Half a Story

After consistent and persistent pressure from a number of sources, the Liverpool Echo has finally given a more informed account of one of the development scandals currently blighting Liverpool and its reputation with investors. I emphasise one of those scandals because today’s front page story deals only with what has been blindingly obvious for years to those who choose to see – that is, that the companies ‘North Point Global’ and ‘Pinnacle’ have been central to a major scam that reaches far beyond Liverpool, yet they are not the only self-defined ‘developers’ taking the city for a ride.

Perhaps one should be grateful for small mercies, but it has taken literally years for the Echo to partially meet its obligation to keep its readers informed as to what has been going on in the city. The paper cannot claim ignorance – I and others have repeatedly given them substantial information and incriminating evidence. From the senior editor down, they have been made aware. Nevertheless, until now, there has not been a comprehensive account of the magnitude and extent of this scandalous situation. I suspect that the current attempt to divert attention from their professional neglect has been prompted more by the impending Panorama special on the matter, than by a late blood-rush of journalistic ethics.

However, even this attempt at compensating for the Echo’s culpable neglect of the scandal remains incomplete. True- it tells of the huge sums involved £90m according to the banner headline. It also lists the number and names of the derelict sites involved. It even tries to give the local regulators – Liverpool Council Building Control, and the Fire and Rescue Authority – a clean bill of health for their walk-on parts. It is what is omitted that I find striking.

The article fails to point out the repeated and approving publicity (free, I assume) given to these scam schemes by the newspaper. It appeared that over a matter of years, it was ready to publish any old public relations bilge given to it by the developers on behalf of these schemes. Most recently, for example, the Echo was singing the praises of the Victoria House project in James Street despite being repeatedly told that this was just the latest in a long line of dodgy developments which was doomed to failure.

Far more telling has been the Echo’s failure to include any real reference to the city council’s abysmal role in this mess. This omission leaves the story only half told to date. After all, the council has been the great enabler in all this, on behalf of the crooks and con men behind these schemes. Without the complicity of key council personnel, either through incompetence or malfeasance, it is difficult to see how these people could operate so successfully. It is the council – or rather, the mayor, with council support – which sets the strategic plan for the city within which dodgy developers seem to thrive. The council also controls the planning committee. Whilst the latter is subject to legal constraints and imperatives, it also has powers over developers which it can use where it is appropriate. More directly, the council, its Members and its officers, have an obligation to exercise due diligence when dealing with fly-by night companies with less than reputable operators.

I give you just one example. Passing reference is made in the article to Peter McInnes as the promoter of North Point Global and its construction arm, PHD 1 (the construction press referred to him as chairman). When McInnes was named in open court by the police as a money launderer, he moved quickly to close down the PHD 1 group of companies (six in total )  and immediately replaced them with the Bilt group (also six in number). His sister, Julie had been the director of PHD 1, and then became director of Bilt. Her job was ‘to look after his interests’ although none were recorded at Companies House. Effectively, the same companies but now ALL defunct – same officers, same business address, and same property interests (e.g. the old Coconut Grove site in Tuebrook), seamlessly transferring council contracts from one to the other. Yet the council continued dealing with them.

Many years ago, local government was besmirched by the Poulsen scandal. Local politicians and officials paid a price and went to gaol. I recall that one of the conclusions reached by the subsequent inquiry was that for corruption to thrive within local government, it required the participation or connivance of both elected members and officers. It now remains for the police to establish if that has been the case in Liverpool City Council. Meanwhile, we can but hope that the Echo will find the wherewithal at this late stage to find a sense of purpose beyond its recent record, and keep its readers fully informed.

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Cock Up Council

Some clowns masquerading as journalists, have described recent Liverpool city council manoeuvrings as political drama. I must say that to the long suffering local public, it has looked more like political farce, and typical of the council under the stewardship of Mayor Anderson. Other boroughs within the city-region have had their difficulties and their reshuffles – a regular occurrence at this time of the year after local government elections. So it is also the case with other cities around the land; but nowhere seems to get it as spectacularly and embarrassingly wrong as Liverpool.

The recent mess actually began with the repeated attempts of senior councillor, Frank Prendergast, to get answers as to where exactly hundreds of thousands of pounds raised through car parks associated with the two football clubs, went. So frustrated was he by the dogged refusal of those responsible – including cabinet members and the Beautiful Ideas Community Interest Company – to give him a clear account, that he resigned from the council’s Labour group in disgust. This issue brought the simmering tensions in the Cunard Building to a head.

Then came Cllr Barry Kushner’s abortive attempt to take the position of Labour group deputy leader from Cllr O’Byrne. Along with Cllr Hanson, Cllr Ros Gladden and Cllr Roy Gladden, he is part of the self-described “Team Joe”. Not the most illustrious collection of councillors, you might recall that Anderson did in Hanson for reported comments about the Gladdens. This speaks volumes about the current isolation of the mayor in Labour circles when this is the best support which he can rally. The mayor is not a politically astute individual, and the failure of his newest acolyte, Cllr Kushner, to supplant Cllr O’Byrne has only served to exacerbate the internal political problems he faces in the Labour group and the council.

