothing for the council’s or the mayor’s credibility. Another small example. Not long ago, you will recall that the council had acquired £1.7 million pounds worth of missing PPE, making up for the government’s failure to adequately supply our local needs in combating the coronavirus. Where has that fresh supply gone? To whom, and on what basis? I hope we can get an answer to that one.

Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention my favourite bugbear of developers. You may have noticed that Peel Land and Property had a big fanfare last week over a planned new skyscraper on Prince’s Dock. Goodness knows what such a building would mean for our World Heritage Status. Note it is planned and publicised as Peel go cap in hand to the delayed MIPIM annual knees up. As we know, they are on their uppers as a conglomerate, in dire financial straits. Is there a connection between Peel’s latest promise and the pressing need for investors? Time will tell as their bankers come knocking in June.

Hard Times

These are truly hard times for the bulk of the people within the city-region and beyond. Whether as individuals living in the shadow of coronavirus, or as those front-line workers, battling against the disease in order to keep us as safe as they are able to do so, it is a desperate period in time. Many have already suffered and, indeed, died in the pandemic. We are all charged with doing our bit to defeat this most vicious and pernicious of viruses.

Many are those who are suffering financially, from the huge numbers of employees who have been furloughed, to those slipping through the cracks of emergency government support. There are also the multitude of small businesses (which employ the majority of the workforce) which are struggling for survival. We must hope for an early breakthrough in dealing with the disease; it is vital that it comes sooner rather than later – for it will certainly come eventually. It is simply a matter of time. Whether or not that will be at an even greater human cost, we can only speculate.

This is a battle being fought on many fronts, and local authorities and agencies have their part to play in it. However, I must say that I believe that it is inappropriate that press releases on everything from lectures on hairdressers to pointless petitions and letters to government ministers, should be the order of the day. They have as little relevance as promises of VE-day style street parties. I also wonder how threats to close massive, unfenced parks like Sefton and Newsham Parks in Liverpool will be effective against people determined to use them despite advice to the contrary. Is it the best current use of Merseyside Police to patrol the parks, or to clear the beaches of Sefton and Wirral? Regular policing demands continue, even in these strange times, as do the demands of governing. Reflect on my repeated reports on the “developers” bedevilling this city-region.

In recent weeks, we have seen one of Mayor Anderson’s favourite entrepreneurs, Peel, in deep trouble. They are desperately trying to flog off the Port of Liverpool and John Lennon Airport as their creditors close in on them. Of course, whatever the outcome, it will have no effect on Peel owner John Whittaker’s Isle of Man trust fund. It may, however, affect many workers at the airport and the docks. Then there is Lawrence Kenwright, a close confederate of the mayor. His flagship Shankly Hotel has hit the rocks and gone into receivership as he simultaneously tries to off-load his James Street property. Perhaps the most visible sign of the mismanagement of development in Liverpool was the sight of builders Vermont dismantling their huge cranes on the crashed Infinity project of Elliot Lawless.

It is instructive, to say the least, to look at the meteoric rise of Mr Lawless, who has attained multi-millionaire status in less than a decade. Back in 2012, he became a co-director with a well-known North Merseyside “developer”, Terry Riley, in a company titled “EMR Columbus Quay, Ltd”. After that, he appeared to branch out on his own with a variety of companies although they were not all quite as they seemed to be. Although these companies listed him as a director, it was – and remains – unclear as to who actually controlled some of them. Nevertheless, as his business interests expanded, his name became more prominent in the city, until it morphed into a hallmark for development in Liverpool, Manchester, and beyond. Then came the crash.

Last December, Elliot Lawless was arrested, together with Liverpool City Council’s Director of Regeneration, Nick Kavanagh, in a corruption investigation. Three of his major developments went into administration (in a perverse way, these events may have stimulated Mayor Anderson to write in one of his publicity releases “I have been concerned by the sight of many building sites where construction continues…”!!). Yet, presumably, all has not yet been lost to Mr Lawless. He had had the foresight to set up the Equity Group “at the request of a business associate” (believed to be Mr Riley), as the Echo (unusually) reported.

