Decisions, Decisions

As we begin the new year, it is hoped that in every way, it will be an improvement on the last one. The signs are not good. Covid rages and the government reveals staggering indecision in dealing with it. Ironically, covid has moved focus away from the previously dreaded nightmare of Brexit, which is certain to hit areas like the Liverpool City Region disproportionately. Notwithstanding these concerns, and predictably, the long arm of the law is finally reaching into the darker recesses of local government, particularly Liverpool.

A series of reports in “The Times” have opened up a fresh line of enquiry which potentially reaches back to Mayor Anderson. It is a saga concerning mega-union Unite which has strong local connections and traditions. The last two leaders of the union – Woodley and McCluskey – hail respectively from the Wirral and from Liverpool. What their legendary predecessor, Jack Jones (also from Liverpool) would make of the allegations being made about his beloved union can only be imagined. The whole sorry tale revolves around the award of a huge union building contract in Birmingham to Liverpudlian Paul Flanagan, a close friend of Joe Anderson and Len McCluskey.

Moreover, a sub-contract on the project was awarded to a company owned by Anderson’s son, David. He, in turn, had appointed as managing director of his company (Safety Support Consultants) a man fresh out of prison after being sent down for ten years for slashing someone with a Stanley knife. One can only hazard a guess as to what view of Liverpool and the wider city-region results from such connections.

Of course, a great deal depends on matters being considered and resolved far away from the banks of the Mersey. Firstly, the national executive committee of Unite will undoubtedly be scrutinising the Liverpool connection to the Birmingham project which is alleged to have cost their members millions of pounds . An upcoming election of a successor to McCluskey as Unite’s general secretary, is certain to see the issue weaponised against McCluskey’s favoured candidate, another man from the Wirral. Yet this issue will not remain in Birmingham. It goes to the heart of deals done in the Liverpool City Region.

In direct and practical political terms, the considerations of the national Labour Party leadership will have an even greater impact on the future prospects of the city-region. The scandals afflicting Liverpool have a toxic effect on the Labour “brand” across all six boroughs of the city-region, and beyond. The national party will not be unaware of that fact. It seems to me – and probably to them – that the Labour group on the city council is either unwilling or unable to rectify matters. In my view, they ought to have pre-empted the Lib Dem call for consultation on the city’s governance structure, with a straightforward move for a referendum on the future of the mayoralty. The idea that a current councillor might simply pick up where Anderson has left off, is unacceptable. The alleged leading lights on the council have either turned a Nelsonian blind eye to what has been happening, or were so inept as to fail to recognise the consistent malfeasance. Now I see that Labour List is suggesting a potential woman candidate whose last council activity was hallmarked by her breaking every rule and standing order governing Labour councillors!! Whatever the case, they are all unfit for the role. Does the city need a new mayor, never mind want one? It may end up as a decision for Keir Starmer.

Above all else, Mr Max Caller is reviewing the key operations of the city council on behalf of the government. It might well be that he finds the problems so entrenched that the council needs major surgery. After all, it is difficult to see simple solutions to changing the corrupted culture embedded within the higher echelons of the city council. A band aid will not suffice when the rot is so deep. I dread to think what the outcome of Mr Caller’s review might be if he makes the wrong call (no pun intended!).

I am not naive. I recognise that there are major problems in a number of local authorities around the country. That has always been the case and will continue to be so. It is the price that we pay for our imperfect form of local democracy; but there is nowhere as blighted by the scale of malpractice that we witness here in Liverpool. I also recognise that other councils have, like Liverpool, have suffered from incessant government funding cuts. However, I know of nowhere where the council tax payers, investors and local contractors have been ripped off as they have been in Liverpool, due to the complicity of senior public servants.

Deja Vu – Again

I read recently that a Wirral solicitor, Mr David Hayhurst, had been hauled up before a tribunal of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. He had been charged with taking money from clients for extremely speculative building projects without explaining the risks involved. The tribunal was kind – he was only fined £10,000 with £15,000 costs. I say “kind” because of the huge total sums involved in these scam projects. Moreover, he has now set himself up in the heart of Birkenhead as a consultant.

I mention this because it illustrates the context in which so many people appear to operate schemes and scams with little or no regulation until, on the odd occasion, the long arm of the law intervenes. This is despite the colossal amount of money lost to investors, contractors and local authorities. On a par with the lack of effective regulation is the ease with which malefactors can re-invent themselves with yet another sham company via which they can employ the same wholly unacceptable “business” practices.

