Speaking of their declining local airport on the Durham/Yorkshire border, the Northern Echo newspaper pithily concluded that “Peel’s masterplan….is based around housing and business development“. An apt summary, as far as it goes, of the ubiquitous Peel’s focus. We might say it has but passing interest in airports or docks, or industrial development. Its primary purpose is to make profits out of its vast land bank (over 5000 acres) by whatever means come to hand.
Those profits ultimately end up in the private Billown Trust based in the Isle of Man, run by and for billionaire tax exile John Whittaker. There is nothing illegal in amassing wealth in this way, nor, in the eyes of many, is it intrinsically immoral. Sadly, the world is full of individuals whose sole purpose is to fatten their bank accounts in every way possible. The question is how that is done, and how, in turn, it affects others.
So, where Peel has undercapitalised land, it is happy for others to “frack” thereon for oil or gas, or to erect wind turbines – at a price, of course. Where development is an option leading to bigger profits, it will partner with whoever comes along. Its objective is financial benefit, whether partnered with the public or the private sector.
The nature of this company came to mind when I noticed that the Combined Authority at its June meeting, awarded from the Single Investment Fund, another grant – of £1 million – to this capitalist hydra. Peel is very adept at accessing public funds (that is, those taxes which you pay and which Mr Whittaker strives so hard to avoid) for what are not always successful projects. Take the post-Panamax container berth on the docks.
It has cost £400 million to build, but has been virtually unusable since February when the first of several huge sinkholes appeared in the new structure. Although Peel claim two “visits” to the berth since then by container ships, it is in danger of being seen as a monstrous white elephant. Given that a major minority shareholder in Peel is the investment arm of Deutsche Bank, one might be forgiven for thinking that any pain was borne by the private sector alone. You would be wrong.
When the docks project was first floated, Peel insisted that it was contingent on a massive dredging programme in the Mersey, costing £41 million. OF this sum, £35 million came from the taxpayer via the Regional Growth Fund. In a highly unusual move, and to the outrage of rival ports, Sefton Council bid for the money which went directly to Peel, for its benefit. I have never understood how this came about.
Yet this overlap between the public and private sectors is not unusual in itself, nor necessarily undesirable. What is of concern in the case of Peel is the degree to which it is entwined with local authorities and their leading lights in the city-region. To their advantage, Peel have worked their way assiduously into the heart of decision –making affecting the people and communities of the city-region.
Liverpool Airport exemplifies the problem. In a competitive market, it lost £14 million between 2012 and 2014. Despite this record, Liverpool Council has put in millions to this privately owned operation. To ostensibly look after the council’s interests, there are five council representatives on two of the various airport companies’ boards – Mayor Anderson, councillors O’Byrne, Small and Kennedy, and suspended CEO Fitzgerald. However, given the nature of Peel, it is difficult to pin down which of the sixteen (yes, sixteen separate legal entities) Peel companies involved in Liverpool Airport actually has the controlling interest. Thus, we cannot know whose interests are being catered for. You never do with Peel – there are well in excess of 400 companies in the group, possibly hundreds more.
Of course, it is not only at the airport where this blurring of public and private interests can occur. Wirral leader Phil Davies sits on the city-region’s Local Enterprise Partnership which doles out millions of public money to private companies, including Peel. Halton’s leader Rob Polhill and assorted colleagues have also sat on a Peel company board (all of which, incidentally, are headquartered in Manchester). This is how Peel operates, to maximise its influence with, and funding from, public bodies.
There has been no more skilled and useful operative in this demi-monde between business and government than Robert Hough. A member of Peel’s main board from 1986 onwards and holder of 135 directorships, he was until recently the chair of the city-region LEP, and a co-opted member of the Combined Authority. A Manchester man but close collaborator with Joe Anderson, no-one could be better placed to peddle influence on behalf of Peel than he was.
Thus, it is little wonder that there is increasing scepticism about Peel. Notwithstanding their formidable public relations machine, people are seeing through their hyperbole. We have all heard the bull about Mersey Waters. We are supposed to wait 50 years to see if they have it right! They spoke too of the container quay as built by “a world class team” using “the very best of world engineering”. When their ship canal gates broke down (supposedly renewed with a £3.8 million grant) paralysing Warrington traffic, there was not a word of explanation or apology. Why should they? Profit is their game, not the community interest; and our representatives seem eager to help them. Peel appear to have more clout than the rest of us put together.
Is this representative democracy?