Parallel Universes

I once thought that the very idea of parallel universes belonged solely within the realm of science fiction fantasy. These days, I am not so certain… I was reminded of this when I saw the Echo headline – “Cheating tactics of university students”. Now, I do not condone cheating, but such prominence given to an issue of rather peripheral importance to most people in the city-region at this time, I decided was undeserved. Where and when was such emphasis given to reporting on the scam artists, career crooks, and sham developers who have bedevilled the LCR in recent years? I cannot recall such a banner headline describing the failure of public officials, councillors and police to protect the many sub-contractors, investors and councils who have been defrauded on a massive scale in the last few years.

Of course, it would be wrong to place the blame on the young journalists tasked with writing up the trivial, or pushing the press releases of the local “great and good”. They are acting under orders, and – in my experience – are often naively ignorant of the subject matter which carries their names. Unprofessional perhaps, but the real culprits in this are the senior editorial staff who seem to inhabit one of those parallel universes to which I have referred.  In their eyes, all developers are ministering angels, and the crooks are actually benevolent, hard-working entrepreneurs, committed to the public good.

One story in the same edition of the Echo caught my eye. It was the inquest on a young Widnes groom-to-be who tragically fell to his death in a Liverpool hotel. The jury said that the death “may have been avoided” had previous concerns about an internal balustrade been addressed, and a thorough risk assessment and action taken. Previously, it was reported, Liverpool council had seen no problems in the hotel. However, following the jury’s report, the family of the deceased are to take civil action against the hotel’s owners, Signature Living. This is the firm of noted self-publicist Lawrence Kenwright and his wife, although they, like Liverpool council, apparently live in another parallel universe as there is no mention of them in this court report.

Meanwhile, dependent on your politics, the same cosmological phenomenon might apply in the Wirral. Amongst the dominant Labour group, there are those who see a black hole opening up before them, as councillors long in positions of power, are removed from their political offices within the Labour Party, or their candidacy at the next election. Others seem to be jumping ship before they too are sucked down a worm hole. In their world, all is doom and gloom. For those displacing them, the outlook could not be brighter as they anticipate a brave, new world in both the Wirral Labour Party and in Wallasey Town Hall.

Yet even in this multiplicity of universes, there is no show without Punch. On cue, step forward the Liverpool Mayor and the new, young Labour candidate for Church ward. Joe Anderson, declares our brave, teenage wannabe, is – politically speaking – a dead man walking. Unusually, hizzoner appeared to be lost for a suitable response. Perhaps in his heart, he recognises that his political days are numbered. However, it could be that that the mayor has gone too close to his own event horizon, edging him into his own unique universe. In this weird place, all of the nonsense he has spoken over the last eight years; all of the promises he has broken; all of the money which has been wasted; all of the political enemies he has made – are totally irrelevant.  At least they are to the mayor.

Still he ploughs his furrow of borrowing many millions of pounds to finance a new stadium for Everton FC, despite a steady stream of leaks from the latter that the football club is keen to get its finance elsewhere (from Moshiri’s chum Usmanov?). Alongside his failure to appreciate that many thousands of electors have expressed their opposition to his attacks on parks and green space, many, many more who are broadly supportive of a new stadium, have no wish to see the council involved in the financing of it. Lost in another dimension, this doppelganger of Liverpool’s mayor is totally divorced from the political reality in this bit of the cosmos, where he faces the oblivion of his own political black hole.


Development Deceptions

Long serving Sefton councillors might recall the huge disappointment around the Housing Market Renewal Initiative of the Blair government. The Merseyside allocation was split three ways between Liverpool, Wirral and Sefton. Each borough, in its own way, discovered that, despite its early promise, it did not meet expectations. In the case of Sefton, plans for new housing became extremely problematic when virtually all of their funding share was spent on the remediation of toxic brown field land. Necessary, of course, but there are lessons in this experience for today in neighbouring Liverpool.

I thought of Sefton’s challenge when I read of the latest gross exaggeration to emanate from the Cunard Building. This related to the mayor’s plans for the long redundant International Garden Festival site, which lies forlorn and forgotten alongside the river bank. Older voters remember when this was the site of Liverpool’s municipal dump. One would drive on to a vast expanse of mud to unload whatever one deemed rubbish at that time. Little wonder that it is today considered highly toxic given goodness knows what was dumped there. Certainly there is a constant build up of methane below ground, as organic matter decomposes. Some of it is still burnt off as you can see from the heads of the exhaust pipes dotted about the site. There is even a small gas-generated power plant at the site’s edge.