Attempts to run local authorities as businesses only exacerbate such problems. By and large, councillors across our city-region are not business people. Furthermore, local authorities exist to provide services, not to dabble in the risk-taking that is part of business life. By the same token, business is about turning a profit. It does not take a genius to see the contradictions in the so-called “entrepreneurial” council. A very small example is found in my old constituency among the “Cobra” houses around Bala Street in Anfield. About three years ago, many of them were put up for sale by LCC. A number were kept back and the remainder were sold on condition that they were substantially improved within six months. Owner-occupiers and investors duly complied, only to watch the council-owned properties sink further and further into dereliction. Why, three years on, is there such a double standard between the council and everyone else? I cannot explain it.

I was checking a spreadsheet of LCC-owned properties. There are literally thousands of them, primarily older housing stock requiring upgrading and renewal. It strikes me that that it would be far more sensible for them to put into hands which might improve them, rather than leaving them to further degenerate by the day, especially those which are empty and derelict. After all, the council owned housing company – Liverpool Foundation Homes – appears to be either incapable or unwilling to address this massive problem. Sadly, LCC seems more interested in enabling property speculators’ fancies for blocks of flats rather than rejuvenating family homes.

Mind you, I am increasingly susceptible to the old suggestion that there is something problematic in the city-region’s water supply. How else does one explain the area’s characteristics of chaos, argument, and trouble? These traits seem to follow people from Merseyside around the country. I recall that when Lawrence Kenwright obtained ownership of the local council’s Coal Exchange in Cardiff, he did so with a loan/grant from Cardiff Council facilitated by a council official who had learned his trade in Liverpool! There was a major dingdong in Cardiff as a result. More recently, there was the case of former Knowsley officer, Mike Fagan. He insisted that he had been forced to take early retirement because he had been a whistleblower over a case of nepotism in council employment. When former CEO Sheena Ramsay moved to the West Country, he doggedly pursued her with his grievance, briefing local councillors down there on his charges. This led in turn to a three way stand off, involving council officers, Mr Fagan and the Information Commissioner. The winner? Mr Fagan. Happily truth often does win out; too often dishonesty prevails.

However, the electors of Liverpool were – unlike all the other cities of England – denied a say on how the city should be run. Is it not now the time for the council to organise a referendum before we get into election mode for a new city mayor? We now have a metromayor, whilst for so many people, the city mayor has been a failed experiment. A referendum on their view is long overdue. Prevarication by the council just will not wash.

This leads me to the gross dishonesty which surrounded the establishment of a mayoral system in Liverpool. It is easy to forget that this came about through a series of untruths. At the time, Cameron’s government pushed hard for mayoral systems in England’s major cities. Other than Liverpool, all of those cities had a referendum on the issue; and, with the exception of Bristol, all rejected the offer. Joe Anderson persuaded the council to forego a referendum – “only political anoraks would want a referendum”, he asserted. The principal argument was that by following Anderson’s lead, the city would get an enhanced City Deal. It was also suggested that the city could end up with no City Deal at all without a mayoral settlement. Both of these arguments were false.

In February, 2012 the BBC quoted then Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg: “No City Deal, including Liverpool’s proposal is contingent on having an elected mayor”. Fast forward to the 9/12/20 and an FoI response from the Communities Secretary on the same subject: “The requirement to have a City Mayoral Model was not a pre-requisite for agreeing a City Deal with government”. Digest those quotes for a moment. The role of city mayor was decided on the basis of a false prospectus. There was no extra cash, and the City Deal was coming regardless.

Happy New Year?

“And so this is Christmas; and what have you done?”, sang John Lennon fifty years ago. It is a question that several bodies need to answer, given recent events, as we try to assess the state of play in Liverpool. The record of those with the power and the responsibility to play a part in correcting the serious mismanagement of the city’s finances, is not a distinguished one to date. Let us begin with the council itself. As a body, it has failed to hold to account those who have been systematically corrupting the council’s dealings over a period of years. They cannot but accept a degree of blame for the way in which council taxpayers’ money has been brazenly plundered; but they are not alone. Others have looked on in magisterial inactivity.

Take the council’s auditors. I approached them in person years ago to ask how and why the council was not exercising due diligence in their property transactions. They did nothing. The local newspaper was also missing in action – it could (or would) not see the wood for the trees when it came to the council. It was a betrayal of its own traditions and of its readers. Worse still, it became habituated to stealing credit for exposing council malfeasance long after brave individuals had made the case on social media. Instead, they published every bit of false news emanating from the council public relations unit and from developers keen to promote their latest money-grubbing project. Its investigative journalism was non-existent.

Although there have recently been high profile arrests, I remain puzzled at the slow response of Merseyside Police to what has been apparent to any observer of the local council scene. I put the question directly to the previous chief constable, only to receive a delphic reply. I have spoken to other members of our finest. I have even raised it directly with the Police and Crime Commissioner, who, unlike her peers across the country, appears to have taken no interest in her responsibilities. It is no surprise, if regrettable, that she has gained a reputation as the Invisible Woman.

