A Sorry State

Is it any wonder that crooks – particularly those of the white collar type – believe that they can act with impunity? Two very different stories have emerged this week which put into sharp perspective  the utter failure to do their duty of those whom we expect to act as public guardians. They cannot plead ignorance of the facts – if they do, it would certainly rank as culpable ignorance.

Firstly, excellent reporting by Matt O’Donoghue of Granada Television, dug out the details of the Fox Street Village debacle, one of many failed – or failing – Liverpool development projects. Matt pointed out that the building itself was a death trap with people still living in it (shades of the Paramount building). The developers had simply ignored the planning conditions set on the project. Moreover, the same developers had unilaterally decided not to provide the promised car parking. Instead, a fraction of the planned capacity was put on land designated as green space in the development. They had also failed to pay Liverpool Council £1 million in Section 106 fees – money due to a city council strapped for cash.  Another dismal tale of council ineptitude on Mayor Anderson’s watch.  All credit must go, however, to Granada who have exposed this scandal to a wider audience, just as they did with Chinatown.

In contrast, I refer you to the current edition of “Private Eye”. Now, I have long been a supporter of this publication’s efforts to shine a light on the hypocrisy and corruption which bedevil our society. Imagine, therefore, my shock upon reading the long list for the Paul Foot Award for 2019, an award dedicated to the recognition of those in the fourth estate who have pursued wrongdoing  wherever it has raised its pernicious head. Bang in the middle sits a nomination for the Liverpool Echo!! It reads that the Echo “persistently tackled the multiple failures of developments in Liverpool’s city centre”. To coin a phrase, I was gobsmacked. Was it an “Eye” mickey take, I wondered?  Tragically, not. This Echo is the local paper which has actively promoted the very developments which have ripped off so many, and which have sullied the good name of the city of Liverpool. These are the very people who have ignored the countless pleas of defrauded investors , refusing to open their eyes and their minds to the corruption all around them. It is an absolute travesty to even include the Echo in the long list. It merely serves to confirm my view that the fourth estate is, with one or two noble exceptions, at its all time lowest ebb.

Meanwhile, other councils in the city-region appear to be stumbling along since the local elections in the same old lack lustre way. A keen, young, trainee journalist , ran a story on the attempts of developers St. Modwen to off-load their commitments to Kirkby town centre back onto Knowsley Council. This led to him receiving a lengthy email from the council Leader, admonishing him for writing a fallacious article. Hey presto, within two weeks , the council announces that it is taking back the St Modwen leases, putting its own spin on the situation. Undoubtedly, the initial reaction of the Leader was with one eye on the local elections; but what does that say for transparency and trust?

Similarly, one of the intrepid band trying to preserve the green space at the Oglet foreshore on the Halton-Liverpool border, has been trying without success, to discover exactly what are Halton’s plans for the area. What is it that Halton Council – and Liverpool Council, together with the airport – is trying to hide about the green space involved, land much coveted by Peel? Again I ask: what price transparency? Small although it might appear in the wider scheme of things, it is a timely reminder of the salience of green space as a political issue across the whole city-region.

Generally, green space is being sacrificed for housing, whilst brownfield sites are often ignored. I understand the extra costs often associated with brownfield sites but there are other issues involved. For example, the emphasis is on houses for sale whilst social housing remains a secondary priority. As developers want the best return, they will focus on the most desirable areas in which to build. That means “desirable” in terms of profits. Other factors fall way behind in their scale of things. Do you think that the developers clustering around the potential of the Waterloo Dock, for example, give a care about Liverpool’s World Heritage status? Do those desperate to build on the green belt give a toss about the associated environmental degradation? They want profits, pure and simple. Meanwhile, the award-nominated Echo has little to say on these people, other than praise for the money grubbers. What a sorry state of affairs!

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Job for Joe

Hot on the heels of the announcement that Liverpool City Council is to sell half of its 20% stake in Liverpool John Lennon Airport, I am reminded of what Mayor Anderson said three years ago when putting the council tax payers’ money into this Peel-owned venture. He said  “airport growth is around 20% year on year”. Oh, no, it is not, say the passenger figures compiled by the Civil Aviation Authority. Methinks that this is yet another example of the mayor’s flexibility with facts as he keeps his private sector friends sweet, only for his sublime business ignorance to be revealed down the line.

He is apparently now looking for a massive return on the £12 million of our money he put up to bail out Peel in their time of need. I would not bank on him being successful, given the mayor’s record to date. All of his failures came flooding back to my mind when it was announced that he was to set forth to Liverpool Labour Party members  why his post should be retained, despite widespread calls for it to be abolished. In order to persuade them of his case, he has emailed party members across the city, citing a number of justifications for keeping the role, if not himself.

The first claim is that the mayoralty has enabled leadership in times of austerity. Presumably, therefore, in his view, there has been no leadership in all of those local authorities across the land which do not have elected mayors. The mayoralty has, in turn, led to extra funding for the city in a government-inspired “city deal”. If that is the case, why have Manchester and other comparable cities, all without elected mayors, received similar “city deals” or better ones compared to Liverpool?

