The Company One Keeps

To my surprise, Mayor Anderson’s return home from his freebie in Monaco with his favoured developer friends, was not marked by the usual hype about non-existent investment. By now, we would normally have had a public relations blizzard of announcements. On this occasion, the only blurb has come from his chums at Peel, with a tired repeat of their “plans” for Prince’s Dock.

Pondering on the mayor’s unusual reticence, I opened my “Echo” to find another editorial column by one of his dubious friends. It was written by disgraced former deputy city council leader, Derek Hatton. I recalled with dismay attending a political reception hosted by the mayor for former Labour leader, Ed Miliband. Mayor Anderson had Mr Hatton as a guest of the political party which had kicked him out! I no more understood Mayor Anderson’s thinking then than I do that of the “Echo” editor now.

Mind you, the mayor has a touch of a political St. Jude – the patron saint of lost causes. Another close friend and adviser of his is Mr Frank McKenna. Mr McKenna is another former deputy council leader – in his case, of Lancashire County Council. Like Mr Hatton, he was a controversial politician, whose political career collapsed ignominiously following a police investigation into an expenses scandal in which he was embroiled.

However, last year, Mr McKenna returned Lazarus-like to local politics. The good people of Skelmersdale, where he lives, elected him to West Lancashire District Council. He immediately had himself sent as that council’s observer to the Liverpool City-Region group. This gives him a splendid opportunity to provide support for his good friend Mayor Anderson in his quest to be king of the city-region castle.

The timing is good as Mayor Anderson may need all the support he can get if his ambitions are to be met. Questions are still being raised about his use of public money – £89,000 – for his private tribunal case. There is also confusion around his fund-raising activities. As more queries are raised, so are the odds against his power bid.

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Merseyside and the Peel Group

In the weird and wonderful world of the Liverpool City Region, it is increasingly difficult to distinguish fact from fiction.  This is partly due to the reluctance of the local authorities to be transparent, denying their frustrated masters – i.e. council tax payers – a full and open account of their activities.  It is also partly a result of the effect of spin, whereby truth is distorted to the advantage of the spinners.

I pondered on these phenomena in recent days after announcements of good news for Merseyside (we never hear the dark side).  First, there was a curious announcement of an extended dual carriageway alongside the docks.  In itself, not necessarily a bad thing;  but the suggestion that it would speed traffic from the new deep water terminal into the city centre, was bizarre.  All sensible transport planning would take traffic around a city centre, not through it.

Who, therefore might benefit from this project which entails a six month closure on some roads?  Not local businesses who are up in arms at the lack of consultation.  The only beneficiaries might be the Peel Group, and their hitherto phantasmagorical Liverpool Waters development.  At least, until reports came back from Mayor Anderson’s jolly in Monaco.

Peel’s promoter on Merseyside, Lindsey Ashworth, has floated, in his search for investors, building skyscrapers at Princes Dock.  If this was to eventuate (one never knows with Peel), their plans might further imperil our already threatened World Heritage status of the Three Graces waterfront.  Not that the mayor would be bothered – did he not describe World Heritage status as merely “a plaque on the wall in the Town Hall”?

An odd crowd, Peel, with odd friends.  They have hundreds of companies in their group, use tax havens, and are controlled from a private trust in the Isle of Man, owned by billionaire John Whittaker.  One of their top men – Roger Hough – is chairman of the Liverpool City Region Local Enterprise Partnership, although he lives outside of Merseyside.  This group – known as the LEP – also has the leaders of the six local authorities on it.  Mayor Anderson is said to be particularly close to Mr. Hough.  Without the inconvenience of either accountability or transparency, the LEP makes massive decisions about grants and economic development.  Only central government pulls their strings.

This is not a problem for Mayor Anderson, a prominent supporter of many government policies, and friend to leading Tories.  Only in this week’s budget was a pothole repair fund announced.  Coincidentally, on the same day, a council announcement gave the clear impression that it was a council initiative to fill in the pitted streets of the city.  Spin or substance?

