Fact or Fiction?

Like any sane person, I have been flabbergasted and outraged by Donald Trump’s chutzpah. He has adopted the style of George Orwell’s “Big Brother” where fantasy is reality, and lies become truth. Amazingly, there are so many prepared to buy into this line, whether out of self-interest or stupidity. Trump’s core support has remained unwavering to date, although as their tax dollars are redirected to the rich, and their medical support is slashed, that support might move away. Perhaps it is simply the case that many people literally cannot distinguish between fact and fiction.

Impetus behind this phenomenon is provided by fake news – stories which are pushed as gospel when they are merely the figments of someone’s over fertile imagination. Nothing new in that, you might say. “New Labour“ was famous for its spin. Yet this is more than spin (i.e. putting a positive face on facts). It is the fabrication of a story, underscored by the ability of those concerned to believe their own publicity. Certainly, Trump’s ego enables him to view himself as embodying truth, preposterous as that may seem to the objective observer.

I was mindful of this when I read of Mayor Anderson’s absurd assertion that he was closing his twitter account because of the “abuse” he receives from respondents. The old adage about pots and kettles comes to mind. He is, in my experience, the most coarse and abusive politician I have ever come across – and that is saying something. Perhaps he too sees himself as subject to a different order to the rest of us.

Fake news increasingly dominates the Merseyside political scene, enhanced by its unquestioning repetition by what passes for local media. Take the MIPIM jolly in the south of France. This glorified auction of local authority assets to the parasites who gather there in the hope of easy profits, has been the source in the past week of a stream of fake news which needs to be taken with a large bucket of salt. Fed to a gullible Merseyside public deprived of the information with which to form an objective view, these stories need to be put into perspective.

Some of this disinformation is put about by developers in the hope of obtaining investment, and some from local authorities, desperate to plug gaps in local authority finances. I understand these needs, but hope that public representatives sup with a long spoon when negotiating with business sharks whose only motive is private profit. One can easily convince oneself of a mutuality of interest with private and predatory capital. The honeyed words of the latter can be tempting, but remember, for example, how the public purse continues to be ripped off under the guise of the Public Finance Initiative. There is nothing for nothing.

Thus, we have a proposal for a huge regeneration of central Birkenhead, capitalising on its incredible cross-river views. However, despite the blurb, it remains another item on a wish list. Wirral residents will be mindful of Peel’s promises for Wirral Waters. To date, the only real investment attraction, after the fiasco partnership with Stella Shiu and the failed International Trade Centre, was a college facility courtesy of Wirral Council. Peel’s promises of a mini-Manhattan are yet to materialise. Current spin for Woodside suggests a reality which does not yet actually exist.

Likewise, there continue to be similar projects floated on the eastern littoral of the Mersey. On the central docks site, a promised residential development has been transmuted into a possible football stadium, bordered by a cultural neighbourhood. Do not misunderstand me – we all want to see meaningful development and investment across Merseyside. What we do not want is for our representatives to buy into the get-rich-quick schemes of the likes of Peel and Signature Living. Developers are in the business of squeezing finance from wherever and whomever they can. Local authorities exist to service their communities, not the private interests of buccaneering businessmen.

That is why it is so important for the wider public not to be seduced by the false news and public relations gimmicks put to them either by unscrupulous politicians or the private sector, aided and abetted by their media mouthpieces. At some point, the snake oil salesmen bedevilling our sub-region must be held to account.

In the Political Playpen

The MIPIM bash in Cannes has become something of a regular jolly for many local authority leaders, including Liverpool’s Mayor Anderson. It occurs next week when developers importune their guests to flog off council assets at giveaway prices. It is amazing how persuasive free drinks and canapés can be.

This expensive car-boot sale in the south of France came to mind when I saw a “business” report in the “Echo” confirming the imminent purchase of a large chunk of King’s Dock by Liverpool Council.  “Purchase” did you ask? Yes – cash-strapped Liverpool Council is bidding £4.1 million. Apparently, the council hopes to get a grant from our parsimonious national government. Failing that, they will borrow the cash. Once again, having cried poverty, the council has the appearance of a drunken sailor on a spending spree. Why?

The giveaway is in the report going to cabinet to be rubber-stamped. It says – “In advance of the acquisition of the land, the council has been proactively engaged in detailed discussions with a potential developer consortium”. In short, it is a done deal. Joe has agreed it, and his supine cabinet will do what he tells them. One or more of the mayor’s closest allies – the ubiquitous “developers” –are lined up for another big payday, courtesy of the council’s largesse.

