Green Space

Each of the six boroughs within the Liverpool City-Region has recently experienced an explosive reaction to “development” proposals. There can be no doubt that the mix of local politics, developers and green belt is a very volatile combination indeed. Throw in allegations of dodgy dealings, and that reaction can be almost nuclear. Take, for example, the vexed issue of the encroachment of building onto the green space of Calderstones Park in Liverpool.

Granted, this is not strictly speaking a green belt issue like those of Wirral, Sefton, and St Helens. It is, however, fuelled by the same battle between private profit and public amenity. It appears that two original objectors to the plans of Redrow Homes and Liverpool Council, to stretch development into the heart of the park, switched to supporting the proposals. What, other objectors asked, stimulated this change of heart? Was it the award of grants to them (£300,000 to the Reader Group; and at least £120,000 to the Beechley stables) by the Steve Morgan Foundation (Mr Morgan being the head honcho of Redrow Homes)? Was it, as it now transpires – at least, in part – pressure brought to bear by the council (who, of course, claim otherwise)?

Either way, it leaves an extremely sour taste in the mouths of many voters. It is little wonder that opposition intensifies as suspicion grows. It is a fact that this popular resistance to the diminution of green space is not just limited to our city-region. Recent events in the adjacent authority of West Lancashire demonstrate just how widespread is the concern of voters about “development” proposals, and critically, what voters see as the absence of objective and meaningful consultation.

Naturally, when it suits an organisation – be it in the public or the private sector – it will claim support based on consultation. How trustworthy such claims are, will always be a matter of debate. For example, there has been coverage lately of proposals for tower blocks of flats in the Baltic Triangle. Quite apart from the whole debate on the type of housing which ought to be built (low rise houses for those in need?), we should examine the claimed support for such proposals. In this instance, it is said to come from the Baltic Triangle C.I.C (community interest company), as if it speaks for all interested parties. I note that a senior director of this CIC is a former Council employee, Ms Erika Rushton. She is also on the board of another CIC which I have written about, the Beautiful Ideas Company. This is still embroiled in controversy concerning the accounts of car parks on council land close to the Anfield and Goodison Park football grounds.

The self-styled developers of the plans in the Baltic Triangle are called Legacie. This “company” was first registered on March 17th, 2015. Its development arm was set up on August 13th, 2018.What bothers me is that there appears to be no obstacle to any company, created for any purpose, being permitted to operate without any apparent due diligence about their probity, experience or finances – or that of its principals – being done. I well recall the mayor posing for “Echo” pictures with the principals of a company days after its registration (June 16th, 2015) at Companies House. He was contracting with them to establish restaurants in his vanity project of the Cunard Building. That company, named “Astutus”, only lasted until November 22nd, 2016. Needless to say, there were no obvious positive results from the mayor’s laissez-faire approach to off-the-shelf companies.

A local authority must be rigorous in its dealing with the private sector, especially with developers. It is delusional to think that there is some kind of mutuality of interests – just consider Peel’s recent attack on Wirral Council. Developers are in things for the money – plain and simple; and there appears to be a lot of it swilling around, notwithstanding austerity. Is it any wonder, therefore, that crooks are attracted to development? Lots of money, no due diligence, and weak regulation make it an ideal marketplace for the dishonest and the disreputable.

Advertisements

Frank Field

I do not normally comment in this blog on matters from outside of the city-region. However, the recent actions and statements of Frank Field, MP, may well have an impact both within our city-region, and on the national scene, with unpredictable consequences for all of us.

Firstly, I must set out my credentials for this. Like Frank, I have more than fifty years membership of the Labour Party, and, like him, have served as a minister in a Labour government. Nevertheless, I can claim no intimate knowledge of the Birkenhead Labour Party, nor am I able to comment on any of the specific charges he has filed in recent days against members of that party. Another point on which we would diverge is Jeremy Corbyn. Frank’s was a critical nomination enabling Jeremy to become leader of the Labour Party. I have openly stated that had I still been in parliament, I would not have nominated Jeremy, amiable although he is. Critically, he is the party’s leader, and I accept the membership’s decision on that.

