Business As Usual

When David Henshaw was chief executive of Liverpool Council he tried to secure funding for a new stadium at King’s Dock. He failed because he could not get a vital European funding element. This was, in turn, because of exaggerated claims of the number of jobs that would be created by the scheme. Very simply, the figures were plucked from thin air without any demonstrable evidential base, and neither the North West Development Agency nor the European Commission would wear it.

I thought of this as a series of fatuous claims were published in the “Echo” about proposed dockside developments. The first inflated claims were made on behalf of the proposed Bramley Moore stadium. They were in a report made by CBRE – estate agents and partners in the scheme. Naturally, they will put the most advantageous spin on the matter, given that they stand to make handsome profits from the plans. However, I remain entirely unconvinced either by the mayor’s unique financial approach to this scheme, or by CBRE’s bloated figures which appear to be – at least, in part – a rehash of Peel’s now dated plan for Liverpool Waters.

Peel  – regular and close partners with Mayor Anderson – also figure prominently in the second example of exaggerated possible job figures .This relates to the proposed new passenger terminal at Prince’s Dock. This, of course, depends on funding. Peel own the land, and are notoriously adept at securing public funding. Many questions arise – what are the financial arrangements between the council and Peel, for example? Why is the mayor again pledging assistance to John Whittaker, Peel’s billionaire owner? The mayor persists in using the city’s money in support of major private businesses – for example, Peel and Everton Football Club – when core services are desperately underfunded.

In the case of the terminal, we also must consider the distorted estimates of what such a terminal might mean to the city (as opposed to what it might mean to Peel). Interestingly, Venice – a far bigger tourist port than Liverpool – is currently considering banning cruise ships from docking there. The issue is whether these ships and their passengers add to the wider local economy. Liverpool’s own plans need closer and objective scrutiny, especially the financial dimension. Is it worth what is claimed?

Now we have another spin – this time that the Ten Streets project will create 2500 jobs. I believe that this figure, like those projected for the Bramley Dock and the passenger terminal, are entirely bogus. Moreover, if these schemes were to materialise, there would need to be massive relocation of existing businesses along the northern docks. Where to and at what cost?

Remember, too, that the mayor says that the city goes over a financial cliff in 2018. Yet one notes the profligate losses of the council – Chinatown (£1 million?); the Hope and Glory festival (£900k); the failed Commonwealth games bid (£1.2 million). These are just the tip of the iceberg, and raise serious concerns about the mayor and council’s priorities and financial competence. It is vital that any further plans to commit the city’s funds are intensively monitored, and prioritise and protect core services.

Finally, a pointer as to why so much legitimate business avoids Liverpool but hastens to Manchester, Leeds et al. Proposals were called for the site at the bottom of Mount Pleasant and Brownlow Hill where the 051 nightclub operated and where the municipal car park stands. A final date for submissions was published and established developers with a track record were keen. Plans were lodged with the council by the due date. Then, at the eleventh hour, the mayor has a private meeting with a well-known local personality (a man with no business record as a developer or builder).The outcome was an extension of the tendering time by six months so that this personality might submit a bid. What message does that send?


A Radical Change

I do not know if a sneaking admiration is due to either the mayor of Liverpool, or to his spin doctors. Either way, it is quite remarkable how positive a message is promoted from the Cunard Building regardless of a generally negative series of events and news. Take these past few weeks, normally a quiet time in politics.

The much-vaunted bid to host the Commonwealth Games fell flat on its face, but, of course, the show must go on and the mayor was suitably upbeat. He announced that the promised swimming pool on the river might still go ahead.  No firm commitment, just a vague suggestion of what might happen. That is the key for spin, of course – a non-stop stream of possibilities, very few of which ever come to fruition. Most of these schemes disappear into thin air.

This record of failed promises has become a major headache for the city administration. The story is one of repeated failure and missed opportunities. This dire reality is underscored by the failure to attract sufficient investment necessary to deliver the expanding local economy promised to the city – and, by extension, to the wider city-region. Prosperity has not been enhanced by the increased scepticism of investors towards the city. They witness officers being arrested and charged, whilst the administration’s competence is repeatedly questioned as allegations of corruption increase.

