Democratic Change

I have seen many misleading publications in politics (fake news??), but few locally to match an email sent out by the national Labour Party under the authority of its general secretary, Jenny Formby. It took the form of a letter from the mayor of Liverpool, Joe Anderson. In effect, it was a free introductory campaign leaflet on behalf of Mayor Anderson, in his quest to be reselected as Labour’s candidate for the next election of a city mayor.

The email was extraordinary for a number of reasons besides the obvious unease of the mayor as his unpopularity hits home. Firstly, given the rising tide of opposition to the whole notion of an elected mayor, it attempts to present a wholly questionable case for the retention of the post. Before looking at some of the sins of both commission and omission within Mayor Anderson’s plea, we should remember two things. This is the mayor who was determined to leave this “necessary” post to become metromayor. Instead, he failed, and publicly attacked the successful nominee, Steve Rotheram. This is also the mayor who set out to win the Labour nomination to stand as Member of Parliament for the Liverpool Walton seat. Again, he failed, and attacked the successful candidate, Dan Carden.

Does not Mayor Anderson ask himself why Labour Party members declined to give him their support on these entirely separate occasions? Perhaps he would counter that he was reselected in 2016; but much information about his tenure of office has come into the public domain since then. Besides, although he sees the decision on the form of governance in Liverpool to be principally about him, it is most certainly not. It is about the office which gives him such power and influence within the city (and beyond, if we are to believe him). It concerns the essence of local democracy, hallmarked by transparency and accountability, neither of which figure prominently with mayor Anderson. Let us not forget that, unlike other major cities, the people of Liverpool were denied any say in whether or not we had an elected mayor. It came out of a grubby backroom deal between then council leader Anderson, and then Tory Chancellor, George Osborne.

As one wades through the welter of statistics used in the email, it is sensible to remember the old saw about “Lies, damned lies, and statistics”. Liverpool has consistently failed to keep pace with sister cities which chose not to have a mayor. Neighbouring Manchester repeatedly leaves Liverpool behind by virtually every measure by which we might judge cities to be successful. No elected mayor, there, thank you very much. Meanwhile, we in Liverpool await the promised dividends from mayoral visits to China, Indonesia, and the United States.

There has been one regular overseas jaunt which has brought results. That is the mayor’s annual trip to the developers’ knees-up in the South of France – MIPIM. If there is one group which appears to have done well for themselves in Liverpool, it is without doubt, self-styled developers. Many of these have turned out to be scam artists, who have viewed Liverpool as the city with the easiest of pickings. They have brought nil value to the city, and the mayor has remained silent about their activities. There have been repeated attempts to build on green space against overwhelming opposition; and there is the ongoing dismissal of our prized World Heritage status as secondary to developers’ profits. Despite the mayor’s claims to the contrary, his “investment” decisions have been woeful, and his financial management deeply flawed. His housing claims sum up the distorted case he puts to justify his period of office, by means of two questions: how many social housing units have been built, and how many student flats are in his figures?

Ever since Mayor Anderson had the gall to bill the city for his private legal fees (over £106,000), there has been widespread concern about his fitness to hold public office. There has also been public concern about the arbitrary nature of the powers invested in an elected mayor, and how Mayor Anderson has chosen to use them. The fear of many voters is that the removal of Mayor Anderson is not enough – another, acting in the same cavalier way, may easily take his place. That is why it is most important to remove the post all together, and to have an open and honest council, headed by a truly accountable Leader, acting in the interests of the whole city.

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Civic Climate Challenges

Apparently, Mayor Anderson is to declare a “Climate Emergency” on the 17th of July. Now, let me state at the outset, I am supportive of all positive initiatives to address the very real dangers posed by global warming and the general neglect of our environment. I really cannot comprehend the mentality of those who are in stubborn denial when it comes to the degradation of the planet, and its effects on climate. However, what I do deplore are public relations exercises, unsupported by wide consent and a plan of action.

