Voters’ Trust

The received wisdom is that when elected representatives lose meaningful contact with the electorate, they pay the price at the ballot box. This was obviously the case in the recent Copeland and Stoke by-elections. The former was won by the Tories by default, whilst the latter underlined the mountain which Labour has to climb, and the post-Brexit irrelevance of UKIP and its hapless leader.

There are plausible arguments that the Labour Party faces a serious threat in its northern English heartlands, to match the meltdown which occurred in Scotland. Many would ascribe the blame for this solely to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, but I believe that would be mistaken. He certainly carries some responsibility, but the downward spiral of the Labour Party long pre-dates his time as leader. For me, it was encapsulated in the indiscreet tag of “bigot” which Gordon Brown used about a Labour voter when she had the temerity to ask him about immigration. It showed how out of touch the party was with common sentiment amongst Labour supporters.

On a local level, labelling electors as “cranks“- as Mayor Anderson did – has had a similar effect. It betrays a contempt for the voter, and they neither forgive nor forget such dismissive insults. When such contempt is tied to policies which are widely contested in the community, it is asking for trouble. Thus, when I read reports of Wirral council chopping transport provision for young disabled people, I could not believe it. I know there are difficult choices to be made, but who in their right political mind, would conjure up such an option – one so at variance with Labour values, and bound to antagonise so many?

Likewise the assault in Liverpool on green space. The council has already had a bruising electoral come-uppance  to its policy in the Woolton area. Learning nothing from that episode, it seems determined to alienate ever more electors by allowing ever more building on hitherto sacrosanct green space and parkland. So much so that few believe any council pronouncements on parks. On top of that, they are doing deals with favoured developers, not just for building, but even to flog off space in their allegedly iconic headquarters in Cunard Building.

The problem of growing numbers of disaffected voters is not restricted to Liverpool. In St. Helens, the rush to build has been met by a spontaneous growth of campaign groups in opposition. Of course, there will always be some against all such proposals, and some of it is “nimbyism” pure and simple. However, it would be a mistake to underestimate such phenomena. There are many traditional Labour voters ready to switch their allegiance – or stay at home – if they feel their views are being ignored. The perception can quickly grow that a distant, unresponsive council is doing things to the community rather than with and for it. This is what gave KRAG some impetus in Kirkby – the belief that the council was ignoring the town.

In a matter of weeks, there will be – on paper – the greatest shake-up of local government since the abolition of the metropolitan counties. Whoever wins – and I hope it will be Steve Rotheram – will face high expectations, and the enormous challenge of rekindling in the community a belief and trust in transparent, accountable, and responsive local government.  High hopes may be unrealistic. The Combined Authority is rushing to spend all of the money technically available to the new metromayor even before s/he is elected!  At the same time, Mayor Anderson’s familiar – lead officer Ged Fitzgerald – is rewriting the Combined Authority constitution. An incoming metromayor could well enter office to find the cupboard bare, and a constitution designed to tie him/her up in restrictive knots!

Yet unless it can be demonstrated that local government – at metro and borough level – is in tune with their respective electorates, there will be a day of reckoning .Those who listen and explain, who consult and accommodate, will have nothing to fear. Those who are arrogantly dismissive of the voter, and looking to their own interests, rather than those of the electorate, will ultimately be held to account.


Budget Tasters

The “softening-up” process has begun, as councils’ spin doctors do their level best to “sell” the more palatable proposals of their particular council as budget time approaches. Equally, there is a “soft sell” of more contentious measures thought to probably irk voters, whether or not the ultimate culprit is government-inspired austerity. For example, I would not be surprised if the move of Liverpool Football Club from Melwood to Kirkby is flagged as a great triumph for Knowsley Council, in an attempt to silence the arguments of KRAG  supporters who decry the steady erosion of Kirkby town centre.

We have also had floated, the sale of the Parklands School white elephant in Speke. In itself, a sensible move if it lifts the huge burden of this hugely expensive PFI on Liverpool council tax payers. What remains to be seen is whether or not it is sold, and at what loss to council tax payers. Residents of Speke will also have a keen interest in who the buyer is, and the proposed future use of this modern but empty building.

