Jolly Japes in Java

The week seemed to begin well for Wirral Council. A detailed schedule of committed road repairs was released, and went down well with exasperated motorists on the peninsula. Then the Housing Secretary, Sajid Javid, announced that Wirral Council was one of three councils nationally into which he was sending a team of officials. The problem? He said that the council was more than ten years overdue in submitting to him its local development plan. Leader “Big Phil” Davies put up namesake George Davies as the patsy to explain the issue away.

At the same time, St Helens was introducing to its council tax payers, a programme of cultural investments, lending itself to the title of “council of culture”. This stems from a grant made to it for cultural purposes by the Combined Authority – the collective of council leaders in the city-region, headed by metromayor, Steve Rotheram.

Across in Liverpool city, however, there was no such positive publicity, just Mayor Anderson again making a fool of himself on social media. Having been on a jaunt to the MIPIM knees up in Monaco, he took himself off to the exotic island of Java. To the best of my knowledge, there was no prior public announcement of this. Accompanying our own local Don Quixote was his faithful Sancho Panza, otherwise known as Cllr. Gary Miller. He left Java to travel on to China – again! Perhaps he should be known as the councillor for Beijing East.

This raises many more questions, most notably: who paid for these jaunts? If the trip, as suggested, was connected to a twinning arrangement, surely that is a matter for the ceremonial Lord Mayor, Cllr. Kennedy, taking the lead? If the trip was a commercially orientated venture, what was its specific purpose? Will it turn out to be a washout like the mayor’s unproductive visit to Birmingham, Alabama?

What did emanate from the mayor’s trip to the Indonesian city of Surabaya was the image of a man on a very obvious jolly. His antics filmed on social media were not those of someone who can be deemed a fit and proper person to represent the city of Liverpool. In fact, he managed to raise huge criticism from both EFC and LFC supporters on social media. To people with no football inclination, he simply offended their sense of good taste.

Whilst he was being “crowned” by the Indonesians like a latter day Sanders of the River, back home the Housing Secretary was also firing a shot across his bows over Liverpool’s outdated local plan. Of course, this is partly explained by the fact that we are still without a Head of Planning in Liverpool, as well as a chief executive still on paid suspension. Perhaps such officials are deemed inessential in the Cunard Building, given Mayor Anderson’s readiness to accommodate developers without question.

Mayor Anderson and his cabal should be very cautious. His current fixation of borrowing on behalf of EFC for a new stadium is not only meeting increasing opposition; but the build cost has already rocketed up by 66% in just twelve months. The rumour, too, is that the current CEO of EFC – Robert Elstone – may be on his way out of the club. With the Housing Secretary circling, and the support of rank-and-file councillors diminishing daily, Mayor Anderson may yet find himself in more serious difficulties than those which he already faces.

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Small World

The jolly in the south of France hosted by MIPIM – for and by developers and property speculators – is over for another year. The council leaders have had to drag themselves away and back to the harsher realities of running their councils. This is particularly challenging for them as they head into a round of local elections. All leaders – local and national – take joy in getting away from the sheer grind of their domestic worries, particularly when they do not have to pay for the privilege.

I am mindful that way back in 2010, Liverpool’s then new council leader (not yet mayor) told the Daily Post that he could not justify the council’s attendance at the MIPIM bash, and that he intended to give up on its annual jamboree. At the same time, long-term Joe sidekick, Frank McKenna of Downtown Liverpool in Business (DLIB), was agreeing with him, stating that his time was better spent lobbying for investment in London.

Incidentally, what does DLIB actually do? It seems to specialise in staging receptions (jollies?) where hopeful business types can mingle and have a fine old time. I have always thought of it as a commercialised rival to the local Chamber of Commerce. It must be exhausting for chairman McKenna who also chairs the same kind of confection in Manchester, Preston and Lancaster (note the acronyms – DMIB,DPIB,DLIB).

Nevertheless, how times change. Fresh from the French follies of MIPIM, there was a plush reception at Liverpool’s Malmaison Hotel, hosted by the ubiquitous Mr. McKenna, designed to give the chief executive of EFC , Robert Elstone, and Mayor Anderson a platform from which to spin yet again the outrageous proposal to finance a new stadium in the name of the Liverpool council tax payers. Remember that this would in effect be a subsidy to two billionaires – Whittaker of Peel, and Moshiri of EFC.

