Cock Up Council

Some clowns masquerading as journalists, have described recent Liverpool city council manoeuvrings as political drama. I must say that to the long suffering local public, it has looked more like political farce, and typical of the council under the stewardship of Mayor Anderson. Other boroughs within the city-region have had their difficulties and their reshuffles – a regular occurrence at this time of the year after local government elections. So it is also the case with other cities around the land; but nowhere seems to get it as spectacularly and embarrassingly wrong as Liverpool.

The recent mess actually began with the repeated attempts of senior councillor, Frank Prendergast, to get answers as to where exactly hundreds of thousands of pounds raised through car parks associated with the two football clubs, went. So frustrated was he by the dogged refusal of those responsible – including cabinet members and the Beautiful Ideas Community Interest Company – to give him a clear account, that he resigned from the council’s Labour group in disgust. This issue brought the simmering tensions in the Cunard Building to a head.

Then came Cllr Barry Kushner’s abortive attempt to take the position of Labour group deputy leader from Cllr O’Byrne. Along with Cllr Hanson, Cllr Ros Gladden and Cllr Roy Gladden, he is part of the self-described “Team Joe”. Not the most illustrious collection of councillors, you might recall that Anderson did in Hanson for reported comments about the Gladdens. This speaks volumes about the current isolation of the mayor in Labour circles when this is the best support which he can rally. The mayor is not a politically astute individual, and the failure of his newest acolyte, Cllr Kushner, to supplant Cllr O’Byrne has only served to exacerbate the internal political problems he faces in the Labour group and the council.

The mayor had hoped for the defeat of Cllr O’Byrne so that he could ease her out as deputy mayor (and putative rival) on the back of that defeat, only for that particular Plan A to be thwarted when she narrowly hung on as deputy group leader. Not to be discouraged, our foolhardy mayor ploughed on with the dismissal from his cabinet of Cllr Small (another perceived rival), having blamed him for what the mayor saw as a Labour failure in the recent local elections. This sacking, in turn, saw Cllrs Munby and O’Byrne storming out of the cabinet, with stinging, if belated, criticism of Anderson’s ruling style. At least, that is what they said; or did they jump – like the proverbial rats – before they were pushed? Either way, it matters little. The fact of the matter is that the ruling Liverpool Labour group is split right down the middle, with few obvious signs of even the possibility of reconciliation.

Perhaps of greater long term significance than the opportunistic games of political has-beens was the withdrawal of Cllr Lana Orr from other than her ward duties. Bright, well-educated and young, she and those like her represent the best hope for Labour’s political future health. It is surely now obvious to a younger generation (and to Momentum) that what purports to be a progressive, Labour-run council is nothing of the sort. It is simply a throw-back to the worst days of boss politics, saddled with a “my gang versus your gang” mentality. Currently, it is also a council in which its members and its officers are faced with a multitude of allegations of malfeasance.

One way or another, it will all end in tears. So out of touch are the mayor and his cronies that they now appear to believe their own fake news. Yet the deep well of dissatisfaction with the way the city is being run is now close to overflowing. At the very least, when nominations are sought in 2019 for a Labour candidate for city mayor, we can expect a serious challenge to the current incumbent. That is, if the government, the national Labour Party or the police have not intervened by then.

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Political Post Mortems

Although we now know who won which seats across the Liverpool city-region, we are still to feel the aftershocks of the recent local elections. There have been some very obvious consequences for the Labour Party, dominant in Knowsley and St Helens. The latter had already seen a leadership change, with Cllr Barry Grunewald replaced as council leader by Cllr Derek Long. However, the bigger shock to Labour was the loss in the Rainhill ward to an independent. This was down principally to the strong local belief that the council was ignoring local opinion over proposals to build in the area on much valued green space.

Perhaps events in neighbouring Knowsley were more of a shock. The wards with the highest electoral turnout all returned non-Labour councillors – a Lib Dem, a Green and an independent. All three were linked by the highly contentious issue of building on green spaces. Gary See had been widely tipped to take over as leader from Cllr Andy Moorhead, whose leadership had been a disappointment to his group. The electoral defeat of Cllr See was temporarily a cause for celebration by Cllr Moorhead, who believed himself to be safe from challenge after his rival’s political demise. To his dismay, Cllr Graham Morgan came forward to make a successful challenge for the leadership.