I know that there are still ongoing inquiries like Operation Sheridan. This led to the downfall of the previous chief executive amongst others, but it appears to be stuck within the machinery of the Crown Prosecution Service. Lancashire Police led this inquiry, and have done their bit.  However, once it is before the courts, it leads right into the heart of Liverpool and the Liverpool Direct set-up.  This remains one of the many areas where there are serious questions to be answered.

The government bears its own responsibility.  It has hidden behind the argument that it is for the electors of Liverpool to decide who they have as mayor, judging the latter’s performance for good or ill.  There are obvious problems with this view.  Firstly, in a virtually one-party city like Liverpool, it is very difficult to challenge the dominant party’s choice of candidate.  Secondly, there is an assumption that all issues can be resolved with a change at the top.  This is wrong when there is a deeply-embedded culture of corruption wider than one individual and one administration.  Thirdly, the city is being run under a model which resulted from a stitch-up between ex-Chancellor, George Osborne, and a present mayor.  The people of Liverpool, unlike other cities, were not given a say in this via a referendum.

So what can be done?  The use of commissioners should be extended to a root and branch excision within the council, and wholesale change (e.g. delegated powers) of practices which facilitate abuse.  Secondly, I would like the people of Liverpool to be given a choice – in line with other cities – as to the system of governance they would like.  If that was not to happen, the Labour Party must step in to ensure that their candidate for mayor next May, is purer than Caesar’s wife.  That would exclude all of those in the council who have been closely identified with the present mayor.  Rightly or wrongly, people’s attitudes towards anyone within the mayor’s circle of associates will be viewed through jaundiced eyes.

This coming year will be a really telling one for the city of Liverpool and the other members of the city-region.  We all know that if Liverpool sneezes, they will each catch a cold.  It will not be easy to get the city back on track, but it is incumbent on us all, at every level, to give it our best shorts.

Happy New Year!

What Next?

A recent blog of mine (see “Stay Alert”) raised an issue concerning  confusion over the identity of one of the partners in a company – Midia – which is, in turn, party to a bid to develop the International Garden Festival site. The company is adamant that “their” man is most definitely not the fraudster in question. Moreover, they believe that confusion was deliberately sown in an attempt by rival interests to scuttle their bid. I knew that politics could be a dirty game, but it appears that business suffers from a similar affliction. In this instance, it is the use of the phenomenon known as “fake news”.

More telling is the company’s intention to withdraw from the Liverpool investment scene altogether, given the way the city appears to operate. This is far from the first time that this view has been expressed. Indeed, I have commented on it in the past, based on both personal and anecdotal experience. Recent events involving the criminal justice system and leading lights within the city’s administration, do nothing to dispel the mistrust towards the city council which increasing numbers of people have.

Nevertheless, we are where we are. The city mayor has said that he is stepping down, at least for the duration of his bail period. Frankly, he had little choice in the matter, given the seriousness of the potential charges which might include conspiracy, bribery and intimidation – hardly minor traffic offences. He joins an increasing list of senior city officials, past and present, who await the outcome of various police investigations and Crown Prosecution Service deliberations. To put it mildly, this is a most unhappy state of affairs.

However, the Labour group on Liverpool City Council has decided that Cllr Wendy Simons should act pro tem as Mayor. In itself, this raises a number of questions. I should say at the outset that I have never met or communicated in any way with Cllr Simons. I understand that she has been a councillor for thirteen years, and has had long experience both as a trade union official and as a lay Labour Party officer. Yet she was elected to the council to represent her ward, not to a mayoral post. She is, along with members of the Mayor’s cabinet, where she is as a result of the mayor’s patronage. Does this give democratic legitimacy to her elevation? I think not.

The sorry saga of the mayor’s situation – arrested on bail and suspended by the Labour Party – flags up weaknesses in both the government legislation covering elected mayors, and the Labour Party rules covering their members who become elected mayors. The nearest comparison to Mayor Anderson’s predicament of which I am aware, was that of Luftur Rahman, elected mayor in the London borough of Tower Hamlets. However, the charges which led to his downfall all related to electoral fraud. Serious charges, but I believe that what the police are suggesting, including criminal fraud, is even more serious.

I do not know what the answer is in the short term, but I would think that a combination of the current chief executive and government commissioners might provide some reassurance and help restore flagging confidence in the city, its governance, and its finances. Presumably, there will be an opportunity next May for the city’s electorate to give its own judgement on the way in which the city has, at best, been mismanaged.

