Another Day, Another Dollar

Another day, another dodgy deal! The people of Liverpool have historically been taken for a ride by moneyed interests resident just about anywhere but in the city of Liverpool. Nowadays they are aided and abetted by the very people who are supposed to look out for the public’s interests. Do the councillors understand what is happening, or are they so focussed on their immediate and narrow self-interest, that they cannot see the wood for the trees?

Take the much-heralded Bramley Moore scheme. Everton’s previous plans for a new stadium – first, at King’s Dock, and then at Kirkby – foundered for one essential reason. They were unable to raise the necessary finance without the involvement of a major partner. That is the current role of the city council – much more than a guarantor. The crux of this deal is the arrangement between the council and Peel. As with the costly Private Finance Initiative, the financial risk associated with this deal is passed to the council, not to EFC or its billionaire head, Mr Moshiri.

It is another example of how the council tax payer is subsidising outside exploitative interests. We are also being told that Mayor Anderson is quoting a £50 million spend on associated roadwork, having already promised a new Merseyrail station (another headache for the incoming metromayor and the leaders of the other five boroughs). Remember that all of this subsidy is additional to the millions already spent buying and improving EFC’s training ground, and many more millions used underwriting Peel’s airport. These two private businesses must love the mayor.

Yet the mayor’s fan club is bigger than two members. How about developers, the Elliott Group? A council report described their unapproved demolition of an old building in a conservation area as a “criminal act”. The council under Joe has decided to take no action. The building had been deliberately torched although the police have made no arrests.

Meanwhile, at MIPIM over in sunny Cannes, mayoral favourite – developer Lawrence Kenwright – trumpeted his plans for the city-owned Cunard Building. Having previously touted the iconic building as an office space initiative, Mr Kenwright is now promoting it as a venue for weddings, and as the site of yet another restaurant. Surely this is a fan of the mayor, given that he sponsors the mayor’s fundraising dinners? Indeed, the mayor reciprocates with an appointment as an Advisory Member of the Council’s grandly titled “Culture and Leisure Select Committee Scrutiny Panel”!

Naturally, the mayor has other concerns than his fan base. Business groupies apart, he is considering the effects of diesel engines in the city centre. However, this does not seem to fit with his demonstrable anti-green credentials and his expensive closure of bus-only lanes. He must also have been distracted when, as chair of the Combined Authority, he led the purchase of one-man trains. As a former active member of the RMT union, he was blissfully unaware of that union’s long campaign against these trains (built overseas, incidentally, rather than in the UK), and the repeated strike action over them down south. Thank goodness for the Mayor’s comprehensive appreciation of what really matters.

He should, perhaps, tear himself away from dreams of the Commonwealth Games and other glories, although he cannot have what he really wanted – the metromayoral crown. He could rekindle his connection with real issues, like the next round of planning applications saddling the city with yet more blocks of flats. Silly me – the applications come from paid up members of his fan club like the Iliad Group and the Elliott Group. Hey ho – what was I thinking of??

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Fact or Fiction?

Like any sane person, I have been flabbergasted and outraged by Donald Trump’s chutzpah. He has adopted the style of George Orwell’s “Big Brother” where fantasy is reality, and lies become truth. Amazingly, there are so many prepared to buy into this line, whether out of self-interest or stupidity. Trump’s core support has remained unwavering to date, although as their tax dollars are redirected to the rich, and their medical support is slashed, that support might move away. Perhaps it is simply the case that many people literally cannot distinguish between fact and fiction.

Impetus behind this phenomenon is provided by fake news – stories which are pushed as gospel when they are merely the figments of someone’s over fertile imagination. Nothing new in that, you might say. “New Labour“ was famous for its spin. Yet this is more than spin (i.e. putting a positive face on facts). It is the fabrication of a story, underscored by the ability of those concerned to believe their own publicity. Certainly, Trump’s ego enables him to view himself as embodying truth, preposterous as that may seem to the objective observer.

I was mindful of this when I read of Mayor Anderson’s absurd assertion that he was closing his twitter account because of the “abuse” he receives from respondents. The old adage about pots and kettles comes to mind. He is, in my experience, the most coarse and abusive politician I have ever come across – and that is saying something. Perhaps he too sees himself as subject to a different order to the rest of us.

