A Perfect Storm

Last week’s Panorama programme referencing Liverpool, set in train some of the notable events of recent days. Predictably, the BBC flagship was inhibited in its content by the threat of litigation if it said too much. In addition, many people are afraid, for whatever reason, to go on the record about the tragedy into which Liverpool is fast degenerating. I am told, for example, that fears for their jobs restrains many within the council from speaking out. However, enough was said on the programme, and sufficient connections made, for viewers to draw their own conclusions concerning the messy mix of the council, developers, and the local media. Hopefully, it might be the trigger for remedial action.

By action, I do not mean the absurd proposal of Mayor Anderson to seek “voluntary” declarations by developers of their good faith. The council is already duty bound to conduct due diligence on its deals with external partners. The whole point of due diligence – one of the areas in which the council is failing spectacularly – is to establish that individuals and their companies are reliable and trustworthy partners. Dishonest people lie as a standard business practice, or put up “clean” people as their proxies. When he first came to power, I pointed out directly to the mayor that he was dealing with dodgy people who were making claims about his probity. He did not like my advice, choosing instead to regard me (and others like me) as his sworn enemy.

His refusal – or inability – to recognize the scale of the corruption in the city, and his resultant failure to do anything about it, is matched only by the ”Echo’s” myopia with regard to local civic reality. This one time seeker of truth hit a new low last week, brazenly claiming for itself the credit for raising awareness of the scandal of the many failed development projects and the scams associated with them. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, it has consistently praised these same con artists and their fraudulent activities despite the pleas made to the paper by concerned citizens and investors. Private individuals have dug out the truth about these so-called “developers”, NOT the Echo.

In fact, what we have in Liverpool is a perfect storm for corruption. This has three major elements: an inept administration; a dysfunctional council machine; and a woefully inadequate local media. This does not mean that there are not many individuals who are committed councillors, able and willing public servants, or honest journalists. On the contrary; but they are overwhelmed by a culture which either ignores or fails to appreciate the abnormality of the city’s governance.

For many years, I have noted and commented upon Liverpool City Council’s institutional incapability of administering major projects. Unlike comparable cities like Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield, LCC has repeatedly failed to get to grips with the larger development needs of the city. A major part of this is down to a civic culture which is focused on the needs of the council as an organization, and its personnel, rather than on the needs of the population it is supposed to serve.

Nor is this just a recent phenomenon. This introspective culture has been around for over 150 years. It is for historians to explain this Liverpool “exceptionalism”; but in today’s world, it is a major drawback. I do not expect Mayor Anderson to understand the importance of this. Even if he was intellectually capable of doing so, his ego would not tolerate it. His wholly misplaced self-belief has, however, exacerbated that pre-existing problem. Having concentrated so much power in the administration in his own hands, he is simply unable to use them in a coherent and constructive way for the benefit of the city as a whole. Crooked developers see that. They and their allies within council structures take full advantage of this fundamental weakness at the heart of the city.

Thus, changing the people at the top – like the mayor, for example – whilst it would be welcome, would not of itself resolve the issue. Nor would a change in the structure – like abolishing the mayoralty, and reverting to a council leader and committee model of governance – be a panacea, although this would also be welcomed by many. Yet without a change in the civic culture – a much more difficult objective – I fear we will continue to have cycles of corrupted local government in the city.

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