This is interesting in itself, for it is based in the Seychelles, a tax haven. The Equity Group holds huge charges against the Lawless projects which are now in administration, and these add up to many millions of pounds. Furthermore, a spokesman for the Equity Group was quoted on April 6th last, as saying that Mr Lawless was “the sole director and shareholder” in the Equity Group. This is at odds with Companies House which lists one director for the Equity Group, a company named 1QD Ltd. This company was itself incorporated on the same day as the Equity Group (March 5th,2019) and with the same registered office (a business accommodation address in Liverpool). It had two developers as its directors – John Morley and Terry Riley.

It might appear that Mr Lawless had been taking steps for some time to protect his interests, both here in the United Kingdom, and in the Seychelles. He had had a long association with Mr Riley, so it is unsurprising that after the arrest of Mr Lawless last December, Mr Riley should take up board positions on two of Mr Lawless’ companies, Elliot Group Paramount Ltd and Sefton Street Developments. How these fit in to the chess game that developers play is yet to be divined. One can, however, be sure that there will be large sums of money at stake.

Meanwhile, Liverpool City Council still fails to publish anything meaningful about the Fox Street fiasco, another development rip-off. One would think that this ongoing problem with development and corruption would be a priority for the council. There are obviously honest businesses working in the field but there is ample evidence of a shed load of scam artists dragging the city down. By extension, this situation has a ripple effect across the whole city-region. I would expect the mayor to have something to say about this instead of his more fatuous comments made like a poor man’s Donald Trump.

Lastly, two comments arise from my last blog. I am happy to note that Sefton, Knowsley and Halton have maintained their green bin collections. Thus, I wonder why they manage it whilst Liverpool, Wirral, and St Helens cannot. Secondly, the Combined Authority wrote to me to say “There is no cost to the collaboration with the Heseltine Institute”. I am reminded of the old saw that there is no such thing as a free lunch.

Just Give Us The Truth

The whole world remains focussed on the coronavirus pandemic; and with good cause. Every aspect of what has been seen as normal human activity in a modern society is feeling its dire effects. Like many with too much time on their hands, I have watched too much television on the subject, especially the televised news conferences of the governments of the United States and of the United Kingdom. The performances of Trump would have been pure comedy if the consequences of the pandemic had not been so grim for so many people. As for our home grown version, it is little wonder that, with every passing day, more questions about the government’s mishandling of the pandemic have been raised than answers supplied.

Perhaps Her Majesty’s Government will now be held to account with a functioning Opposition front bench now in position. We shall see. However, one can only wonder whether what passes for local government democracy in our own city-region will also resurrect those two staples of good governance – transparency and accountability. In the current crisis situation, I really cannot see how it is possible. What was known as glasnost at the fall of the old Soviet Union, transparency has never been an outstanding feature of local government hereabouts, given that councillors are currently told to cancel surgeries and meetings, and any council meetings which are held (if at all), are held on line, accountability has been kicked into touch. Even the ultimate test of accountability – elections – have been postponed for a year.

Presumably, a handful of senior councillors and council officers are making all decisions within local civic bodies. For example, the LCR Combined Authority has decided to commission the Liverpool University Heseltine Institute to investigate the economic outcomes of the present crisis. Rather presumptuous, you might think, since we have no idea when or how this pandemic will be over. One wonders who was behind this no doubt hefty expenditure and who was consulted about it. It has all the hallmarks of a previous £100,000 commission of Tory Philip Blond to report the blindingly obvious on the HS2 rail by-pass of Liverpool.

The waste disposal authority decided to close all tips, just as Liverpool council (and elsewhere, for all I know) cancelled its green bin collection service. Is it any surprise that there has been a surge in fly tipping? The Police and Crime Commissioner has done her bit to add to a growing confusion about governance in the city-region. She appointed former Wirral council leader Phil Davies to be her deputy (her fourth in a row) apparently without clearing it with him or anyone else.