Fake news increasingly dominates the Merseyside political scene, enhanced by its unquestioning repetition by what passes for local media. Take the MIPIM jolly in the south of France. This glorified auction of local authority assets to the parasites who gather there in the hope of easy profits, has been the source in the past week of a stream of fake news which needs to be taken with a large bucket of salt. Fed to a gullible Merseyside public deprived of the information with which to form an objective view, these stories need to be put into perspective.

Some of this disinformation is put about by developers in the hope of obtaining investment, and some from local authorities, desperate to plug gaps in local authority finances. I understand these needs, but hope that public representatives sup with a long spoon when negotiating with business sharks whose only motive is private profit. One can easily convince oneself of a mutuality of interest with private and predatory capital. The honeyed words of the latter can be tempting, but remember, for example, how the public purse continues to be ripped off under the guise of the Public Finance Initiative. There is nothing for nothing.

Thus, we have a proposal for a huge regeneration of central Birkenhead, capitalising on its incredible cross-river views. However, despite the blurb, it remains another item on a wish list. Wirral residents will be mindful of Peel’s promises for Wirral Waters. To date, the only real investment attraction, after the fiasco partnership with Stella Shiu and the failed International Trade Centre, was a college facility courtesy of Wirral Council. Peel’s promises of a mini-Manhattan are yet to materialise. Current spin for Woodside suggests a reality which does not yet actually exist.

Likewise, there continue to be similar projects floated on the eastern littoral of the Mersey. On the central docks site, a promised residential development has been transmuted into a possible football stadium, bordered by a cultural neighbourhood. Do not misunderstand me – we all want to see meaningful development and investment across Merseyside. What we do not want is for our representatives to buy into the get-rich-quick schemes of the likes of Peel and Signature Living. Developers are in the business of squeezing finance from wherever and whomever they can. Local authorities exist to service their communities, not the private interests of buccaneering businessmen.

That is why it is so important for the wider public not to be seduced by the false news and public relations gimmicks put to them either by unscrupulous politicians or the private sector, aided and abetted by their media mouthpieces. At some point, the snake oil salesmen bedevilling our sub-region must be held to account.

In the Political Playpen

The MIPIM bash in Cannes has become something of a regular jolly for many local authority leaders, including Liverpool’s Mayor Anderson. It occurs next week when developers importune their guests to flog off council assets at giveaway prices. It is amazing how persuasive free drinks and canapés can be.

This expensive car-boot sale in the south of France came to mind when I saw a “business” report in the “Echo” confirming the imminent purchase of a large chunk of King’s Dock by Liverpool Council.  “Purchase” did you ask? Yes – cash-strapped Liverpool Council is bidding £4.1 million. Apparently, the council hopes to get a grant from our parsimonious national government. Failing that, they will borrow the cash. Once again, having cried poverty, the council has the appearance of a drunken sailor on a spending spree. Why?

The giveaway is in the report going to cabinet to be rubber-stamped. It says – “In advance of the acquisition of the land, the council has been proactively engaged in detailed discussions with a potential developer consortium”. In short, it is a done deal. Joe has agreed it, and his supine cabinet will do what he tells them. One or more of the mayor’s closest allies – the ubiquitous “developers” –are lined up for another big payday, courtesy of the council’s largesse.

The site has long been earmarked as a “visitor destination”. Remember the abortive plan to build a stadium there? How about Joe’s much-vaunted daydream of an Olympic ice rink? Goodness knows what the mayor’s developer confederates have in mind. We can only be sure of one thing – they will make stacks of cash whilst council tax payers lose out.

It is questionable whether or not we need more visitor attractions. Perhaps we should widely market council meetings as a spectator event, although a bigger venue than the Town Hall would be needed. This week’s meeting suggests that they might plug an entertainment gap between cage fighting and Jeremy Kyle. Events this week reveal the low point which the council – and, especially, the mayor – has reached in the conduct of meetings. These people are supposed to represent us and the city, but they are nothing short of a disgrace. As a Labour Party member, I was appalled at the ignorant and abusive excuse for a debate. They certainly do not speak for, or act like, the people of Liverpool.