The mayor had hoped for the defeat of Cllr O’Byrne so that he could ease her out as deputy mayor (and putative rival) on the back of that defeat, only for that particular Plan A to be thwarted when she narrowly hung on as deputy group leader. Not to be discouraged, our foolhardy mayor ploughed on with the dismissal from his cabinet of Cllr Small (another perceived rival), having blamed him for what the mayor saw as a Labour failure in the recent local elections. This sacking, in turn, saw Cllrs Munby and O’Byrne storming out of the cabinet, with stinging, if belated, criticism of Anderson’s ruling style. At least, that is what they said; or did they jump – like the proverbial rats – before they were pushed? Either way, it matters little. The fact of the matter is that the ruling Liverpool Labour group is split right down the middle, with few obvious signs of even the possibility of reconciliation.

Perhaps of greater long term significance than the opportunistic games of political has-beens was the withdrawal of Cllr Lana Orr from other than her ward duties. Bright, well-educated and young, she and those like her represent the best hope for Labour’s political future health. It is surely now obvious to a younger generation (and to Momentum) that what purports to be a progressive, Labour-run council is nothing of the sort. It is simply a throw-back to the worst days of boss politics, saddled with a “my gang versus your gang” mentality. Currently, it is also a council in which its members and its officers are faced with a multitude of allegations of malfeasance.

One way or another, it will all end in tears. So out of touch are the mayor and his cronies that they now appear to believe their own fake news. Yet the deep well of dissatisfaction with the way the city is being run is now close to overflowing. At the very least, when nominations are sought in 2019 for a Labour candidate for city mayor, we can expect a serious challenge to the current incumbent. That is, if the government, the national Labour Party or the police have not intervened by then.

Political Post Mortems

Although we now know who won which seats across the Liverpool city-region, we are still to feel the aftershocks of the recent local elections. There have been some very obvious consequences for the Labour Party, dominant in Knowsley and St Helens. The latter had already seen a leadership change, with Cllr Barry Grunewald replaced as council leader by Cllr Derek Long. However, the bigger shock to Labour was the loss in the Rainhill ward to an independent. This was down principally to the strong local belief that the council was ignoring local opinion over proposals to build in the area on much valued green space.

Perhaps events in neighbouring Knowsley were more of a shock. The wards with the highest electoral turnout all returned non-Labour councillors – a Lib Dem, a Green and an independent. All three were linked by the highly contentious issue of building on green spaces. Gary See had been widely tipped to take over as leader from Cllr Andy Moorhead, whose leadership had been a disappointment to his group. The electoral defeat of Cllr See was temporarily a cause for celebration by Cllr Moorhead, who believed himself to be safe from challenge after his rival’s political demise. To his dismay, Cllr Graham Morgan came forward to make a successful challenge for the leadership.

As in St Helens, Labour failed to appreciate just how alarmed voters were by council plans to flog off green spaces to developers. Where voters saw the opportunity and the platform from which to challenge hitherto Labour dominance, they did so. Elsewhere in Knowsley, for example, derisory turn out figures of 20% in wards like Shevington and Cherryfield, illustrate just how the Apathy Party was the major winner in these elections.

Meanwhile, Labour control continued in Sefton, Wirral and Halton, but left no room for complacency. The political pendulum can –and regularly does – swing quite dramatically within those three boroughs with unpredictable outcomes. Failure to meet voters’ legitimate priorities coupled with a perception of politicians taking them for granted, means anything can eventuate at elections, given the recurrent failure to galvanise the voters to actually turn out in numbers to vote. Whilst the problem is not just a local phenomenon, there is a persistent instability at a local level which does nothing to enhance real local democracy.

Liverpool, according to Mayor Anderson, was a real disappointment for Labour. The loss of three seats, including one held by one of his cabinet members, and the failure of Labour to reach its targets in south Liverpool, were alarming to the mayor. What he fails to realise as he looks around for scapegoats, including his campaign co-ordinator, Cllr Nick Small, is that he himself is principally responsible for the electoral performance he seeks to bemoan. Ask just about anyone in Liverpool, and they will tell you in no uncertain terms that they wish to see the back of Joe Anderson. He is a political albatross.

There have been many disastrous decisions taken whilst he has been mayor, not least his own assault on the city’s green spaces. However, there are other very obvious failings like his inflated self-image as both a political and commercial entrepreneur. His most recent folly was to suggest that the council might sell Cunard Building (itself a disastrous buy) and move into the abandoned Pall Mall site to “ kickstart“ that particular picture of dereliction. He ought to steer clear of that and other problematic “developments“, and the scams centred on them, until the criminal justice system has finished their investigations.

Meanwhile, internal political turmoil will be at the heart of the city’s ruling Labour group until at least its annual general meeting. Mayor Anderson sees enemies all around him. His deputy, Cllr Anne O’Byrne, is being challenged by ambitious Cllr Barry Kushner for the post of deputy leader of the Labour group, but NOT as deputy mayor. Of course, the deputy mayor is appointed by the mayor whereas the deputy leader is elected by the Labour group. Is this goodbye to the much disliked Cllr O’Byrne? Is it simply a tactic to enable Anderson to dispose more easily of his difficult deputy? Moreover, who is leader of the Labour Group? The inference is that it is the mayor; yet he is not a councillor. The conundrum is: how can a non-councillor be the leader of a group of elected councillors? Welcome to the crazy world of Liverpool politics.