The mayor’s real commitment is to a Tory philosophy which puts business before people – and then only a limited group of businesses.  His strategy appears to be dealing out money to private enterprises whilst making swingeing cuts to council services.  His latest benefaction was to buy a stake in loss-making Liverpool Airport.  Its owner?  Peel.

Meanwhile, a garbled story went the local rounds, concerning an actual building in Wirral Waters, involving John Moores University.  It is notable how much public funding is hoovered up by Peel projects (in the case of Salford’s Media City, literally hundreds of millions).  Not long ago, Peel were lauding a Chinese investment in Wirral Waters.

The supposed vehicle for this was called Sam Wa investments.  Peel formed a joint company with its owner, Stella Shiu.  The ‘Financial Times’ traced the company offices to a dilapidated wooden shack in southern China.  Last year, Lindsey Ashworth announced the break-up of the Peel/Sam Wa partnership.  Now, Wirral Council are said to be in talks with Sam Wa concerning a different investment in the borough.  Once again, the council is keeping its counsel on developments.  One can but wonder why!

The true cost of the Mayor

When tenacious local campaigner, Audrey O’Keefe, prised from the reluctant council, the fact that Mayor Anderson’s private tribunal fees cost council taxpayers £89,000, I was shocked.  All credit to Audrey for breaking through the mayoral policy of omerta.  How could a private matter be underwritten in this way?  The whole issue was to become even more serious when local blogger Inspector Digit did some excellent research.

Essentially, this research pinpoints repeated contradictions between submissions made to Mayor Anderson’s employment tribunal, and the published statements of the mayor, council officers, and even the government.  Remember, that this tribunal focused on Mayor Anderson’s claims against his former employer, Chesterfield High School in Sefton.

Ultimately, the Mayor’s claims were thrown out.  The substance of his dismissal was upheld by the tribunal – that is, that he was being paid for no work.  The only caveat against his dismissal was about the procedure used, not the facts.  A short resume of events prior to the tribunal is revealing:

May 2010                    Anderson becomes leader of LCC

July 2010                    Anderson seeks extra paid leave from his employer

November 2010       Anderson’s last involvement with the school

May 2011                    Anderson expresses dissatisfaction with his pay and pension        arrangements at Sefton

May 2012                   Anderson becomes Mayor of Liverpool

July 2012                    Anderson writes to his employer via the City Solicitor

September 2012      Anderson’s employment at the school is terminated

Subsequently, Mayor Anderson exercised his right to take his grievances to an employment tribunal.  However, this raised two areas of particular concern.  One is the involvement of council officers in a private matter.  The other is the veracity, or otherwise, of the evidence presented to the tribunal.

As Judge Franey said at the tribunal:

“It is unclear to me why the legal department of Liverpool should have been acting on behalf of the claimant in his private capacity.”

This questioning view was underscored in the Law Society Gazette by John Gregory of accountants Grant Thornton (district auditors for Liverpool) who told the Gazette that

“he had not come across any instances of council solicitors acting for leading members or officers on personal issues” adding “The general principle that this shouldn’t happen is, I would think , very well established, and the lawyers of all people should be very clear about this.”

There is no evidence available to suggest that the issue before the tribunal was anything but a private matter.  As Mayor Anderson himself has made repeatedly clear:

  • Legal advice from the council was “legally privileged” and a private matter
  • His losses within the Local Government Pension Fund (his key concern at the tribunal) were a private matter
  • Letters to Chesterfield High School were a private matter
  • His salary at Chesterfield was a private matter

Nevertheless, according to Mark Hale, a senior Sefton council officer, the then interim chief executive of LCC – David McElhinney – and the city solicitor were heavily involved in this private case, without any legitimate locus.  Why have they not been held to account for this?  Why has the district auditor done nothing?

The latter is particularly intriguing.  In the mid-80s, the then district auditor ensured that 49 councillors were banned and surcharged over a notional loss to the city of £106,000.  By what reasoning is this loss of £89,000 justifiable in current circumstances?