It will be of more than passing interest to see what is being proposed, and how the general public will be involved in the city’s attempts to do its bit at this critical time. I do recall a visit to the United States ten years ago when I was admittedly surprised at how proactive many individual states and cities were in their attempts to counter federal government inertia on the most pressing problem of our age. Therefore, recognising that this is an issue that knows no boundaries, my first question is whether Liverpool is acting in concert with sister cities throughout the country. My second question? Is there an international dimension to this initiative?

These are fundamental questions which get to the heart of things – is it a serious proposal, or perhaps well-meaning political spin ? As I say, this is an emergency which crosses all boundaries and borders. We (for there is ample evidence of radical climate change which has already occurred), our children and our grandchildren, need to be signed up to a global crusade to halt so many harmful practices which are damaging our everyday lives. Whether it is the explosion of carbon into the air or plastic into our seas, we all have a part to play.

Yet it is also about an appreciation of the natural world in and around our communities. It is part of the reason why increasing numbers of people are passionate about short-sighted attempts to monetise all of our green spaces. There is an old Arab saying which, roughly translated, says “Give me a penny, and I will spend half on bread and half on the narcissus; because bread is the food of the body and the narcissus is the food of the soul”. Perhaps that is a somewhat poetic way of expressing the need to strike a balance in all things in life.

Thus, it concerned me to discover that Liverpool’s World Heritage Status is imperilled once more. Social media is replete once again with the usual philistine comments about this. We have a city with some very special features of which we ought to be proud. It is also the case that the city – like all of its contemporary rivals – is keen to attract investment. Yet investment and maintenance of that which makes us special are not mutually exclusive. They do, however, require intelligent consideration in both the planning and the execution of development projects. That has not been the case in recent years.

For example, I have been a regular Cassandra about Peel and its grandiose claims. I make no apologies for that. Their sole objective is to make money, not to think of the wider welfare of Liverpool or the planet. Their principal business is the buying and selling of land. It does not seem to be successful at other ventures designed to increase its income. That is why they have sold off Teeside Airport as they also try to flog off Liverpool Airport. Even their stake in the Port of Liverpool is up for sale – that is, the working docks. Where dockland real estate can turn a profit, they will still jump into any old deal.

Ironically, Peel has withdrawn its proposal for a solar energy farm behind Liverpool Airport. I am confident that Halton Council would have rejected it anyway (the bulk of the proposed site was in Halton). However, this change of tack by Peel is simply about its own liquidity problems, not about the greater issues to do with climate change.

We need to take a far more comprehensive view across the whole city-region – and far beyond – if we are to have any impact on the climate change challenge. Climate issues are far, far bigger than any single company, city, or country. I look forward to a debate, therefore, open to full public participation, on July 17th.

Big Spenders

Whilst Wirral Council considers changing its form of governance, I cannot help but notice that there is a growing view against the adoption of the current model as used in Liverpool. We ought not to be surprised at this – it has hardly been an outstanding success. Within Liverpool City Council itself, there have also been voices raised against the city’s current arrangements. The Liberal Democrat concerns might be put down to politics, pure and simple; and those of Cllr O’Byrne explained in terms of her personal political ambitions. However, the views of Labour parties across the city cannot so easily be dismissed. They reflect real grass roots concern at the lack of transparency and accountability.

Unsurprisingly, the present Liverpool mayoral model has its defenders. Discredited political has-been and now regular Echo columnist, Derek Hatton, is one. The city, he opined, “didn’t need….tinkering around the edges of the governance system – that’s just like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic”. I do not think he meant that the city was doomed to disaster, but a more appropriate application of his metaphor would be in relation to the mayoral proposal for another £50 million development fund, effectively another of his “Invest to Earn” wheezes.  This money would be borrowed to invest in commercial property, not in Liverpool, but across the country!!!

This madcap scheme arises just as the chaos in the retail property sector is exposed by the troubles of Phillip Green and his Arcadia group of companies. This has led to some of his commercial landlords slashing rents while others are being more hard-nosed, a significant pointer to the state of health of the commercial property sector across the country. This downward spiral is having a direct effect on Liverpool – and Merseyside generally – through our old friends Peel. The Sunday Times reports this week on the difficulties facing John Whittaker, the billionaire owner of Peel, and erstwhile friend of Mayor Anderson. Bear in mind that the sole purpose of Peel companies and investments is to make money for Mr Whittaker.