As in St Helens, Labour failed to appreciate just how alarmed voters were by council plans to flog off green spaces to developers. Where voters saw the opportunity and the platform from which to challenge hitherto Labour dominance, they did so. Elsewhere in Knowsley, for example, derisory turn out figures of 20% in wards like Shevington and Cherryfield, illustrate just how the Apathy Party was the major winner in these elections.

Meanwhile, Labour control continued in Sefton, Wirral and Halton, but left no room for complacency. The political pendulum can –and regularly does – swing quite dramatically within those three boroughs with unpredictable outcomes. Failure to meet voters’ legitimate priorities coupled with a perception of politicians taking them for granted, means anything can eventuate at elections, given the recurrent failure to galvanise the voters to actually turn out in numbers to vote. Whilst the problem is not just a local phenomenon, there is a persistent instability at a local level which does nothing to enhance real local democracy.

Liverpool, according to Mayor Anderson, was a real disappointment for Labour. The loss of three seats, including one held by one of his cabinet members, and the failure of Labour to reach its targets in south Liverpool, were alarming to the mayor. What he fails to realise as he looks around for scapegoats, including his campaign co-ordinator, Cllr Nick Small, is that he himself is principally responsible for the electoral performance he seeks to bemoan. Ask just about anyone in Liverpool, and they will tell you in no uncertain terms that they wish to see the back of Joe Anderson. He is a political albatross.

There have been many disastrous decisions taken whilst he has been mayor, not least his own assault on the city’s green spaces. However, there are other very obvious failings like his inflated self-image as both a political and commercial entrepreneur. His most recent folly was to suggest that the council might sell Cunard Building (itself a disastrous buy) and move into the abandoned Pall Mall site to “ kickstart“ that particular picture of dereliction. He ought to steer clear of that and other problematic “developments“, and the scams centred on them, until the criminal justice system has finished their investigations.

Meanwhile, internal political turmoil will be at the heart of the city’s ruling Labour group until at least its annual general meeting. Mayor Anderson sees enemies all around him. His deputy, Cllr Anne O’Byrne, is being challenged by ambitious Cllr Barry Kushner for the post of deputy leader of the Labour group, but NOT as deputy mayor. Of course, the deputy mayor is appointed by the mayor whereas the deputy leader is elected by the Labour group. Is this goodbye to the much disliked Cllr O’Byrne? Is it simply a tactic to enable Anderson to dispose more easily of his difficult deputy? Moreover, who is leader of the Labour Group? The inference is that it is the mayor; yet he is not a councillor. The conundrum is: how can a non-councillor be the leader of a group of elected councillors? Welcome to the crazy world of Liverpool politics.

Election Time

As we near the local elections in May, there are already signs of fundamental change across the six local councils of the city-region. The Labour Party dominates all six local councils and will continue to do so, but various leaders are under pressure. Halton Labour group remains divided between Widnes and Runcorn interests, which should ensure that Rob Polhill steps down only when he sees fit. That, of course, is not the case in neighbouring St Helens, where an ailing Barry Grunwald has already stood aside for Derek Long, a man of great experience on both Knowsley and St Helens councils.

Speaking of Knowsley, I am told that Gary See is the favourite to lead the council in the next year; whilst over the river in Wirral, Phil Davies is under great internal pressure, not least because of his plans for a Haringey Council-style housing deal. Presumably, Bootle councillors will continue to dominate Sefton Council. Liverpool, of course, is the largest council in the city-region, but its unique governance – with an elected mayor – complicate its electoral chances.

Control of Liverpool council cannot be changed at this election but it does not mean that there is no concern for the ruling party. As recent parliamentary and local elections tend to show, those who bother to vote in the city, vote Labour. The oddity now is that virtually total control is in the hands of the elected mayor; the council merely nods in agreement. It remains to be seen whether a disaffected electorate turns out and votes against Labour candidates in protest, or whether they opt to stay at home in apathy. There is no doubt that there will be little positive enthusiasm on behalf of most of the current council.

Frankly, it is dispiriting that the Apathy Party seems to be in the ascendancy at the local elections. Councils – and other elected representatives – need to be opposed and held to account. Otherwise, democracy is an empty word. My own view is that the Australians have it right with legally compulsory voting. The franchise is a responsibility as well as a right. After all, the voter always has the opportunity to spoil their vote if there is no candidate on offer who meets their requirements.