Meanwhile, we must wait and see what the future holds for Mayor Anderson. As long as the police investigation hangs over his head, there is no chance of him being the Labour mayoral candidate again. Even if he was to be the candidate, I find it impossible to believe that the electors of Liverpool would vote for him. Of course, if charges are laid and secured in court, he will disappear from the political scene completely. The question then is: who and what comes after?

Proceed with Caution

Whenever one attempts to shine a light on the activities in Liverpool which have gained such notoriety, one must be extremely careful.  It is not just the potential for libel actions, but also the right of natural justice for people who might anyway not be to one’s liking.  Sometimes the people in question in my blogs are not known personally to me, but many are.  Take two names from my last blog.

Angela Forshaw of Liverpool Foundation Homes does have some background in housing, I am told, although she is listed with Companies House as being involved with sports centres.  Likewise, Frank Hont is a former union official with no background in housing.  Nor was it germane to my piece, as some of his former council colleagues suggested, that he had recently moved into a Redrow home.  The point of my blog was to show how the council did its business.

It does not stop with the council.  Obviously, there is a slice of the private sector which is not too fussy about the people with whom they deal.  I am always mindful of one local big investor who told me some time ago, that he had not invested in Liverpool for over seventeen years.  When I asked him why that was, given his loyalty to the city, he replied that he did not want to sit in the same room as some of the people who would necessarily be involved. 

There is no doubt that the city’s reputation is being tarnished. New Chinatown and other failed projects illustrated just how badly our reputation has been damaged internationally. Meanwhile, other cities like Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham have taken up the slack.  Speaking of Birmingham, another curious mention of Liverpool companies came to my attention recently.

The Unite mega-union has a national executive.  We all know that its current general secretary is scouser Lennie McCluskey.  His predecessor from the Wirral, Tony Woodley, is now in the House of Lords.  There was a seamless transition from one to the other.  Now there is an intra-union battle on for who succeeds Lenny.  I believe that this is where Liverpool has been dragged into the current scheming.

At a recent meeting of its executive, the London region raised questions about the participation of two Liverpool companies in the vastly inflated cost of a new union education centre built in Birmingham.  These two companies are consultants Purple Apple and builders, the Flanagan Group.  These were recruited by former general secretary Woodley.  How they connect with the Liverpool political scene is through Mayor Anderson.  Electoral records show that in his run-up to power in the city, these two firms were the biggest contributors to Anderson’s campaign funds, donating many thousands of pounds. A recently circulated photograph was taken at a Labour Party fundraiser, with Anderson, Derek Hatton and Flanagan’s principal, Paul Flanagan, having a convivial time.  Mr Flanagan is a regular at Labour events in the city. 

However, when the two companies were named at the Unite executive meeting, it was ruled out of order by national Unite chairman, Tony Woodhouse.  Mr Woodhouse, brother of Liverpool councillor General Woodhouse, is very close to both Woodley and McCluskey.  What is going on, I can only speculate, but the last thing Liverpool needs is to be dragged into the union’s mire.

Drain the Swamp!

Well, well, well! The arrests of Joe Anderson, Derek Hatton et al have really stirred up a hornets’ nest; but who should be surprised? We have all been aware that there has been something rotten at the heart of Liverpool City Council for a very long time. Yet, as with Donald Trump, there were so many gutless people in positions able to do something about it who chose to remain silent. Let us see where this latest twist in the sorry tale of Liverpool’s own Tammany Hall takes us.

National media are biting on this latest revelation because of its sensationalist nature, involving high profile “personalities”. Where have they been when the extensive series of property scams were revealed? I know that some of those scams are still subject to various on-going investigations; and because of their size (think of New Chinatown) some do attract wider, if passing, attention. Yet all of these scams have shared features which include – the involvement of known career criminals; the fleecing of contractors and of investors; and the failure of the council to fulfil its duties towards them. Perhaps it is worth looking again at some smaller council ventures to gain an insight into how the council operates (generally in the dark!).

For example, the council owns the riverside arena and convention centre, along with its associated hotel. In fact, there are two separate companies involved, one for the arena and convention centre and one for the hotel. To all intents and purposes, they are one and the same, with the same board of directors. Both companies have been highly profitable with what are, to the layman, confusing accounts (are not they all, you might say?). For example, the last published accounts for the arena company show total payments to its six directors of £501,493. Two of these directors are Mayor Anderson and his deputy Cllr Wendy Simon. Neither of these lists any payment in their register of interests so we might discount them from the directors’ pay equation. Similarly, council chief executive Tony Reeves is a third director, and is also presumably content with his hefty council salary (more than that of the Prime Minister). That leaves us with three remaining directors.

