Too Many Cooks

The great city of New York has a population of 8 million people.The city is divided into five boroughs – Manhattan, Queens, Staten Island, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. It has one mayor, and 51 councillors. By a vote of the city’s citizens, these councillors are restricted to two terms of office, after which they are compelled to stand down. Currently, the city is dominated by Democrats, with a Democrat mayor, and 48 Democrat councillors, leaving a rump opposition of three Republican councillors.

We, on the other hand, live in the Liverpool City Region, a conurbation of approximately 1.5 million people. We have six individual boroughs – Liverpool, Halton, Knowsley, Sefton, St Helens, and Wirral. We have one metromayor (roughly equivalent to New York’s mayor), a Liverpool city mayor, and six ceremonial mayors (who, in a self-deprecating way, refer to themselves as “the chain gang” as they congregate at each other’s events). There is a grand total of 364 councillors in our patch, without including parish and town councillors! That total currently consists of 295 Labour councillors, and 69 representing other parties. There is no restriction on how many terms an individual councillor may serve.

Let me put it in a simpler way. New York has one mayor for 8 million people; we have a mayor for every 187,000 people. Even more spectacular are the councillor-to-citizen ratios. In New York, there is one councillor on average, for every 157,000 constituents; here the ratio is one councillor to around every 4100 constituents. These disparities beg some questions: do we have too many elected representatives across the city-region? Are they cost-effective? Are we getting value for money? (I have not even looked yet at the cost – allowances, expenses and servicing costs).

I can live with ceremonial mayors, although to me, they are a leftover from bygone times. However, I would gladly see the back of an entirely superfluous city mayor. We were denied a choice on its imposition, and it has been a democratic disaster. However, it is when we look at the broader local representation that there is obvious scope for improvement.

There are 124 separate wards across the city-region, varying in size and population. Even if there was only to be one councillor per ward, we would still have two and a half times the numbers current in New York. In recent times, there have been some reductions in councillor numbers by reductions in the number of wards; but each ward still carries three councillors. We ought now to ask: do we need three councillors in each ward? Perhaps there is room for a radical reduction in the number of wards, together with a drastic curb on the number of councillors per ward.

There is a further complication: the question of representation at a borough AND at a city-region level. Currently, the role of metromayor suffers from a democratic deficit. He is accountable – up to a point – to just six local authority leaders and no-one else. I believe that there ought to be an arrangement akin to that in New York and in London.

In London, the metromayor is accountable to an elected assembly consisting of 25 members. In a city of 8.5 million people, it is certainly streamlined – about one assembly member to about 340,000 people. In the Liverpool City Region, I would opt for one assembly member per parliamentary constituency. This would leave lots of latitude for a massive reduction in the top-heavy numbers of borough councillors. They are simply surplus to requirements.

Naturally, these kinds of proposals will provoke fierce resistance and resentment. Just as every attempt to reduce the sizes of the Commons and the Lords at Westminster meets huge opposition from vested interests, so there would be every effort to maintain the political sinecures in which local government too often suffocates. Yet any objective analysis reveals that over-representation can be as anti-democratic as under-representation.


State of Play

I am in no doubt that there are two key elements to the success or otherwise of the Liverpool City Region. One is the governance arrangements; the other is the lead given by its biggest constituent authority, Liverpool City Council.

Comparisons with our near neighbour down the East Lancashire Road are unavoidable, given its obvious growth, and its additional powers currently unavailable to our own city region. It appears to have a sense of coherence and of purpose lacking in our own local leadership, more concerned with irrelevant distractions than with focussed development. Let me illustrate this.

During the past week, Mayor Anderson has involved himself again in issues and areas of competence outside of his brief. One concerned conditions in Walton Prison; the other was a London lobbying trip to London on transport. Now, it may be pedantic, but the prison issue is clearly a matter for local MP, Dan Carden. Transport is the stated responsibility of metromayor, Steve Rotheram. Why must Anderson butt in on the responsibilities of others? He would rant about such an intrusion onto his brief.

Part of our city region’s difficulties is the manner in which Liverpool’s mayor blunders around with an opinion on everything except the efficient and honest conduct of the city’s administration. Unable to resist a headline, he insists on a “king of the castle” approach to anything and everything. But, like Humpty Dumpty, he is heading for a fall, and that is not going unnoticed beyond Liverpool. The city’s reputation is neither enhanced by the mayor’s total misunderstanding of his role, nor by the absence of a political strategy with recognisable objectives. Manchester strives for recognition as the country’s second city; we seem to be turning into a spivs’ paradise.

