Welcome to Open Government

A simple question to the City Council:

“What is the most recent valuation of the Cunard Building; and which firm has given the valuation?”

Answer?  It is worth £27 million but we cannot tell you how we arrived at that figure, nor can we tell you who the valuers were. Why?  “We no longer hold any information on this… Our retention of emails or any other correspondence has nothing to do with our accountancy practices.” Honestly, you could not make this up!

It is either a farrago of lies, or gross incompetence. I do not wish to believe it is the former. Therefore, I looked for evidence of the latter, and found it in how they award contracts without exercising due diligence. Let me give an example.

The council awarded a company in the PHD1 Group a number of contracts. It went into administration some weeks ago – not unusual in the world of business – but did so after police stated in open court that PHD1’s chairman, Peter McInnes, associated with heroin dealers and laundered their money  (incidentally, McInnes is nowhere listed as owner or director of PHD1 although he is quoted as its chairman).

Listed owner of the companies is family member Julie Caroline McInnes.  On the 2nd February last, Ms McInnes registered a group of companies called the Bilt Group, and she is listed as their sole shareholder. Miraculously, as PHD1 went into administration, the contracts awarded to it by the City Council, were transferred to Bilt within days. These companies have shared directors and business addresses. Now they have shared contracts.

Now I may not be the world’s sharpest business person, but I would have thought that in these circumstances, the council would have seen fit to intervene in some way. That is, exercised due diligence about those with whom they are dealing. Apparently, they have chosen not to do so. Can anyone tell council tax payers what is going on??

Telling the Truth

I had an argument with a relation. He favours Brexit – leaving the EU. As we became more embroiled in our discussion, he repeatedly confused the European Commission with the European Union. I had to give him an instant lesson into how the EU works, and the roles of the Commission (its civil service) and its parliament.

Luckily, I had been a minister at various EU meetings, representing the UK. I was able to explain how governments decide most of what is done in Europe, not bureaucrats. The latter, like our own Sir Humphreys, are there to implement ministerial decisions, not to tell us what to do.

Those arguing to leave the EU have never accepted our membership of the EU, and have repeatedly misrepresented it. We on Merseyside know only too well how European funding gave us a funding lifeline denied us by the British government. One hopes that the British people will not be misled by attempts to deliberately confuse the issues of the EU referendum.

I was reinforced in this concern by the travails of Bernie Sanders in the New York Democratic primary, True to his honesty, Bernie- himself Jewish – has been viciously attacked for criticising the Israeli government. This is not unusual. When I was an MP, colleagues Harry Cohen and Gerald Kaufmann were subjected to vilification as “self haters” for expressing similar views.

Others, of course, are just smeared as anti-Semitic for having the effrontery of criticising a foreign government, as that criticism is deliberately conflated with anti- Semitism. Like with the issue of membership of the EU, there are those who set out to condition the wider public with calculated confusion.

By such means, the debate is stifled, and lies are transmuted into the truth. The Labour Party’s values are intended to overcome such obfuscation, as we all battle to inform people of the objective realities which they face. Transparency in all things ought to be our clarion call.

 

Liverpool LCR LEP

Robert Hough, carrying the baton for the Peel Group, has now formally notified Members of Parliament of his intention to resign as chairman of the LEP at the end of June.  He has cited “new structures” in his email. Perhaps he is referring to the Combined Authority of which he is a member, although he is elected by nobody, and accountable to nobody. We should be mindful that no other Combined Authority in the country has such an anti-democratic practice.

Spin until your are dizzy

Full marks to the mayoral spin doctors for getting coverage for their man for a third night on the trot. They must have something on the editor!! It must be a first for a Labour candidate to get such exposure in “The Echo” for a local election. Fresh back from his American freebie, the mayor must be chuffed.

However, a Commonwealth Games bid is not all it seems. We will “consider hosting the 2026 Commonwealth Games”, says the mayor. Sorry, Joe, you have this wrong. The games organisers will consider Liverpool (if we apply), not the other way around. That is, if we can guarantee funding. Taking Glasgow as a guide – and they had the support of two governments – Liverpool’s contribution alone would be around £120 million. This a huge amount for a cash-strapped city in which Joe is giving money away to businesses like a drunken sailor. It also assumes more back from the government than they have taken away in grants under their austerity regime. Fat chance!

More worrying is the timetable. These games would be in ten years’ time, in 2026. Mayor Anderson says he will be off in 2017. There can, therefore, only be two explanations of a serious bid. Firstly is the assumption that Mayor Anderson believes he can bequeath to his city successors his diktat for what should happen in the city long after he has jumped from the Liverpool City Council ship.

The alternative explanation is that he is confident of winning the Labour nomination for LCR mayor and winning the post in 2017.Then he could, if successful, push for the games from his new position. However, what would his colleagues in the other authorities think of this? Who has been consulted? Or is it all just a flight of fancy? Joe’s business friends may be party to his plans, but what of his colleagues?

