In recent years of government-induced austerity, there has been a loud and constant complaint of the effects of this misguided approach on local government. Of course, there have been cuts in government grant to local authorities year on year, which in turn has led to cuts in local government services. This reflects in turn the ever growing dependency of local government services on central government grant, rather than on income raised and controlled by councils themselves.
This is not a recent phenomenon – it has been a process stretching back many years. Just ask the Liverpool councillors who vainly challenged the Thatcher government on this back in the ‘80s. The result was their disqualification from office and their surcharge. It is a timely reminder that, when push comes to shove, central government controls the levers of power.
Thus, Halton Council was in a no-win situation in their search for a desperately-needed second Mersey bridge. If a deal was to go ahead, it was to be on the government’s terms – and so it transpired. I thought of this when I read the predictable – and justified – complaints of the travelling public concerning the tolls that have been introduced. Sadly, angry people are too often targeting the council when the situation is down to national government.
However, I do wonder whether the skills are available at elected council level for negotiating such deals. For example, Sefton Council has been criticised over the purchase of the Strand shopping centre. The focus was principally on the amount of “fees” associated with the purchase. We are bedevilled at all levels of society by “professional advisors” and “consultants”. I saw these leeching on national government when I was a minister. They had too cosy a relationship with senior civil servants, who often ended up working for them upon retirement from the civil service.
They attach themselves to anywhere and anything where money changes hands. There are the major international outfits – like Goldman Sachs, Price Waterhouse Coopers, Ernst and Young – as well as a myriad of lesser entities, already to shake down any enterprise including local government. Look at the books of any council and you will be amazed at how much is paid in one way or another to these sharks. I am mindful of the old definition of a consultant as someone who borrows your watch to tell you the time, and then charges you for the privilege!
Equally worrying is the mistaken belief that too many council leaders have that they are capable of judging business proposals put to them on an almost daily basis. Generally, they are wholly unqualified for the complexities involved – legal, economic and political. Thus, they tend to rely on the advice of their senior officers, or call in the dreaded consultants. Debacles like Liverpool Direct shows you where that can lead. Whilst officers are there to tender advice, it ought to be on the basis of carefully considered and constructed policies. The function of the officers is to implement the policies of the council, NOT to push their own schemes and business ventures.
Too often, business figures wine and dine political leaders, seducing them into support for their interests, not necessarily the same as the public interest. Flattery can go a long way with some. It has to be remembered that these business figures have a bottom line of profit, for themselves first and foremost. They often present a superficially attractive proposition, but it is down to ALL elected members to ensure that whatever is proposed, is in accord with official council policy, and commensurate with the interests of local council tax payers.
Recent revelations in the Paradise Papers, for example, illustrate links between Russian oligarch Usmanov, ostensible major shareholder in EFC Moshiri, and the owner of Peel, Whittaker. I speak of the proposed stadium at Bramley Moore dock. The concerns published about these “businessmen” must surely give pause for thought despite the understandable wish of EFC supporters to have a new stadium. This deal not only brings together people involved in tax avoidance, but is said to be contingent on some kind of guarantee from Liverpool City Council. I do not see how supporting billionaire tax dodgers in a purely private development is the business of any council, especially one in the financial situation of Liverpool. If ever a public-private deal merits intensive scrutiny, this one does.