Trump This

As the feeble Liverpool Planning Committee once more bows its collective knee to the mayor’s diktat and hands Redrow another bargain at Calderstones, there is fresh news of another developer with no regard for truth or people. I refer, of course, to Donald Trump, unbelievably president of the United States.

Once Speaker Bercow had vetoed him from feeding his massive ego in the Palace of Westminster, officials of the British government were left with a real challenge: where could they muster a mass audience to satisfy Trump’s lust for a crowd’s attention? Apparently, they came up with two options: Wembley Stadium, or the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham. I posit a third alternative – Liverpool’s own Echo Arena.

The more that one thinks about it, the more sense it makes. After all, Liverpool is a city that is “open for business”, one which already entertains crooks and charlatans as an integral part of its economic fabric, making fortunes at the taxpayers’ expense. Additionally, the President and the Mayor have a lot in common – that is, other than the comb-over hair. Both are taken with developers and obsessed with their egos, with little time for practical politics. Both fume at any criticism (not that the local media would have anything but sycophantic praise) and are prone to knee-jerk (and embarrassing) social media gaffes. Neither has a discernible strategy, and both have a hugely inflated sense of their own abilities. They would get on well.

Not that the possibilities stop there with a mutual admiration society. A visit by President Trump might well lead to other benefits. Why not tap him up for, not one, but two, Trump Towers – one each on the effectively defunct Wirral Waters, the other on the correspondingly bleak Liverpool Waters? The Peel Group would be overjoyed by the added value to their existing land bank. Surely, they would jump at the chance of even a partial step towards their unrealisable notion of a Manhattan-on-the-Mersey. Peel could even park up Air Force One at Speke. Joe would pick up the tab – he normally does so for them.

As a dog leaves its smell, Trump has a penchant for leaving his name on buildings. Perhaps a sign of good faith would be to rename Cunard Buildings as the Donald Dive or something similar, in recognition of our eponymous hero. He would be flattered by that, although I am sure that some sycophant somewhere would upstage the mayor by renaming a whole town Trump Town!!

There is another area, however, in which our two leaders might find common ground. I refer to Trump University. In America, it was a flop and a fraud – pregnant with promise but deficient on delivery. It was a means to bolster the Trump income via worthless promises. Now, a politician might say that that sounds like the mayor’s election manifesto – weasel words and hot air. I will not. However, such mere details should not deter Donald and Joe from making use of the brand.

Rather, it may be the vehicle to help out both parties. The Mayor could explain away the overloading, via developers, of Liverpool with student flats. Post Brexit, and the expected decline in student numbers, Trump University could rise to the rescue. President Trump could redesignate as students, all potential travellers to the USA from his seven blacklisted countries. Joe could negotiate “the deal“ with Donald to house them in the blocks of jerry-built flats, safeguarding America, home of the brave.

Well, it is only a suggestion…!!

 

Fake News and Alternative Facts

Perhaps it is a penalty of age that I tend to look back to when there were simple expectations of the media. It used to be assumed that there were basic standards to which all subscribed. For example, although a particular gloss might be put on an issue, the factual truth of a given issue was invariably agreed by all.

The media – before being reduced locally solely to a composite of advertising and entertainment – was expected to inform and, in the broadest sense, to educate.  It sought out the truth, even if it then added its own spin, and was also expected to exhibit some semblance of balance in the matters being covered. Sadly, in the post-Brexit, Trump-infected world of today, there is little resemblance of the modern media to that of yesteryear.

Both the Brexit referendum and the American presidential election campaign revealed how far we have fallen. Truth was irrelevant, whilst mendacity was the order of the day for gullible voters. Rather than hope, fear was force-fed to the people; and that remains the case. Tragically, the fear has been deliberately focussed on “the other”, whether it is Muslims in America, or Europeans in the United Kingdom. The specifics matter little as hate of other people is promoted as a common currency, along with fake news.