The timing of his letter seeking support from John Whittingdale is unfortunate to put it mildly. As the Secretary of State is being roasted over his liaison with a prostitute, he has other things on his mind than Joe’s election gimmicks. It does not augur well for a plea for financial aid. Nil points to the spinners for intelligent timing!!

Homes for Rent

There was something familiar in tonight’s “Echo” account of Mayor Anderson’s manifesto offer of “10000 new homes” for Liverpool. It was not just my recollection of the same pledge four years ago, but the fact that “The Echo” ran the same manifesto story last night. I cannot recall an “Echo” editor being so supportive of an administration at election time as to give them two bites of the cherry!

Notwithstanding “The Echo” being so eager to promote the mayor, I wondered whether Joe’s spin doctors have pushed a little too far on this one. After all, closer inspection of what is being claimed creates more than a little scepticism. Housing need is far too important an issue than to fall victim to spin; and more questions are raised with these proposals than answers. Claiming, for example, that “30000 people in the city could benefit “ is pure speculation and highly improbable. Let us look at some facts.

The suggested cost of £1 billion is a ballpark figure and probably widely inaccurate. Nevertheless, it would be a huge amount for any council to take on, much less one as indebted as Liverpool is. Everyone would support a massive injection of funds into housing, providing homes for those in need, but I am wholly unconvinced that such an investment into Liverpool would be forthcoming whilst this government is in power, and its policies current.

Let us suppose the funding did become available. I would want to see how “rent to buy” would apply to those most in need of housing – those who are economically more marginal in our society. These are on low incomes – what would attract them to a scheme which will inevitably be more expensive on a weekly basis? All of the evidence suggests that these people want and need an affordable rental home. Mrs Thatcher’s council house sales passed these people by, giving rise, in part, to the present crisis. Is this not just the same Tory myth of a property-owning working class by another route?

We also must note the use of brownfield sites which is central to these proposals. Those listed in “Norris Green, Croxteth, Fazakerley, and south Liverpool” are presumably the sites of clearances of former council properties. Others suggested, like the former Garden Festival site, are highly contaminated and would require very expensive remediation before any houses could be built on them.

The Garden Festival site is intriguing. Not only toxic, but bought back from Langtry’s by Mayor Anderson, thus bailing the builder out. Langtry’s failed to live up to their promises to build on the site – why should the mayor be more successful? Mind you, he had said that the site – post Langtry – would be kept as a green space for the people of Liverpool. Is that now to be another change of direction?

Similarly, the inclusion of Liverpool Waters is bizarre. At the launch of the Liverpool Waters scheme, Peel said it had an implementation timetable of fifty years! Also, the proposed homes within the project were to be mainly flats, without provision for families or pensioners. Are not these amongst the needy homeless? Has Mayor Anderson forgotten the Vacant Dwellings Initiative – sponsored by his chum Lord Heseltine – whereby Liverpool Council demolished over 4000 flats because no-one wanted to live in them?

We should not dismiss the idea of a local authority housing company – a de facto housing department, as it were. It could plug a gap in meeting public need; but proposals must be based on realistic plans rather than election-time spin.

Perhaps what is most curious is that the mayor should make proposals which he clearly has no intention of implementing. He cannot do so, given his declared intention of resigning , if re-elected as mayor, after one year, in order that he might stand as the Labour nominee for the new post of Mayor of the Liverpool City Region. I fear that Mayor Anderson has been unduly influenced by his builder and developer friends on these rushed election promises. I trust that they will be openly debated before any commitment is entered into.

Candidates for Liverpool Mayor

I have just seen the candidates aiming to be Liverpool mayor. At the outset, I must declare an interest. I did not vote for the unchallenged Labour nominee, Joe Anderson. However, regardless of my view, he is Labour’s candidate which raises another question in my mind.

Next year sees the election of a city-region mayor, a much bigger job; and Joe Anderson has made clear his intention of standing for it, determined as he is to be boss of the city-region. Therefore, Liverpool Labour has nominated him for the 2016 city mayor post in the full knowledge that he hopes to resign inside twelve months.

This strikes me as extraordinary. The Liverpool mayoral post is being treated as a twelve-month job creation scheme for the benefit of one man (assuming that (a) he is re-elected in May; (b) he wins the Labour nomination for the city-region post in 2017). Not only does this show a lack of political foresight, but it also begs the question: what does happen if the mayor packs up next year?

Rumour has it that Mayor Anderson has promised Ann O’Byrne the succession when/if he goes. However, regardless of his ego, it is not within his gift. Others in the Liverpool Labour Group believe that the council will revert to a council Leader model. In these important matters, there is the small matter of national legislation to consider. Of course, this is all speculation, presupposing that if Joe Anderson became Labour nominee next year for mayor of the city-region, he would win. I am not sure of either supposition.

