A Rotten Hulk

The world of politics is too often crippled by deception. Although it is a current trend to speak of  “fake news”, as if it was a recent innovation, it is not. Public affairs have always been bedevilled by spin, evasion, and downright lies. The unscrupulous have always endeavoured to mislead their colleagues and the wider public, whether for political or financial gain.

This is probably more the case at a local level than it is at a national level. There are effective mechanisms within parliament, for example, specifically designed to root out wrongdoing. The Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office have, between them, uncovered many a scandal. Likewise, the constant scrutiny of national media is devoted to catching out any impropriety by those entrusted with maintaining the highest standards in parliament and in government. Who will forget the media’s role in exposing the MPs’ expenses scandal?

Unfortunately, local government is not monitored so effectively or so thoroughly. We have seen how, in Liverpool, the intended scrutiny of an elected mayor was quickly scrapped. As for a vigilant local media, that role was abandoned by them years ago. For whatever reason, the award-winning scrutiny of the 1980s has been consigned to the dustbin of history.

There is yet another telling feature in standards of local governance – the disappearance in many areas of a meaningful political opposition. Although I have been a Labour Party member for over 50 years, I have never been one of those zealots who wished for a total Labour hegemony. Where is the democracy in that? Without a vibrant and assiduous opposition, any elected authority is prey to corruption; and Labour corruption is no more acceptable than that in any other party. Do you recall the old adage that while “power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely”?

For these reasons, amongst others, we should always be wary of the rumour mill. Far too often, gossip becomes the received wisdom about both politics and politicians. Poor judgements by the latter are sometimes transmuted into corrupt practice. It is essential that any such charges levelled at elected representatives must be rooted in fact rather than fancy. If I had a pound for every unsubstantiated allegation I had heard concerning local politicians, I would be a very rich man indeed.

That does not mean that every allegation ought to be discounted. Quite the reverse, as there is so often a truth behind them. What is necessary is some concrete evidence rather than a simple leap of the imagination concerning someone you might not like or trust.

Here on Merseyside, if we look at what we know, it is clear that the police have seen fit to look at senior council officers concerning at least three councils. Back in the 1960s, when the Poulsen scandal was at its height in local government, it was established as a principle that, if an officer was corrupt, there would need to be a corrupt councillor or councillors to partner that officer in some way. That remains true today.

 In conclusion, it is not just the laws on slander and libel which demand that we back up allegations with hard evidence. After all, honest and effective local government is at stake. It is also why I harp on so much about accountability and transparency. Without them, local government is simply a rotten hulk, doomed to collapse.

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Tough Challenge

A recent newspaper report related another setback to attempts to upskill people on Merseyside. Any barrier to improving job chances for our people is to be deplored, and must be removed at the earliest opportunity. What struck me, however, was how this problem arose, according to the report, and the parties involved.

A dispute between the “skills provider“ and the contract commissioners centred – as usual – on who paid what. Yet the reality was that the £5.5 million contract was ultimately down to public funding. Learndirect were the providers. Contracting them was the wholly-unelected Liverpool City Region Local Enterprise Partnership, spending money from the European Social Fund, together with some funds from central government.

A later newspaper report said that central government had, in fact, cancelled all funding to Learndirect throughout the country. It had been revealed that this so-called training company spent 84% of its income (£631 million from government since 2011) on payments to managers and financiers! I immediately thought of the task facing our elected metromayor.

Steve Rotheram has a background in skills training; it is one of his official priorities. However, he can do little about training provision when the dedicated funding is disbursed by an unelected quango, and where the training provider selected by them is actually exploiting the unemployed. He must find himself in an impossible situation.

This unfair demand on the metromayor is paralleled in another area said to be within his responsibilities – that is, transport. As he faces the long-running dispute between Merseyrail and the RMT union, he knows that the Combined Authority, when it was led by Joe Anderson, had ordered new, one-man trains, long before a metromayor was elected. That certainly left the incoming metromayor between a rock and a hard place in trying to help to resolve the dispute.

Steve may carry overall responsibility for transport, but this – like the training agenda – is a hard row to hoe. Just consider the public reaction to tolls on the new Mersey Gateway bridge. Not only will that long-awaited crossing be tolled, but the existing Widnes-Runcorn bridge is also to be tolled. This is after fifty seven years without a toll regime. We have tried for years to secure an end to the charges on the two existing Mersey tunnels. Other parts of the country seem to get a better deal on tunnels and bridges – just look at Wales – but I fear the metromayor’s hands are as tied on transport as they appear to be on training.

In my view, the government has failed to give our metromayor what he needs. My fear, given the expectations that so many have, is that metromayors become whipping boys for national government’s areas of failure in transport and training. Unless our metromayor is assured of the funding, the authority and the autonomy to address these matters, he could be on a hiding to nothing. He needs to be able to act decisively if he is to succeed, but he cannot unless the right tools are put at his disposal.

Mind Games

I awoke today to a radio discussion on Liverpool’s bid to host the Commonwealth Games. The central point was that a successful bid might be based on the use of the London Olympic stadium, whether the successful city is Liverpool or Birmingham. Ed Warner – head of UK Athletics – also mentioned a possible subsidy from government of up to £500 million. I was left more perplexed than ever. After all, there are many questions yet to be answered.