One-time owners of the site – developers Langtree – managed to palm it off onto Liverpool’s mayor for six million pounds in 2015. It is claimed that the council spent another six million pounds in 2016 on “site investigations”. Now we are being told that remediation of this very difficult site could cost anywhere between 13.9 million ponds and 22.7 million pounds. That would be a total cost of between 26 million pounds and 35 million pounds before a brick is laid, with all of the attendant risk on the council taxpayer. A gamble, in effect, to feed the mayor’s delusion of himself as a wheeler dealer.

Now, the mayor claims that he knew all about these cost projections back in 2015 when the Langtree bail-out happened. He says that any delay in the site’s development is entirely due to long time lines in sorting out grants. In short, he bought the land on speck in the hope, perhaps, that the land could be used for something, sometime. The real winner was Langtree. Given that no grants for such work as is required are automatic, he has actually taken an enormous gamble with the council’s hard pressed finances. If, as he claims, the council has already received an offer of 20 million pounds for the site in its current condition, it would perhaps be wisest to walk away with what would be a profit of 8 million pounds, to help fund council finances now.

Apart from anything else, costs of major developments tend to go far beyond their early estimates. Besides, the mayor is currently seeking to load another burden of risk onto Liverpool’s council tax payers with his proposal to finance a new stadium for EFC via the Public Works Loan Board. He is also committed to building a new cruise liner terminal, along with the infrastructure investments ancillary to the terminal and the stadium. All of this whilst austerity is still alive and kicking, and debts like that for the empty, unused Parklands secondary school in Speke, still hanging like a millstone around the municipal neck.

Never, in my mind, has a slogan – “Invest to Earn ” – been more inappropriate. Invest in what, and for whose benefit? Generally, it seems that developers and scam artists are the happiest people in town. The tens of thousands who have signed up in opposition to current Liverpool council plans in south Liverpool are not happy; nor, it seems, are many rank-and-file Labour Party members who are keen to dispose of sitting councillors. Little of the mayor’s delusional entrepreneurship has percolated out of the city centre where voters are more concerned with their green spaces, their rubbish collection, and their road repairs.

Perhaps minds on Liverpool City Council will become more focussed as evidence increases that change is on its way, with them or without them. Whether it is an external grab for the mayoralty – keep an eye on erstwhile chum of the mayor, developer Lawrence Kenwright – or an internal coup led by one of his former cabinet members, the mayor ought to recognise that his empty spin, whilst alienating voters, is also exhausting the patience of those whose support he would need to remain in office. The city needs a change, based on transparency, accountability, and a meaningful dialogue with electors, rather than with a few favoured developers.

Whither Local Democracy?

In a recent email, a serving councillor within the Liverpool City Region lamented the way in which Labour Party mechanisms have been changed for the worse over recent years. This is important for the Liverpool City Region (LCR) as a whole, given the current dominance of Labour within the six constituent boroughs. For the councillor in question, patronage and self-interest dominate contemporary local government. With the scrapping of District Labour Parties, accountability has gone out of the window. Selection of candidates is dominated by sitting councillors in a diminution of the collective, which was once the hallmark of internal Labour Party politics. With the advent of Leader and cabinet, and mayoralty, models of local government, councils have become largely self-perpetuating and self-interested, my correspondent argues.

I would not dispute much of this thinking, but I must also point out that the supposed days of democratic accountability, were not as bright as is often suggested. There were often cliques of councillors who ensured that office was kept in the “right” hands, whether for political or pecuniary purposes. The notion of a golden age in local politics is chimerical in my experience – and I have been in the Labour Party for fifty four years!

These thoughts are given currency by reports over the past week that Momentum have taken over various Labour parties in the LCR, including Birkenhead and Riverside. Long-standing councillors are being eased out of party positions  and representative ones, as the impression is given on one side that incumbency – as a councillor, an officer or a Member of Parliament – is some kind of divine right come what may, especially where Labour holds a comfortable pole position.

I confess that I do not hold this view, nor have I ever done. I have always believed that if someone within the Labour Party is doing their job to the satisfaction of party members, their position will remain secure. However, if an individual is believed to be derelict in their duties, it is not only the right, but the duty of members to seek someone who will do the job in accord with what is expected. Obviously, if, for example, there was an organised conspiracy to unseat someone on behalf of an entrist organisation, that would be an entirely different matter as membership of such a group would, by definition, be incompatible with membership of the Labour Party. However, crying “Wolf!” as Frank Field has done, will do nothing to convince anyone of the legitimacy of his curious claim to Labour Party representation when he has so very publicly resigned the Labour parliamentary whip.

