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.