If you were a visitor from any other country, it would soon be evident that local government and other public agencies hereabouts are at crisis point. Whether one looks to the increasingly desperate complaints about policing (or lack of it !), and the response that poor policing is down to cuts; or one looks at the monumental disgrace of the unfinished Royal Hospital with the collapse of Carillion, the ultimate culprit is central government and its deadly commitment to austerity.
In local government, this crisis is most evident in the car boot sale of council assets, primarily land. For example, a Freedom of Information request to Halton Council has shown the widespread sale of council-owned land, some of it at giveaway prices. Little wonder, then, that there is resistance to the suggestion that Halton Council should repay penalised motorists caught in the penalty trap that is the Mersey Gateway bridge.
All across the city-region, the same tensions are surfacing, causing political controversy in each borough. We have witnessed Knowsley’s u-turn over flogging off its parks. St Helens felt the shock of an independent’s electoral success in Rainhill, marked by a council dispute with local residents concerning greenfield site development. Right now, Formby fumes over new housing plans before Sefton Council, whilst there is ongoing anger over the route for the relief of congestion due to docks-bound traffic.
This last issue is especially noteworthy as once again, it seems that the demands of docks owners Peel outweigh those of residents. This is not lost on those who see how Peel are also a major beneficiary of the planned football stadium at Bramley Moore. Indeed, across in the Wirral, as the council flag up scores of potential building sites, to the consternation of many residents, Peel again rears its ugly head. Its failure to match up its ten-year old bluster, promising development and meaningful investment, has now led Wirral South MP Alison McGovern, to belatedly call Peel to account. Put up or move on from its massive, if unproductive, land bank, she demands.
In Liverpool, I am told that the council – or rather the mayor – is looking again at off-loading the magnificent Croxteth Hall. There are also well-founded fears of fresh incursions across the city into its parks portfolio. One can only wonder where this enthusiasm for asset-stripping might end. The public alarm over this sale of the family silver is real and politically dangerous, although the role of government in pressurising councils is national and there for all to see. It is recognised as a product of the Tory obsession with smaller government; but is it, many ask, the role of local councils to fall in line so meekly with this right-wing ideology?
There is certainly huge frustration within local Labour parties; and Labour currently controls all councils within the Liverpool city-region. So, Momentum gets oxygen from what it sees as the complicity of the local Labour establishment in pursuing national government’s agenda. That being the case, it bodes ill for many Labour councillors looking for reselection as Labour candidates early next year.
It also sets a marker for Labour MPs who show scant awareness of the depth of anger felt within constituencies at what many members deem to be ineffective representation in parliament. The parliamentary predicament of the present administration is far worse than that faced by the doomed Major government. However, Theresa May et al remain convinced that the fear of Labour’s current leadership will keep the Tory party together, and leave Labour in the wilderness. Yet many local Labour Party members look on in bewilderment as they perceive their elected representatives to be sitting on the fence in Trappist silence, divorced from both local sentiment and local priorities.
As politicians of all persuasions prepare for their summer break, they may wish to reflect on their original decision to stand for public office. Reticence on the issues important to their electorates – whether on local or national matters – simply leaves a huge opening for others to fill. Whether such political opportunists are from the hard left or the hard right, they will not be slow to fill the burgeoning political vacuum.