I thought of these general issues after reading a copy of our local comic, the “Echo“, one day last week .Two particular items were particularly indicative of how far that once successful newspaper  has reneged on its mission. Today, its only concerns appear to be making money for its owners, and thus ensuring its survival (but survival for what purpose other than to claw in more profits?) It fails to see how it would broaden its readership – and, hence, sales, thereby increasing advertising revenue – by recapturing its old investigative spirit.

The first item to catch my attention was the lead letter of the “Talkback” column (“Letters” to you and I). Now this tends to be a cosy little platform for the same names riding their personal hobby-horses. On this occasion, the letter was from a “Support Officer” (supporting what, for whom?), singing a paean of praise to Liverpool City Council for its work in preserving historic buildings (are they talking here of the bombed out church or the old Futurist cinema?). Amongst many things, the letter claimed an investment in excess of £672 million in the city’s historic buildings.

This is an intriguing amount to claim, but how has it been arrived at? Who at the “Echo” proof reads such claims on behalf of the administration? After all, this huge amount is flagged up in the context of a Euro-grant of about £325,000 for those buildings – a credible figure – but£672 million??

Too many people will be kidded by these figures, and lots of similar inflated claims, regularly given undue prominence and credibility in the “Echo“. Still, that appears to be standard practice for the title these days. They will print any claim, no matter how outlandish, and without any obvious fact check, so long as the story is put to them by, or on behalf of, any of the city-region’s major players, whether in the private or the public sectors.

The second item was yet another public relations exercise, this time on behalf of a young “developer” and a senior member of the city administration.  Like a number of similar “businessmen”, this developer has had a meteoric rise to millionaire status since Mayor Anderson took over the reins of power, and is no doubt appreciative of his efforts. The mayor is, you will recall, constantly telling us that Liverpool is open to business (I have never quite understood his meaning on this).

Anyway, the “Echo’s“ on-line version of this story carried the usual comments appended to it. One commentator – either very well informed or very foolhardy –posted an account of our intrepid young “developer“  being summoned to a meeting in a dockside warehouse with two very prominent local underworld figures. Within a very short period of time, this post was removed by “Echo“ staff. It goes to show how this media outlet can be vigilant when it either chooses to be, or is pressured.

Company Town

I picked up the local rag to see what it classed as news of the day. Amongst the usual tabloid mix of “human interest”, sport and crime, one item caught my eye. It was a typical piece of public relations spiel on behalf of Peel. Apparently, this monster of Merseyside is to seek the views of Merseysiders on its latest notion of a high skyscraper in Princes Dock. No mention, of course, about the possible effect of their proposal on Liverpool’s listing as a world heritage site. Why would they mention it given the antediluvian Liverpool mayor’s expressed contempt for UNESCO’s view of the city?

Even more alarming is the conspiracy of silence on Peel’s latest disaster.  A huge sink-hole has appeared on the site of the new container terminal. This adds to the ongoing strife with poorly served drivers at the docks who are afforded no facilities automatically provided elsewhere. Yet the sink-hole is of a different order. After all, there was an investment in the project from the European Union alone of £185 million. One would think this mess would merit some comment, at least locally. Sefton Council? Nothing reported. Local MP? Nothing reported. Local media? A paragraph in one edition of the Echo then deafening silence. A journalist from a national broadsheet contacted me, expressing his frustration at his inability to elicit ANY response from ANYONE in authority on the matter.

We cannot be surprised at this –  no one locally will do or say anything to upset Peel, the local alpha exploiters. This tax-dodging, asset-stripping organisation blithely promises the earth but delivers relatively little, repeatedly fooling local authorities with their spin. Receiving a fortune in public subsidy, they seem accountable to no-one, but disproportionately influential with our local authority leaders. Peel’s influence shines through in the many decisions favouring them agreed by those leaders.

Of course, leaders are not alone in kow-towing (or worse) to developers – including those of the “fly-by-night” kind.  Liverpool’s planners are about to recommend the sale to Redrow of 13 acres of prime green space at Calderstones Park. Redrow wish to build over 50 luxury houses thereon, at prices of £500,000.This option will hardly help those on our bulging housing lists, but it is guaranteed to enrage local residents and community groups.