I am sure that right across the city-region, councils will put the most positive spin which they can on a rather gloomy picture. That is natural enough. Last year, one widely publicised boast was a successful city-region wide bid for funding from the European Social Fund, worth £42 million. This was for the years 2016 to 2018.The largest sum – £13 million – went to Liverpool, although funding went across all authorities, much of it to the voluntary sector.

For example, the Merseyside Youth Association received £3.6 million to help 2237 youngsters with travel to work costs. Liverpool Hope University was given £751,000 to “assist” 170 graduates (no – I do not know how!). The Alt Valley Community Trust (AVCT ) was given a whopping £4.3 million to “create” 803 jobs through its Access to Work scheme. Just how an organisation that was nearly half-a-million pounds in deficit at the time, managed to do that, is beyond me!

Moreover, this body – AVCT– has again come into focus in the aftermath of Liverpool Council’s insistence on giving Redrow priceless green space at Calderstones Park. Apparently, that same council is feared to be about to shed its responsibility for the jewel in the crown of Liverpool’s green space – the magnificent Croxteth Estate. The park, the farm and the hall are to be transferred to the AVCT, as originally mooted last year. it would be leased at a peppercorn rent, and AVCT given £200,000 to run it.

Having already transferred Walton Sports Centre (together with its lucrative match-day parking income) and the Dovecot Multi-Activity Centre to AVCT on similar terms, it is shocking that LCC should shirk its responsibilities in this way. It is crazy to expect the necessary level of guardianship from a community trust that is evidently already struggling to pay its way, despite grants.

It is reminiscent of the ludicrous situation on the International Garden Festival site when the mayor inexplicably bailed out developers Langtree. On that occasion, the site was similarly given to a trust which had neither the money or other resources to revive it. It is little wonder that so many Liverpool voters fear for the city’s green spaces, given the council’s determination to either sell them to builders or give them to trusts.

Tough Times

As the end of the financial year approaches, departments in local and national government hurry to spend their year’s allocation of funding. An obvious one is the rush to complete minor roadworks, backloaded year after year. Politicians ponder on their priorities for the forthcoming year as they struggle to balance the books, as austerity bites ever more into their ability to manoeuvre budgets positively.

Sometimes, desperation kicks in, with madcap promises on income generation, and ill-judged proposals on cutting deficits. So, scratch cards will do little to boost local government finances; nor will encouraging a snooper mentality to catch dog fouling culprits and fly-tippers. Indeed, in areas where the unfortunate tag of “grass” is common, snooping invites a potential violent response from guilty parties. Besides, payment to informants via council tax rebates, will do nothing to boost revenues.

Admittedly, these are desperate times in local government; but the cutbacks are so huge, it is difficult to see how lost funding can be replaced. Take the recent Redrow/Harthill controversy. Fifty houses at £500,000 each, might yield £200,000 – £250,000 in annual council tax. What will that do for those in dire need of social housing? Nothing, – and little for the council’s coffers. Politically, the damage is immense – as is calling legitimate local protestors to the loss of parkland  “cranks”.  A more nuanced approach is needed.

For the electorate, their perception of local government is coloured by the mixed messages often communicated. Liverpool is a good example. The mayor says that an inflated new bureaucracy he fostered cost “only £7 million” (my emphasis), but that the Harthill houses are needed to boost income. Well, you cannot have it both ways. Citizens read these inflated council figures used in one context, and wonder just what is the case. Is there money to throw about, or are we really in desperate straits?

It is not surprising that voters have become more and more cynical. Brexiteers and Trump blame the media, and they certainly have some responsibility. However, overwhelmingly, it is the failure of politicians at all levels to engage in a transparent way with voters which is the major stimulus to the current discontent. The public distrusts those in office to look out for the common good. Rightly or wrongly, they believe that the political classes are in it for themselves rather than to be of service to the wider community.

