Development

A beguiling story emerges from a press report yesterday.  A Grade 2 listed building goes up in flames on a prestigious and expensive site in Woolton. No one yet knows how the mystery blaze began, whether by accident or arson; but the rumour mill turns. The developers had high hopes for top end luxury homes on the sought-after site. Their names? North Point Global.

The name rang a bell whilst reading this tale of woe. Checking back, I saw where I had come across this firm. The business-to-business website “Place North West Place“ had featured the company as “the development arm of PHD1” and quoted its chairman, Peter McInnes.

According to press reports last January, Mr McInnes was accused by the police of money laundering in a Proceeds of Crime hearing in Preston.  Shortly after this hearing, the PHD1 Group of companies was wound up, and the Bilt group was registered to take its place. “Place North West“ had also billed Mr McInnes as chairman of the PHD1 group, although he was never registered at Companies House as an officer or director of the group. However, director of the new Bilt group was Julie McInnes who, I am told, is the sister of Peter McInnes. He apparently now resides in Dubai from where he directs his business interests.

Curiously, I understand that the interests of PHD1 in various projects were transferred seamlessly to Bilt companies. They include massive projects at Chinatown and Pall Mall. Coincidentally, North Point Global list these same sites on their website, as part of their portfolio. It raises a simple question: how does this happen? The principal of a company is accused in court by the police of money laundering; the court is reminded that his previous business partner was convicted of drug importation; yet his business interests seem to flourish unhindered.

The question of due diligence arises amongst those who allow this to happen. Now, I know that the mayor and council in Liverpool rate transparency and accountability as rather low on their scale of priorities (remember, they abolished their own scrutiny panel!); but when contracts for development appear to be falling like confetti, surely someone, somewhere, should be looking at the bona-fides  of the self-styled “developers“ involved.  At present, bankrupts, con men and convicted criminals appear to be flourishing without anyone batting an eye lid. Is that the city we want?

Muscle in the City-Region

If you have half an hour to kill, get onto the Companies House website and check out the LCR Local Enterprise Partnership. This body has been overseeing government grants on Merseyside and Halton, of hundreds of millions of pounds for over twenty years, most intensively over recent times. It is classed as a development agency, but is listed as a private company, limited by guarantee. It was initiated by the Major government in 1992.

In those 26 years, this company – known familiarly as the LEP – at one time or another has had 90 directors, of whom about 15 have been local authority councillors. The latter have only ever been a token presence, always heavily outnumbered by the rest of the board who are mainly members of what I refer to as the local magistracy. They are appointed – never elected – on behalf of the local establishment although few are what we would normally describe as local. This group of people, responsible to no-one but themselves, make for interesting reading.

Their addresses are listed, ranging from Scotland to Bristol, and as far east as East Yorkshire. The bulk of them appear to live in leafy Cheshire, far removed from the LCR conurbation. Naturally, they include representatives of businesses with investments in the area like Peel and Stobart’s, and others represent business through various chambers of commerce. There is also a fair number of quangocrats and former civil servants.  Marianne Neville-Rolfe, for example, headed up the Government Office for London.

Even a chief constable and university vice-chancellors kept seats warm. Despite being elected by no-one, these worthies decided where investment would be made. Unsurprisingly, those on the board represented interests which were recipients of huge benefits through the LEP. It is true to say that democratically elected local representatives on the LEP board were mere window dressing. The real decisions were made by the local establishment.

This situation sums up what I consider to be at the root of the current political malaise at both a local and a national level. An illusion persists that power resides with our elected representatives; but it is an illusion, and explains why little seems to change with a change of government or of a council. Of course, we can all point to relatively minor adjustments made by new administrations. Worthy although they might be, they do not address the fundamental question of where power lies, as opposed to where it should lie. Hopefully, a younger generation are waking up to this and will demand the transfer of power to where it should reside – with the people and their elected representatives.

Our own local privileged minority has been well represented on the LEP and benefitted from it. They continue to do so. I wonder why our local political leaders continue to give it credibility when it seems to prioritise the interests of a clique who arrogantly ignore the ballot box, circumventing accountability behind the smokescreen of local authority participation.