Naturally, this reflects on the wider city region. Whilst neighbouring local authorities might battle on despite Liverpool, they are likely to be inhibited in their efforts by Liverpool’s sour name with potential investors. Incidentally, it is remarkable that Merseyside Police is so quiet on the sea of scandalous charges lapping at the door of the city council. Lancashire Police have investigated the abuses at One Direct (Fitzgerald et al), but Merseyside Police have maintained a Trappist silence about Liverpool Direct where the same people are alleged to be part of an even bigger scam. Similarly, Greater Manchester Police are busy investigating the crooks involved in the New Chinatown fiasco, while Merseyside Police sit on their hands. Steve Rotheram ought to prioritise bringing the role of Police Commissioner directly under his wing (as Andy Burnham has done in Manchester) so that some action might be initiated.

Nevertheless, my gut instinct is that there will be little change of note until we see changes in local political arrangements, and the democratic deficit is addressed. That would entail the abolition of the role of city mayor – a position on which (unlike elsewhere in the country) a referendum was denied the people of Liverpool. Secondly, I would like to see the constitutional stranglehold of local authority leaders on the Combined Authority loosened. Arrangements akin to those which operate in the Greater London Authority would be much more democratic than those with which we are currently lumbered.

Until there is substantial and progressive change, I fear that we will lag ever further behind other city regions. That may suit the profiteers and get-rich-quick merchants who happily hoover up their profits from dodgy “developments” and unnecessary student flats. It does nothing for those in our city still languishing on poor wages or benefits, and non-existent opportunities.

The Beam In Your Eye

I have always believed in vigorously responding to unwarranted slurs, regardless of their origin. I was, therefore, taken by a recent spat over a reported comment made by Michael White, a senior figure at the ‘Guardian’ newspaper. I must declare an interest – I have known Michael White for about thirty years. I have always thought of him as a fair-minded individual – something of a rarity amongst members of the press lobby.

However, I suppose that we can all fall from grace; and he stood accused of doing so. What I found intriguing were the comments and charges on social media, that scourge of the politically incorrect. Specifically, I wonder how we on Merseyside continue to be seen by outside observers. I am well aware of the bigotry of, say, a Kelvin McKenzie, or a Boris Johnson. But a Michael White?

My interpretation of his comment is that he was raising a question asked by many, including large numbers of people here in our own backyard. That is, where does responsibility lie for the many – and repeated – obstacles which we face year after year? Within an increasing national blame culture, how much responsibility can we pin on government (generally, but not always, the Tories), and do we ignore our own role in our troubles?

I recall well, the Geoffrey Howe option to Thatcher of the “managed decline” of Merseyside; but we must remember that our region declined rapidly during the 70s (before Thatcher). Trade shifted from the west coast to booming east coast ports like Harwich and Felixstowe, as local industry began a spectacular collapse. Other areas were also hit, and were then further decimated in the 80s by harsh Thatcherite policies. Just look at the coal mining communities. We were not alone in our pain.

Yet, too often, self-appointed spokespersons for our area react as if we were the only people in the country to have suffered. We did experience the agonies of Heysel and Hillsborough, as other parts of the country went through their own agonies – think of the Bradford fire, the Marchioness tragedy, or the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster. We were not unique. What was unique for me as a politician was the terrible misjudgement of Liverpool Council in the 80s, believing that they had the clout to defeat the Tory government of the day. That was never a viable proposition, and Liverpool paid dearly for that idiocy.

At that time, along the M62, Manchester Council was equally opposed to Thatcherism: but its leaders had the good sense to develop an alternative strategy to confrontation. Recent history has shown how that worked, with capable leadership and consistent, prosperous and progressive development.

Their city-region embraces ten local authorities with roots in three traditional counties – Lancashire, Cheshire and Derbyshire. Very different communities over a wide geographical area, cooperate to their mutual benefit. They do not, as far as I know, suffer from the fractiousness which sometimes divides our communities. I am mindful, for example, of campaigns for Southport to secede from Sefton, or for a Chester postcode rather than a Liverpool one on the Wirral. These suggested disunity rather than unity. Most of all, we seem to have a disproportionate number of whingers and whiners, moaning much but doing little.

The key to a progressive city-region is in the hands of its people and its communities. Yes – we expect our MPs to do their bit (like lobbying intensively for toll-free bridges and tunnels?); and our councils must modernise to deliver the most efficient services. Yet surely the first and most important step is to look closely at ourselves and our own failings, before seeking whipping boys outside. In the biblical sense, we must learn to cast the beam from our own eyes.

Heritage Rethink

Images of the fabled “undead” invaded my thoughts when I read that mayor Anderson had given the job of rebuilding bridges with UNESCO over Liverpool’s world heritage status to David Henshaw. Now, I am all for the Pauline conversion of the mayor to a begrudged realisation that our cultural footprint is something to be valued rather than belittled. His past comments have, after all, betrayed his limited perspective on its economic and political importance.