Before entering parliament, I was the Labour Party’s regional organiser in the north west of England. I recall two instances of Frank’s rather unique approach to party membership and all which that entails. These attitudes of thirty years ago are echoed in his recent performance. In the 1987 general election, he encouraged voters to opt for his friend – Tory MP for Wallasey, Linda Chalker – rather than support the Labour candidate, Lol Duffy. No action was taken against him at that time despite his disloyalty.

The second occasion was the selection of the Labour parliamentary candidate for Birkenhead in 1989. The process ended up with a shortlist of three – Frank; Paul Davies, a union official; and Cathy Wilson, a Militant. Difficulties began at the hustings, held in Birkenhead Town Hall. Frank could not produce a union card as the then rules demanded. I suspected that this was a tactic by Frank to delay the reselection as he did not have the numbers to win. To the rescue came Paul Davies, offering to give me a letter to the effect that Frank was indeed a member of one of his branches – a docks branch, of all things. Problem solved.

When we came to the count, Paul Davies was the clear choice of the membership, with the Militant a very distant third. A very agitated Frank was impatient to go outside to the waiting press to tell them what he would and would not do. I had to implore Frank to at least thank his own supporters for their vain attempts to win him reselection. He did so in a brusque fashion, but still he exited, uttering threats of a by-election to his press audience. His current posture shows little change in Frank’s sense of entitlement to what is effectively a parliamentary sinecure. To me, this is at odds with what he has often condemned as the fecklessness of some of those who view a life on benefits as their entitlement.

Thus, I was not too surprised by Frank’s recent fit of pique. He has form. Back in 1989, he threatened a by-election if his local party’s choice was not overturned. After I left my job as regional organiser, he got his way. This was much to my dismay, and, indeed, to many local party members who had previously supported Frank, but were outraged by what they saw as his political blackmail.

As for Frank’s use of the anti-semitism row to back his vague claims of thuggery in his local party, I am cynical – I think of his own comments on immigration. I can only say what I have said before – that I have never witnessed, in my fifty five years in the Labour Party, any anti-semitism. My biggest concern is that the legitimate fears of those who see a surge in anti-semitism, are being manipulated by some for political reasons, both within and without the Labour Party. Conflating criticism of the Israeli government with anti-semitism has the objective of neutralising public policy towards that government across the political spectrum.

Summer’s End

As we all come to terms with the fading days of summer, minds turn to the challenges facing councillors across the city-region. Many of the difficulties to be faced this autumn, and on into the winter, are entirely down to the failure of councils to act responsibly, despite having a mandate to do so. Important although it is, finance – and government imposed austerity – is not the only issue to be resolved.

Take, for example, the ongoing saga of Liverpool’s failed development projects, and the scams associated with them. No one can say that the mayor and council were not aware of what was going on. Naturally, although it now claims otherwise, the mealy-mouthed Echo failed in its duty to inform the wider public of the truth, until forced to do so by the pressure brought to bear by private citizens and defrauded investors. Even now, they give an extremely partial version of events. There are none so blind as those who will not see. Nevertheless, notwithstanding the belated posturing of the Echo, the councillors themselves were most certainly informed of the burgeoning scandal.

Now there has been an announcement of a council panel to look at the root of the scams – what is known as fractional selling of properties not yet built. As usual, the council (or the mayor) has been slow to react; but what is proposed is wholly unsatisfactory. Firstly, the panel which has been assembled to examine the issue is comprised solely of councillors. With great respect to the members of that panel, one must wonder at their qualifications for this particular job, given the councillors’ collective failure to address the problem even as the council’s coffers and investors were being ripped off. There will be little faith in their objectivity in the matter.

Secondly, it is not clear what the terms of reference for this panel’s work are. Fractional selling is only part of the problem. What about the council’s failure to exercise due diligence when dealing with the cowboys involved in the failed developments? Are panel councillors to beat their breasts for the collective failure of the council and the mayor on so many levels?  I doubt it. It is why only an independent panel, chaired by a reputable and knowledgeable person, is able to do the job required, if there is to be a credible outcome.