After a lifetime in politics, I have never known the general public to have had a more jaundiced view of politics and politicians, including the parties. I recently spoke with an “Old” Labour loyalist who asked me about the outcome of the Labour inquiry into anti-semitism in Labour. I pointed out to him that in all my time, I had never witnessed or even heard of an instance of anti-semitism in Labour. Why then, he countered, given that local party members had been cleared, had no official announcement been made? I admitted that I could not answer him.

Seeing my obvious discomfort, he raised the recent actions of the dreadful Netanyahu in permitting the theft of Palestinian land. Why, he asked, had Labour said or done nothing about it? Why was there no outrage locally or nationally by the Party? It would have done so at one time, he asserted. Again, I was not able to give him an answer. He shook his head as he left me, with a hurtful parting shot: “The Labour Party? Now no different to the Tories – all in it for themselves”.

 God only knows what the wider public thinks!

Trump This

As the feeble Liverpool Planning Committee once more bows its collective knee to the mayor’s diktat and hands Redrow another bargain at Calderstones, there is fresh news of another developer with no regard for truth or people. I refer, of course, to Donald Trump, unbelievably president of the United States.

Once Speaker Bercow had vetoed him from feeding his massive ego in the Palace of Westminster, officials of the British government were left with a real challenge: where could they muster a mass audience to satisfy Trump’s lust for a crowd’s attention? Apparently, they came up with two options: Wembley Stadium, or the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham. I posit a third alternative – Liverpool’s own Echo Arena.

The more that one thinks about it, the more sense it makes. After all, Liverpool is a city that is “open for business”, one which already entertains crooks and charlatans as an integral part of its economic fabric, making fortunes at the taxpayers’ expense. Additionally, the President and the Mayor have a lot in common – that is, other than the comb-over hair. Both are taken with developers and obsessed with their egos, with little time for practical politics. Both fume at any criticism (not that the local media would have anything but sycophantic praise) and are prone to knee-jerk (and embarrassing) social media gaffes. Neither has a discernible strategy, and both have a hugely inflated sense of their own abilities. They would get on well.

Not that the possibilities stop there with a mutual admiration society. A visit by President Trump might well lead to other benefits. Why not tap him up for, not one, but two, Trump Towers – one each on the effectively defunct Wirral Waters, the other on the correspondingly bleak Liverpool Waters? The Peel Group would be overjoyed by the added value to their existing land bank. Surely, they would jump at the chance of even a partial step towards their unrealisable notion of a Manhattan-on-the-Mersey. Peel could even park up Air Force One at Speke. Joe would pick up the tab – he normally does so for them.

As a dog leaves its smell, Trump has a penchant for leaving his name on buildings. Perhaps a sign of good faith would be to rename Cunard Buildings as the Donald Dive or something similar, in recognition of our eponymous hero. He would be flattered by that, although I am sure that some sycophant somewhere would upstage the mayor by renaming a whole town Trump Town!!

There is another area, however, in which our two leaders might find common ground. I refer to Trump University. In America, it was a flop and a fraud – pregnant with promise but deficient on delivery. It was a means to bolster the Trump income via worthless promises. Now, a politician might say that that sounds like the mayor’s election manifesto – weasel words and hot air. I will not. However, such mere details should not deter Donald and Joe from making use of the brand.

Rather, it may be the vehicle to help out both parties. The Mayor could explain away the overloading, via developers, of Liverpool with student flats. Post Brexit, and the expected decline in student numbers, Trump University could rise to the rescue. President Trump could redesignate as students, all potential travellers to the USA from his seven blacklisted countries. Joe could negotiate “the deal“ with Donald to house them in the blocks of jerry-built flats, safeguarding America, home of the brave.

Well, it is only a suggestion…!!


Fake News and Alternative Facts

Perhaps it is a penalty of age that I tend to look back to when there were simple expectations of the media. It used to be assumed that there were basic standards to which all subscribed. For example, although a particular gloss might be put on an issue, the factual truth of a given issue was invariably agreed by all.