Meanwhile, the Liverpool mayor has offered another incredible flight of fancy to his open-ended commitment to subsidise two billionaires (the Bramley Moore stadium). He now says that he might sell the Cunard Building, and move into the derelict Pall Mall project, in order “to kick start it”. Apart from all the questions which swirl around his original purchase of the Cunard Building, he has learnt nothing about the dodgy developers behind the many failed projects in the city. Either that, or he is just brazen in his contempt for honest and hard-working Liverpool council tax payers.

These, and many other questions, will continue to be asked; perhaps some will eventually be answered by our failing authorities and regulators. At the very least, the local elections will give some indication of how well-informed and concerned local electors are.

Risk Management

In recent days, the Liverpool Echo has been critical of Wirral and Knowsley councils. The criticism of Wirral referred to its decision to appoint a new housing supremo for the borough, whilst that of Knowsley referenced the cost of a mayoral visit to the United States. I find this a little odd, given the Echo’s refusal to say anything about the cost of Liverpool’s mayor’s recent jaunt to Java, and its neutral stand towards Liverpool’s continued payment of the six-figure salary of its suspended chief executive. It seems as if there is one law for dealing with LCC and another for dealing with other councils. How else does one explain the Echo’s body swerving of the many obvious wrongs in the city of Liverpool?

It has – very belatedly – acknowledged the failure of the Quadrant project in Shaw Street; but this is only one of a whole series of such catastrophic flops, involving the same people accused of the same scams. Again, there is no press criticism – and I mean constructive criticism – of LCC’s role in this appalling mess, which has left investors and contractors owed many millions of pounds, and the council itself bereft of the fees due to it.

Perhaps the Echo could do better by looking more closely at Mayor Anderson’s madcap proposal for financing a new stadium for EFC. After all, before any work has begun, the assumed cost of such a stadium has sky rocketed, and the mayor has raised the bar on how much he proposes to borrow on behalf of the football club. This figure currently stands at £500 million, but this is merely an estimate. As with all major builds, the final cost is invariably much higher. Yet the mayor says that the Liverpool council taxpayers might borrow the lot on behalf of EFC!

The Echo could lead a campaign on this. We do not wish for Liverpool to go bust in the way that Montreal did in 1976 over its Olympic stadium. Firstly, we need to have out in the public domain, the full and detailed terms of agreement between LCC and EFC. Secondly, we also need to have out there, full and detailed costings of what is being proposed, including those for associated infrastructure works (roads, stations), along with the unexpurgated CIPFA report commissioned by the former Director of Finance(Becky Hellard) before she hurriedly left the council’s employ. Thirdly, I would like to see an independent cost/benefit analysis of the project carried out by an independent and reputable authority, wholly unconnected to LCC, EFC or Peel. The last thing that is needed is a sales pitch on behalf of the interested parties.

It is notable on social media that there is a debate going on, but there is no way of knowing where the participants live. I am myself an Everton supporter (of the armchair variety these days!) and wish the club well in its efforts to acquire a state-of-the-art stadium. However, I am also a council tax payer in Liverpool, and, as such, am one of those expected by the mayor to underwrite the financing of a stadium. It goes without saying that I and my fellow Liverpool council tax paying fellows, have a right and a need to be made fully aware of all of the implications – financial and otherwise – involved in this scheme.

It also seems fair and sensible to me to give those Liverpool council tax payers an opportunity to have a direct say on whether or not they wish to embrace the huge risks involved in what appears to be on the table. None of us knows what lies ahead, as shown by the experiences with football clubs of the cities of Coventry and Leeds (the latter a much bigger and wealthier city than Liverpool). The best way to test local Liverpool opinion is via a referendum of council tax payers, before anything is signed, but after an open debate based on disclosure of all of the facts.

I would stress here that this would not be about the merits or otherwise of a new stadium – that is for EFC’s owners, and Peel to decide. It would be about whether or not Liverpool council tax payers want to take on a potentially disastrous financial risk on behalf of two private companies –Peel and EFC – owned in turn by two billionaires.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

News from Nowhere

Easter has been and gone, and the countdown to local elections in the city-region is well underway. Not that you would know it. Despite what the chattering classes would have you believe, many of our fellow citizens still rely upon local media for information, whether about their local council or anything else. The Liverpool Echo reports virtually nothing about the bulk of the city-region or about the metromayor (unless it is critical!) other than crime reports. A younger generation is more inured to social media, but that in turn is limited in terms of objective dissemination of what is actually happening in and to local communities across the city-region.