Meanwhile, I note that Liverpool’s mayor is to meet the EFC owner this coming week for discussions. With every passing day, it appears that there are increasing doubts about the viability of the mayor’s irresponsible proposal to borrow money to finance a new EFC stadium. Perhaps the rumours are true that Mr Moshiri’s sidekick – Russian oligarch Mr Alisher Usmanov  – will buy into EFC now that he has sold his interest in Arsenal FC. For his part, the mayor should be more focussed on Operation Sheridan in Lancashire. We know about the involvement of three former Liverpool Council senior executives in Lancashire’s One Direct organisation. It now transpires that there are four additional unnamed suspects whose files have been passed to the Crown Prosecution Service for consideration for prosecution – and the police have yet to decide on the scandal of our equivalent organisation- Liverpool Direct – in their work.

It is not as if it is only Liverpool’s council facing difficulties in the weeks and months ahead. I note that Knowsley Council’s returning officer, amid claims of bullying at polling stations, felt it necessary to publicly appeal for calm in the recent Halewood South by-election. The ruling Labour group was nervously trying to ensure the quick return to the council of former aspiring council leader, Gary See. Their worry was that their dominant position in the council would be weakened with the loss of a seat in an area which has always, until this year, been a shoo-in for Labour candidates.

Meanwhile, I am being told that the Labour leadership on Wirral council – the Chuckle Brothers of the Labour group, Phil and George Davies – could be on their way out. They stand accused, amongst other things, of being out of touch with both their members and the electorate. Problems range from Peel’s failure to come good on their exaggerated promises for the Twelve Quays site, to catastrophic misjudgement on green spaces proposals. There is real anger across the borough and someone will carry the can. Perhaps they will learn that with power comes responsibility.

One thing is certain. The city-region is never short of controversy; nor can we be surprised at whatever turns up next. I will be looking at the Labour Party annual conference to see who gives to delegates the traditional welcoming address. It is normally the role of the ceremonial Lord Mayor, but I wonder if the executive mayor’s ego leads him to try to muscle in on his party’s showpiece.

Time for Change

Some years ago, I was visited in my office by a well-known local “personality” and solicitor, the late Kevin Alphonsus Dooley. One of his striking features was the amount of gold jewellery which he sported – rings and bracelets – an obvious signal of his material success. He had also represented many local notables, including former chief constable, Ken Oxford, and former Liverpool FC manager, Roy Evans. His issue was a simple one. Although he had never been convicted, or even charged, with any criminal offence, he had been disbarred as a lawyer by the solicitors’ regulatory authority.

In the course of the interview, he told me that he had been accused of money laundering on behalf of local criminals, but no action of any sort had been taken against him within the criminal justice system. To evidence his innocence of any wrongdoing, he showed me what he claimed were receipts for the transfer of large sums of money to the celebrated Hollywood producer/director, Francis Ford Coppola, a man made mega-rich via classic films like “The Godfather” and “Apocalypse Now”. Of course, I had no way of judging whether or not these documents were authentic. Nor could I properly evaluate Mr. Dooley’s claim that he was transferring money as investments in the movie mogul’s film making. What was most striking to me was the power of the solicitors’ regulatory body to stop Mr. Dooley – or any other solicitor – in his tracks.

I was reminded of this when I discovered recently that Wirral solicitor David Roberts had met the same fate at the hands of the solicitors’ regulatory body, being disbarred and his practice closed down. I had noted that Mr. Roberts (very often alongside another Wirral solicitor, Mr. David Sewell) had been a director of a whole range of development companies. More pertinently, Mr. Roberts’ name cropped up time and again in relation to that string of off -the-shelf companies involved in the dodgy developments blighting Liverpool and other northern cities.