The media – before being reduced locally solely to a composite of advertising and entertainment – was expected to inform and, in the broadest sense, to educate.  It sought out the truth, even if it then added its own spin, and was also expected to exhibit some semblance of balance in the matters being covered. Sadly, in the post-Brexit, Trump-infected world of today, there is little resemblance of the modern media to that of yesteryear.

Both the Brexit referendum and the American presidential election campaign revealed how far we have fallen. Truth was irrelevant, whilst mendacity was the order of the day for gullible voters. Rather than hope, fear was force-fed to the people; and that remains the case. Tragically, the fear has been deliberately focussed on “the other”, whether it is Muslims in America, or Europeans in the United Kingdom. The specifics matter little as hate of other people is promoted as a common currency, along with fake news.

I thought of these general issues after reading a copy of our local comic, the “Echo“, one day last week .Two particular items were particularly indicative of how far that once successful newspaper  has reneged on its mission. Today, its only concerns appear to be making money for its owners, and thus ensuring its survival (but survival for what purpose other than to claw in more profits?) It fails to see how it would broaden its readership – and, hence, sales, thereby increasing advertising revenue – by recapturing its old investigative spirit.

The first item to catch my attention was the lead letter of the “Talkback” column (“Letters” to you and I). Now this tends to be a cosy little platform for the same names riding their personal hobby-horses. On this occasion, the letter was from a “Support Officer” (supporting what, for whom?), singing a paean of praise to Liverpool City Council for its work in preserving historic buildings (are they talking here of the bombed out church or the old Futurist cinema?). Amongst many things, the letter claimed an investment in excess of £672 million in the city’s historic buildings.

This is an intriguing amount to claim, but how has it been arrived at? Who at the “Echo” proof reads such claims on behalf of the administration? After all, this huge amount is flagged up in the context of a Euro-grant of about £325,000 for those buildings – a credible figure – but£672 million??

Too many people will be kidded by these figures, and lots of similar inflated claims, regularly given undue prominence and credibility in the “Echo“. Still, that appears to be standard practice for the title these days. They will print any claim, no matter how outlandish, and without any obvious fact check, so long as the story is put to them by, or on behalf of, any of the city-region’s major players, whether in the private or the public sectors.

The second item was yet another public relations exercise, this time on behalf of a young “developer” and a senior member of the city administration.  Like a number of similar “businessmen”, this developer has had a meteoric rise to millionaire status since Mayor Anderson took over the reins of power, and is no doubt appreciative of his efforts. The mayor is, you will recall, constantly telling us that Liverpool is open to business (I have never quite understood his meaning on this).

Anyway, the “Echo’s“ on-line version of this story carried the usual comments appended to it. One commentator – either very well informed or very foolhardy –posted an account of our intrepid young “developer“  being summoned to a meeting in a dockside warehouse with two very prominent local underworld figures. Within a very short period of time, this post was removed by “Echo“ staff. It goes to show how this media outlet can be vigilant when it either chooses to be, or is pressured.

Company Town

I picked up the local rag to see what it classed as news of the day. Amongst the usual tabloid mix of “human interest”, sport and crime, one item caught my eye. It was a typical piece of public relations spiel on behalf of Peel. Apparently, this monster of Merseyside is to seek the views of Merseysiders on its latest notion of a high skyscraper in Princes Dock. No mention, of course, about the possible effect of their proposal on Liverpool’s listing as a world heritage site. Why would they mention it given the antediluvian Liverpool mayor’s expressed contempt for UNESCO’s view of the city?

Even more alarming is the conspiracy of silence on Peel’s latest disaster.  A huge sink-hole has appeared on the site of the new container terminal. This adds to the ongoing strife with poorly served drivers at the docks who are afforded no facilities automatically provided elsewhere. Yet the sink-hole is of a different order. After all, there was an investment in the project from the European Union alone of £185 million. One would think this mess would merit some comment, at least locally. Sefton Council? Nothing reported. Local MP? Nothing reported. Local media? A paragraph in one edition of the Echo then deafening silence. A journalist from a national broadsheet contacted me, expressing his frustration at his inability to elicit ANY response from ANYONE in authority on the matter.

