Straight Talk

So many electors are confused or disappointed by their inability to wrest a straight answer to a straight question from their elected representatives. That confusion or disappointment is rapidly transmuted into political cynicism when they feel either misled or lied to by those same people. Ultimately, the electors become either politically apathetic or angry, or, very often, both.

Such is the situation with Liverpool city council, although the same reaction might obtain elsewhere. In Liverpool’s case, it is increasingly evident that the council’s spin machine is failing to keep pace either with reality or the contradictions of members’ and officers’ public statements. In recent days, there have been two glaring examples of the council’s chaotic “news management”.

Through the medium of the council’s in-house false news specialist – the Echo – we have been witness to a succession of spats between council luminaries, and self-publicist and former bankrupt “developer”, Lawrence Kenwright. Despite being formerly close confederates, Anderson and Kenwright fell out bizarrely over shelters for the homeless. Into the quarrel between these two self-styled benefactors of the destitute stepped Cllr. Small.

He complained loudly and bitterly that Kenwright’s initiative was damaging to the surrounding neighbourhood. Next thing, Kenwright posits his intention to stand against Small in next May’s elections. However, somewhere, somehow, a truce was brokered. Small sings Kenwright’s praises and Kenwright decides against an electoral joust. It is difficult to know what is truth and what is merely convenient window dressing.

More importantly, what is the electorate to make of this throwback to the toy town politics of yesteryear? Is Kenwright’s “refuge” a boon to the homeless, or a drug-ridden blot on the landscape? What is the honest view of Cllr.Small? Is the issue just another twist in the reliance (of both the council and Kenwright) on public relations, rather than objective truth?

 Switch now to ongoing disputes over green space. Both Knowsley and Wirral are facing serious objections to plans to sell off green space for housing development. Like all local authorities, they are facing acute financial pressures alongside increasing demand for more housing. In Liverpool, such battles to retain parks and open space have been well documented, with the mayor undertaking – albeit reluctantly – to reject further intrusion on the city’s parks and gardens.

It was of no surprise, therefore, that vigilant Walton residents were outraged to discover that a slice of Walton Hall Park had surreptitiously found its way into the council’s “land for sale” portfolio. This extolled the virtues of the site for housing development. Local residents had encountered enough council duplicity in the past, and readied themselves to battle for the retention of the current extent of the park. Lo and behold, a council statement was rushed out to say it was all a mistake – the land was not for sale, after all.

This is either a sign of chronic incompetence within the council, where the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing; or it is wholly devious behaviour, an attempt to quietly and deceitfully test the market for that slice of park land. Either way, it confirms the distrust which so many local people feel towards the council.

In this age of Twitter and other social media, news – both fake and real – spreads like a contagion, often with unpredictable consequences. It is also the age of Freedom of Information legislation, whereby perceptive and insistent citizens can gouge out the darkest secrets from reluctant public organisations, including councils. To my simple mind, it is good politics as well as ethically responsible, for those in positions of power to be up front with the truth. Failure to be so carries with it every chance of electoral penalty, if not worse. Too many of those in power fail to appreciate this simple fact.

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Wirral Wonders

As we are all well aware, we live in times of austerity, at least as far as national government is concerned. In their turn, local authorities and other public bodies dependent on central funding are being relentlessly squeezed as grants are repeatedly cut. Therefore, it is of little surprise that virtually all of those grant reliant organisations are increasing their council tax or precept by the maximum amount allowed by central government without being penalised – that is, 5.99%.

The latest to fall in line is Wirral Council. Unlike their counterparts across the Mersey, the controlling Labour group is fully aware of the electoral challenge which they face in the forthcoming May elections. Not for them the “luxury” of a virtual “one party state” status accorded to other Labour-controlled local authorities within the city-region (with the exception of Sefton). They have a fight on their hands if they are to retain control of the council.

This partly explains the rush to announce a variety of initiatives, along with concomitant jobs and visible improvements in those parts of the borough in dire need.  Ten weeks before the election, mind you, there is little mention of the golf course plans – and higher band housing – proposed for the green belt. No votes there; but New Ferry needs rebuilding and the condition of Liscard has been highlighted of late. However, the biggest challenge remains Birkenhead, home to the iconic Birkenhead Park (the model for New York’s Central Park), and also home to the magnificent architecture of Hamilton Square.

Sadly, much of the rest of the borough’s principal town, like so many other parts of this once-sceptred isle, desperately needs a massive infusion of investment. This partly explains what many see as rash or inflated promises of a number of investment schemes more related to electoral needs than practical viability. The latest which I have looked at outlines a partnership of the council with Muse developments, designed to accelerate improvements in Birkenhead and elsewhere. Apparently, a tentative agreement on this partnership was reached by the council leader with Muse at last year’s MIPIM jolly in Monaco last year.