Now, I do not know the reasons why Mr. Roberts was struck off, or whether or not his disbarring was connected in any way to the malpractice of the con artists behind the dodgy developments which affect inner Liverpool. However, it underlines the powers available to various kinds of regulators to hold people to account outside of the criminal justice system if those regulators are so disposed, and believe their intervention to be appropriate. It also raises questions about the apparent indifference of the council, the police, and the district auditor to alleged malfeasance  within areas for which they have responsibility. Until they all wake up and get their respective acts together, the crooks will continue to prosper.

There are a lot of honest people who are increasingly disillusioned with the quality of representation which they get at both a local and a national level. When, for example, they witness the coarse and degrading behaviour of councillors, as was recently the case in Liverpool, they are no longer as shocked as they might have once been. Citizens have become inured to lower standards in public life. They are tired of the lack of transparency and accountability; and, therefore, in many cases, have decided to try to do something about it.

The city-region being generally a Labour fiefdom (at least, at present), changes therein are mightily significant. Long-serving Labour councillors are now fearful for their hitherto comfortable seats and comfy council positions. The impetus behind Momentum is a great part of this. I am well aware that Momentum is more or less a new name for an old entity – the Broad Left in Labour Party circles. I am also aware that some tired old sectarian voices from the past are with them; but the majority of Momentum members appear to simply want a change from the out-dated clique-based politics of yesteryear. They want truly accountable and transparent representation.

As we see more young men and women selected for council seats, so we will see the demand for change increase. I hope they are successful because without fresh blood, I cannot see from where the motivation will arise which is necessary to effect positive democratic change across the city-region. Who knows, it might be kick-started locally with a debate on the Liverpool mayoralty, or the debate on the financing of Everton’s proposed stadium.

Overdue Diligence

The sleepy little town of Dixon, Illinois, has a population of only 15,800. Prior to 2012, its only claim to fame was as the birthplace of movie actor and president, Ronald Reagan. Then its relative obscurity was dispelled as the case of Rita Crundwell exploded into the public consciousness with a crime that still beggars belief.

Rita was a hometown girl with no particular educational or professional qualifications to mark her out. She was a clerk with the local council – long-serving and willing to do all the running about which was required within the council. Everybody knew her, and everybody trusted her. What she did, however, was epic in scale. She embezzled the council to the tune of an amazing $53 million over a period of twenty years, a theft equal to $3000 for every man, woman, and child in that small community. She was eventually caught out, and was imprisoned for nineteen and a half years; but how did she get away with it for so long?  The questions were many, and the answers less than adequate. Rita had lived an openly grand lifestyle over that twenty years, buying, among other things, a whole string of top class horses; a huge state of the art stud yard property; and a $2,500,000 motor home – all on a clerk’s salary.

Two of the explanations given after her trial were significant. Firstly, she was able to navigate a complex set of financial arrangements which neither the mayor of Dixon nor his councillors understood. They just went along with whatever Rita told them. Secondly, the auditors failed to do the job expected of them. They argued that their job was simply to certify whether or not the council’s annual financial statement accurately reflected the council’s actual financial position, not to question whether or not there had been any financial malpractice. American courts found against them to the tune of $35 million in a civil case brought by Dixon council.

I thought about this when I read another pro-Joe article in the ‘Liverpool Echo’ in which the district auditor was quoted in support of the mayor over the stadium proposal. I was also mindful of some other relevant facts. For example, back in 1985, the then district auditor exercised his extensive powers to ban from office and surcharge, 49 Liverpool city councillors over a notional loss of to the city of £106,000. More recently, it has been a constant refrain of myself and others that there has been no due diligence worthy of the phrase when it came to many of the property deals struck by the city in the last few years.

The article in question includes the district auditor’s assertion the “the Council has a track record of delivering complex “invest to save” projects”; although they do not say whether these have been cost effective or not. Are we talking here about “investment” in EFC’s Finch Farm training facility; the loss-making (and Peel-owned) Liverpool Airport; and the failed cruise liner terminal in the Cunard Building? Frankly, I have little faith in the district auditor’s ability or willingness to objectively analyse anything which the city council does.