Secondly, the mayoralty has, he argues, given us “community cohesion”. Again, if that is the case, how does he account for the massive opposition – reflected in local election results – to the mayor’s ill-founded proposals for selling off parks and green space? I can recall nothing more divisive in the city in recent years than the attempts led by the mayor to ride roughshod over community wishes.

The third silly claim is that the mayoralty facilitates government responsiveness to the needs of the city. This a straightforward line from George Osborne, implying a government bribe. Utter rubbish. We all recall the mayor playing Cameron’s dupe for the failed “Big Society” con, only to be forced to angrily distance himself when there was nothing for the city behind the rhetoric. The mayor has constantly emphasised the huge cuts in government grant to the city, partly to excuse his own failings. It would be nice to know where this supposed increased government responsiveness to the mayor has led to positive outcomes for the city and its people.

I do partially accept the mayor’s fourth point about the business response to the mayoralty. Let me put it this way. Some business  – principally “developers” – have had an extended Christmas under Mayor Anderson. However, it is surely the case that the mayor has responded to business and its greed, more than business responding to the mayor. He has also extended massive generosity towards billionaire-owned Everton FC. It would be gratifying to see the same kind of support given to local SMEs. Consider, if you will, small contractors ripped off, alongside investors, in the numerous local development scams.

Most outrageous of all is the mayor’s spurious claim that the mayoralty has the support of the people of Liverpool. How on earth can that statement be justified? Unlike everywhere else, where local people were given a vote on the matter, electors in Liverpool were denied the opportunity to say whether or not they wanted an elected mayor. If Mayor Anderson believes it is the case that the public approve of a mayoralty, why did he connive with Osborne to sneak it in by the council’s back door? Why not opt now for a referendum to see what electors want? I suspect that the real answer is Mayor Anderson’s desperate wish to hang on to his well paid job, after failing in his attempts to find an alternative (he could not garner support to be either metromayor or Walton MP).

Other claims flow, including one that Liverpool is “close to being the best council in the country” (wait for the court cases to begin!). One further assertion which I can accept is that “the media prefers a mayoralty”. That is certainly the case with local comic, the Echo. It is enamoured of the current incumbent – I have long raised questions about its reporting and editorial partiality. It has also consistently failed to raise the many problems which have arisen under Mayor Anderson, acting like his in-house publicity magazine. Thus, on that basis alone, I have to agree that the mayor has that one right.

Mayor or Leader?

As the battle for control of Liverpool City council hots up within the controlling Labour Group, it is for far too many, a question of personalities rather than policies. Whilst personality is undeniably an issue, it can too easily overwhelm what really matters when it comes to the future of the city and its residents. To all intents and purposes, St Helens and Wirral councils have changed their council leadership without the public acrimony that appears to be part and parcel of just about everything concerning Liverpool City Council.

Perhaps the current situation was unintentionally summed up by the widely reviled former deputy leader of the city council – Derek Hatton – whose own brand of personality politics caused so much damage to the city in the 1980s. “This is Anderson’s Liverpool”, he declared in local comic, the Echo. His paean of praise to the current mayor – Joe Anderson – bore all the hallmarks of his own failed political career on the council – distortions, hyperbole, and misrepresentations. I would imagine that anyone serious about being selected for anything, would rate Hatton’s endorsement as about as much use as a chocolate fireguard. Still, they are old mates – two of a kind, you might say.

We should look at what really matters. Back in 2011, the city had the concept of an elected mayor foisted on it without any reference to its people. It was a backroom stitch-up between Anderson and former Tory Chancellor, George Osborne. The role has created a huge democratic deficit in the city as it is neither transparent nor accountable. The mayor dominates all council matters and decides at his whim who serves in his cabinet.  As Cllr Harry Doyle aptly summed up, councillors are effectively surplus to requirements, with virtually no role in the council where all decisions are made in their name by the mayor. This is evidently a mayor who prefers backroom deals with developers to open and democratic debate.

His record has been appalling to objective eyes, from the outrageous use of over £100,000 of public money in his private legal case against his former employers, through his gross mishandling of green issues, to his abject failure to address the corruption involved in the failed development projects boom which has given rise to the label of “Scam City” being attached to the city. His misdirection of huge amounts of public money has been a reflection of his own ego – an incredible inability to recognize his own very obvious limitations. Whether we refer to his “investment” in Finch Farm; his purchase of Cunard Building: his bail out of developers Langtree at the Garden Festival site – the list goes on and on. Even by his own “entrepreneurial” standards, he has been a disaster.

Yet none of this cavalier conduct in the name of the city would have been so easy if he had been council leader rather than mayor, with the sweeping powers which the mayoralty gave him. That is why, first and foremost, one would hope that the council will see the role abolished at the earliest opportunity rather than simply change the occupant of the role. If the current mayor was simply replaced, there is no reason to believe that his replacement would be any more transparent and accountable. Certainly, there is no one in the council front rank who stands out as a potentially  more capable and honest candidate for the role of mayor.

