New Arrangements

Sometimes, we cannot see the wood for the trees.  Take the Merseyside Police.  Too often, there are grumbles about what it does and does not do. Frankly, it cannot do everything which we expect of it, especially in times of austerity cuts.  Their current priorities are to tackle drugs and gun crime.  Fair enough, one might say.

Yet there are other areas which demand their attention which appear to rate a lower sense of urgency.  Consider the situation with One Direct in Lancashire.  There, the police have arrested four people in connection with charges of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, and intimidation of witnesses.  One of these is the Tory council leader in Lancashire, but the other three have strong Liverpool connections including Liverpool council’s current chief executive.  Indeed, there is a parallel inquiry concerning the city council’s partnership with BT – Liverpool Direct.

Merseyside Police have waited for Lancashire Police to do their bit before stepping up their game.  Wisely, perhaps, because one suspects that the Lancashire force’s legwork will be of great assistance and cost saving to the Merseyside force in these related investigations.  A similar situation has arisen with Greater Manchester Police.  Both of the north-west’s major cities have been used by scam artists selling off-the-plan apartments to Asian investors, who have been duped on an industrial scale.  Again, Merseyside has side-stepped inquiries from Hong Kong, letting the Manchester Police take the lead.

It makes sense to an economy-conscious Merseyside Police.  Not too long ago, it was the only force outside of the Metropolitan Police, which received a special, enhanced grant because of the city’s place in international and organised crime.  That extra funding has long gone, with the general austerity cuts also having their effect on the extent of policing by our local force.

Meanwhile, there remains one “force” which appears not to see itself as over-extended and that is Mayor Anderson.  We all recall that when Councillor Brant resigned as the Liverpool councillor responsible for finance (he is a commercial barrister by profession), Mayor Anderson took up the finance reins in his place. I was extremely doubtful about this then as now, as his only previous financial experience was running the Munro pub in Duke Street; and that ended in financial disaster.

I read now that the mayor is to take on a third role – as acting chief executive.  I do not believe that the city can tolerate such a mismatch.  Even in the private sector, for a business the size of the city of Liverpool, few organisations would permit a wholly unqualified individual to take on such a complex and onerous task as trying to run Liverpool council on a day-to-day basis, especially during these trying times.

The mayor has enough on his plate, as he fast approaches his predicted crunch year of 2018, when, he has told us, the city will go over a financial precipice.  To add to his worries, he has now been given the public sector reform portfolio of the Combined Authority.  This will require him to come up with innovative ways in which the six local authorities might work together.  Now, I know that collaboration and collegiality are not Mayor Anderson’s particular qualities, but if he is to have anything but a negative influence on the Combined Authority, he will simply have to change his whole approach – if he can.

Perhaps, on the other hand, it is the right time for the mayor to ease the pain and finally step aside, allowing a newer, more progressive person to take his place.

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Events, Dear Boy, Events

Former Tory Prime Minister, Harold McMillan, once summed up the challenges facing a political leader, as “events, dear boy, events“. The accuracy of his epigram has been well illustrated in recent days across the city-region. Wirral faces a crisis concerning child protection: St Helens has witnessed a council helter skelter in forming a new administration; even normally quiet Halton has suffered fall-out with its IT system, due to the recent ubiquitous virus infection. It just shows that one can never predict every political pitfall one might encounter, although some might be foreseen.

Take the changes at Liverpool council. It has been a given for a long time that members have been manoeuvring  in anticipation of Mayor Anderson going, either voluntarily or otherwise. Whilst most of the group would wish to revert to the traditional council leader arrangement, the mayor remains an obstacle.  On the back of the mayor’s recent (and repeated) faux pas, some moved precipitately to change the political furniture in the Cunard Building.

Remember, that not only has the mayor failed again in his increasingly desperate attempts to job swop, but he has once more taken to abusing Labour colleagues. He has over time ranted that he would not work with other leaders on the Combined Authority, with Steve Rotheram or Dan Carden – even I had the doubtful privilege of the mayor’s rejection. He is not a team player, and the council team seems to be recognising that fact.

The changes in Liverpool are in two critical positions – planning, and audit. I presume that the new chair of planning will look again at the council’s dismal record on green spaces. As for the new audit chief – Cllr. Tootle (a twitter supporter of the mayor’s unfulfilled ambitions) –  I would suggest an early project if he really has the stomach for the job. After all, it is a maxim of good governance to exhibit transparency; and a key way to do this is to “follow the money”.

As Liverpool FC expanded its Anfield presence, there was a demand for more parking for fans. Two sites came to hand which were ideal for the purpose – the land on which two former local schools had stood, Anfield Comprehensive and Major Lester Primary. Eventually, control of the sites was given to a community interest company (CIC), the Beautiful Ideas company. That control began in March, 2015.

An interesting company, based in Liverpool 8 in a building housing a number of housing associations. Directors included city councillor Nick Small; local builder Julian Flanagan; former Halton councillor Jon Egan; Anfield licensee, Gemma McGowan; and housing officer, Erika Rushton. The beneficiaries of the money raised on the sites were to be Anfield-based charities and community groups.