One of Peel’s many companies is property giant Intu Properties, the share price of which has toppled by over two thirds from what it was. In a style which I am sure Anderson will have noted, Whittaker borrowed heavily against his stake in Intu; but this borrowing has forced Whittaker to twice restructure his debts. In turn, this has necessitated the sale by Peel of some of its interests. Alongside another investor under pressure – Deutsche Bank – Whittaker is trying to sell off part of his share in Peel Ports. At the same time, he is also set to reduce his stake in loss-making Liverpool Airport, from 80% to 30%. I wonder if Mayor Anderson learns anything from these signs of a downward trend, especially as he has committed the city in so much support of Peel.

Take a different perspective. It is a matter of record that the mayor has taken full advantage of the powers afforded to him, to play the part of entrepreneur. How many times has he parroted the phrase “Invest to Earn”? Yet his record in the eyes of many has been abysmal; not, perhaps, for favoured sections of business, but for the health of the city’s finances. Whether one considers the Cunard Building, Finch Farm, or the airport itself, there is repeated confirmation of his lack of business acumen.

A recent business survey by top international accountancy firm, Ernst Young (EY), has shown Liverpool’s recent record in attracting overseas investment in stark relief to that of Manchester, a city without an elected mayor. In 2018, Manchester attracted 37 Foreign Investment Projects, 53% of all those in the north-west region. Liverpool, on the other hand, managed to attract just 8. Even that was down from the 2017 figure of 9. Despite all of the fanfare at the time, I see no evidence that the much publicised mayoral trips to Shanghai (China), Birmingham (Alabama) and Surabaya (Indonesia) delivering anything other than publicity for the mayor. As Bob Ward, regional chief for EY commented on his report, these unbalanced figures are “a cause for some concern”. That is putting it mildly.

What can be concluded is that the mayoral model has not been the economic success which it has repeatedly been claimed to be. Too often, poor decision making has meant the use of the city’s money in the interests of a few major players rather than the people of the city. This situation might be reversed over time with a return to a more transparent and accountable governance model, one which involves the whole council rather than one individual aided by a handful of acolytes.

Spinning Top

I could not believe it. I had caught a quick glimpse in a newsagent of an Echo banner headline. “Bordering on CRIMINAL”, it screamed, alongside a picture of Joe Anderson in his Bob the Builder outfit. What can it be, I wondered? Is it suggesting that the mayor has been apprehended up to no good? Have I been hard on the Echo, and its failure to date to do some genuine investigative journalism instead of plagiarising the work of others? For once, I willingly forked out 85p to feast on a possible Echo exclusive.

Not for the first time, I was wrong and disappointed. It was effectively a rehash of the ongoing scandal that is the new Royal Hospital building. As I recall, it was the late Sam Semoff who had initiated the campaign against the outsourcing under PFI of this project to Carillion. I do not recall any comment from Joe Anderson at the time, certainly nothing to compare with this week’s declaration of the blindingly obvious that “it is bordering on the criminal and that is why we need a full public inquiry”.

Strangely, there are a whole series of new build scandals which directly involve Liverpool City Council – and that special breed so close to Joe’s heart, so-called developers. Yet I still await some kind of mayoral commitment to have a “full public inquiry” into that series of failed projects which have defrauded investors and contractors, and besmirched the good name of the city. The mayor also claimed that “Government took away the rights of local authorities to have building control inspections of buildings”. If that is so, how come that the city council building control inspected the new Alder Hey hospital as it was built?

Possibly his really outrageous comment was that “if you give the private sector free rein within the public sector, then profit comes before quality, and that is exactly what we have ended up with”. What a cheek! In my long experience, I have never known a city leader so willing to make any sort of accommodation with (or “give free rein to”) the private sector, even at the expense of the city’s reserves, its green spaces, and – potentially – its World Heritage status, for the sake of profit to the likes of Redrow and Peel.