However, some matters merit wider circulation than that refused coverage by our local media. One such is the report that a Mr Tony Reeves, former Bradford City Council chief executive, has signed a further (my emphasis) consultancy with Liverpool City Council, just as it is said that the suspended LCC chief executive, Ged Fitzgerald, is about to part company with the council. Remember that he has been sitting at home for over a year on his £300,000+ salary and limousine.

It is fascinating to note that the council has such money to splash about. Without any research, other examples of council largesse bob up. The s.106 money due for the Paramount eyesore in Lord Nelson Street has still not been collected. According to its planning permission, no-one could move in to the building until that money had been paid up. Although students are now living in part of that semi-derelict carbuncle, nothing has been paid by the developer, Pinnacle. Most inconveniently, another Pinnacle proposal – for Victoria House in James Street – has gone belly up.

The past week also saw that the transfer of Ross Barkley to Chelsea, made his agent £7 million in fees (remember Mayor Anderson writing to the police about the transfer??). Well, it reminded me that the mayor would be better served – and so would the city – in dropping madcap schemes to borrow on behalf of billionaires to fund their Bramley Moore cash cow. Perhaps he might prioritise doing something about the increasing number of failed developments within the city, and deal with the real needs of its citizens before indulging his football fantasies.

I am fully aware that there have been announcements of other projects – for example, Elliot Lawless’ latest in Erskine Street and the “new” cruise liner terminal – but this is recycled stuff. Many in the city would prefer some consolidation of basic services – like the dire pothole situation, turning the city into a motorists’ version of no-man’s land.

Whilst all this is going on, our local representatives of the fourth estate maintain their Trappist silence on these issues and the ineptitude – at best – of the mayor and council. Meanwhile, whilst Cllr. Millar and others like Erika Rushton (she of the Beautiful Ideas Company) complain to the police about being harassed due to widespread concerns about what has been happening, the Echo can only offer up the wholly discredited Derek Hatton to pontificate about Labour Party troubles in London. Oh, the irony!

The Echo’s refusal and/or inability to investigate the many issues brought to its attention over recent years, speaks volumes about it, and media standards generally. Many have noted how, even when it does touch tangentially on a contentious matter about the mayor and/or city council online, it does not permit comments from readers. I assume that it is either a case of its journalists being unable to write as they must see it (the last one to do so, Marc Waddington, was sent to the North Wales gulag for journalists who do not toe the line), or it is editorial policy to back whatever comes out of the Cunard Building.  My money is on the latter.

Jolly Japes in Java

The week seemed to begin well for Wirral Council. A detailed schedule of committed road repairs was released, and went down well with exasperated motorists on the peninsula. Then the Housing Secretary, Sajid Javid, announced that Wirral Council was one of three councils nationally into which he was sending a team of officials. The problem? He said that the council was more than ten years overdue in submitting to him its local development plan. Leader “Big Phil” Davies put up namesake George Davies as the patsy to explain the issue away.

At the same time, St Helens was introducing to its council tax payers, a programme of cultural investments, lending itself to the title of “council of culture”. This stems from a grant made to it for cultural purposes by the Combined Authority – the collective of council leaders in the city-region, headed by metromayor, Steve Rotheram.

Across in Liverpool city, however, there was no such positive publicity, just Mayor Anderson again making a fool of himself on social media. Having been on a jaunt to the MIPIM knees up in Monaco, he took himself off to the exotic island of Java. To the best of my knowledge, there was no prior public announcement of this. Accompanying our own local Don Quixote was his faithful Sancho Panza, otherwise known as Cllr. Gary Miller. He left Java to travel on to China – again! Perhaps he should be known as the councillor for Beijing East.

This raises many more questions, most notably: who paid for these jaunts? If the trip, as suggested, was connected to a twinning arrangement, surely that is a matter for the ceremonial Lord Mayor, Cllr. Kennedy, taking the lead? If the trip was a commercially orientated venture, what was its specific purpose? Will it turn out to be a washout like the mayor’s unproductive visit to Birmingham, Alabama?

What did emanate from the mayor’s trip to the Indonesian city of Surabaya was the image of a man on a very obvious jolly. His antics filmed on social media were not those of someone who can be deemed a fit and proper person to represent the city of Liverpool. In fact, he managed to raise huge criticism from both EFC and LFC supporters on social media. To people with no football inclination, he simply offended their sense of good taste.

Whilst he was being “crowned” by the Indonesians like a latter day Sanders of the River, back home the Housing Secretary was also firing a shot across his bows over Liverpool’s outdated local plan. Of course, this is partly explained by the fact that we are still without a Head of Planning in Liverpool, as well as a chief executive still on paid suspension. Perhaps such officials are deemed inessential in the Cunard Building, given Mayor Anderson’s readiness to accommodate developers without question.