These are company CEO, Bob Prattey; his deputy, Faye Dyer; and commercial director, Max Steinberg (formerly a long-term senior adviser to the mayor). The accounts show that one of these three received from the directors’ pot in the last financial year, the sum of £266,120, together with £27,658 in pension contributions. That leaves £235,373 between the other two. Remember that these are payments as directors. Whether or not they are also paid as senior executives by either company is wholly unclear.

Complicating the ability to cross reference with the hotel company is the decision of the directors (the same six people) to decline to publish a directors’ report (as company law permits). However, the published accounts for the hotel note the payment of £224,626 to “key management personnel”. Who exactly are these? Are they the directors identified above? A little chink of light is shown by the pension contributions on behalf of the hotel’s 65 employees which amount to £32,000.  Not the highest paid group of people and reflective of the huge disparities between a select few and the mass of workers under the council’s wing.

Let us look at another council-sponsored initiative which shows the council’s Byzantine approach to its responsibilities. Liverpool Foundation Homes was set up in 2018 as what many saw as a job creation project for beaten councillor and mayoral favourite, Frank Hont (who has since departed from the company). It was given a kick start grant of £750,000, followed by a further grant of £170,000. In turn, this was followed by a loan of £1,717,690 with which “to buy property”. This flying start was so dynamic that by 09/08/19, Companies House had it listed as a dormant company. Its three directors are Mark Kitts of the city council; Angela Forshaw whose background is in sports centres; and Darrell Mercer who Companies House ties in to fifteen other companies, fourteen in London and one in the north-east!

This company employs eight people as far as I can ascertain, including Kitts on a salary of between £110,000 and £115,000. His deputy, Charles Jarvis, gets between £90,000 and £95,000. Below him, Louise Davies and Liam Knowles are in the £76,000 to £79,000 range. Finally, there are four juniors on good salaries for their respective roles. The question must be: what do these people do for their comfortable salaries? What is the evidence of “the development of building projects and the construction of domestic buildings” which is claimed to be its raison d’etre? Nothing that I can see, but I am happy to be corrected.

Back to where we came in. I often wonder what happens to many people at the top of the council tree. Lots end up stigmatised as they bring the city into disrepute. The latest round began with the arrests of former chief executive Ged Fitzgerald along with former senior council officers Phil Halsall and David McElhinney under police investigation Operation Sheridan. Next came director of regeneration Nick Kavanagh, lifted along with developer Elliot Lawless. Now we have Mayor Anderson together with deputy planning and highways chief, Andy Barr. Coincidentally, abrasive former city head of regeneration, Charlie Parker, along with former staff he recruited from Liverpool, is highlighted in the current issue of “Private Eye”. Now chief executive for the Jersey Government, he has been forced to resign over his lucrative moonlighting (£50,000 p.a.) for a property company, on top of his £250,000 salary. You can take the boy out of Liverpool…..

It is some years now since I took my concerns about the council to the relevant authorities who, I thought, might do something about it. I went to the then chief constable, John Murphy; to the district auditors, Grant Thornton; and to the now invisible police commissioner, Jane Kennedy. Nothing was done, and things grew progressively worse as the major players in this situation became ever more emboldened, thinking they were beyond being brought to account. Perhaps my timing was wrong or perhaps the authorities were just not interested; but there can be no dodging the harsh reality of corruption now.

Drain the swamp!

Stay Alert!

Like most people, I have been absorbed in recent months by two equally, inexplicable phenomena – the pandemic and the American presidential election. Whilst neither is yet finished, it appears that resolution of these two incredibly problematic situations is on the horizon. As a former politician, I have been particularly taken by the sheer gall of Trump and his acolytes – lies, false accusations, fake news, and corruption. Watching events in the USA kept bringing me back to home, given, as we have said before, that “all politics are local” (I do not forget our own mendacious and inept prime minister).

Yet, once again, speaking of fake news, and coming right down to our own city-region, the “Echo” has been missing in action, publishing, without question, any old rubbish given to it in the form of press releases churned out by favoured business contacts or “public relations” oddities. One such example of the latter styles itself “Save Our City” – for whom it speaks is not quite clear – nor can we tell what is its basis for suggesting it has any kind of authoritative voice to speak for anyone. However, it appears to see redemption of the mountain of failed developments in the city, in the hands of the same people who put us into the development mire in the first place. This body – Save our City – reminds me of the American PACs (political action committees) which bedevil American politics, usually for business ends. God forbid that such faceless entities, given an open publicity ride by our local media, should continue to proliferate here. Some believe that this particular group is part of a wider and surreptitious campaign to hamstring the city’s chief executive in his efforts to root out high level corruption at LCC. Time will tell.