Meanwhile, deep inside the pages of the Echo (which these days seems to consist primarily of adverts and quiz games), there was a business item giving a free bit of PR for the council’s Foundations company. You may recall that this company was set up to provide social housing for which there is a desperate need. Established with much fanfare on the 7th March, 2018, it appears to have accomplished nothing to date. However, it had raised enough concern at Companies House for the Registrar to formally threaten to strike the company off the companies register!  That was on May 28th just gone. Foundations were obviously shaken by this, and appear to have taken the necessary action to persuade the registrar to row back, although reading the Echo, you would not know about this.

Here we are, fifteen months after this quango’s incorporation, and it is finally proposing to actually do something. Fourteen homes are planned. Fourteen! Once again, it is a case of hyperbolic promises for tomorrow, but little action to date. A statement was put out (and slavishly promoted by the Echo) in the name of the company’s chief executive, Mark Kitts. His day job is deputy chief of regeneration in the council, taking over the Foundations role from his council boss, the vastly unpopular Nick Cavanagh. The real mystery is what has happened to the Foundations chairman, Joe’s chum, ex-councillor Frank Hont. Was he sold a pup with this non-job, or is there some other explanation for his invisibility?

Lastly, it is gratifying to see that the Echo jobsworths were dropped from contention in “Private Eye’s” Paul Foot Awards. This followed a barrage of objections from angry complainants, upset that the Echo could wangle their way onto the Awards long list in the first place. There is some justice in the world, after all.

Trolling

Well, oh, well.  As my old mother used to say, as she gave me a good old scolding: “The truth hurts”. And it did, as she was invariably spot on the money with her comments. Her admonition came to mind when tweets by Liverpool Echo staff were brought to my attention. Simply put, those tweets consisted of abuse and threats (I believe that this is called trolling) to those who had questioned press award nominations of Echo staff which claimed that they had pioneered the exposure of the development scams which plagued (and continue to plague) the city of Liverpool.

Such press awards tend to be a ritualised ego massage by the press of its own. Like many such awards in so many walks of life, they bear little relevance to reality. One “Scoop of the Year” listing proposes an award for Echo staff for their investigation “into Liverpool’s stalled developments” – a total joke. Those of us who have been monitoring these scandals for years know that it has been next to impossible to get the Echo and its “reporters” to publicise what has been going on. On the contrary, despite being repeatedly briefed, the local comic has continually promoted schemes run by the scam artists and gangsters who have given the city such a dirty name with so many investors.

The next round of “awards” will be the Echo Regional Business Awards. The judging panel will be chaired by Alistair Houghton of the Echo, one of those who has consistently failed to see the wood for the trees. A potential recipient of one of these worthless accolades is MSB solicitors. Yet MSB were involved in the sales of the failed Metalworks project, one of the dodgy “developments” currently under scrutiny. How does that qualify them for anything other than a loud raspberry ? Even to shortlist them is akin to asking Phillip Green for advice on good pension practice!

Meanwhile, we now discover that, eighteen months after a final decision on a new location for Merseyside Police was taken, the sum total of progress is zero. The Police and Crime Commissioner says that this has already added £500,000 to the cost (I would double that), and puts it down to the failure of Liverpool City Council to deliver the site to the Merseyside Police. In turn, Liverpool City Council puts the problem onto the shoulders of an awkward leaseholder who has refused to move to date. It would be interesting to know which leaseholder this is, and their reasons for delaying. Is it, I wonder, one of the protégés of new councillor, George Knibb, who have dominated the site hitherto?

Speaking of Merseyside Police, I notice that they have come in for some stick recently from Cllr Ann O’Byrne, a woman whose ambition is not matched by her talent. She is still in the frame over her involvement in the Chinatown debacle, and recently failed in her attempt to move the Liverpool Council Labour Group against the post of elected mayor. She also lost her position as deputy leader of the group for her pains. You may also recall how she was forced to resign her lucrative position as Deputy Police and Crime Commissioner when it transpired that she had done a runner after hitting another car with her own.