The figures churned out were fast and furious – and, to my mind, false. The aphorism of Disraeli comes to mind: “Lies, damned lies, and statistics”. Perhaps an independent and objective review of whatever financial arrangement is proposed will give us an honest assessment of a scheme whereby some of the poorest people in the land will carry the risk on behalf of some of the richest.

We know a great deal about some of these players, particularly Mayor Anderson. Elstone is of little account – the only person at EFC whose views carry weight are those of Moshiri. His name appeared recently in the so-called Paradise Papers which revealed the tax dodging antics of the super-rich. These papers also suggested that Moshiri may have been acting as proxy in the purchase of EFC for his partner, Alisher Usmanov, a Russian oligarch named today as a man not to be trusted. Whittaker is well documented as a tax exile, operating through his extensive network of off-shore companies.

Frank McKenna, of course, is simply a bloke from Skem trying to make good. Once deputy leader of Lancashire County Council with high political ambitions, his world came tumbling down when he was charged with forgery. Although the judge threw out the case, his political career was finished .He tried a think tank – Aurora – with two other local names, Jon Egan and Matt Finnegan. The former has recently found himself dragged into a local controversy over his past involvement in the Beautiful Ideas Company, responsible for match day car parks, and now facing questions about receipts unaccounted for. Mr. Finnegan was deeply embroiled in a huge spat between former council leader Mike Storey and his then chief executive, David Henshaw. Mr McKenna moved on to set up Downtown Liverpool as a think tank, but this quickly morphed into DLIB.

Liverpool is really a rather small place and two things about its public life strike me. Firstly , the same people bob up repeatedly, very often being rewarded for failure in one sphere with a well-paid position in another. Very often, they crop up in questionable circumstances. Secondly, we often seem unable to produce from within, the right people to run things. In this short piece, I can point to Whittaker (Isle of Man); Moshiri (Monaco); Elstone (West Yorkshire) – none of them local tax-payers. McKenna – now a councillor on West Lancs Borough Council and sitting on our Combined Authority – lives in Upholland, whilst I believe that Finnegan still lives in Manchester.

These, and others like them, pull many of the strings, both commercial and political, in Liverpool. This, I know, is not a new phenomenon, but it does not say a great deal for our local political and business classes, does it?

Development Disasters

As the political leaders of Liverpool and Wirral (and, for all I know, leaders of other councils) head off to the South of France for the MIPIM developers knees up, major companies are taking a dimmer view of the event. It has been reported that concerns have been raised that this boozefest (held in Cannes) is merely an unjustifiable jolly for the delegates who attend.

Thus, the timing of the article in the Guardian – belated though it was – on the scale of development scandals in northern cities, must have made uncomfortable reading for elected representatives and officials seeking again to justify an expensive “mission” in search of investment. Even more unfortunate was the stark emphasis in the article on Liverpool – six of the nine projects featured were in Liverpool itself. This was not “news” to those many keen local observers who have been complaining about this situation for many, many months. However, despite the Trappist silence of the “Echo” on the developers’ mugging of the city, aided and abetted by the council, we now have media heavyweights on the case – the Guardian, the Financial Times, Granada Television, and Private Eye.

None of this seems to impact upon Liverpool Council, who seem unperturbed by the swelling tide of criticism. Caught between the pressure of austerity and the siren promises of fly-by-night “businessmen”, the council seems oblivious to what is blindingly obvious to everyone else. Little wonder then that they are repeatedly charged with malfeasance rather than culpable ignorance, such is their malign neglect of the council taxpayers’ interests.

Is it, for example, deliberate deceit or wishful thinking when statements are made as fact when they are fiction? Take the former International Garden Festival (IGF) site. It is a potentially prime location on the banks of the Mersey, and close to the city centre. We are told it is to have amongst other things, 2500 homes, and a ferry terminal. All that is needed is (another!) development partner.

As an aside, it is recognised that this former city tip would need remediation. That is true as the present site is toxic. The process of cleaning it up is very expensive as Sefton Council discovered fifteen years ago when ALL of its national funding for a new housing estate was swallowed up in remediation costs. There is money available for this kind of work, but not to Liverpool council and its boastful mayor. It could only be accessed through the metromayor, Steve Rotheram.

