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!