This joint venture – to be known as the Wirral Growth Company – is ambitious, and I wish the enterprise well, for the good of Wirral and its residents. Yet an investment figure of £1 billion has been mooted, and this is where doubts begin to creep in. It may well only be an aspirational figure, but, amongst the general public, such huge amounts quickly assume the standing of a target figure as their hopes and expectations are raised. Ultimately, that does little for the electorate’s faith in their elected representatives if and when such heady heights of investment fail to be realised.

Surely this is a danger in Wirral. Look at Wirral Waters – ten years into a thirty year time frame promoted by Peel, and aided by the council. What is there to show for it? Very little, to the casual observer.  Part of Wirral Community College and Tower Wharf, looking out on a waste land. These two comparatively small developments were themselves reliant on the council’s input and financial support. The council owns the college and Tower Wharf was built by the council in partnership with Longmeadow Estates (now itself in liquidation!).

You might ask: who were the beneficiaries? Well, one was Asif Hamid – call centre operator, chairman of cash-dispensing quango, the Local Enterprise Partnership, and member of the city-region’s Combined Authority alongside Wirral’s council leader. Great play has been made of his job creation at Tower Wharf – 400 jobs have been claimed. Some have questioned this as simply the transfer of pre-existing low-skill, low-pay opportunities from his other Birkenhead sites. Anyway, he now has a modern set of premises at least partly funded by the tax payer.

The other beneficiary is our old friend Peel, who have promised so much but delivered so little. We all remember the false promise of an International Trade Centre, set to galvanise the development of Wirral Waters. It failed to materialise, as did the assurances of Peel protégé Stella Shiu who took up the baton of the trade centre, only for her and the Sam Wa company to drop it somewhere between Birkenhead and Beijing.  It was the Financial Times which finally showed this woman to have been a fraud, and she has now happily disappeared over the investment horizon.

 Even within the past week, there has been another attempt, according to Wirral Council, to “kickstart” development on the desolate Wirral Waters site. An announcement was made of an intention to build flats on the site at a cost in excess of £200,000 each. The questions again flood in. Where are the affordable homes? Who will buy these flats? Who are they designed to attract? Will flat buyers want to look out on a waste land?  I am all for building new homes, especially for those at the bottom of the housing ladder. What I do not favour is building the wrong buildings in the wrong places for the wrong reasons and the wrong people. Nor, if I was a councillor, would I favour presumptuous claims or exaggerated projections for speculative plans put to me by chancers. The last ten years of Wirral Waters is testimony to scepticism.

Roosting Chickens

It is over two years since I raised the issue of the mysterious missing receipts from the car park established on the site of the old Anfield Comprehensive school. No-one at the council has, as yet, satisfactorily accounted for these – all enquiries hit a brick wall. Now the matter has resurfaced, involving some familiar council names and their non-councillor familiars. Moreover, it has emerged that a similar question has arisen concerning receipts from another car park, on the site of the old Major Lester school.

These match-day earners were supposed to provide a significant boost to those communities around the football grounds in desperate need of investment. However, there is no evidence that these extremely remunerative enterprises have returned but a fraction of their income to those communities. The question is: where did the money from these council owned properties go?

This entirely unsatisfactory situation appears to have been a major factor in the departure of Cllr. Frank Prendergast from the Liverpool Council Labour Group. He is a long-standing and vastly experienced elected member, who has served as council leader and as Lord Mayor. He was, until recently, the chairman of the council’s Audit and Governance Committee. In that role, he has been asking searching questions for a long time about these car parks without getting the responses which they merited. So persistent was he that he was apparently seen as a danger to the cabal of senior councillors embroiled in covering up whatever occurred with regard to these matters. This resulted in him being ousted as the committee chairman.

Another senior councillor – Dave Hanratty – who is also chairman of the city-region’s Fire and Rescue Authority, is about to relinquish his council seat at the forthcoming May elections. Whilst he has not (yet) been forced out of his role, as Cllr. Prendergast was, he must have concluded that the tone and direction of the city council was no longer for him.

These are the obvious signs of the pressure building up within the ruling Labour group, with senior council officers either suspended or leaving, and ever more power being vested in the erratic control of an increasingly despotic mayor and his small group of cronies. It is little wonder that former mayoral sidekick, developer Lawrence Kenwright, should declare political intentions this week. He presumably sees the council as a huge opportunity for a man of his inclinations.

Speaking of developers, another springs to mind – Elliot Lawless – given the Elliot Group signs defacing much of the city centre. Less than a year ago, one of his companies went into liquidation, leaving behind mega debts. Still, when you can claim thirty directorships, I suppose that is small potatoes. Merseyside cannot have too many thirty year old multi-millionaires.