The second area of concern is the veracity of the statements made repeatedly to the tribunal, claiming to represent Mayor Anderson’s income over time, as leader of the Opposition, leader of the Council, and as mayor.  There is also the question of Mayor Anderson’s stated intentions, in the tribunal and elsewhere, and the objective reality of his actions in relation to his income.

The tribunal heard that, as leader of the Opposition, Mayor Anderson received an allowance (common to all councillors) of £10,000, together with a special responsibility allowance (as Opposition leader) of £21,000.  This was untrue.  The latter figure was £12,193.

Next, the tribunal heard that Mayor Anderson “made clear that if he were appointed leader of the Council, he would not draw any additional money from Liverpool funds”.  Clearly, this was not the case.  On accession to the leadership, he immediately drew down an extra £25,500, giving him a gross income at that time of c. £52,200.

Quoting the city solicitor, the tribunal was further told that “in keeping with an election commitment [the Mayor] did not draw that full amount but only so much as was necessary to keep his gross income from the school and from his public duties, at £66,000”.  Wrong – he was, at that stage, drawing £77,000.

His income before he became mayor was also misrepresented.  It was suggested that he had received £66,000 per annum gross in 2011/12.  The actual figure was c. £56,000.

Even at Mayor Anderson’s appeal hearing, the same fiddling of figures occurred –

“Leader of the Council, which was in effect a full-time post with an annual allowance of approximately £50,000.”

This was what he drew down, in direct contradiction of what he had told the initial tribunal hearing on the 7th November 2014.  Why, you may ask, does all of this matter?  Very simply, because what emerges is an obvious attempt to portray Mayor Anderson as a selfless public servant, foregoing his full entitlements in his various public roles.  Although designed to influence the tribunal, it was patently untrue, and failed in its purpose.

Avarice and mendacity have no place in public life, nor in a tribunal.  Nor should public officials involve themselves in money-grubbing exercises on behalf of their political masters.  In any other walk of life, those involved in this profligate expenditure of £89,000 of taxpayers’ money, would be held to account.  Since the Standards Board has been abolished by the government, and given the servile nature of the current council, it seems unlikely that there is any local instrument of redress for outraged local people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Media

Journalists, like politicians and estate agents, tend to be low in people’s esteem.  Yet it was not always so – at one time, they were respected.  Thirty years ago, most people on Merseyside gleaned their information about what was going on from the Echo, the Daily Post, and Radios Merseyside and City.  National prizes came our way for the quality of their reporting, and the breadth of their coverage.  News came to a politically aware populace directly from Westminster and the Town Hall.  Compare that to today.

The Daily Post has gone, and the Echo is unrecognisable from its former self.  Football, advertising, violent crime, advertising, football – it reflects the priorities of the corporate world which now dominates the print media.  Meanwhile, local radio principally feeds us a diet of pop music, human interest stories … oh, and more football, the new opium of the masses.  The media’s days of concern with the real issues facing the city-region seem like a distant memory.

We are repeatedly told that the media have been fragmented by the explosion of the internet and social media.  There is some truth in this; but there is also ever less regard for current affairs and regional issues in the broadcast media.  At the same time, circulation of all print media appears to be in terminal decline. The internet and social media are said to be the new conduits of news and information.

The paradox is that there is less penetration of internet and social media use on Merseyside than in much of the country.  Huge numbers of local people continue to rely on traditional media for information about issues directly affecting them, and they are being ill-served.

In the Echo, they are given the right wing bigotry of Joe Riley on the one hand, or the worthless opinions of Derek Hatton on the other.  The last attempts at investigative reporting in the only remaining “local” paper were made by Marc Waddington.  For his pains, his editor exiled him to North Wales.  The “letters” column has turned D. Jeffreys of Heswall and M. Dunford of Frodsham into household names, so frequently are their nostalgic musings published.

Over on Radio Merseyside, everyone’s favourite uncle – Roger Phillips – has been neutered into a bland and unchallenging man of the people.  The radio news seems to consist of a mixture of national news bulletin reports, and council press releases.

Of course, there have been cutbacks in the budgets of all media organisations, and these have had an effect.  However, there has also been an adoption of a “bread and circuses” approach to their listeners/readers (we can ignore television – its regional focus is Manchester, not Liverpool – unless it is a violent crime issue!).