Naturally, the question then arises: who would be the most likely candidate for the role of leader of the council? Under the council’s present political composition, it would be a member of the Labour Group; and it would be for the Labour Group to determine who is best suited for that role. I would like to think that they would look for a new broom to sweep out the political detritus of recent years. Amongst the current crop of “leading lights”, there is too much bad blood, too much involvement in recent scandals, too much history. A new face, a new name, does not guarantee a new approach; but it would be a welcome relief from what has gone before.

Incidentally, Len McCluskey took issue with my last blog, and my reference to an event he attended. Firstly, he tells me, his predecessor, Tony Woodley, was not in attendance. Secondly, he insists that in his speech at the event, he merely thanked Joe Anderson for his support in an industrial dispute. There you are, Len – a simple correction costs nothing.

Post-Election Thoughts

This holiday weekend has seen local politicians throughout the city-region, reflecting on the results of last Thursday’s elections. The immediate reaction of those who lost out was to blame Brexit; in all honesty, there is some truth in that. However, there was also a linkage across the city-region suggesting an increased salience of environmental issues in the minds of voters. It would be as well for councillors to think long and hard as to why this was the case.

In my mind, the biggest winners across the city-region on the night were the Green Party – not just because of the number of seats which they won, but also because of the number of votes which they amassed. In ward after ward – many of which had not had a Green candidate before – Green nominees polled a surprisingly high vote, given their previously low (or non-existent) base. It is too simple to just write this off as a result of a protest vote. Perhaps it is a sign of increasing public awareness of the criminal damage being done to our environment locally, nationally, and internationally.

Nationally, the Lib Dems were without doubt the biggest winners in terms of seats won, as the Tories were demonstrably the biggest losers in terms of seats lost. Hereabouts, the Tories actually gained a seat on the Wirral, whilst gains for the Lib Dems, the Greens and independents were dotted across the city-region. It would be glib to point out that Labour were generally losers; but they were coming from a very high base in all six of our local councils. Other than in Wirral, Labour retain a strong control of our local authorities. Nevertheless, only time will tell if lessons have been learnt from some quite remarkable reverses for Labour.

Ironically, the biggest “news” on election night in Liverpool was not the continued dilution of Labour support at the ballot box, but another huge fissure within the council ranks. Cllr O’Byrne announced as the ballot closed her intention to move the abolition of the post of city mayor at the council’s annual meeting later in May. As it happens , whilst I am certainly no supporter of Cllr O’Byrne, I have often written that the role is superfluous. Moreover, under the stewardship of Mayor Anderson, the role has shown itself to be anti-democratic, wasteful and inefficient. It is also profoundly politically corrupt. Unlike Manchester, for example, which has prospered without a city mayor, Liverpool has been subject to the whimsical leadership of Anderson, a man not noted for either interpersonal or entrepreneurial skills. Furthermore, it is my belief that simply replacing Anderson is not enough. Sadly, most local politicians, given the apparently unbridled powers within the city which Anderson seems to have, would fall prey to the same kind of ego trip which has characterized Anderson’s tenure of office.

I was interested to hear that Anderson attended a recent community awards event, organized by Cllr Woodhouse. Other guests included former Unite head honcho, Tony Woodley, and the union’s current boss, Len McCluskey. The latter spoke in fulsome support of Anderson as mayor, pledging help from Unite in maintaining his personal grip on power. One wonders what the quid pro quo might be for the two trade unionists, one of whom lives in Wirral and the other in London. Sup with a long spoon would be my advice. Unite members might not share their leader’s enthusiasm for a mayor who is so heartily disliked and distrusted, both within the Liverpool Labour Party and within the wider city.

Of course, if Anderson was to put himself up for mayor again, it has been suggested that he would face strong opposition for the Labour nomination in the city. One of those tipped to oppose him was Cllr O’Byrne, who is now seeking to abolish the post altogether, reverting to a more traditional council leader. Politics can be a strange land. Any leadership post she sought would surely first demand an explanation of her run-in with the police which led to her dramatic departure from her role as deputy Police Commissioner (another of Jane Kennedy’s disastrous misjudgements).

The other “hot tip” for the nomination as city mayor was one-time buddy of Anderson, “developer” Lawrence Kenwright. Again, we must wait and see what the future holds for Mr Kenwright. He has just put up for sale his two busiest (he says) hotels in Liverpool at the same time that it has leaked out that “hundreds” of investors in his speculative projects are clamouring for the overdue monies owed to them by Mr Kenwright’s company, Signature Living. I have long been advised that the rates of return which he has been in the habit of promising were wholly unrealistic, only repayable if he could keep attracting new investors to pay off the old.

Perhaps chickens are coming home to roost for Mr Kenwright. He has, of course, been down this road before, ending up in bankruptcy. It seems as if he and Mayor Anderson (remember his Munro collapse?) have still one thing in common – personal business failure.