Incidentally, the LEP staff is, if Mayor Anderson was to have his way, to metamorphose into a third incarnation, as the support staff for the Combined Authority and the new metro-mayor. This staff began life as the Merseyside Tourist Board before transforming into the LEP. Now, Mayor Anderson and his familiar, Ged Fitzgerald, propose that they take up this new role at an average salary of £100,000 pa under the leadership of ….Ged Fitzgerald!! Thank goodness Steve Rotheram has already forewarned that such arrangements would be unacceptable to him as metro-mayor.

Areas of Concern

Two matters rearing their heads in the media recently, create alarm in many quarters. The first issue is a “report” into alleged infiltration into the Liverpool Riverside CLP. I am no expert on that particular party, nor would I claim specific information relevant to it. However, I do have extensive knowledge and experience of entrism in the Labour Party, and of evidential reports supporting claims of it.

Having read the “report” quoted (originally in “The Guardian”), I have concluded that it has no merit whatsoever. It is a farrago of smears, unsubstantiated allegations, insinuations, and imputations. When the Labour Party was trying to excise Militant entrists from its midst, this “report” would have been laughed out of court. It simply fails to make the most basic case that there is a takeover of Liverpool Riverside CLP underway.

In fact, what has been described has been the experience of most constituency parties for as long as I can remember, with some members aspiring to run a constituency party differently from the incumbents. Accusations of anti-Semitism (in more than fifty years in the party, I have never witnessed an instance of it) or of aggressive debate (rather, passionate debate) are unsustainable and unsubstantiated, and certainly bear no resemblance to the days of Militant’s influence. I trust that Labour’s National Executive Committee will waste no time discussing this document.

The second issue to arise comes courtesy of trade journal “Place North West”, a must read for property developers. It is calling on interested parties – i.e. businesses – to bid for projects to be financed from the Single Investment Fund. This is supposed to be under the authority of the Combined Authority and the metro mayor. It is worth £257 million over the next five years, and bidding for the first round closes on December 9th, 2016.

The missing piece in this jigsaw is the metro mayor – we do not yet have on! However, it illustrates how the Combined Authority under the current chairmanship of Mayor Anderson, and serviced by his familiar, Ged Fitzgerald, appears to be committing the funding available in advance of the election of a metro mayor. Whilst what is being done is perfectly within the scope of existing agreements with government, is it within the spirit of the putative role of an elected metro mayor? The latter is in grave danger of being shackled into someone else’s agenda. Is that what we are to vote for next May?

Scrutiny

Just before the start of the summer recess, an interesting letter of clarification was put by a government minister into the House of Lords library – a regular way for the government of the day to express its authority. Lord Bourne’s letter set out the government’s view on mayoral scrutiny, initially referring to existing legislation.

He repeated what we know – that the chair of a given mayoral scrutiny panel must not be of the same party as the mayor in question. In the case of Liverpool, the position was held by then Liberal Party councillor, Hazel Williams. No longer a councillor since 2015, she was not an effective chair of the scrutiny panel. In fact, she was so ineffective, that Liverpool’s mayor was able to scrap the scrutiny panel altogether without any problem whatsoever. One wonders what the minister’s view is on that affront to transparency and accountability.

However, Lord Bourne does refer in his letter to the position of incoming metro mayors. He is unequivocal in stating the present government’s intention to tighten up via secondary legislation this autumn. The independent chair of each scrutiny panel will be recruited via “an open, competitive process…..in response to a public advertisement”.

Whilst his intention is clear, I will not hold my breath, having witnessed the cavalier disregard for scrutiny in Liverpool. When the actual legislation is tabled will be the time to judge. The minister also reiterated the government’s commitment to the city-region of £30 million per year of devolved funding, for thirty years. It seems to me that the Combined Authority is hell-bent on committing those monies to their pet schemes before an elected metro mayor takes up the reins of office!!