Likewise, the proposed ferry terminal. Many will recall the Mersey Ferries calling at the Festival site in its heyday thirty three years ago. Yet the ferries, as part of the city-region’s transport system, fall within the gift of the metromayor, not the local authority. Remember that the mayor has constantly obstructed and insulted the metromayor. One must wonder whether or not the latter is willing to play the mayor’s games of hyperbole, or accede to his diet of public relations drivel. I suspect not.

It does not stop at the IGF. Grandiose plans have been revealed in connection with the proposed Bramley Moore stadium. These have included a new rail station (again, within the bailiwick of Steve Rotheram) and a host of new access works. Given the council’s failure to extract Section 106 monies from developers, and the cost of these works, finance could only come via city-region funding. This would be a cost, therefore, to council tax payers throughout the city-region. Their priorities would need to be shelved to cater for the Liverpool mayor’s fantasy football finance venture. Funding meant for the good of the city-region would become a benefit for billionaires.

No sensible person sets their face against development for the sake of it. Development ought to be, however, realistic and affordable, appropriate and consensual. Hyped-up builders’ bilge, and developers’ deceits, have no place in a meaningful dialogue between the electorate and their representatives. The current claptrap simply does not cut the mustard.

Make-Your-Mind-Up Time

 

It is that time of the year – a few weeks before local elections – when councils across the country fall over themselves in their attempts to place the rosiest picture possible before the electorate. That is natural enough in the quest for votes, and it is a rule of thumb for councils regardless of their political complexion. At the same time, a variety of bogeymen are pushed forward, generally including local opposition parties and national government.

Liverpool council has set a new standard in its opening shots. Unable to rid itself of its reputation for incompetence, and its disturbingly cosy yet slack relationship with its favoured developers, it delivered a pre-emptive strike to its critics. It is, we are told, in negotiations over the vexed New Chinatown site. These involve a company called Great George Street Developments, who wish to take the albatross site over, promising all sorts of goodies.

Never mind that existing investors are understandably unhappy about this – they just want their money back. A cursory examination of Companies House records should have raised alarm bells in the council. This off-the-shelf company with a start-up capital of just ONE POUND, was first set up on the 20th July, 2017, under the name of CT Developments (Liverpool). It subsequently changed its name to its present title on the 26th February, 2018, retaining its business address in Wolverhampton. There is but one director who previously ran three similar companies which all went bust.

You could not make this up!! Where is the council’s due diligence? Who on the “ECHO” has published uncritically the public relations bilge about this outfit? How can it possibly be billed as a viable option for New Chinatown? Remember that behind this charade, the council is still supposedly in litigation with the previous leaseholders for the site, and still evading any responsibility to the outraged prior investors.

Contemporaneously, Granada Television has revived the old crusading spirit of “World in Action”, using its televisual skills to expose the incredible situation whereby Liverpool council and its mayor repeatedly deal with “developers” who are blatantly refusing to pay to the council the monies known as Section 106 fees. The cumulative total of this debt is now running at £7.5 million and rising. Failure to pay council tax in Liverpool leads to prosecution. Failure of developers to pay THEIR way and… nothing. Who will forget the council’s description of the demolition of a listed building by the Elliot Group as a “criminal act”? Action taken? None.

Meanwhile, Cllr. Frank Prendergast is dismissed as an embittered man as he resigns the Labour whip on the council. Vastly experienced, a former council leader and lord mayor, Frank was chair of the Audit and Governance Committee of the council. For two years, he tried to find out where hundreds of thousands of pounds income from council-owned car parks had gone. His enquiries centred on the Beautiful Ideas Company, and its precursor, the Beautiful North Company. The matter also involved senior councillors and former council employees.

For the initial two years at least of the car parks operation, there were no accounts and no audit – there could not be as it was a cash operation with no records. The sites were on the old Anfield Comp and Major Lester school sites, close to the two football grounds. This proximity, and visual evidence, suggests annual income well into six figures. One of the sites was in the ward which Frank represented, but his reward in asking difficult questions was to be dumped as chairman of the Audit and Governance Committee by the cabal which runs Liverpool City Council.

It is really about time that the council backbenchers took back control from a clique which seems hell-bent on council chaos. Since the Director of Finance went, there is no proper section 151 monitoring officer at the council to ensure that the council acts responsibly – I have already pointed this out in relation to the mayor’s madcap scheme to borrow on behalf of billionaires. However, councillors still remain jointly and severally liable in law for irresponsible actions for which they vote if they cause the city a loss. If I was a councillor, I would not allow the maladministration of the ruling cabal to be in my name.