Similar controversies are bubbling away in all of the local authorities within the city-region, as councillors are led, either by their leaders or council officers, into perilous political waters. Everyone recognises the difficult dilemmas facing councils at this time; but there are fights best avoided. Builders and developers (who are given far too much access) do not give a toss. Profit is their only interest, not local people.

Whilst there appears to be ample green space in five of the local authority areas, Liverpool is the exception. Recent independent research using satellite mapping, has quantified the green space within the United Kingdom’s ten largest cities. Edinburgh came out top with green space covering 49.2% of its area. Liverpool was bottom, with a mere 16.4%.  Therein lies a tale!

Doubtful Developers

It was interesting to hear the chair of Aintree Parish Council vent his spleen on the radio today. The targets of his ire included Sefton Council, the local MP, Peter Dowd, and the Peel group. His complaint was actually simple – he believes that favoured developers – in this case Peel – have their interests preferred to those of local residents. Perhaps he has a point.

This is not an unusual charge. There is often a tension between the plans of developers, and local people and small businesses. In these days of austerity, irritation is often compounded by the needs of local authorities to attract inward investment, sometimes to the outrage of constituents with a particular axe to grind. It can be very difficult to maintain a balance between the need for that investment and the wishes of voters; but there are always lines that ought not to be crossed.

The sheer volume of planning applications can be a problem in itself, creating an illusion of progress whilst lacking the substance that the electorate expects. Such is the case with the huge number of projects in Liverpool for the erection of flats for students. These leave many voters cold. They see the profit for developers and builders in these projects, as well as a useful utility for the universities. They do NOT see where the benefit is for local council tax payers or for local people in need of homes.

Above all else, there is one red line which must NEVER be crossed – that of health and safety. All of these buildings must be safe for those who use them. Yet I have seen correspondence which raises deep doubts about one of these student blocks which raises major concerns. If building regulations are being ignored in this case – and that is the core of the allegations that I have seen – then it may also be the case elsewhere in the area. It concerns a block of city-centre flats built by the highly questionable company PHD1 (which I have written about before, with its criminal connections), and “completed” by an associated company of equally doubtful provenance, Pinnacle Student Developments.

The upshot is that there is a block of flats housing c. 150 students which might well be a danger to them. Alarmingly, the reports which I have read allege that the “finished” building did not get the necessary certification to clear it for occupation. That is, it did not have the required certificates of compliance to meet the building regulations. Moreover, commissioned structural engineers refused to endorse clearance of the “completed” structure.

Now, I am not an engineer, nor do I have the professional expertise to make an informed judgement on the building in question. I do, however, have respect for the professionals who have expressed their concern, and take on board their judgement. I wonder how, therefore, such situations can arise? Is it that councils are under such pressure that they are unable to apply their own building regulations to these speculative projects for which they have given planning permission; or is there some other explanation?

One problem appears to be that any scam artist can set up a development or building company, and operate it with comparative impunity. In addition, due diligence appears to have been dispensed with, in a gadarene rush to accept any old proposal of investment, regardless of the characters and records of the so-called company’s principals, or of the sources of their finance. This has to stop!

Leadership

We are constantly told that the elusive quality of “leadership” is missing from contemporary politics; but what exactly is meant by “leadership” is a more difficult matter!  Too often in practical politics, it is confused with the more problematic notion of “the leader”. There is always a tension when considering leadership, between following public opinion and setting the public agenda. Naturally, as in most areas of human activity, there is a balance to be struck. Go too far one way, and you have an ignorant and nasty nationalism; go the other, and you can end up with a vanguardist democratic centralism. Both are to be deplored.

The issue today is more focussed upon the notion of “the leader” rather than “leadership” per se. What do you do about an egomaniac as leader, especially if s/he heads up a supine and craven group of fellow travellers? How do you deal with a leader who blatantly lies and abuses with carefree abandon? What is to be said of a leader who is surrounded by businessmen cronies and has a cavalier disregard for right and wrong? How can one support a charlatan who believes that a gullible public can be conned indefinitely?