Incidentally, the district auditors – Grant Thornton – are one of the international “big five” bean counters, along with Deloitte, Pwc, Ernst Young and KPMG. Each of these also offer services as consultants – you know, the kind of people who borrow your watch to tell you the time, and then charge you for the privilege. These people have regularly been found to be remiss on a massive scale with major banks and corporations. Locally, of twelve local government bodies – that is, councils, police and residuary bodies – three use KPMG as their auditors, one uses Ernst Young, and eight use Grant Thornton. Easy money, it seems to me.

The recent appearance in the press of the district auditor related to the Liverpool mayor’s plan to borrow at least £280 million to the advantage of two private companies, EFC and Peel, each owned by a tax exile billionaire. Personally, I would rather trust the judgement of the council tax payers of Liverpool rather than Grant Thornton on the wisdom of this proposal. We have had more than enough of the interests of big business being put ahead of the ordinary people of the city.

What is in a Name?

You may think that I go on too much about developers. There are certainly more important issues, like homelessness, poverty, unemployment and crime. However, underpinning most challenges is the question of resources, especially in these times of forced austerity. The perception has taken hold that the key to alleviating those problems, lies in what today is generally described as “development” , raising extra resources. This illustrates perfectly how national government policy has shaped local thinking, whereby it is taken as read that “development”- and the developers who bring us this alleged panacea – is always a good thing.

Now, I would not for a moment suggest that economic development of the city-region is other than a good thing; what matters is its form and its beneficiaries. It must be carefully regulated, and actioned within a framework of local objectives for the benefit of local people. Too often, claimed development can act against the wider interests of communities, whilst garnering profits for developers who have no real interest in our area other than a monetary one.

That is why it is incumbent on local authorities to use all of the powers available to them to ensure that self-styled “developers” cannot abuse the interests and good name of our communities with obviously scam projects. Thus, it is laudable that Wirral politicians are taking an active (if belated) interest in the transparent failure of the Peel group to deliver on its development promises in relation to the Wirral Waters site, as council officers blindly propose decimating the borough’s green belt.

More mysterious, incidentally, is the neglect of due diligence procedures by some councils, in their gaderene rush to take on any and every proposal put to them. This is a recurring phenomenon in Liverpool. That council insists – despite all of the evidence to the contrary – that it exercised due diligence in its dealings with companies which have been shown as fronts for con artists. Well, I would definitely contest the council’s view on its professional competence when it comes to due diligence.

Driving into the city centre from any direction, one is soon close to one of the failed big money projects, along with block after block of student flats (one looks in vain for the social housing desperately needed by local families). The latest one is the so-called Fabric District between London Road and Islington. The named developer is the Yeung Property Group, the brainchild of Sze Ming Yeung. The mayor sings the praises of this organization in the fawning Echo, but on what basis, one can only wonder. Mr Yeung has thirteen companies to his name, mostly registered at a dockside address, and most of which have him listed as the sole director. The first of these was listed with Companies House just two years ago; nearly all of the rest were created within the last year.

I am not suggesting anything improper about Mr Yeung and his companies – how could I, when there is no information of any significance about them in the public domain? To my knowledge, there is no business record of any note about them, so why on earth should the mayor endorse them so effusively? What is the basis for this?

Of course, there are plenty of other self-described developers around, many of them keen to widely publicise their claimed success. Mr Elliot Lawless has become a millionaire at the tender age of 31 years of age whilst Mr Lawrence Kenwright has rocketed from bankruptcy to the role of local Donald Trump within half a dozen years or so. The question must be asked: how are these and others, together with their financial arrangements, assessed by LCC before the council engages in business with them?

Most local people welcome investment in their local area. However, they see investment as a means to an end, not an end in itself. That is, they look for the positive impact which that investment can, and should, have on their lives. Generally, that might mean jobs, housing or simply a better environment. Too often, citizens despair at failed and abandoned projects, concreted green space, and undeveloped land banks, providing big profits for a few, with little or no return for the many.

Land Banks

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.