However, there is a mystery. These money-spinning sites operated for four years before the CIC took responsibility for them. It has been impossible for interested parties to get accurate and complete financial information for this period, during which these council-owned sites were run by the Flanagan building group. Let me illustrate why there is concern within the community by looking at the Anfield site.

It has a capacity of about 800 cars at a fee of £10 each match day. That is a potential gross income of £8000 for each game. In any season, there are about 50 games (give or take a few), including cup and Euro fixtures. Potentially, that is about £400,000 income per year from ONE car park, assuming it is filled to capacity. Profits were to be dispersed within the area via the Anfield-Breckside Community Company-the ABCC (now in administration). So where did the money go?

An email from the CIC suggested a gross income for the period in question was around £205,000 – far different from a notional income of about £1.6 million. It also suggested that ABCC had given out about £55,000. What happened to the rest? After all, the site was said to be operated by volunteers. What other costs were there? The council in an FOI answer on January 7th, 2014, had given an income figure of £131,312 for the two years from 2011 to 2013. By July 8th, 2015, the Liverpool Echo was reporting a running total of £186,000 income for the site.

None of these figures add up – it does not take an accountancy qualification to see that. The council had a report drawn up on this whole matter which has never been made publicly available. It is always a real challenge to audit, as in this case, a cash flow where there are no receipts, no records, and apparently, little sense of responsibility. One thing is certain, however. The bulk of the money raised never went on the local community.

Time to Go

I returned from Greece last Thursday, having seen the havoc wrought on the Greek people by austerity. I did not anticipate the political havoc being wrought on Merseyside, in the name of unrequited ambition.

Firstly, there was the attempted coup within St Helens Labour Group. Apparently, some saw the opportunity to remove leader Barry Grunwald, still recovering from a heart attack suffered whilst on holiday. As matters eventuated, Barry saw off the challenge – and, with it, half of his former cabinet. Politics can be a rough trade, and the internal politics of the Labour Party are no exception.

Yet the major rumpus revolved around the vacancy for a Labour candidate in Liverpool Walton. This was bound to be controversial, as I had forewarned in a previous blog. The timing of the metromayoral election, followed by the timing of the snap general election, made the respective positions of sitting MP and now metromayor, Steve Rotheram, and of Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC), extremely difficult. Steve was right to forego his parliamentary seat – he has an enormous challenge in establishing the metromayoralty.

The NEC was hamstrung by both the rules of the Labour Party, and by the legally binding timetable for the general election. It was impossible for Walton Constituency Labour Party to organise an OMOV (one member, one vote) selection of a candidate within the legal electoral timeframe. Labour Party rules cover such a predicament, mandating the NEC to select a candidate on behalf of the Walton CLP. Three candidates who had expressed an interest in standing in Walton – Joe Anderson, Theresa Griffin, and Dan Carden – were shortlisted.  Anderson and Carden are Liverpool born and bred.  Griffin is from Coventry although she had a stint on Liverpool Council back in the 90s. There was no candidate on the shortlist from within the ranks of Walton CLP itself. Thus, the NEC had to choose one of these three.

We will never know how each of the three performed at their  interviews – only the selection panel can judge; and they did. They chose Dan Carden as Labour’s Walton candidate in June. I know all three candidates and I believe that the NEC made the right decision in the circumstances. Dan is young, well-educated, energetic and articulate, with real parliamentary experience. Over time, he will make an excellent MP.

However, there is no show without Punch, and Joe Anderson has bobbed up with outrageous, untrue, disloyal, and hypocritical charges, against the Labour Party, Len McCluskey, and most disgracefully, Labour’s candidate, Dan Carden. Anderson has the gall to speak in an email to Liverpool councillors, of bullying, corruption and patronage. This is the man who colluded with the Tories to introduce a mayoralty in Liverpool without the referendum afforded to other cities. His own behaviour is characterised as bullying – aggressive, and abusive to all who oppose him. A man who is the embodiment of a belief in his entitlement to any role he fancies. Rejected by Labour members as their candidate for metromayor, and now rejected by the NEC as a parliamentary candidate, he simply doesn’t get the message.

Oliver Cromwell’s words to the Rump Parliament should be addressed to Anderson:

“You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”

These are difficult days for the Labour Party, but we have fought back before. Now  is perhaps the time for Labour in Liverpool to show that the worst kind of “boss” politics, epitomised by Mayor Anderson, belong in the dustbin of history. Then, we can look forward to a new kind of politics one which resonates with people, rather than grates with them.

Selection Poser

So, the die is cast, and we will shortly have a new metromayor, limited although their powers may be. As I write, the tellers are busy counting the votes used, as we ponder on the mindset of those who chose to sit on their hands. Turnout can be a depressing figure, when one considers the effort put into a campaign, and the long history of struggle which has enabled people to vote in the first place.