In all honesty, there is a problem in sections of local government across the city-region, whereby self-serving individuals operate in conjunction with local cabals of self-defined “businessmen” who are themselves closely linked to habitual criminals. At one end of the scale, the costs to the council taxpayer of the way business is done are relatively low (although still scandalous). To pay £1200 per day for a steward to push the button on a regulated crossing (Byrom Street) is surely outrageous. Yet there are the aforementioned failed developments which have cost millions to both LCC and to private investors. Meanwhile, other questions remain without obvious answers. An example would be the curious dealings of King Construction/Knowsley Construction with both Liverpool and Knowsley councils.

Naturally, problems occur regularly. Right now, Sefton is facing the loss of hundreds of jobs due to the HMRC relocation policy, leaving ever more vacant office space in Bootle. Halton has a stiff challenge in recouping in excess of £23 million in unpaid bridge fees. Liverpool is belatedly chasing up through the courts millions in unpaid s.106 monies. As if the trials and stresses of covid19 were not enough, Goodwins Construction – working in the Baltic Triangle – has gone belly up, shedding at least another thirty jobs. At this rate, the Baltic Triangle will be renamed the Bermuda Triangle given the losses associated with it.

Then up bobs what seems to be good news – of sorts – in Liverpool. There has been a low key announcement of yet more plans for the International Garden Festival site. Central government has put up £10 millions of seed money, but there have been several false dawns concerning this eyesore. This time, there are two major players involved in a partnership with LCC. One is developer ION, formerly Neptune. Headed by local developer Peter Hynd, it does have a track record of delivery, such as Queen’s Square. The other is a French-owned company (VINCI) with strong links to tax haven, the Seychelles. The oddity is the third partner, known as Midia.

This company is odd in that it appears to be unable to decide on its name, whether it is Midia or Granite Turner. The latter are the surnames of the two principals. What caught my eye was a coincidence with the name Mark Turner. There was a Mark Turner born at the same time and in the same place as this “developer”. This other man spent eleven months in an American prison after fleeing fraud charges in Manchester. He was to later spend time as a guest of HM prison service having been convicted of fraud. Are they related in some way? I am sure that as LCC processes its due diligence procedures, they will put our minds at rest.

Meanwhile, spare a thought for Liverpool Foundation Homes. You may recall that this was set up by the mayor with all sorts of high hopes. The board included mayoral crony Frank Hont and disgraced regeneration boss, Nick Kavanagh. These are now both ex-directors. I can find no evidence of any meaningful work done by this company, which is now dormant. Would you not think that something could be done to find it something productive to do?

Pandemic, Presidency and Party

Over the years, I have always tried to focus this blog on the many trials facing the Liverpool City Region. Goodness knows, there has been much to warrant a critical voice, from local government ineptitude all the way to downright corruption. That remains the case with what seems to be a sclerotic criminal justice system and an emasculated local media. Nevertheless, although all politics are essentially local, issues do arise which transcend the local but which have a direct effect on our city-region.

Three have come together in time which simply cannot be ignored – the pandemic; the American Presidential election; and the suspension of Jeremy Corbyn by the Labour Party. These might seem odd bedfellows, but each in its different way has the capacity to cause ever more difficulty for our city-region. Indeed, they already have. Let us begin with the pandemic.

We will all have followed the war of words between local leaders and central government. Like most people, I must confess that I am not very sure as to what has eventuated from these exchanges. I do recognise that Johnson and his government are inept, but I am none too sure what extra local government can bring to the battle against the spread of this dreadful virus. Like Boris Johnson, our local leaders seem to be caught between a rock and a hard place – that is, between a total lockdown and maintaining some semblance of viable economic activity.

Naturally, as a member of the highest risk group, I am acutely aware of my personal peril if exposed to the virus. I am also aware of the plight of my grandson who found himself in isolation from his first day as a Liverpool University fresher. Consider the many who have suffered wage cuts or who have been laid off, or the many small businesses which have gone to the wall. Of course, there are those who have contracted Covid-19, many of whom have sadly died. It is an extremely problematic situation for us all.

So is the American Presidential election. Its outcome could seriously affect our well-being across the city-region. A Trump success could embolden the Great Grifter to push his trade and environment agendas at a massive cost to us all. Imagine a trade deal with our present government which could lead to the import of chlorinated chicken and hormone-injected beef. We can say goodbye to what remains of our health and safety protections. Meanwhile, Big Pharma would be rubbing its hands with glee at the thought of carving up our already fragmented National Health Service. The stakes are huge even before we take a no-deal Brexit into account.

