What a run-up to Christmas it has been. Most attention, apart from the annual festive frenzy, has been focussed on the near total breakdown of national government within both the United States and the United Kingdom. However, the Liverpool City-Region has also had something of a rocky road of late. For example, as we watched on national television the demolition of pay booths on the Severn Bridge, Halton Borough Council was announcing a further twelve months of closure of the Jubilee Bridge, due, we are told, to “the weather”. This is far from reassuring to hard pressed commuters who can only look forward to charges on both bridges and tunnels.
Meanwhile, Sefton Borough Council’s attempts to reduce public protest over the proposed relief road through the Rimrose valley, was dealt a blow when their legal action failed in the courts. I can foresee transport issues hardening in the run-up to the 2019 local elections, in the way that green-field arguments developed in recent years. The two are often related; and there is no local authority which is immune to their potency with the electorate.
Nevertheless, Liverpool City Council once more ends the year way ahead in the embarrassment stakes. No sooner had the mayor announced the dismissal of litter enforcement agents, Kingdom, than the city was named in a national report, as the country’s fly-tipping capital. Despite the constant public relations campaigns mounted on behalf of the council, promising jam tomorrow in the form of ever-more problematic development, I believe that voters who actually live in the city are far more concerned with the effective provision of public services. Such services have a far more immediate impact on their lives.
I realise that all councils have been hit by government imposed austerity, but this is a reality that we all have to live with. That is, until there is either a change of government policy or a change of government itself. Neither seems to be on the immediate horizon. Meanwhile, in the absence of meaningful local media, more and more voters rely on social media for their information about what local councils are doing. Rightly or wrongly, the social media in turn, is increasingly fed by information gleaned via Freedom of Information requests. That is, when any realistic response can be levered out of local bureaucracies wedded to secrecy – I have been stalled on two such requests throughout 2018.
One tenacious questioner has circulated on social media the responses to her queries that she has received. They make intriguing reading. This year has seen LCC approving over 200 air flights alone by its councillors and officials. That is, over £100,000 worth of air travel without hotels and other expenses. The answers were heavily redacted but it would be fascinating to see exactly how such expenditure is justified in these difficult times. We all must recognise that there will always be some necessary travel on city business, but much of it raises further queries. For example, why was a first class journey to Germany approved? For whom, and for what purpose?
While a whole mob went to expensive Cannes for the MIPIM developers shindig, why did twenty people go by Eurostar to Strasbourg last February? Which country and western fan needed to fly to Nashville? What necessitated Cllr Alice Bennett flying to Naples and Bahrain? Why did the two Gladden councillors need to visit Paris, Marseilles, and Helsinki?
The most puzzling was the case of Mr Frank Hont. He had been elected on to the council in 2014, and was quickly promoted by Mayor Anderson to his cabinet. However, the meteoric rise of the former Unison union official came to an abrupt end last May 4th when his electorate threw him out after just one term of office. On May 20th, over two weeks after losing his seat, he seems to have flown to New York and Pittsburgh via Dubai!! An incredibly circuitous route if the FoI answer is correct, but unanswered is why a member of the public should be on such an expensive trip at the expense of the taxpayer. It could not have been connected to the job given him by the mayor – head of the council’s new housing company – because at the time of the trip, he had not been treated to the mayoral largesse of the newly created post.
One can only hope that 2019 will be an improvement on 2018. It is notable, however, that the two boroughs within the LCR – Knowsley and St Helens – with new leadership this year have been relatively gaffe-free. Wirral will have a new leader after the forthcoming local elections, so we must wait and see what effect, if any, that will have within Wirral Council. If there is a moral in all of this, it is surely that it is a prime responsibility of local authority Members to ensure that there is quality of leadership within their boroughs together with transparency and accountability.