Of more immediate concern is the mayor’s apparently exaggerated faith in the abilities and acumen of Henshaw, and the cross-section of the local “great and good” appointed to help him, in dealing with the problem. Whilst I wish them all of the best in their task, I am mindful of Henshaw’s previous dabbles in development. Most recently, his leadership of the redevelopment of Alder Hey hospital included a controversial proposal to build a huge housing estate on land previously committed to parkland. The plan upset both local councillors and local residents, and was kicked into touch. Similarly, his proposal for a stadium on the King’s Dock was also rejected by both the then Regional Development Agency and the European Commission. The claim that the latter would create 4000 jobs was seen as bogus, there being no evidence for the claim.

Still, I am sure that he will be at home glad-handing fellow bureaucrats, whether locally or at UNESCO. However, Anderson should recall that Henshaw was the chief executive at Liverpool who finished the local government career of former council leader, Mike Storey. He was also the man at Liverpool council who erected a protective wall of departmental directors around himself, whilst he pulled their strings. Given the current precarious position of Ged Fitzgerald, the mayor might do well to ensure that Henshaw does not get too comfortable at Cunard Building.

Of course what is really important is the future well-being of the city and the region. Reinforcement of Liverpool’s world heritage status is a vital step in maintaining the city’s tourism offer, as well as being an international indicator of the city-region’s significance. Currently, the city is lagging behind in the competition for investment. Its name remains far bigger than its reality. That needs to change.

My view is that there are two immediate changes which need to occur to the benefit of both the city and the city-region. Firstly, I believe that the mayoralty in Liverpool ought to go. We have no need for three mayors in the city. I also believe that the current mayor is not giving the right lead for the city. Secondly, such a change would fit with an enhanced role for the metromayor, with a wider remit and wider powers. We need an integrated approach to the city-region. Whilst Liverpool is primus inter pares in the city-region, it is but one of six very different boroughs. They need to be brought together in hitherto unexplored ways, to the advantage of all.

One thing is certain. The catalogue of failure and controversy which has bedevilled the city in recent years has acted against the interests of both the city and the wider city-region. The dispute with UNESCO is only one example of this phenomenon. Similarly, the continuing Chinese whispers about corruption are debilitating to all those who want to see all of our communities prosper. Until there is wholesale change in Liverpool in particular, I can only see the city-region slipping further behind comparable parts of the country.

Transport Turmoil

The wheels of progress tend to jolt us now and then. So it is the case with the current closure of Lime Street station. Increased passenger demand means increased services. This, in turn, means that a long-overdue overhaul of the railway gateway to the city-region is underway. It will be a short term inconvenience; but it is for the eventual general good.

On the other hand, the impending introduction of tolls on the Mersey bridges in Halton will be a cost and an inconvenience which will do no-one any good, other than perhaps the Treasury. The old bridge will be out of commission until next year, whilst we can anticipate teething problems with the new Mersey Gateway bridge and its tolls. A visitor from the south might think that we were set on discouraging access to our city-region.

Such issues add to the challenges facing our metromayor, given his ostensible responsibility for transport and economic development. For too long, there has been a naive belief held by some that he can somehow work miracles in these areas. That is mistaken in so many ways. For a start, he does not have the necessary powers. Secondly, there is nothing which he can do without the agreement of the six council leaders who sit on the Combined Authority .Thirdly, in cases like the bridges, he is faced with a fait accompli, agreed long before he was elected.

Likewise, there have been unrealistic expectations concerning the ongoing dispute over driver-only trains on Merseyrail .The RMT union have conducted an apparently successful public relations case with much of the travelling public, based on safety arguments. Meanwhile, the chair of Merseytravel, Cllr. Robinson, and the metromayor, Steve Rotheram, have faced a stacked deck. The key decisions were taken long ago by the six leaders on the Combined Authority. This was to buy much-needed new rolling stock. This was not a proposal but a done deed. The contracts were signed and the deal closed. Cllr. Robinson and the metromayor are stuck with it.

My belief is that eventually, the RMT will come to an accommodation with Merseyrail. That is the nature of industrial bargaining. After all, if the London tubes can operate safely for years without guards, it seems logical that Merseyrail might do the same.

We in the Liverpool City Region need modern, efficient and safe transport links by both rail and road. A successful local economy depends upon them. If we fail on basic and vital infrastructure, we will fail on everything else. Note one fact, publicised this week, comparing the cities of Liverpool and Manchester, and the worth of private property in each city. Although Manchester is slightly smaller than Liverpool in population, the accumulated net worth of our nearest competitor city is THREE TIMES that of Liverpool. This clearly illustrates the widening gap which we must seek to narrow.

Perhaps it is not too much to urge all of our elected representatives across the city-region to give their whole-hearted support to the metromayor in his endeavours to get the city-region back on track. People power might just make up for the devolved powers currently denied him by national government.