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.