 All representatives should keep in mind one of politics’ truest maxims: oppositions do not win elections; governing parties lose them! Generally, the electorate is reasonably forgiving of those in power until a tipping point is reached. Beyond this, loyalty and trust is lost, and the party concerned gets its just desserts – political oblivion. There is one thing of which we can be sure. No matter how solid one’s political position is at a given point, you can be sure that, as night follows day, it will be overturned at some point.

Incidentally, how craven is the “Echo”? During his Town Hall rant, Mayor Anderson whinged away about what he considered to be his pet journal’s poor coverage of his difficulties. Within two days, the “Echo” has a long piece on “How the Tory cuts have hit city”. No mention of the other boroughs facing similar cuts, by the way, and how they are coping. Perhaps now, its editor will order some investigative reporting on the very real and widely held concerns about the role of “developers” in the city.

Presentational Skills

All credit to St Helens council. I picked up on two examples of their responsiveness to voters’ concerns. One related to a proposal to establish a half-way house for ex-convicts in a residential area. Local residents felt that it was an inappropriate location for the scheme. The message from the council was that they had taken the objections on board and rejected the proposal. The second issue was the vexed subject of building on green belt. Whilst adjacent Knowsley are building a “village” on green belt, Rainhill and Eccleston residents mounted large and vigorous protests against similar development within St Helens. Again, the council responded positively to the protesters, pursuing brown field sites for the proposed housing.

Of course, such plans will always be contentious, and bedevilled by nimbyism. Every council has to strike a fine balance in such circumstances. What it should NOT do, regardless of its decision, is to either ignore or insult those voters who disagree with them. Very often, the key is the way in which the decision is handled, rather than the decision itself. Most voters are, after all, reasonable people.

Meanwhile, the principal of the Liverpool institute for the Performing Arts, Mark Featherstone Whitty, has put out a timely reminder on student flats. There is a huge bubble in the student flat market, he opines. He rightly said that there is no reason to believe that the student market will continue to expand year-on-year. Indeed, given current government policies, there are good reasons to expect a contraction in student numbers.

The whole property market has become skewed in Liverpool. On the one hand, we are told that there is a real shortage of commercial property for rent. Yet the mayor is bringing in middle-men Signature Living to rent such office space in the allegedly “iconic” Cunard Building. If there is such demand, for what does the council need Signature Living? Why give them profits which could go to the city? Why continue to foster student flats when the future for them is so uncertain? The only people keen on this are developers – and the mayor. Developers use other people’s money, and sell their product on, walking away with fat profits. The city has nothing to gain – certainly not much needed social housing.

Concern about the city’s development programme is turning into a major problem, particularly for the mayor. For residents, the current situation is confusing at best. They start from the premise that developers will tell you whatever it takes to cream off their profits. They also recognise that the other five boroughs do not seem to have similar conflicts of interest in the way in which business is done, although all face tough decisions on the back of austerity. They hear Liverpool’s mayor constantly bemoaning the city’s lack of cash. They then hear of the city’s plan to buy the Adelphi Hotel. If the city is skint, they ask, from where comes the money for this?

They recall that when LCC bought and improved Everton’s training facility at Finch Farm, they were told it was an investment. Likewise, the farcical purchase of the Cunard Building (the cost of which has still not been disclosed). Nor was the purchase of the International Garden Festival site explained. £5 million to Langtree for a toxic site? Where does all the money come from?

Now, if LCC was a private sector investment trust, and all of the spin about the profitability of these deals was true, some might appreciate these dealings. However, the council is not a business enterprise – it is only in the business of public service, and that is what people expect of it. As those same people witness deterioration in public service levels, they are perplexed by the council’s schizophrenic approach to public finances.

This quandary for Liverpool electors does not seem to be a problem within the other boroughs of the city-region. Yes – each has its own dispute on priorities: Runcorn or Widnes? Southport or Bootle? Kirkby or Huyton? The reconciliation of competing priorities is the food and drink of local authorities. But transparency on financial priorities is a sine qua non for winning public trust. This is just not the case in the biggest authority of the city-region.