Effective scrutiny now might help to ensure that an incoming metro mayor is not hogtied even before taking office. It would be unforgivable for Labour leaders to be party to such a mean-minded strategy, particularly as the Labour nominee is the favourite to be the successful candidate next May.

Facing Reality

Phillip Blond is a well-connected Tory from Liverpool.  He owns a private company – ResPublica – often wrongly described as a think tank.  It is, in fact, better termed a consultancy – set him an agenda and he will give you an acceptable answer….for a price. Mayor Anderson paid him on behalf of the Combined Authority, £100,000 for a report on HS2. In today’s paper, ResPublica describes itself as “centre/right “.

I thought of Mayor Anderson’s fondness for such Tories (remember Heseltine’s freedom of the city?) whilst watching  television footage of a Northern Powerhouse panel held in Manchester, where Mayor Anderson was sitting alongside another Tory – the apostle of austerity, the sacked chancellor, George Osborne.  As they swapped jokes, they announced how they were to be joined in their endeavours to promote Osborne’s agenda, by Michael Bloomberg, billionaire former mayor of New York. Apparently, they are collectively intending to advise the new metro mayors in Liverpool and Manchester, on how to run their new fiefdoms.

Had they, I wondered, bothered to ask if their advice was required or welcomed?  Of course, the answer is no – the metro mayors do not come in until next May. It is, however, another sign of the determination of, frankly, losers to embed their own agenda in the north west, pre-empting the options facing the eventual elected city-region mayors. These kinds of pressure foreshadow an extremely difficult challenge for incoming metro mayors when they come to establish their own priorities.

The political myopia of Mayor Anderson in all of this is puzzling. The incoming metro mayor for the Liverpool City Region will have a bigger personal mandate than his own as elected mayor of Liverpool. When it comes to numbers and powers at the Combined Authority, Mayor Anderson cannot win. The new powers given to the metro mayor are not yet fully measurable: but a canny political operator with wide support will, without doubt, be able to counter any attempt to shackle the office of metro mayor.

Manoeuvring of this sort would be in no one’s political interests; but the sense remains that Joe Anderson is not yet ready to accept the inevitable – i.e. that he is not going to be king of the LCR political castle. As of May, there will be a new figure leading the Combined Authority.  It will not be a time for ego, but a time to recognise that the progress of the LCR as a whole will be led and inspired by the metro mayor, not by the leader of one component authority within it.

Frustrated Ambition

Has a collective madness overwhelmed the Labour Party? The national farce is bad enough as it staggers from crisis to crisis; but there are suggestions of a more localised infection. The latest Liverpool snippet is that mayor Anderson has considered standing as an independent in next year’s metromayoral election.

I do not know the truth of this, but I would not be surprised. Ever the poor loser, nevertheless Joe would be mad to go down this route.  Having been clearly rejected by Labour Party members as their candidate next May, he would garner little support amongst the wider electorate. However, he has always been determined to be king of the castle. Remember his threat to withdraw Liverpool from the Combined Authority when the other leaders failed to make him its chairman?

This is where a more immediate worry creeps in. It appears that Mayor Anderson and his Liverpool acolytes are trying to pre-empt where they can, any future decisions by an elected metromayor. The Labour candidate for the role – Steve Rotheram – is the favourite for the job in May. He has already made it clear that he will not be bound by decisions made in advance of May’s election, which would have the effect of restricting his freedom of manoeuvre if elected metromayor .

The leaders of the five other councils will be vital in ensuring that the spirit and the letter of the legislation covering the Combined Authority and the metromayoralty are kept. Whilst they can do little to restrain Mayor Anderson from acting pre-emptively in his Liverpool  barony, they can ensure that nothing is done via the Combined Authority which would attempt to shackle the future metromayor.

I am sure that they are astute enough to recognise that failure to control Mayor Anderson on the Combined Authority would guarantee conflict in the city-region post May, 2017. That would not be in either the boroughs’ interests or in those of the Labour Party. One man’s frustrated ambition cannot be allowed to create a future confrontation with an elected metromayor.