For many, these questions never arise. They are those with principles and values which transcend the venial and the venal, and look with contempt on those crude tactical manoeuvrings which too often are passed off as “realistic” politics. Such people of integrity – and there remain many – would never consider selling their political souls for either personal advancement or profit. Such is the core of the real Labour Party which was once summed up admirably by Harold Wilson in the aphorism that “The Labour Party is nothing if not a moral crusade”.

That “moral crusade” assumes that members hold the right motives to achieve the right ends. It believes in social justice, with equal opportunity for all; and is further predicated on the view that Labour representatives are accountable to the party and to the public, and are transparent in all of their dealings.

It is also the case that there are occasions, whether in a parliament or a council, there are matters of such gravity, that Labour representatives ought to vote according to their consciences rather than tamely to follow an arbitrary whip. On those occasions, the issue in question must be of profound significance concerning a matter of principle, rather than one merely of political convenience.

Brexit is just such an issue. The matter is of such fundamental importance to the nation that the usual presentational preoccupation of those at the top of the party tree is irrelevant. We know how the media will react regardless of what Labour does – the party will never be given balanced, much less good, coverage in the present climate. What matters is the national interest, and there can be no compromise over that. Over time, Labour will be recognised for exercising its collective conscience, rather than trying to dragoon Members one way or another for expedient tactical reasons. After all, elected Labour representatives at all levels are not delegates, but free-thinkers on behalf of their constituents.

The latter are the key to the success or failure of any political party. Parties are, in the final analysis, a means to an end on behalf of their members and electoral supporters. Voters are the most essential component of any democracy. We have seen this most recently locally with people power persuading the Liverpool Alder Hey Trust to recall its plans to build 400 houses on promised park-land. Once non-party people DO organise themselves on an issue of importance to them, it is amazing what they can achieve, as the pro-parks protesters have repeatedly shown in Liverpool. The moral is straightforward – in the modern age, people will not tolerate political diktats from any party. They aspire to a form of leadership which listens attentively and sincerely to them, and then seeks to do things with communities, rather than to them.

Education, Education, Education

It has been a raw week for the Liverpool City Region with regard to education. National statistics have identified Knowsley and Halton boroughs as amongst the lowest-achieving education authorities in the country, on the basis of their secondary examination results. Take out of the frame private schools and selective grammars, and Liverpool, Sefton and Wirral share similarly disappointing examination outcomes. St Helens seems to stand apart in its secondary attainment levels.

I have commented before on Knowsley’s excellent primary provision which is in such marked contrast to its failings at the secondary level. As we know, the borough will shortly offer no schools with “A” level courses. Neighbouring Liverpool is about to face a diminution of its own offer as Fazakerley High School seeks to dump its “A”  level courses. Children in such outlying areas will face tremendous – and unnecessary – extra difficulty in trying to access quality post-16 education. Pupils in Speke have already suffered educational deprivation since the Parklands debacle (still, incidentally, costing the council tax payer a fortune!).

This is a major problem for the incipient Liverpool City Region, and will need to be addressed if the Liverpool conurbation is to ensure that all of its youngsters share in both educational and vocational opportunity. Whilst it is clear that many children do get an excellent education locally, including those in the private and selective sectors, it is also the case that the true picture is blurred by the numbers of children who travel from one borough to another for their education (in Knowsley, one third leave the borough daily).

It is axiomatic that successful education and training are the keys to a vibrant and rewarding local economy, as well as nationally vital. It follows that failing education and training hinder the prospects of resuscitating the local jobs market, given that modern jobs – high skills and high wages – require well-qualified people.

One of the major tasks devolved to the soon-to-be-elected metro-mayor is the economic renewal of the city-region. S/he will be obliged to work in tandem with the members of the Combined Authority – i.e. the leaders of the six boroughs within it. Of course, this presents both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is to devise a city-region wide strategy for our economic needs. This will, of necessity, reach into education and training, wherein local government in the area has failed to distinguish itself.