Meanwhile, moving into the realm of billionaires, a thought occurred to me concerning the proposed Bramley Moore stadium. When LFC were planning a new stadium, councillors were warned in no uncertain terms by the then District Auditor not to discuss the issue, even in closed party meetings. It gave rise, they were told, to a conflict of interest if they were an LFC season ticket holder, or even a supporter.

Now we have a mayor who is a rabid supporter and season-ticket holder for EFC, publicly and repeatedly pushing for a financial deal to assist EFC (and Peel) in their ambitions. He also appears to be re-organising regeneration and planning priorities in order to fit in with his own predilections on the matter. Given that he has embraced de facto the roles of chief executive, finance director AND head of planning, it strikes me that there is something of a conflict of interest for him and his duties to the council tax payers of the city.

Sisters Doing It…

You must wonder whether women are merely more perceptive than men; or whether, in a manner of speaking, they have more cajones. Perhaps it is both. Locally, we have seen how successful they have been in using Freedom of Information legislation to wrest from an extremely reluctant Liverpool council, that which ought to be readily placed in the public domain. Local women Catherine Byrne, Josie Mullin and Audrey O’Keefe have each been outstandingly adept in extracting the truth about council activities, despite vehement opposition.

The latest example of their fortitude was Audrey’s determination that council officials should not shunt her legitimate questions into an information cul-de-sac on spurious grounds, as they have tried to do with Josie.  After a successful appeal to the Information Commissioner, the following interesting facts were established about council trips to China taken by elected representatives between October, 2014 and May, 2017.

These trips were particularly relevant to charges laid against the council concerning the alleged scams swirling around the failed New Chinatown debacle. As yet, no one has been held to account over this, despite the losses to investors and contractors, and the huge damage to the city’s reputation as a place in which to do business. Indeed, the only related court action to date ended in an ignominious defeat of the council.

The information now released suggests that Cllr Gary Millar is the council’s point man on all things pertaining to China. He has travelled to China within the given time frame no less than seven times at the city’s expense. The cost of his flights totalled £6729, whilst his hotel accommodation came to £5270.The key question which arises is: what benefit accrued to the city as a result of his travels, and how might they be evaluated?

Overseas investors insist in their on-line missives that Cllr Millar’s oriental odyssey lent credibility to the public relations campaign which duped them into investing in scam developments in Liverpool. In fact, the city council seems to agree in part, writing that his objective was to “provide outline information on all major projects to those interested in investing in, for example, infrastructure and housing”.  Anyway, I would have thought that “outline information” might have been conveyed far more cheaply via email, rather than by a grand tour of the vast country that is China.

Cllr Millar’s expenses are not the only ones listed, although at least thirteen trips by accompanying officials were not listed. Presumably they did not pay their own way. No – one other elected individual did accompany the tireless Cllr Millar on one two week jolly – the indefatigable mayor, Joe Anderson. Oddly, the mayor’s air tickets on this specific journey, at £2241.16, cost nearly double those of Cllr Millar (£1139.37), although they travelled together on the same airlines on the same days. Perhaps the mayor flew a different class. Furthermore, despite staying in the same hotels, the mayor’s bills came in at £1143.57 compared to those of Cllr Millar (£737.83). Again, the mayor may have had an upgraded room.

No matter what, the whole episode reveals just how averse the council is to the electorate knowing what, in these times of austerity, is being spent on the overseas jaunts of local luminaries. It also illuminates how the council doggedly persists in refusing to lift the cloak of secrecy which hides so many of their activities. This is the very antithesis of transparency without which there can be no true local democracy, and serves to reinforce the low opinion of local authorities already held by so many.

Truth or Consequences

I once passed through a town with the very odd name of Truth or Consequences, in a remote part of New Mexico. Its name came back to me recently when I was asked about “fake news”. How, went the question, does it differ from the infamous “spin” of the Blair years? Well, there is little difference in its intent. Like the “propaganda” of yesteryear, or even the “agitprop” of the Russian revolutionaries, they are all varieties of the same treacherous tendency to deceive. The hope of its purveyors is that the public will be duped into believing – or, at least, accepting – that which is simply untrue.

A recent example of this was the recent alleged “news” item run by the Echo claiming that an unremarkable council backbencher had 730,000 Twitter followers. Such a figure would put him ahead, not only of senior national politicians, but also internationally followed celebrities like sportspeople and show business luminaries. Is this the case? I neither know nor care (on-line commentators claim that over 600,000 of the claimed figure were fakes). However, the story illustrates the world in which we now live.

Firstly, large numbers of people who use Twitter will believe it to be true without question. Secondly, it underlines the belief that social media are vital channels of communication for many, if not the ONLY channel, particularly for the politically ill-informed. Thirdly, regardless of the veracity or otherwise of the Twitter message conveyed, it is extremely difficult to counter it. It is modern confirmation of Mark Twain’s pithy observation that a lie is half way around the world before the truth has got its boots on (except that today Twitter can instantaneously circumnavigate the globe).