The harsh reality is that the people of Merseyside are getting a raw deal, deprived of the information, and of the critical analysis, which would enable them to have an informed understanding of what is being done in their name. The fourth estate is failing them!

Local Education – or lack of it!

It is tragic to read recent reports highlighting educational failures in Liverpool and Knowsley. Both councils supported the “Better Schools for the Future” programme, and both are now paying the cost. In Liverpool, the newly-built Parklands school now lies empty and forlorn, whilst Knowsley, having a similarly deserted newly built school, is now closing down its last sixth-form.

It is not just wasted money, but wasted opportunities in education and elsewhere. The massive debts for these white elephants will be with us for years because of political weakness and ignorance of what is really needed. Quality buildings are desirable but do not of themselves give quality education. Throwing blame around will do nothing to improve matters. One cannot take credit when things appear to be successful, only to disown responsibility when things go wrong.

Knowsley has a particular problem. It gives very good primary education, only for parents to vote with their feet and send their children to surrounding boroughs for their secondary education. Liverpool, meanwhile, is bedevilled with a system of governance within which no-one appears to question the decisions made by the mayor. It is little wonder that there are foul-ups.

Perhaps the two boroughs should combine their education departments in the hope that between them, they might come up with solutions to their problems. This year, Knowsley (quite rightly) is slashing its number of councillors. Liverpool should do the same, and spend the savings on education. In fact, with the advent of a city-region mayor in 2017, we might as well merge both councils with even bigger savings, and, hopefully, educational improvements.

 

European Union: In or Out?

People allegedly have short memories.  How many on Merseyside recall the boost that Objective One funding from Europe gave to the area when it was on its knees? Chancellor Geoffrey Howe had proposed “the managed decline“ of Liverpool. Happily, the then European Commissioner – Bruce Millan – and local MEP, Ken Stewart, had different ideas.

Whilst our own government wanted to dump Merseyside, they set out from Brussels to pump millions into our local struggle to keep going. Despite the opposition of the British government, it was a turning point for the whole of Merseyside.

The Liverpool Riverside constituency probably had more Objective One funding invested within it during those years than any other single constituency. Nevertheless, it has polled the lowest turnout in European elections. Is there no consideration in people’s minds as to how much we owe the much-maligned European Union and its commission?

Professional football must love Mayor Anderson

Professional football must love Mayor Anderson. He was quick to buy Everton’s training ground at Finch Farm in Knowsley. Then he bobbed up with a scheme to devastate Walton Park with a new stadium for the same club. Having now done a deal with Liverpool to provide privileged parking on a council-owned site, for high rollers buying into their new stand, he is now glad-handing the very top of the professional tree.

Meeting with Greg Dyke, head of the Football Association, he has announced millions of our money for they and the Premier League to refurbish football facilities around the city. He does not say from where the money will come. Could it be the council’s missing Section 106 money, which is supposed to be ring-fenced for parks and open spaces? Nor does he say what the Merseyside Youth Association and its members think . After all, they have long term leases on three of the four proposed sites.

True to form, council tax payers and user amateur football clubs will be presented with a fait accompli. I am in no doubt that residents around at least two of the sites will be concerned; and that user amateurs will have to fork out excessive fees to use the facilities.

This is inevitable as once again the council – aka Mayor Anderson – is proposing that the responsibility for these “new” facilities be given to a “trust”. These have become the cure-all for formerly council-held responsibilities. The problem is that these trusts have no funds, and so will need to charge enough to pay for the upkeep of the facilities passed on to them. This is bound to hit those least able to pay.

We all want to see improved sport and leisure facilities but not to the disadvantage of those least able to afford them. It is notable that our city is the national pilot for this football joint venture. In a year when the professional game is raking in record billions, the mayor is committing cash-strapped Liverpool to subsidise a sport which is already bleeding the public dry for the benefit of a handful of millionaire owners and players. Is this the city’s civic priority, roundabout handouts to the rich?