The site has long been earmarked as a “visitor destination”. Remember the abortive plan to build a stadium there? How about Joe’s much-vaunted daydream of an Olympic ice rink? Goodness knows what the mayor’s developer confederates have in mind. We can only be sure of one thing – they will make stacks of cash whilst council tax payers lose out.

It is questionable whether or not we need more visitor attractions. Perhaps we should widely market council meetings as a spectator event, although a bigger venue than the Town Hall would be needed. This week’s meeting suggests that they might plug an entertainment gap between cage fighting and Jeremy Kyle. Events this week reveal the low point which the council – and, especially, the mayor – has reached in the conduct of meetings. These people are supposed to represent us and the city, but they are nothing short of a disgrace. As a Labour Party member, I was appalled at the ignorant and abusive excuse for a debate. They certainly do not speak for, or act like, the people of Liverpool.

 All representatives should keep in mind one of politics’ truest maxims: oppositions do not win elections; governing parties lose them! Generally, the electorate is reasonably forgiving of those in power until a tipping point is reached. Beyond this, loyalty and trust is lost, and the party concerned gets its just desserts – political oblivion. There is one thing of which we can be sure. No matter how solid one’s political position is at a given point, you can be sure that, as night follows day, it will be overturned at some point.

Incidentally, how craven is the “Echo”? During his Town Hall rant, Mayor Anderson whinged away about what he considered to be his pet journal’s poor coverage of his difficulties. Within two days, the “Echo” has a long piece on “How the Tory cuts have hit city”. No mention of the other boroughs facing similar cuts, by the way, and how they are coping. Perhaps now, its editor will order some investigative reporting on the very real and widely held concerns about the role of “developers” in the city.

Presentational Skills

All credit to St Helens council. I picked up on two examples of their responsiveness to voters’ concerns. One related to a proposal to establish a half-way house for ex-convicts in a residential area. Local residents felt that it was an inappropriate location for the scheme. The message from the council was that they had taken the objections on board and rejected the proposal. The second issue was the vexed subject of building on green belt. Whilst adjacent Knowsley are building a “village” on green belt, Rainhill and Eccleston residents mounted large and vigorous protests against similar development within St Helens. Again, the council responded positively to the protesters, pursuing brown field sites for the proposed housing.

Of course, such plans will always be contentious, and bedevilled by nimbyism. Every council has to strike a fine balance in such circumstances. What it should NOT do, regardless of its decision, is to either ignore or insult those voters who disagree with them. Very often, the key is the way in which the decision is handled, rather than the decision itself. Most voters are, after all, reasonable people.

Meanwhile, the principal of the Liverpool institute for the Performing Arts, Mark Featherstone Whitty, has put out a timely reminder on student flats. There is a huge bubble in the student flat market, he opines. He rightly said that there is no reason to believe that the student market will continue to expand year-on-year. Indeed, given current government policies, there are good reasons to expect a contraction in student numbers.

The whole property market has become skewed in Liverpool. On the one hand, we are told that there is a real shortage of commercial property for rent. Yet the mayor is bringing in middle-men Signature Living to rent such office space in the allegedly “iconic” Cunard Building. If there is such demand, for what does the council need Signature Living? Why give them profits which could go to the city? Why continue to foster student flats when the future for them is so uncertain? The only people keen on this are developers – and the mayor. Developers use other people’s money, and sell their product on, walking away with fat profits. The city has nothing to gain – certainly not much needed social housing.

Concern about the city’s development programme is turning into a major problem, particularly for the mayor. For residents, the current situation is confusing at best. They start from the premise that developers will tell you whatever it takes to cream off their profits. They also recognise that the other five boroughs do not seem to have similar conflicts of interest in the way in which business is done, although all face tough decisions on the back of austerity. They hear Liverpool’s mayor constantly bemoaning the city’s lack of cash. They then hear of the city’s plan to buy the Adelphi Hotel. If the city is skint, they ask, from where comes the money for this?

They recall that when LCC bought and improved Everton’s training facility at Finch Farm, they were told it was an investment. Likewise, the farcical purchase of the Cunard Building (the cost of which has still not been disclosed). Nor was the purchase of the International Garden Festival site explained. £5 million to Langtree for a toxic site? Where does all the money come from?

Now, if LCC was a private sector investment trust, and all of the spin about the profitability of these deals was true, some might appreciate these dealings. However, the council is not a business enterprise – it is only in the business of public service, and that is what people expect of it. As those same people witness deterioration in public service levels, they are perplexed by the council’s schizophrenic approach to public finances.