No one would dispute the need under current circumstances for councils and other representative bodies to follow the regime of lock down and social distancing just like everyone else. However, great care is required in both what is done and how it is done. Our national government has taken to hiding behind distractions like their soul mate in the White House, in order to cover their tardiness in tackling the virus. Locally, we have no need for comments on hairdressers, pointless petitions or promises of VE-day style street parties. Far better to have clear explanations of what is being done and why.

Even in these perilous times, there remain important local issues to be addressed. Despite the restrictions placed on much economic activity, for example, building was exempted. It is ironic, therefore, to see the difficulties now apparent to all, faced by the long-standing friends of Mayor Anderson. Elliot Lawless, having been arrested, can only watch his “developments” grind to a halt. Lawrence Kenwright wrings his hands as his iconic Shankly Hotel goes into administration. Peel tries to bleed as much cash from the Irish ferries as they can as they struggle to stay afloat.

These developers have had a favoured position in the economic life of the city-region, most particularly Liverpool. It would be of profound interest to so many in the region to hear an honest appraisal of them – and their contributions to the local economy – by local political leaders. I do not want to see any further encomiums of praise from the Echo, the Heseltine Institute or anyone else. We have had enough of that in the past. Just give us the truth.

A Local Virus

These are unique times, given the coronavirus pandemic and its incredibly far-reaching effects. From the Prime Minister and the royal family, down to the most humble of households, this insidious infection has found its way into families across the nation. It has struck all parts of our national life. I cannot speak of all of the boroughs within the city-region, but with regard to Liverpool City Council, there have been a number of signs of the effects of the virus on the Liverpool borough. Council tips are closed and the green bin service has been suspended. The council’s telephone service centre appears to be totally overloaded. Such is the price that one branch of local government in our region is paying – a further diminution of services with all which that entails.

This is as nothing when compared to the effects being suffered by individuals and families hit directly by this deadly disease. Nor does it help those who have lost their income because of the lock down decreed in order to prevent the spread of the virus; or those unable to access a regular food supply due to panic buying. I was, therefore, all the more surprised to receive one of Mayor Anderson’s public relations sheets, put out in the name of the Labour Party – an “update” as he describes it.

In this email, with exquisite timing, the mayor says: “Like others, I have been concerned by the sight of many building sites where construction continues, despite Government advice”. I mention timing as today, in a rare excursion into investigative journalism, the “Echo” has published an account of developer (and friend of Mayor Anderson) Elliot Lawless, and his activities with his Seychelles-registered company, the Equity Group.

The mayor seeing all these busy building sites around the city suggests that he has been out and about during the lockdown. Yet by his own admission in his email, he is one of those who should be staying at home. Is this a case of “do as I say, not as I do “; or is he so indispensable, that he must go down to the Cunard Building to do I know not what? More priceless is the “Echo” report on Lawless. As his property and development empire has sunk into the mire, many building workers have lost their jobs, and sub-contractors have been crippled. Intriguingly, the “Echo” hints at a conspiracy when it says: “Mr Lawless launched the Equity Group at the request of a business associate around six years ago”. It does not take a genius to work out through Companies House records who this “business associate” might be. I would put my money on a seasoned property developer well-known to police and local government, a man who likes to keep a low profile.

I would have thought that, notwithstanding concerns about coronavirus  and men busily at work, we might anyway have heard from the mayor about men out of work and out of pocket due to the incredible cost and number of property  scams in the city. Unlike the virus, this is something which he can do something about on a large scale. For example, in recent days, one of the charlatans involved in the New Chinatown fiasco – Mr David Choules – has been banned as a director for seven years. When will the mayor have something to say on these matters? Although coronavirus has pulled all attention its way, government carries on, including local government (as well as criminal activity!). At some point, the Liverpool mayor/council must make a full declaration about the huge reputational damage continuously being inflicted on the city and its wider hinterland.

Incidentally, I have been asked whether councillors across the city-region are in total shutdown. If not, who is monitoring council activities? Who makes the decisions? If they meet, what form do meetings take? Are they video-conferencing, or meeting two metres apart from each other? Are they still holding surgeries? Are they being penalised financially under the current coronavirus regime? Many electors would be keen to know.