It is no secret that I am no admirer of the Mayor and his brand of politics. His devious introduction of the mayoralty without wide debate and consultation, and without a referendum, was enough for me. His Tory friends may have been happy but it dismayed large numbers of people in Liverpool, denied what was on offer everywhere else. I am even more convinced of his unsuitability to lead the wider region. I recall how he stamped and sulked, threatening to take his ball home, when his fellow council leaders chose not to make him chairman of the combined authority.

His performance to date too often betrays Labour principles. He is opposed to transparency and accountability. Initially, he talked the talk, but has failed subsequently to walk the walk. There are few opposition councillors, and he cannot be blamed for that. Yet he ordered the scrapping of the mayoral scrutiny committee; refuses to answer questions; and his regime is ignoring Freedom of Information legislation.

Secondly, he is preoccupied with developers. Before he closed down access to his diary, the little that was in it consisted of meetings with developers. Perhaps if he was to meet with critical constituents, he just might soften his harsh image.

Thirdly, Mayor Anderson ought to have learnt by now that crude, abusive and bullying behaviour and language (as reported by former Labour councillors) might sit well with some but alienates most people. Far too many people find him an embarrassment to this fine city, despite his office’s attempts to spin his image.

Finally, his expenditure of £89,000 of council taxpayers’ money on his personal legal costs for his employment tribunal is a scandal. It suggests a money-grubbing approach to   public life which does a disservice to all of those councillors committed to working on behalf of their fellow citizens rather than themselves. Tagged onto his new-found fondness for freebie trips to Monaco and America, a new level of cynicism is promoted in the public’s mind towards politics and politicians.

Local Enterprise Partnership

Most people have never heard of local enterprise partnerships. I suspect that many elected representatives are equally ignorant. Sad, because they are very influential bodies, doling out loads of public funds, and determining the economic priorities within their given area – in our case, the Liverpool City-Region( LCR ).

Ours consists of fifteen people – the leaders of the six local authorities together with nine representatives of business. No-one is elected to it; membership is by invitation. The chairman – Robert Hough – is a director of the ubiquitous Peel Group, and head of the latter’s airport division (they own Liverpool Airport). There is also a representative of the Stobart transport and logistics group. The vice-chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University has a seat, as does the local boss of giant American financial services group Grant Thornton (who happen to be district auditors for Liverpool, Wirral, St. Helens and Knowsley councils; Merseyside Police; Merseyside Fire and Rescue; and Merseyside Waste Disposal). The board of the LEP is completed with another five local business luminaries.

Make no mistake. The inclusion of local council chiefs simply adds a veneer of accountability to this body. The numbers are always stacked against the local council representation even if they were to try to defy its private sector thinking. The LEP tries to support its plans with consultants’ reports, but their objectivity is a moot point. One voluminous report on fracking in our area freely admitted to having ignored any environmental considerations. It also ignored reference to Peel’s published agreement with a drilling group. to open up their extensive Merseyside and Deeside estate to their controversial drilling rigs.

I followed up on another report, compiled, as it turned out , by an eager-to-please one man band “consultancy“ based in Lymm, Cheshire. This man had managed to secure lucrative LEP business within 2 years of setting up his £1 company. Personally, I would be uneasy at the prospect of basing economic policy on the basis of such relative inexperience.

Reading through the minutes of LEP meetings, I was struck by its practical – i.e.financial – and moral support for the four Enterprise Zones established by central government. After all, two of these four sites – Wirral Waters and Liverpool Waters – are owned by our old friends the Peel Group. I am certain that Peel’s man on the LEP declares his interest when these sites are raised, just as he does with Liverpool Airport (now being subsidised by Mayor Anderson).

What is also striking in the minutes is the LEP’s bias towards transport and logistics infra structure. Perhaps this is simply a reflection of Liverpool’s position as a commercial centre. There are, however, other important areas of the local economy, including manufacturing, tourism, and higher education. We all wish the seaport and airport do well, but is it wise to put so many eggs in so few baskets?

The government-funded Growth Deals have amounted to £263 million. The LEP apportions this as follows: £180 million on transport projects; £41 million on skills training; and £5 million on the International Business Festival. The rest is scattered across the local economy. These weighty allocations offer some companies a massive lift, whilst other are left to whistle in the wind.

Last week, Manchester once again surged ahead, with the devolution from Whitehall of a £6 billion+ health and social care budget. Not long ago, they were able to announce a real investment of £1 billion in their airport – no hopes or wish lists, but genuine committed investment (Mr. Hough, as a Manchester resident, must have been pleased). Nevertheless, they are having a healthy debate about governance in their city-region. Meanwhile, here in the Liverpool City Region, it transpires that the Chairman of the LEP – elected by no-one and accountable to no-one – has mysteriously been elevated to full, voting membership of the Combined Authority due to run the city-region alongside an elected mayor, from 2017. Nowhere else in the country has such an undemocratic stunt been tolerated.