This quandary for Liverpool electors does not seem to be a problem within the other boroughs of the city-region. Yes – each has its own dispute on priorities: Runcorn or Widnes? Southport or Bootle? Kirkby or Huyton? The reconciliation of competing priorities is the food and drink of local authorities. But transparency on financial priorities is a sine qua non for winning public trust. This is just not the case in the biggest authority of the city-region.

Voters’ Trust

The received wisdom is that when elected representatives lose meaningful contact with the electorate, they pay the price at the ballot box. This was obviously the case in the recent Copeland and Stoke by-elections. The former was won by the Tories by default, whilst the latter underlined the mountain which Labour has to climb, and the post-Brexit irrelevance of UKIP and its hapless leader.

There are plausible arguments that the Labour Party faces a serious threat in its northern English heartlands, to match the meltdown which occurred in Scotland. Many would ascribe the blame for this solely to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, but I believe that would be mistaken. He certainly carries some responsibility, but the downward spiral of the Labour Party long pre-dates his time as leader. For me, it was encapsulated in the indiscreet tag of “bigot” which Gordon Brown used about a Labour voter when she had the temerity to ask him about immigration. It showed how out of touch the party was with common sentiment amongst Labour supporters.

On a local level, labelling electors as “cranks“- as Mayor Anderson did – has had a similar effect. It betrays a contempt for the voter, and they neither forgive nor forget such dismissive insults. When such contempt is tied to policies which are widely contested in the community, it is asking for trouble. Thus, when I read reports of Wirral council chopping transport provision for young disabled people, I could not believe it. I know there are difficult choices to be made, but who in their right political mind, would conjure up such an option – one so at variance with Labour values, and bound to antagonise so many?

Likewise the assault in Liverpool on green space. The council has already had a bruising electoral come-uppance  to its policy in the Woolton area. Learning nothing from that episode, it seems determined to alienate ever more electors by allowing ever more building on hitherto sacrosanct green space and parkland. So much so that few believe any council pronouncements on parks. On top of that, they are doing deals with favoured developers, not just for building, but even to flog off space in their allegedly iconic headquarters in Cunard Building.

The problem of growing numbers of disaffected voters is not restricted to Liverpool. In St. Helens, the rush to build has been met by a spontaneous growth of campaign groups in opposition. Of course, there will always be some against all such proposals, and some of it is “nimbyism” pure and simple. However, it would be a mistake to underestimate such phenomena. There are many traditional Labour voters ready to switch their allegiance – or stay at home – if they feel their views are being ignored. The perception can quickly grow that a distant, unresponsive council is doing things to the community rather than with and for it. This is what gave KRAG some impetus in Kirkby – the belief that the council was ignoring the town.

In a matter of weeks, there will be – on paper – the greatest shake-up of local government since the abolition of the metropolitan counties. Whoever wins – and I hope it will be Steve Rotheram – will face high expectations, and the enormous challenge of rekindling in the community a belief and trust in transparent, accountable, and responsive local government.  High hopes may be unrealistic. The Combined Authority is rushing to spend all of the money technically available to the new metromayor even before s/he is elected!  At the same time, Mayor Anderson’s familiar – lead officer Ged Fitzgerald – is rewriting the Combined Authority constitution. An incoming metromayor could well enter office to find the cupboard bare, and a constitution designed to tie him/her up in restrictive knots!

Yet unless it can be demonstrated that local government – at metro and borough level – is in tune with their respective electorates, there will be a day of reckoning .Those who listen and explain, who consult and accommodate, will have nothing to fear. Those who are arrogantly dismissive of the voter, and looking to their own interests, rather than those of the electorate, will ultimately be held to account.

Budget Tasters

The “softening-up” process has begun, as councils’ spin doctors do their level best to “sell” the more palatable proposals of their particular council as budget time approaches. Equally, there is a “soft sell” of more contentious measures thought to probably irk voters, whether or not the ultimate culprit is government-inspired austerity. For example, I would not be surprised if the move of Liverpool Football Club from Melwood to Kirkby is flagged as a great triumph for Knowsley Council, in an attempt to silence the arguments of KRAG  supporters who decry the steady erosion of Kirkby town centre.

We have also had floated, the sale of the Parklands School white elephant in Speke. In itself, a sensible move if it lifts the huge burden of this hugely expensive PFI on Liverpool council tax payers. What remains to be seen is whether or not it is sold, and at what loss to council tax payers. Residents of Speke will also have a keen interest in who the buyer is, and the proposed future use of this modern but empty building.