The successful candidate faces three years of hard work simply to establish themselves in the new job (the next election for the job is set down for 2020), and to validate its worth in the eyes of the electorate. People are, after all, generally cynical about politicians, and even more so about what they perceive as an extra and unnecessary layer of political glad-handing. Thus, there is an immediate imperative of demonstrating the role as both necessary and constructive.

It will require the full support of the members of the Combined Authority (CA). Any hint of obstructive behaviour on their part will simply convince many in their prejudice against the notion of a metromayor. We know who will be leading for four of the six local authorities on the CA; but we do not know who will be leading for Liverpool if Mayor Anderson succeeds in his quest for a third Merseyside political role. Nor do we know who will win the four-way battle within St Helens Labour Group for leadership of that council. Whoever leads on the CA for these authorities must also recognise their responsibility towards the new metromayor.

Of course, all of this will soon be overwhelmed by the general election. Locally, focus will be fixed on marginal seats like Wirral West, but in the immediate future, all eyes are on the Labour nomination for Liverpool Walton, where it is uncertain who will be the Labour candidate.

Sitting Member of Parliament, Steve Rotheram, has indicated that he will be standing again. He could do nothing else. Failure to do so might suggest that he was taking the metromayoral election for granted, and that would have upset many voters. However, if he succeeds today, he is faced with two choices: he can either immediately withdraw as a parliamentary candidate; or he can fight the seat, win it, and resign at a future date.

The latter would mean a by-election, but it would give Walton CLP members time to choose their own successor to Steve. The downside is that it would be portrayed as cynical political manoeuvring by the Labour Party, and expensive manoeuvring at that. On the other hand, if Steve was to immediately withdraw after a win tonight (he is odds on favourite), it would mean that the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the Labour Party would choose Labour’s candidate for June 8th. Because of the constraints of the legal timetable for the general election, they would have no choice but to do so.

In this situation, regardless of the choice which they make, there are going to be very unhappy aspiring candidates, and a lot more unhappy party members. The fact is that, in this impossible bind,  the NEC just cannot win.

Culpable Ignorance

In September, 2016, I blogged about the worrying connections between construction firms PHD1 and Bilt. The former was seen as the baby of a man named Peter McInnes. When police named him in court as a drugs money launderer, he quickly wound up the PHD1 group of companies, replacing it with a new group – Bilt.

McInnes’ sister – a director of PHD1 – was one of the two directors of Bilt when it was set up. Owing over £11 million to its creditors, all of PHD1’s employees were transferred to Bilt. Its offices remained the same, and, to all intents and purposes, Bilt was being directed by Peter McInnes from his new base in Dubai. At the time, the trigger for the demise of PHD1 was believed to be the publicity surrounding the court case at which Peter McInnes was named by police.

Still, it seemed as if business was to carry on seamlessly, including major projects in Liverpool like those at Pall Mall and at Chinatown. Note that at that time, the construction trade press described North Point Global (NPG) – the developers for these projects – as “the development arm” of PHD1. NPG was in the news for a different reason last summer when a listed building on a prestigious site it was developing in Woolton, was mysteriously subjected to arson.

Now the Bilt group has gone the same way as PHD1, after just over 12 months in existence, leaving projects at Pall Mall, Chinatown, and the Baltic Triangle in limbo. It remains to be seen who is owed what! NPG said that Bilt was replaced as contractor on the sites last December, due to Bilt’s lack of progress, “investors’ concern”, and suppliers not being paid. Six months on, they tell the website “Construction Enquirer” that they are (still!) “talking to several contractors” about completing the work. Favourite to pick up some of the pieces is Manchester-based Your Housing Group (YHG).

How, you might ask, does Liverpool City Council allow dodgy people with their dodgy firms (Bilt was only formed in February 2016; NPG was formed in April 2015) to get hold of such massive projects, worth hundreds of millions of pounds? What due diligence is done by either them, or by risible district auditors Grant Thornton? How is it possible that the authorities in this city are either incapable or unwilling to recognise what they are dealing with?

We must look to the city’s mayor. He is fond of reminding us of his authority, and how nothing happens within the council without his imprimatur (unless another cock up surfaces, whereupon some other mug is delegated to explain the inexplicable). He is also keen to tell us he has been elected for a four year term. Why, then, is he so anxious to secure a parliamentary nomination in Walton if and when it becomes available?

The city faces bankruptcy in 2018, he has insisted, and perhaps he does not wish to be around the council at that time. I would have thought the opposite – he should be focussed on clearing up the mess of the PHD1/Bilt/NPG debacle and others like it, given his fondness for developers, rather than seeking a parliamentary bolt-hole. This is quite apart from his unsuitability for the role of Member of Parliament. Believe me, having been privileged for nineteen years to be the proud representative for Walton, I can think of no-one less suited to that role than Mayor Anderson. Instead of a Westminster ego trip, he should be concentrating on cutting out the spin, and cleaning up the council’s act!