Firstly, as far as we have been told to date, the grand plan is to use Everton’s new stadium as the central venue for athletics. The problem with this, is that a new stadium is far from confirmed. I would like to hear Everton’s unequivocal commitment to the Bramley Moore project rather than the musings of the mayor. Then I would want to know first of all that there has been a change to the planning permission given to Peel – owners of Bramley Moore.

Such a radical proposed change of use might mean the whole project being called in for ministerial revue. Remember that the original planning consent had no mention of a stadium. What, for example, would be the Section 106 conditions applied to such a major project? What of the affected local businesses – to where would they be relocated, and at what cost? Have they been consulted? This is before the bizarre financing of the project is brought under proper scrutiny.

Assuming that all of this can be satisfactorily covered, we would need to look at the proposed games themselves. The mayor has spoken of “the legacy” of those Games if held in Liverpool. Before every Olympics and Commonwealth Games, proponents talk of  “the legacy”; but far too often, the only legacy after the games in question has been debt and disappointment. There may be advantages for hotels and travel specialists, but what of the people of the city?

A brief look at the little that has been said to date is puzzling. Cycling would be at the Manchester Velodrome – little legacy there. There would be a temporary athletics track at Bramley Moore (unless the London option came into play) – again, no lasting benefit to local athletes. The third major venue would be a temporary swimming pool at the docks.

According to the mayor, next year the city goes into financial meltdown after, by then, eight years of austerity. There is no sign of relief from central government, so I wonder from where the necessary finance will come. The suggestion of massive funding for a Commonwealth Games suggested in the radio debate appears to be wishful thinking. That leaves private sector funding as the only option. That in turn tends to come where a profit can be made; but it appears highly unlikely given current uncertainty and the increasing economic strains of Brexit.

My fear is that this could turn out to be another pointless promise consistent with the “bread and circus” style of running Liverpool. Personally, I am not averse to the Commonwealth Games experience – I saw first-hand what can be achieved during the 1982 Brisbane Games. However, the lesson of those games was the close co-operation and support of all levels of government in more propitious economic times, together with first class, purpose –built facilities which are still open to all of the people of Brisbane today.

Reputational Risk

Only in recent years has there been the rise in the public’s mind of a rivalry between the cities of Liverpool and Manchester (football excepted!). It was never so – they were traditionally complementary cities, Liverpool as a commercial hub and Manchester as a manufacturing one.Those days, of course, have well and truly gone.

Yet there is a glimmer of the old spirit of mutually advantageous co-operation (remember, it was Manchester businessmen who set up the old Mersey Docks and Harbour Board) with the election of Steve Rotheram and Andy Burnham as metromayors. Both have expressed a commitment to joint working between the two great city regions, to the benefit of all. However, one must ask how realistic that is. The varying fortunes of the two cities at the heart of these conurbations may mean very different outcomes for each of the wider city-regions.

Manchester has been far more successful in recent years than Liverpool, and its neighbouring boroughs have benefitted. When Mrs Thatcher abolished the old metropolitan counties, Manchester led its associated councils constructively, coalescing around their joint ownership of their very successful airport. The extent of their ongoing success was emphasised by the cast-iron investment of £1 billion recently by Chinese investors.

Despite the fact that Liverpool is home to the oldest Chinese community in Europe, and that we are twinned with super-rich Shanghai, our name is being besmirched with investors in China and elsewhere  by the scams perpetrated in the Liverpool development bubble. Worse still, these scams are considered by Asian investors to be endorsed by the city council. Such a view endangers investment across the whole of the city-region.

Put yourself in the position of a potential investor. Their first concern is the security of their investment, regardless of the returns promised. In a competitive investment environment, the investor would, in their own form of due diligence (ironically, not a strength of Liverpool City Council), make comparisons with similar opportunities in similar cities. What do they see, for example, in Manchester? They see a record of success, based on stability, continuity, and competence in local government. When they look at Liverpool, they may be excused for taking fright.

We have a mayor who has in succession, despite being spectacularly unqualified, taken on responsibility for finance, regeneration and the duties of chief executive. Meanwhile, we have a (paid) chief executive on long term leave having been arrested on charges of conspiracy and intimidation. We have a cravenly supine council hiding their heads in the sand whilst self-styled developers of very doubtful character run riot. A city that is at odds with UNESCO over its World Heritage Site status whilst it lacks the planning professionals capable of dealing with high-end planning matters.

A local businessman with whom I spoke, was very pessimistic. A man with an extensive and successful investment track record, he told me that he had made no significant investment in Liverpool for seventeen years. When I asked why, he said “I do not want to sit in the same room as the people who you have to deal with in the council”. If that is a local view, what must outside interests think when they look at the Chinatown debacle, or the Paramount “development”?

Bear in mind that this is not just a Liverpool issue. As the core city, Liverpool reflects on each borough in the city-region. We all want to see inward investment and development across all six boroughs; but that is jeopardised if the city-region, viewed through the prism of Liverpool, is seen as either a poor risk, or – worse still – as fertile ground for crooks.