Last, but by no means least, the suspension of Corbyn can have shattering effects locally if Labour Party members are so minded. All six boroughs within the city-region are dominated by the Labour Party. Offices like Metromayor, Liverpool mayor and Police and Crime Commissioner are held by Labour nominees. Other than Southport and a little bit of Halton, the whole area is represented in Parliament by Labour MPs. A Labour Party civil war could have dire consequences for the city-region.

Yet I find myself appalled by the action of Labour’s national leadership. I have never voted for or nominated Jeremy Corbyn for anything; but I know that he is no racist. Much of his politics are very different from my own. However, he has always been an honourable man in my eyes, unlike many of his detractors. Not for him the personal abuse tossed about so freely by those who have vilified him. His apparent crime meriting suspension was to publicly disagree with parts of the report on anti-semitism in the Labour Party, published by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. Having read the report, I too disagree with much of it. I most certainly reject those who have been quick to gloat at Corbyn’s suspension.

A political, healthcare and economic meltdown across our region would be disastrous, far worse than anything in my lifetime. That is why I truly hope that local and national government can get their respective acts together on the pandemic; that Trump is soundly beaten in the Presidential election; and that the Labour Party leadership sees sense, and fully restores Jeremy Corbyn to his rightful place in the party. The stakes are too high for anything else.

Many Questions, Few Answers

It would be easy for many in the city-region to shrug, and imagine that the problems of corruption are within the city of Liverpool, and of little consequence to everyone else. They would be wrong. Sure, there are issues within, say, Sefton, concerning senior officers – one in breach of pandemic protocols, another allegedly running a company in opposition to his own council services. Perhaps they might quote Knowsley where one senior officer has taken leave as Covid cases explode, just when he is needed most; or cite the untrained bin man who ended up in the hugely dangerous rear of a refuse wagon. Yet these are, as the saying goes, small potatoes – in a different league to corruption in a public office.

There is, however, one issue which immediately comes to mind, affecting in one way or another all six boroughs in the city-region. That is, the construction of a new police headquarters. Five boroughs levy the police precept funding this build, whereas Halton has an interest via its role in the city-region Combined Authority. This project is one of those which does not make sense to me, try as I may to work it out. Let me recap.

Many sites across the city-region were offered for this new head quarters. The chosen site was in St. Anne’s Street, Liverpool. A number of separate properties needed to be parcelled together by the city council to ensure a viable footprint for the proposed build, and they proceeded to do so. According to the Land Registry, the price paid by the police commissioner for the total site was £5,051,000. The council had estimated the cost of the site £4,112,000. Interests which needed to be bought out included a firm of solicitors at a cost of about £300,000, and the Liverpool Catholic Archdiocese who were paid £127,000. The big winner was the North Liverpool Regeneration Company (NLRC) who received, by my calculation, £3,535,000.

That consisted of four separate parts. Firstly, NLRC received a building at 64, Mount Pleasant valued at £300,000. It has planning permission for five flats on its upper floors. Secondly, there was a payment to NLRC of £350,000 for “compensation based on 10% for disturbance, etc”. Thirdly, there was £35,000 payable as an agent’s fee, based on 1% of the total cost. Finally, there was a lump sum of £2,850,000 to NLRC for “land and property costs”. Quite a tidy total, you will agree.

This appears to be a great deal for a small charity like NLRC, a deal ultimately down to police commissioner Jane Kennedy. One must assume that she and her team exercised due diligence as the whole package was put together before committing Merseyside Police to it, looking at the people and organisations involved. The principal player, other than the city council, was the NLRC. What do we know of this organisation?

It was the brainchild of Cllr George Knibb; his fellow ward councillor, Barry Kushner, does consultancy work for it. Companies House names all of its directors since its inception and most of a long list appear to have been Labour Party rebels like Cllr Knibb, who were expelled in the eighties and nineties Most of these are long gone from the NLRC, as indeed has Cllr Knibb, although he remains involved in some way. The key to its current operation is its trustees – two more Labour rebels of yesteryear, Pauline Connolly and John Nelson (another former disbarred councillor).

On paper, Cllr Knibb no longer has a formal connection with NLRC. However, council regeneration documents record Cllr Knibb as the developer of the new NLRC headquarters at 64, Mount Pleasant, whilst a planning application lodged for the same building lists the NLRC as the applicant. Confusing this may be, but it does not end there. The period covered by what I relate, stretches from the end of 2018 up to the 20/01/20, the date when the transfer of the site to Merseyside Police was registered.