Mayor Anderson and his cabal should be very cautious. His current fixation of borrowing on behalf of EFC for a new stadium is not only meeting increasing opposition; but the build cost has already rocketed up by 66% in just twelve months. The rumour, too, is that the current CEO of EFC – Robert Elstone – may be on his way out of the club. With the Housing Secretary circling, and the support of rank-and-file councillors diminishing daily, Mayor Anderson may yet find himself in more serious difficulties than those which he already faces.

Small World

The jolly in the south of France hosted by MIPIM – for and by developers and property speculators – is over for another year. The council leaders have had to drag themselves away and back to the harsher realities of running their councils. This is particularly challenging for them as they head into a round of local elections. All leaders – local and national – take joy in getting away from the sheer grind of their domestic worries, particularly when they do not have to pay for the privilege.

I am mindful that way back in 2010, Liverpool’s then new council leader (not yet mayor) told the Daily Post that he could not justify the council’s attendance at the MIPIM bash, and that he intended to give up on its annual jamboree. At the same time, long-term Joe sidekick, Frank McKenna of Downtown Liverpool in Business (DLIB), was agreeing with him, stating that his time was better spent lobbying for investment in London.

Incidentally, what does DLIB actually do? It seems to specialise in staging receptions (jollies?) where hopeful business types can mingle and have a fine old time. I have always thought of it as a commercialised rival to the local Chamber of Commerce. It must be exhausting for chairman McKenna who also chairs the same kind of confection in Manchester, Preston and Lancaster (note the acronyms – DMIB,DPIB,DLIB).

Nevertheless, how times change. Fresh from the French follies of MIPIM, there was a plush reception at Liverpool’s Malmaison Hotel, hosted by the ubiquitous Mr. McKenna, designed to give the chief executive of EFC , Robert Elstone, and Mayor Anderson a platform from which to spin yet again the outrageous proposal to finance a new stadium in the name of the Liverpool council tax payers. Remember that this would in effect be a subsidy to two billionaires – Whittaker of Peel, and Moshiri of EFC.

The figures churned out were fast and furious – and, to my mind, false. The aphorism of Disraeli comes to mind: “Lies, damned lies, and statistics”. Perhaps an independent and objective review of whatever financial arrangement is proposed will give us an honest assessment of a scheme whereby some of the poorest people in the land will carry the risk on behalf of some of the richest.

We know a great deal about some of these players, particularly Mayor Anderson. Elstone is of little account – the only person at EFC whose views carry weight are those of Moshiri. His name appeared recently in the so-called Paradise Papers which revealed the tax dodging antics of the super-rich. These papers also suggested that Moshiri may have been acting as proxy in the purchase of EFC for his partner, Alisher Usmanov, a Russian oligarch named today as a man not to be trusted. Whittaker is well documented as a tax exile, operating through his extensive network of off-shore companies.

Frank McKenna, of course, is simply a bloke from Skem trying to make good. Once deputy leader of Lancashire County Council with high political ambitions, his world came tumbling down when he was charged with forgery. Although the judge threw out the case, his political career was finished .He tried a think tank – Aurora – with two other local names, Jon Egan and Matt Finnegan. The former has recently found himself dragged into a local controversy over his past involvement in the Beautiful Ideas Company, responsible for match day car parks, and now facing questions about receipts unaccounted for. Mr. Finnegan was deeply embroiled in a huge spat between former council leader Mike Storey and his then chief executive, David Henshaw. Mr McKenna moved on to set up Downtown Liverpool as a think tank, but this quickly morphed into DLIB.

Liverpool is really a rather small place and two things about its public life strike me. Firstly , the same people bob up repeatedly, very often being rewarded for failure in one sphere with a well-paid position in another. Very often, they crop up in questionable circumstances. Secondly, we often seem unable to produce from within, the right people to run things. In this short piece, I can point to Whittaker (Isle of Man); Moshiri (Monaco); Elstone (West Yorkshire) – none of them local tax-payers. McKenna – now a councillor on West Lancs Borough Council and sitting on our Combined Authority – lives in Upholland, whilst I believe that Finnegan still lives in Manchester.

These, and others like them, pull many of the strings, both commercial and political, in Liverpool. This, I know, is not a new phenomenon, but it does not say a great deal for our local political and business classes, does it?