She has now accused the police of assault as she was forcibly removed from a demonstration against the presence in Bootle of neo-Fascist, Tommy Robinson.  I have no problem with legal demos against such malign influences; but presumably something triggered the police into carrying Cllr O’Byrne off the highway, a formidable feat in itself. The Chief Constable says that he has received messages of praise from various councillors for the exemplary conduct of his officers on the day. It will be interesting to see if Cllr O’Byrne formally complains about the alleged assault; and – if so – what success she has.

A Sorry State

Is it any wonder that crooks – particularly those of the white collar type – believe that they can act with impunity? Two very different stories have emerged this week which put into sharp perspective  the utter failure to do their duty of those whom we expect to act as public guardians. They cannot plead ignorance of the facts – if they do, it would certainly rank as culpable ignorance.

Firstly, excellent reporting by Matt O’Donoghue of Granada Television, dug out the details of the Fox Street Village debacle, one of many failed – or failing – Liverpool development projects. Matt pointed out that the building itself was a death trap with people still living in it (shades of the Paramount building). The developers had simply ignored the planning conditions set on the project. Moreover, the same developers had unilaterally decided not to provide the promised car parking. Instead, a fraction of the planned capacity was put on land designated as green space in the development. They had also failed to pay Liverpool Council £1 million in Section 106 fees – money due to a city council strapped for cash.  Another dismal tale of council ineptitude on Mayor Anderson’s watch.  All credit must go, however, to Granada who have exposed this scandal to a wider audience, just as they did with Chinatown.

In contrast, I refer you to the current edition of “Private Eye”. Now, I have long been a supporter of this publication’s efforts to shine a light on the hypocrisy and corruption which bedevil our society. Imagine, therefore, my shock upon reading the long list for the Paul Foot Award for 2019, an award dedicated to the recognition of those in the fourth estate who have pursued wrongdoing  wherever it has raised its pernicious head. Bang in the middle sits a nomination for the Liverpool Echo!! It reads that the Echo “persistently tackled the multiple failures of developments in Liverpool’s city centre”. To coin a phrase, I was gobsmacked. Was it an “Eye” mickey take, I wondered?  Tragically, not. This Echo is the local paper which has actively promoted the very developments which have ripped off so many, and which have sullied the good name of the city of Liverpool. These are the very people who have ignored the countless pleas of defrauded investors , refusing to open their eyes and their minds to the corruption all around them. It is an absolute travesty to even include the Echo in the long list. It merely serves to confirm my view that the fourth estate is, with one or two noble exceptions, at its all time lowest ebb.

Meanwhile, other councils in the city-region appear to be stumbling along since the local elections in the same old lack lustre way. A keen, young, trainee journalist , ran a story on the attempts of developers St. Modwen to off-load their commitments to Kirkby town centre back onto Knowsley Council. This led to him receiving a lengthy email from the council Leader, admonishing him for writing a fallacious article. Hey presto, within two weeks , the council announces that it is taking back the St Modwen leases, putting its own spin on the situation. Undoubtedly, the initial reaction of the Leader was with one eye on the local elections; but what does that say for transparency and trust?

Similarly, one of the intrepid band trying to preserve the green space at the Oglet foreshore on the Halton-Liverpool border, has been trying without success, to discover exactly what are Halton’s plans for the area. What is it that Halton Council – and Liverpool Council, together with the airport – is trying to hide about the green space involved, land much coveted by Peel? Again I ask: what price transparency? Small although it might appear in the wider scheme of things, it is a timely reminder of the salience of green space as a political issue across the whole city-region.

Generally, green space is being sacrificed for housing, whilst brownfield sites are often ignored. I understand the extra costs often associated with brownfield sites but there are other issues involved. For example, the emphasis is on houses for sale whilst social housing remains a secondary priority. As developers want the best return, they will focus on the most desirable areas in which to build. That means “desirable” in terms of profits. Other factors fall way behind in their scale of things. Do you think that the developers clustering around the potential of the Waterloo Dock, for example, give a care about Liverpool’s World Heritage status? Do those desperate to build on the green belt give a toss about the associated environmental degradation? They want profits, pure and simple. Meanwhile, the award-nominated Echo has little to say on these people, other than praise for the money grubbers. What a sorry state of affairs!