I am sure that right across the city-region, councils will put the most positive spin which they can on a rather gloomy picture. That is natural enough. Last year, one widely publicised boast was a successful city-region wide bid for funding from the European Social Fund, worth £42 million. This was for the years 2016 to 2018.The largest sum – £13 million – went to Liverpool, although funding went across all authorities, much of it to the voluntary sector.

For example, the Merseyside Youth Association received £3.6 million to help 2237 youngsters with travel to work costs. Liverpool Hope University was given £751,000 to “assist” 170 graduates (no – I do not know how!). The Alt Valley Community Trust (AVCT ) was given a whopping £4.3 million to “create” 803 jobs through its Access to Work scheme. Just how an organisation that was nearly half-a-million pounds in deficit at the time, managed to do that, is beyond me!

Moreover, this body – AVCT– has again come into focus in the aftermath of Liverpool Council’s insistence on giving Redrow priceless green space at Calderstones Park. Apparently, that same council is feared to be about to shed its responsibility for the jewel in the crown of Liverpool’s green space – the magnificent Croxteth Estate. The park, the farm and the hall are to be transferred to the AVCT, as originally mooted last year. it would be leased at a peppercorn rent, and AVCT given £200,000 to run it.

Having already transferred Walton Sports Centre (together with its lucrative match-day parking income) and the Dovecot Multi-Activity Centre to AVCT on similar terms, it is shocking that LCC should shirk its responsibilities in this way. It is crazy to expect the necessary level of guardianship from a community trust that is evidently already struggling to pay its way, despite grants.

It is reminiscent of the ludicrous situation on the International Garden Festival site when the mayor inexplicably bailed out developers Langtree. On that occasion, the site was similarly given to a trust which had neither the money or other resources to revive it. It is little wonder that so many Liverpool voters fear for the city’s green spaces, given the council’s determination to either sell them to builders or give them to trusts.

Tough Times

As the end of the financial year approaches, departments in local and national government hurry to spend their year’s allocation of funding. An obvious one is the rush to complete minor roadworks, backloaded year after year. Politicians ponder on their priorities for the forthcoming year as they struggle to balance the books, as austerity bites ever more into their ability to manoeuvre budgets positively.

Sometimes, desperation kicks in, with madcap promises on income generation, and ill-judged proposals on cutting deficits. So, scratch cards will do little to boost local government finances; nor will encouraging a snooper mentality to catch dog fouling culprits and fly-tippers. Indeed, in areas where the unfortunate tag of “grass” is common, snooping invites a potential violent response from guilty parties. Besides, payment to informants via council tax rebates, will do nothing to boost revenues.

Admittedly, these are desperate times in local government; but the cutbacks are so huge, it is difficult to see how lost funding can be replaced. Take the recent Redrow/Harthill controversy. Fifty houses at £500,000 each, might yield £200,000 – £250,000 in annual council tax. What will that do for those in dire need of social housing? Nothing, – and little for the council’s coffers. Politically, the damage is immense – as is calling legitimate local protestors to the loss of parkland  “cranks”.  A more nuanced approach is needed.

For the electorate, their perception of local government is coloured by the mixed messages often communicated. Liverpool is a good example. The mayor says that an inflated new bureaucracy he fostered cost “only £7 million” (my emphasis), but that the Harthill houses are needed to boost income. Well, you cannot have it both ways. Citizens read these inflated council figures used in one context, and wonder just what is the case. Is there money to throw about, or are we really in desperate straits?

It is not surprising that voters have become more and more cynical. Brexiteers and Trump blame the media, and they certainly have some responsibility. However, overwhelmingly, it is the failure of politicians at all levels to engage in a transparent way with voters which is the major stimulus to the current discontent. The public distrusts those in office to look out for the common good. Rightly or wrongly, they believe that the political classes are in it for themselves rather than to be of service to the wider community.

After a lifetime in politics, I have never known the general public to have had a more jaundiced view of politics and politicians, including the parties. I recently spoke with an “Old” Labour loyalist who asked me about the outcome of the Labour inquiry into anti-semitism in Labour. I pointed out to him that in all my time, I had never witnessed or even heard of an instance of anti-semitism in Labour. Why then, he countered, given that local party members had been cleared, had no official announcement been made? I admitted that I could not answer him.

Seeing my obvious discomfort, he raised the recent actions of the dreadful Netanyahu in permitting the theft of Palestinian land. Why, he asked, had Labour said or done nothing about it? Why was there no outrage locally or nationally by the Party? It would have done so at one time, he asserted. Again, I was not able to give him an answer. He shook his head as he left me, with a hurtful parting shot: “The Labour Party? Now no different to the Tories – all in it for themselves”.

 God only knows what the wider public thinks!