The opportunity, however, is the possibility of showing national government how capable local government can be in meeting local needs. Given enterprising leadership, we can create locally the longer-term circumstances conducive to economic prosperity. The advent of a metro-mayor is the ideal time for local borough-based thinking to be subsumed into the interests of the city-region as a whole. In educational and training terms, that translates into focussing on the interest s of our youngsters regardless of the borough in which they live.

This would require a fundamental shift in thinking within our six boroughs. Just as the travel-to-work area pays no heed to arbitrary borough boundaries, and transport provision – by definition – crisscrosses the city-region, so might educational resources and authority be pooled across the whole conurbation. After all, this would simply be a formal recognition of the current (if ad hoc) provision of education and training. It would also provide a coherent and cost-effective framework for ensuring that all of our children have an equal opportunity to access the groundwork essential for a successful and rewarding life.

Post-Truth Politics

Friday lunch time was spent listening to Roger Phillips’ phone-in on Radio Merseyside. I made a point of it as I knew that Mayor Anderson was his guest. There was the usual range of questions, familiar to anyone elected as a political representative – dog-fouling, run-down areas, alley gates – the everyday issues which grab the attention of voters.

Then came a question from Roger to the mayor, on the role of metro-mayors. I was quite taken with the mayor’s response, that he would be working hard for the successful election of Steve Rotheram as metro-mayor when the election is held in May.  Indeed, he sounded enthusiastic about the prospect. This surprised me, given the email which the mayor has sent to members of Liverpool Labour Group, and an open letter which he has written to the Liverpool Echo. These centred on an article in the Liverpool Echo.

In his email to councillors, the mayor admits to “openly criticising Steve”, calling Steve’s comments “truly ignorant”. The mayor’s basic complaint is that Steve had made “an implicit attack on the work of (Liverpool) council” in the Echo, quoting a headline as “unforgiveable and suggests no interest in your election as a councillor”.

When I read this, I was truly flabbergasted.  Firstly, anyone who knows anything about the media knows that journalists write headlines, not interviewees (By the way, the offending headline said, according to the mayor – “I will build homes for the city’s homeless”. The actual headline online was “New homes for rough sleepers pledge from metro-mayor candidate”).  I have carefully read the article in question, and could see nothing to which ANYONE could take exception. In it Steve praised the “excellent” work of the six local authorities. There was NO reference at all to Liverpool specifically.

In fact, what Steve was saying was entirely in line with the national Labour Party policy and campaign set out by parliamentary spokesman, John Healey. It was also entirely consistent with the responsibilities and competences of an incoming metro-mayor, with a remit across all six local authorities in the city-region, not simply Liverpool.

Having misled Liverpool councillors in his email that they were somehow being maligned by Steve, the letter to the Echo takes the mayor’s imagined grievances to a wider audience. He wrongly accuses Steve of “ignorance”, lacking “understanding”, and being plain “wrong”. He goes on to charge Steve with “gesture” politics, prescribing “an overly simple solution”.  All this because Steve echoed national policy whilst praising all of our local authorities for their excellent work!!

I am sorry to say that the mayor’s reaction to a perfectly reasonable interview – in which Liverpool was not even mentioned – is, at best, knee-jerk in nature, rebutting charges which have not been made; and claiming insults neither uttered nor implied. His final slander, suggesting that Steve was a man to “jump on bandwagons that criticise the city’s hard work”, was a fabrication too far.

The only conclusion to be drawn is that the mayor – well known for his vindictiveness and his ego – is still unable to come to terms with the fact that Labour Party members overwhelmingly preferred Steve to him as Labour’s metro-mayoral nominee. The mayor has done his best to date to tie in the future metro-mayor to an agenda constructed within the city-region’s Combined Authority by the mayor and his confederates. It seems as if he now wishes to set Labour councillors and the wider public against the selected Labour candidate in the run-up to the election.