Local government in particular is crying out for change – for fresh blood, fresh ideas, and an entirely different approach. I was struck by some recent quotes from Chinese intellectual , Minxin Pei, taken from his book entitled “China’s Crony Capitalism”:

“local governments penetrated by elites unavoidably experience degradation in their capacity for providing public goods”

and –

“corruption networks consisting of officials, businessmen and gangsters, seize control of these jurisdictions and turn them into local mafia states.”

I am well aware that these are references to China, but they might very well be applied to examples of local government here in the United Kingdom, including the LCR. Locally, I fully expect there to be concrete evidence put before the courts by Christmas to support my belief and the assertions of Mr Pei – and it will not be before time. Many of the new Labour members themselves believe that malfeasance is commonplace in some of our boroughs, and ardently wish to clear out the malefactors. They are tired of being denied transparency and accountability, indispensable in any democratic organisation. Given the current situation, is it any wonder that they are ringing the changes now, rather than await action from the powers that be?

Political Posturing

Now that we are approaching the end of the political party conference season with the Tories bickering in Birmingham, we should all be able to look for policies on offer which we can either accept or reject in the months to come. Of course, all sensible debate has been overwhelmed by the shadow of Brexit in both Labour and Conservative parties. Like most people, I have no idea what the eventual outcome on Brexit will be. I do know, however, what I fear.

Already there are increasing concerns within our city-region. There could well be for example, a severe knock-on for specific industries like car manufacturing. More generalised and widespread effects due to diminished access to European markets could include transport chaos and increased unemployment. One thing is certain – there will be very serious consequences for the people of the Liverpool City Region whether there is a deal or not. I find it extraordinary that any nation should take such a gamble with its economic well being, particularly one so economically entwined as we are with the European Union.

Meanwhile, the largest of the LCR’s six boroughs – Liverpool – is yet again plunged into controversy. An independent peer group review by the Local Government Association has condemned the way in which the council conducts its business. Without naming names, it referred specifically to the conduct of council meetings and fraught relationships between council officers and elected members. Amongst the latter, the report concluded that many had no real involvement in either the running of the council or in its decision making.

None of this is surprising to many of us who have repeatedly pointed out that Mayor Anderson in particular conducts himself as if he is in a bar room argument rather than in the Town Hall. You might recall also how early in his mayoralty, he closed down the scrutiny panel in the council, lessening the chances of transparency of his actions as mayor. Thus, it was entirely predictable that former cabinet member, Cllr Munby, should call for an alternative to Anderson as mayoral candidate when the selection is made in 2019. He joins another former cabinet member, Cllr Small, in advocating change. I presume that these voices were not raised out of grievance or narrow self interest, but because they had witnessed first hand the way in which Anderson operates as mayor and find it wanting.

This stirring of the local political pot comes at a time when local comic – the Liverpool Echo – affords a two-page splash on the return of its columnist, Derek Hatton, to the Labour fold. Before the Echo congratulates itself prematurely on its scoop, it should be aware that under Labour Party rules, Hatton’s re-admission is subject to the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee. Their decision on the re-admittance or otherwise of Hatton, will speak volumes on where as a body, the NEC stands. It is not as if he will be taking over the local party if they allow him back in. He will not – his time has been and gone.

Nevertheless, his re-appearance as a Labour member in Liverpool would, I believe, send out a very negative message to many voters across Merseyside, especially those who remember the chaos wrought by him and his erstwhile Militant comrades, people who have a hearty detestation of Hatton. What is clear is that he is a vote loser, most emphatically not a vote winner. Interestingly, the Echo’s paean of praise included extended references to Mayor Anderson. I do recall Hatton as a guest at Anderson’s reception for Ed Milliband when the latter came as Labour leader to Liverpool. As Hatton was quoted “I’ve known Joe for a long, long time, and I’ve got a lot of time for him”. I bet he has!!

It really is a sad piece of self indulgence for the Echo to give such a platform on what it would deem to be political coverage, to a has-been considered by  many to be a wide boy, albeit an ageing one. Perhaps if they gave complete and detailed coverage to the corrupt developers and known criminals besmirching the name of the city (and by extension the LCR), they might begin to reclaim some of the lost respect which has resulted from their highly partial and cavalier approach to council malfeasance.