We cannot be surprised at this –  no one locally will do or say anything to upset Peel, the local alpha exploiters. This tax-dodging, asset-stripping organisation blithely promises the earth but delivers relatively little, repeatedly fooling local authorities with their spin. Receiving a fortune in public subsidy, they seem accountable to no-one, but disproportionately influential with our local authority leaders. Peel’s influence shines through in the many decisions favouring them agreed by those leaders.

Of course, leaders are not alone in kow-towing (or worse) to developers – including those of the “fly-by-night” kind.  Liverpool’s planners are about to recommend the sale to Redrow of 13 acres of prime green space at Calderstones Park. Redrow wish to build over 50 luxury houses thereon, at prices of £500,000.This option will hardly help those on our bulging housing lists, but it is guaranteed to enrage local residents and community groups.

Similar controversies are bubbling away in all of the local authorities within the city-region, as councillors are led, either by their leaders or council officers, into perilous political waters. Everyone recognises the difficult dilemmas facing councils at this time; but there are fights best avoided. Builders and developers (who are given far too much access) do not give a toss. Profit is their only interest, not local people.

Whilst there appears to be ample green space in five of the local authority areas, Liverpool is the exception. Recent independent research using satellite mapping, has quantified the green space within the United Kingdom’s ten largest cities. Edinburgh came out top with green space covering 49.2% of its area. Liverpool was bottom, with a mere 16.4%.  Therein lies a tale!

Doubtful Developers

It was interesting to hear the chair of Aintree Parish Council vent his spleen on the radio today. The targets of his ire included Sefton Council, the local MP, Peter Dowd, and the Peel group. His complaint was actually simple – he believes that favoured developers – in this case Peel – have their interests preferred to those of local residents. Perhaps he has a point.

This is not an unusual charge. There is often a tension between the plans of developers, and local people and small businesses. In these days of austerity, irritation is often compounded by the needs of local authorities to attract inward investment, sometimes to the outrage of constituents with a particular axe to grind. It can be very difficult to maintain a balance between the need for that investment and the wishes of voters; but there are always lines that ought not to be crossed.

The sheer volume of planning applications can be a problem in itself, creating an illusion of progress whilst lacking the substance that the electorate expects. Such is the case with the huge number of projects in Liverpool for the erection of flats for students. These leave many voters cold. They see the profit for developers and builders in these projects, as well as a useful utility for the universities. They do NOT see where the benefit is for local council tax payers or for local people in need of homes.

Above all else, there is one red line which must NEVER be crossed – that of health and safety. All of these buildings must be safe for those who use them. Yet I have seen correspondence which raises deep doubts about one of these student blocks which raises major concerns. If building regulations are being ignored in this case – and that is the core of the allegations that I have seen – then it may also be the case elsewhere in the area. It concerns a block of city-centre flats built by the highly questionable company PHD1 (which I have written about before, with its criminal connections), and “completed” by an associated company of equally doubtful provenance, Pinnacle Student Developments.

The upshot is that there is a block of flats housing c. 150 students which might well be a danger to them. Alarmingly, the reports which I have read allege that the “finished” building did not get the necessary certification to clear it for occupation. That is, it did not have the required certificates of compliance to meet the building regulations. Moreover, commissioned structural engineers refused to endorse clearance of the “completed” structure.

Now, I am not an engineer, nor do I have the professional expertise to make an informed judgement on the building in question. I do, however, have respect for the professionals who have expressed their concern, and take on board their judgement. I wonder how, therefore, such situations can arise? Is it that councils are under such pressure that they are unable to apply their own building regulations to these speculative projects for which they have given planning permission; or is there some other explanation?

One problem appears to be that any scam artist can set up a development or building company, and operate it with comparative impunity. In addition, due diligence appears to have been dispensed with, in a gadarene rush to accept any old proposal of investment, regardless of the characters and records of the so-called company’s principals, or of the sources of their finance. This has to stop!