Education, Education, Education!

I heard on this morning’s radio that a “report” from an “independent think tank” had been commissioned by Knowsley Council. It covered the appalling history of educational failure in secondary education in the borough (its primary performance has been very good). We all welcome councils which face up to their responsibilities seriously; and I was particularly concerned with this issue, having been party to a previous report on the same subject.

That report was written three years ago by the think tank ExUrbe. I wondered if Knowsley Council had backtracked on their hostile reaction to that report, but I was wrong. This was a supposedly new report by ResPublica, given credibility by the media; but it added little analysis to the ExUrbe report. Of course, I say this with caution, as I speak on the basis of that massaged message via extensive news coverage. My attempts to find the unexpurgated version of ResPublica’s submission on the council’s website went unrewarded. I could not even see a mention of it in the Education Improvement Service section – the place one would most expect to find it.

ResPublica charges a lot of money. Mayor Anderson coughed up £100,000 a couple of years ago, on behalf of the Combined Authority, for a thin report on HS2 – most notable for stating the blindingly obvious. Knowsley Council presumably paid a handsome some for this report which appears to add very little to what was already known about education provision in Knowsley.

Its main recommendation is the reintroduction of grammar schools in Knowsley. Unsurprisingly, the Daily Torygraph was in full support of this suggestion, as have various Tory spokespersons throughout the day. Grammar schools are, after all, a key policy priority of Theresa May. Once again, Labour voters are being hoodwinked on this report’s objectivity; for the spokesman for ResPublica – and the organisation’s owner –is a leading Tory and a friend of failed prime minister, David Cameron.

In fact, ResPublica is not a think tank as that term is commonly understood – that is, a non-profit making charitable body. It is a private, profit making company owned by London-based Scouser, Philip Blond. It is a consultancy and public relations firm rather than a think tank. Remember the old definition of a consultant?  “A man (sic) who borrows your watch to tell you the time – and then charges you for the privilege”.

If I sought an objective analysis of the education challenges in Knowsley, I would commission a truly reputable and genuinely independent organisation to do the work. If I wanted a whitewash of years of managerial failure, I would bring in consultants to give me the answers that suited that purpose, rather than give me the unvarnished, if unpalatable, truth .

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Keeping in Touch

The pitfalls in politics are many and manifest; yet all too often, politicians are distracted by other “opportunities”. Take this past week as an example – it could be taken as a masterclass in local political communication. Our source? The generally inadequate local media, which, nevertheless, can be a useful barometer of local political weather.

Whilst the leaders of Wirral and Liverpool councils were grandstanding in China (again, pre-empting the advent in May of a metro-mayor), stories were current which threw a light on the degree to which local councils were attuned to grass roots concerns. It began in Wirral.

Extensive coverage of the cancellation of Liscard’s Christmas tree due to vandalism last year may appear a minor issue, but it set the tone for a bigger story. That was the unexplained collapse of the Neptune project to rejuvenate Birkenhead town centre. This has caused widespread consternation, and led to well-publicised complaints from Birkenhead market traders about their particular position. Naturally, the political opposition made capital of this state of affairs. The council’s response was the announcement of the cancellation of its programme of bonfire and firework displays around the borough, in favour of a joint display with Liverpool on the Mersey.

Now I know that Wirral is suffering horrendous cuts like other councils, and that Wirral has planned a newsletter to keep residents informed. Yet transparency and clear communication is a cost free way of keeping residents onside – there can be no excuse for keeping the electorate in the dark. Proper communication of council actions is a pre-requisite in the modern age. To give the impression of remoteness or indifference is political suicide.

At the same time, in Liverpool, an issue arose over the mysterious disappearance of playground equipment from city parks. To be fair to the council, recognising that a parks issue can be toxic, Cllr Munby was fast out of the blocks with an apology and an explanation. Perhaps they are learning that information to residents is the best way to assert that prevention is truly better than cure.

To give further credit where it is due, Sefton Council illustrated this with coverage of its intentions for Bonfire Night – full and informative details of the council’s offer. These may seem minor issues to many councillors, but it is these seemingly small local matters which over time shape opinions of a council’s performance and ultimately determine its fate. The key is transparency and full information.

Property Speculation

What a strange world we now live in. It is as if Alice-in-Wonderland thinking is the order of the day. We have had the farcical Brexit referendum which has seen the spectacular demise of Cameron and Osborne, closely followed by the end of the prominence of Gove and Farage. The oddity is the inexplicable rise of leading anti-European campaigner, Boris Johnson, to the heady heights of Foreign Secretary, of all things.

Here on Merseyside, we have had our own version of political turmoil. Mayor Anderson had finally obtained the chairmanship of the LCR Combined Authority as a supposed precursor to being the Labour candidate for metro-mayor. It was not to be, after he was soundly beaten for the Labour nomination. Such are the ups and downs of politics at both a local and a national level.

If this roller coaster had halted there, local politics may have trundled on in the time-honoured fashion. Yet in Liverpool, another puzzling situation has arisen. The Municipal Buildings have been unsurprisingly put up for sale (Is there anything that the council will not flog off?). At the same time, it appears that the council is looking to buy the Liver Buildings. Where the money will come from, God only knows; but it is the council’s perception of its core purpose which I find disturbing.