So the latest batch of “developers” to be arraigned before the courts was of no surprise to astute observers (and there are many!). The people concerned, their associates, accommodation addresses, and records of malfeasance, are well known to the police and other authorities. There is a widespread belief that the city-council and its officers have, at the very least, chosen to close their eyes to these people and their nefarious activities.

It is not as if there has simply been a failure to regulate who is operating in Liverpool and on what basis – I can think of half a dozen torching of development sites from which “developers” were to make huge gains. It is also the way in which core services are being managed. Thus, we now find ourselves nationally in the bottom failing five of 151 local education authorities for the quality of secondary education. The dissatisfaction, and even anger, amongst a large portion of the electorate is palpable. It will ultimately express itself against local Labour.

It is why I believe that there ought to be radical change at Liverpool City Council. The mayor should prepare to step aside and say so. Councillors ought to be urgently looking for ways to exercise their responsibilities to overhaul an outdated and self-serving organisation which is more preoccupied with its own interests rather than those of the city and its citizens. Perhaps one or more should have the courage to provide an alternative vision for the council and the city. I note the current mayor has said he favours a second referendum on Brexit. Many of us would like a first referendum on an elected city mayor.

A Tale of Two Cities

It has not been a good week for Liverpool City Council. We must remember that a bad week for Liverpool city has a negative effect on each of the boroughs within the city-region. Outside of Merseyside, all of the boroughs are lumped together under the “Liverpool” brand, for better or for worse. Naturally, that branding can reflect positively on all of the boroughs, as Manchester appears to do on its adjacent boroughs. Liverpool too often fails to meet the same standard.

The week began with a leading announcement from the mayor of 1500 new possible jobs (my emphasis – how often have promised jobs failed to materialise?). These are supposed to be sited on a prime waterfront location. Once again, the major beneficiary seems to be a member of the magic circle of businessmen known as the Local Enterprise Partnership. On this occasion it is the LEP’s chairman, Asif Hamid. His company runs call centres and he wants to put one, with the mayor’s support, on the prestigious King’s Dock. How many proposals have we already had trumpeted for this location?

Now, I am all in favour of jobs for the city-region, but these are minimum wage, low skill positions. We have been told consistently that the future lies with high skill, high wage opportunities, based on a highly educated and highly trained workforce. In Manchester, they are actively pursuing such a regional economy. For example, they are developing such jobs on the back of their reputation for applications of their wonder material graphene; and this is backed up by real investment. Meanwhile, we are offering our youngsters call centres.

Nor is the name of the city enhanced by yet another revelation in “Private Eye”. A small business in the Baltic Triangle was negotiating a new lease with the council for its premises – fifteen existing jobs were at stake. Whilst the business was assured by the council of its secure tenure, the council treacherously sold the freehold to the property. They sold it to the con men who “ran” scam companies PHD1 and North Point Global (think New Chinatown!) These fly-by-nights were “developing” yet more luxury flats on the site. The business owner quite rightly kicked up a fuss with the council. Next thing, his premises, and those of another business on the site, were firebombed by arsonists. The flats project cruised ahead.

Controversy continues. Take the non-working but highly paid council chief executive, Ged Fitzgerald. Next Monday, the city council’s Appointments and Disciplinary Panel will meet to discuss Fitzgerald’s future. Not before time, you might say; but let us see what eventuates. The published agenda lists two items before any reports: who is to chair the meeting, and whether it will be open to press and public.

Given the subject matter under discussion, I fully expect the press and public to be excluded. However, the chairmanship is interesting. Normally, the mayor is the official chair of this meeting. However, he is hardly impartial when it comes to Fitzgerald. They have been thick as thieves for years, and the mayor has been his staunchest supporter since he was charged by the police. Still, impartiality has never been the mayor’s strongest suit. I see no reason why the mayor would not once again force through his view on the backs of the relatively junior councillors on the Panel. Such is the Liverpool of today, to the detriment of us all.