I should also point out that on the 31/12/18, NLRC loaned the Vauxhall Neighbourhood council (VNC) the sum of £167,212. The CEO of the VNC is Pauline Connolly. The NLRC also loaned £168,849 to its sister company, North Liverpool Regeneration Property Services. The chair of the board of the latter is also Pauline Connolly. This is an extremely cosy, if not financially incestuous, set of relationships. Given that MS Connolly and Mr Nelson are apparently empowered as the trustees to deal as they like with the unrestricted funds of the NLRC (over £9 million!), there is at the very least conflicts of interest here.

I could go on, tracing the direct links to the Alt Valley Partnership, “home” to another rebel ex-councillor – Tony Jennings – and Cllr Knibb’s brothers, together with their interests in Knowsley; but I think you get the picture. You can look these up with a little effort. However, it is surely for councillors to seek some transparency in deals like this, so that the council tax payer can see where their money is going. There are so many questions, and so few answers…

Money for Old Rope

The Liverpool City Council soap opera would be absorbing if it was not so sad for the city. After the arrest of developer Elliot Lawless and City Director of Regeneration Nick Kavanagh, we are now being told that Lawless expects to retrieve the near £350,000 that the police had confiscated. It reminds me of the case of a well-known underworld figure – Philly Glennon – who had buried £1million in his garden, only for the police to find it and confiscate it, only to eventually have to return it.

Hot on the heels of this “development story”, fresh questions are being raised concerning the site of the new police headquarters. The deal was presumably signed off by the Police Commissioner, Jane Kennedy, on the basis of due diligence. The significant piece of land involved in this proposal was owned by the North Liverpool Regeneration Company. Closely linked with this outfit are current councillors George Knibb and Barry Kushner, and former councillor and Hatton associate, John Nelson.

Ah, well, said I, what else is there to add? Then I thought of the disgraceful decision to hire out the Liverpool Arena for an international arms fair. There can be few more despicable occupations than trading in the tools of death and destruction, often to third world despots, for use against their own people. I never thought that I would witness a Labour council, no matter how cash strapped, welcoming these dreadful people to our city-region.

Make no mistake – it is down to the mayor and the city council who uses the arena. The Arena and Convention Centre Group (ACC) is wholly owned by the city council. It is well worth looking at the background to this very profitable company. I have in the past, but drew something of a blank about its details. Still, there is enough information available to give us an idea of yet another facet to the council which deserves close examination.

The ACC has a board of six directors – Robert Prattey (CEO); Faye Dyer (Deputy CEO); Max Steinberg (Commercial Director); Tony Reeves (LCC Chief Executive); Mayor Anderson; and Cllr Wendy Simon. Until last year, Steinberg had a major role in Anderson’s administration (I do not know if he still has a role), and now he chairs the board of this company. Joe has a habit of putting his confidantes into choice positions – do you remember Frank Hont’s pension of a new housing company for him to chair when the electorate kicked him out? I assume that Prattey, Dyer and Steinburg are all full-time employees of the ACC, and paid accordingly.

This is important when you look at the most recent official accounts, lodged with Companies House. These set out the “emoluments” paid to the six directors. They specify that the highest paid director was paid £266,120 last year, together with a pension top-up of £27,656. The total amount of “emoluments” paid to the directors totalled £501,493. Somebody is making good money, but exactly who, we are not told. We do not even know if these amounts are on top of salaries in the case of the three ACC employees.

However, there is another dimension to this. The Arena and Convention Centre Hotel is an entirely separate company with separate accounts. The same six people sit on its board of directors. Who gets paid what by which company is impossible to see. Last year, according to Companies House, it did not file “a directors’ report, statement of income and retained earnings, or the audit report”. Apparently, this is legal under the Companies Act, but I should point out that £224,626 was paid out to “key management personnel” as some kind of bonus. One wonders whether or not we are talking here of manager/directors. Demonstrating the Hotel’s generosity, pension contributions on behalf of their sixty five staff (a figure which includes the six directors!) were paid, totalling £31,944. Omit the directors and then do the maths:  one board member gets £27,656 in pension contributions, whilst fifty nine workers get £31,944 between them at best. Where is the socialism there?

Naturally, I went to see what Mayor Anderson and Cllr Simon registered as interests in all this. The answer was nothing. Rather, Cllr Simon registered seven worthy directorships of charitable causes and the like, but Mayor Anderson has no interests which he feels merit inclusion on his register of interests. Companies House list five active directorships in his name, including the Liverpool Land Development Company. This is curious in so far as it has had thirty directors but Joe is the only one left standing. On another, Joe gives his occupation as a “social Inclusion manager“. I have never come across that one before!

One can only speculate on the webs woven, and the reasons for the failure to be fully transparent. At the very least, such a situation frustrates, and denies people their full rights of access to information about what is being done in their name, with their money, and by whom. At worst – well, make your own mind up.