Job for Joe

Hot on the heels of the announcement that Liverpool City Council is to sell half of its 20% stake in Liverpool John Lennon Airport, I am reminded of what Mayor Anderson said three years ago when putting the council tax payers’ money into this Peel-owned venture. He said  “airport growth is around 20% year on year”. Oh, no, it is not, say the passenger figures compiled by the Civil Aviation Authority. Methinks that this is yet another example of the mayor’s flexibility with facts as he keeps his private sector friends sweet, only for his sublime business ignorance to be revealed down the line.

He is apparently now looking for a massive return on the £12 million of our money he put up to bail out Peel in their time of need. I would not bank on him being successful, given the mayor’s record to date. All of his failures came flooding back to my mind when it was announced that he was to set forth to Liverpool Labour Party members  why his post should be retained, despite widespread calls for it to be abolished. In order to persuade them of his case, he has emailed party members across the city, citing a number of justifications for keeping the role, if not himself.

The first claim is that the mayoralty has enabled leadership in times of austerity. Presumably, therefore, in his view, there has been no leadership in all of those local authorities across the land which do not have elected mayors. The mayoralty has, in turn, led to extra funding for the city in a government-inspired “city deal”. If that is the case, why have Manchester and other comparable cities, all without elected mayors, received similar “city deals” or better ones compared to Liverpool?

Secondly, the mayoralty has, he argues, given us “community cohesion”. Again, if that is the case, how does he account for the massive opposition – reflected in local election results – to the mayor’s ill-founded proposals for selling off parks and green space? I can recall nothing more divisive in the city in recent years than the attempts led by the mayor to ride roughshod over community wishes.

The third silly claim is that the mayoralty facilitates government responsiveness to the needs of the city. This a straightforward line from George Osborne, implying a government bribe. Utter rubbish. We all recall the mayor playing Cameron’s dupe for the failed “Big Society” con, only to be forced to angrily distance himself when there was nothing for the city behind the rhetoric. The mayor has constantly emphasised the huge cuts in government grant to the city, partly to excuse his own failings. It would be nice to know where this supposed increased government responsiveness to the mayor has led to positive outcomes for the city and its people.

I do partially accept the mayor’s fourth point about the business response to the mayoralty. Let me put it this way. Some business  – principally “developers” – have had an extended Christmas under Mayor Anderson. However, it is surely the case that the mayor has responded to business and its greed, more than business responding to the mayor. He has also extended massive generosity towards billionaire-owned Everton FC. It would be gratifying to see the same kind of support given to local SMEs. Consider, if you will, small contractors ripped off, alongside investors, in the numerous local development scams.

Most outrageous of all is the mayor’s spurious claim that the mayoralty has the support of the people of Liverpool. How on earth can that statement be justified? Unlike everywhere else, where local people were given a vote on the matter, electors in Liverpool were denied the opportunity to say whether or not they wanted an elected mayor. If Mayor Anderson believes it is the case that the public approve of a mayoralty, why did he connive with Osborne to sneak it in by the council’s back door? Why not opt now for a referendum to see what electors want? I suspect that the real answer is Mayor Anderson’s desperate wish to hang on to his well paid job, after failing in his attempts to find an alternative (he could not garner support to be either metromayor or Walton MP).

Other claims flow, including one that Liverpool is “close to being the best council in the country” (wait for the court cases to begin!). One further assertion which I can accept is that “the media prefers a mayoralty”. That is certainly the case with local comic, the Echo. It is enamoured of the current incumbent – I have long raised questions about its reporting and editorial partiality. It has also consistently failed to raise the many problems which have arisen under Mayor Anderson, acting like his in-house publicity magazine. Thus, on that basis alone, I have to agree that the mayor has that one right.