Another truth exemplified by this little non-story is the Echo’s inability –or refusal – to check much of what it prints before publication. It repeatedly fails in its duty to inform on matters of substance. Across Merseyside, there are many people (although the number is dwindling daily) who look to the Echo for information on what is happening locally. Older people in particular depend on the paper for information on the issues which relate to them. Instead, as younger people are fed “fake news” on-line, an older generation are force fed via hard copy a diet of unbalanced and often inaccurate reportage masquerading as news.

This is an absolute tragedy for those who have a passionate belief in transparency as essential for accountability. Without knowledge of the unvarnished facts of any matter or situation, it is extremely difficult to have true accountability. Without accountability, democracy is simply a sham. Far too often, there is widespread ignorance of what is really the case in public life, hidden behind a smokescreen of misinformation. With regard to public affairs, it can translate as voting for a political brand lacking in substance. Voting ought to be a matter of conviction, based on a knowledge and understanding of policy and of record.

Worst of all is the apathy of a disenchanted part of the electorate which can ignore their personal responsibility with the excuse that “they are all the same”. That is plainly untrue, although I do not see any urgency by those who ought to know better, to dispel the ignorance, bigotry, and complacency too often ailing the body politic today.

Self-serving letters from councillors in the local press have a limited use in enlightening people as to what is really happening to their services and in their areas, but they are no substitute for an enquiring, objective and critical media. The city-region deserves better. Instead, we are given overdoses of Dr. Feelgood’s panaceas for an information-deprived electorate – sport, violent crime and nostalgia.

These have now become the staples of a cheap media product offered to the local electorate in the mistaken belief that such limited handouts will satisfy them. It will not. Such a miserly approach to news gathering might keep the management and owners of our local media happy temporarily, but it will be at a cost. Their “bread and circuses” vision of public life might reflect that of some local politicians but it debases the traditional (and not yet moribund) role of the media of speaking truth to power. The consequences of failure to do so are all too obvious.

Subsidiarity

The very few negative responses to my blog have fallen into roughly two brackets. The first questions why I have so often targeted Joe Anderson, Liverpool’s mayor. The answer is simple. Liverpool and its council is the epicentre of the city-region and most local issues seem to revolve around whatever is happening in the city. Nothing, of course, happens within the city council unless the mayor is involved, such is his domination of the council. We know this because the mayor is such an obsessive self-publicist whose opinions cover just about everything and anything.

The second little group of dissenters ask why I did nothing about Joe when I was a Member of Parliament. Well, again the answer is straightforward. At that time, Joe was neither Leader of the Council, nor elected Mayor. Indeed, at that time there was no post of elected mayor in Liverpool. Even if there was, I would not have had either the right or the power to interfere in a matter of local governance. That remains the case, and brings me to the question of subsidiarity.

This notion has generally been used in the context of devolution, or relations within the European Union. It refers to the fact that there are powers and responsibilities which are appropriate to various levels of government. This also applies to the new level of local government brought in to play in recent years. Thus, there are duties given to a council in which that council has the sole prerogative to operate. Likewise, the recent role of metromayor gives the holder of that post responsibility for quite specific areas. Thus, like it or loathe it, transport, for example, lies within the metromayor’s bailiwick; street cleaning is within that of the council.

Many voters still believe that the metromayor is somehow  “over” the various councils and their leaders. He is not – they are complementary to each other. The theory behind this arrangement is that the metromayor, the mayor, and councillors are each individually responsible to, and also accountable to, the electorate at their respective elections. It may not quite work like that, but that is the basis of the disposition of local government.

Similarly, local members of parliament may have very strong views on local government issues affecting their constituencies and the people who live within them. They have every right to express those views both locally and nationally on their constituents’ behalf. In fact, I believe that they have a duty to do so. However, they have no powers available to them to intervene in the council’s right to do as it sees fit within the law.

They may consider one course of action or another politically expedient to follow, particularly when party loyalty – or lack of it – comes into play. However, the current political complexion of politics on Merseyside is a very bright red, and the Labour Party rule book remains silent on a whole series of matters thrown into relief by the proliferation of mayors and metromayors. It would be a brave or a reckless politician who involved themselves at this time in such muddy constitutional waters as the hierarchy of powers at local government level.

We are, nevertheless, blessed across the city-region with an electorate politically conscious of issues. Notwithstanding the confusion over who is king of the castle, and who can tell who what to do, that local electorate can sometimes be ruthless in its exercise of the franchise. Its gut instincts invariably tell it what is in the general interest without reference necessarily to any particular “gamechanging” individual.