Speaking to the media, Mayor Anderson’s  partner in enterprise – chief executive Ged Fitzgerald – talked of their ambition to buy the Liver Buildings, wondering if  “other investors” (my emphasis) would beat them to it. Quite apart from whether it is the role of a highly paid public servant to brief the media in this way, I was struck by the clear implication that Mr Fitzgerald saw himself (and presumably, the mayor) as an investor. It betrays a mindset. I rather thought that such senior people in the council were there to cater for public service, rather than see themselves as some type of property speculators.

It is little wonder that so many people assume that the sale of the Municipal Buildings was “boxed off” a long time ago, and now, it is merely a case of managing the public impact of that decision. After all, the “investor” mindset operates in that way. In the public mind, the idea that public servants and politicians might collude in such a way, is of little surprise, given the record of Liverpool City Council in recent years.

However, I did manage a wry smile when I read the figures given to the media in order to illustrate the council’s business acumen. Using the purchase of the Cunard Building as a comparator can only be done by once again conjuring up bogus valuations (as shown by various FOI answers). Given the mayor’s public claim that the city will go broke in 2018, it will be fascinating – to put it mildly – to see whether the city will end up broke, or simply burdened with over-valued vanity projects.

Protests Ahead?

Nine years ago, a deal was signed by the Peel group with fracking operators, Igas. The former gave the latter the rights to frack on their land in the north west, with particular reference to the Dee and Mersey estuaries. Now that national government has overruled local democracy in Lancashire to allow fracking there, a green light has been given to allow it everywhere.

Remember that there has already been great controversy over fracking on Peel land. That was the celebrated and much disputed drilling in Salford. Given that the Peel group has land holdings in each of the six local authorities in the Liverpool City Region, it is entirely possible that fracking could become an issue across the entire LCR.

It would be eminently sensible for the Combined Authority to reach some sort of consensus on fracking policy. After all, it has the makings of a major challenge for local authorities whether one approves of this process or not. One has only to look at the ongoing argument over Redrow’s proposal to build on Sefton Meadows, and Liverpool’s disastrous record on green spaces generally, to see the importance of such a sensitive environmental issue. Green issues do not – and will not – go away. At the very least, our local authorities should have a developed and comprehensively informed policy on fracking, rather than simply reacting to events and protests as and when they occur.

I would have hoped that Barrie Grunewald – one of the more progressive local leaders – would have taken the initiative on this, but sadly, he appears to have been incapacitated for some time to come. We all hope that he makes a speedy recovery, but, realistically, it will be some time before he can hope to resume his duties (I speak from personal experience on this, and know how tough it will be for him).

Meanwhile, I note the usual round of optimistic announcements about “development” proposals across the LCR. However, I must sound a note of caution about over-spinning of projects, or the repetition of previous announcements. Such hyped promises of future “goodies” in the community can lose their value with cynical citizens. Too often, hopes are raised only to lead to disappointment down the line. Failed promises simply feed the disenchantment which bedevils politics both locally and nationally.

Who runs the asylum?

A recent blog by Lib Dem Richard Kemp raised questions about the real ownership of Liverpool Airport, and the curious arrangements surrounding it. However, the blog does not really detail the baffling relationship between the Peel Group and Liverpool City Council, as exemplified by the airport.

In fact, there are at least three Liverpool airport companies – Liverpool Airport Ltd; Liverpool Airport Intermediate No.1 Ltd; and Liverpool Airport Property Holdings. The first company has as a director, Mr Robert Hough – senior Peel executive, former chair of the Local Enterprise Partnership, and close confidante of Mayor Anderson. The second company has Mayor Anderson himself on the board, where his familiar Ged Fitzgerald also sat until April 22nd of this year. The third company is blessed with the sagacity of councillors Ann O’Byrne and Malcolm Kennedy on the board.

Given that all three of these companies relate wholly and solely to Liverpool Airport, one might have imagined their business address as being at Speke, or, at least, in Liverpool. Not at all – they are all registered at the Peel headquarters in the Trafford Centre in Manchester. As with the Local Enterprise Partnership, it appears to be another case of an absentee landlord.

We should not be surprised at the opaque arrangements surrounding the airport. Peel have an incredibly complex organisational network, making it virtually impossible to keep tabs on them. Yet these arrangements, and the participation of senior council figures in them, help to frustrate objective scrutiny of the airport’s affairs. Given the council’s investment in it, this is unacceptable. Transparent it is definitely NOT!

The airport’s ownership’s administrative base in Manchester, reminds one of another lesser known local interest – the Chrysalis Fund. Ostensibly a pot of funding from the European Regional Development Fund, it is dedicated to regeneration on Merseyside and is scheduled to run until 2022. Its worth is said to be initially £30 million (Chrysalis management) to £39 million (the Local Enterprise Partnership). One thing is certain – this fund is also run from Manchester.

All contact numbers and its office, are down the other end of the M62. Given that its three active partners/administrators who actually run the fund, are Manchester-based, this is no shock. These private-sector companies are the Royal Bank of Canada, Igloo Regeneration, and Bilfinger GVA. I suppose that we should be grateful to have two LCR councillors on the board – Ann McLachlan of Wirral and Malcolm Kennedy of Liverpool. Or should we?