Big Spenders

Whilst Wirral Council considers changing its form of governance, I cannot help but notice that there is a growing view against the adoption of the current model as used in Liverpool. We ought not to be surprised at this – it has hardly been an outstanding success. Within Liverpool City Council itself, there have also been voices raised against the city’s current arrangements. The Liberal Democrat concerns might be put down to politics, pure and simple; and those of Cllr O’Byrne explained in terms of her personal political ambitions. However, the views of Labour parties across the city cannot so easily be dismissed. They reflect real grass roots concern at the lack of transparency and accountability.

Unsurprisingly, the present Liverpool mayoral model has its defenders. Discredited political has-been and now regular Echo columnist, Derek Hatton, is one. The city, he opined, “didn’t need….tinkering around the edges of the governance system – that’s just like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic”. I do not think he meant that the city was doomed to disaster, but a more appropriate application of his metaphor would be in relation to the mayoral proposal for another £50 million development fund, effectively another of his “Invest to Earn” wheezes.  This money would be borrowed to invest in commercial property, not in Liverpool, but across the country!!!

This madcap scheme arises just as the chaos in the retail property sector is exposed by the troubles of Phillip Green and his Arcadia group of companies. This has led to some of his commercial landlords slashing rents while others are being more hard-nosed, a significant pointer to the state of health of the commercial property sector across the country. This downward spiral is having a direct effect on Liverpool – and Merseyside generally – through our old friends Peel. The Sunday Times reports this week on the difficulties facing John Whittaker, the billionaire owner of Peel, and erstwhile friend of Mayor Anderson. Bear in mind that the sole purpose of Peel companies and investments is to make money for Mr Whittaker.

One of Peel’s many companies is property giant Intu Properties, the share price of which has toppled by over two thirds from what it was. In a style which I am sure Anderson will have noted, Whittaker borrowed heavily against his stake in Intu; but this borrowing has forced Whittaker to twice restructure his debts. In turn, this has necessitated the sale by Peel of some of its interests. Alongside another investor under pressure – Deutsche Bank – Whittaker is trying to sell off part of his share in Peel Ports. At the same time, he is also set to reduce his stake in loss-making Liverpool Airport, from 80% to 30%. I wonder if Mayor Anderson learns anything from these signs of a downward trend, especially as he has committed the city in so much support of Peel.

Take a different perspective. It is a matter of record that the mayor has taken full advantage of the powers afforded to him, to play the part of entrepreneur. How many times has he parroted the phrase “Invest to Earn”? Yet his record in the eyes of many has been abysmal; not, perhaps, for favoured sections of business, but for the health of the city’s finances. Whether one considers the Cunard Building, Finch Farm, or the airport itself, there is repeated confirmation of his lack of business acumen.

A recent business survey by top international accountancy firm, Ernst Young (EY), has shown Liverpool’s recent record in attracting overseas investment in stark relief to that of Manchester, a city without an elected mayor. In 2018, Manchester attracted 37 Foreign Investment Projects, 53% of all those in the north-west region. Liverpool, on the other hand, managed to attract just 8. Even that was down from the 2017 figure of 9. Despite all of the fanfare at the time, I see no evidence that the much publicised mayoral trips to Shanghai (China), Birmingham (Alabama) and Surabaya (Indonesia) delivering anything other than publicity for the mayor. As Bob Ward, regional chief for EY commented on his report, these unbalanced figures are “a cause for some concern”. That is putting it mildly.

What can be concluded is that the mayoral model has not been the economic success which it has repeatedly been claimed to be. Too often, poor decision making has meant the use of the city’s money in the interests of a few major players rather than the people of the city. This situation might be reversed over time with a return to a more transparent and accountable governance model, one which involves the whole council rather than one individual aided by a handful of acolytes.

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Spinning Top

I could not believe it. I had caught a quick glimpse in a newsagent of an Echo banner headline. “Bordering on CRIMINAL”, it screamed, alongside a picture of Joe Anderson in his Bob the Builder outfit. What can it be, I wondered? Is it suggesting that the mayor has been apprehended up to no good? Have I been hard on the Echo, and its failure to date to do some genuine investigative journalism instead of plagiarising the work of others? For once, I willingly forked out 85p to feast on a possible Echo exclusive.

Not for the first time, I was wrong and disappointed. It was effectively a rehash of the ongoing scandal that is the new Royal Hospital building. As I recall, it was the late Sam Semoff who had initiated the campaign against the outsourcing under PFI of this project to Carillion. I do not recall any comment from Joe Anderson at the time, certainly nothing to compare with this week’s declaration of the blindingly obvious that “it is bordering on the criminal and that is why we need a full public inquiry”.

Strangely, there are a whole series of new build scandals which directly involve Liverpool City Council – and that special breed so close to Joe’s heart, so-called developers. Yet I still await some kind of mayoral commitment to have a “full public inquiry” into that series of failed projects which have defrauded investors and contractors, and besmirched the good name of the city. The mayor also claimed that “Government took away the rights of local authorities to have building control inspections of buildings”. If that is so, how come that the city council building control inspected the new Alder Hey hospital as it was built?

Possibly his really outrageous comment was that “if you give the private sector free rein within the public sector, then profit comes before quality, and that is exactly what we have ended up with”. What a cheek! In my long experience, I have never known a city leader so willing to make any sort of accommodation with (or “give free rein to”) the private sector, even at the expense of the city’s reserves, its green spaces, and – potentially – its World Heritage status, for the sake of profit to the likes of Redrow and Peel.

Meanwhile, deep inside the pages of the Echo (which these days seems to consist primarily of adverts and quiz games), there was a business item giving a free bit of PR for the council’s Foundations company. You may recall that this company was set up to provide social housing for which there is a desperate need. Established with much fanfare on the 7th March, 2018, it appears to have accomplished nothing to date. However, it had raised enough concern at Companies House for the Registrar to formally threaten to strike the company off the companies register!  That was on May 28th just gone. Foundations were obviously shaken by this, and appear to have taken the necessary action to persuade the registrar to row back, although reading the Echo, you would not know about this.

Here we are, fifteen months after this quango’s incorporation, and it is finally proposing to actually do something. Fourteen homes are planned. Fourteen! Once again, it is a case of hyperbolic promises for tomorrow, but little action to date. A statement was put out (and slavishly promoted by the Echo) in the name of the company’s chief executive, Mark Kitts. His day job is deputy chief of regeneration in the council, taking over the Foundations role from his council boss, the vastly unpopular Nick Cavanagh. The real mystery is what has happened to the Foundations chairman, Joe’s chum, ex-councillor Frank Hont. Was he sold a pup with this non-job, or is there some other explanation for his invisibility?

Lastly, it is gratifying to see that the Echo jobsworths were dropped from contention in “Private Eye’s” Paul Foot Awards. This followed a barrage of objections from angry complainants, upset that the Echo could wangle their way onto the Awards long list in the first place. There is some justice in the world, after all.

Trolling

Well, oh, well.  As my old mother used to say, as she gave me a good old scolding: “The truth hurts”. And it did, as she was invariably spot on the money with her comments. Her admonition came to mind when tweets by Liverpool Echo staff were brought to my attention. Simply put, those tweets consisted of abuse and threats (I believe that this is called trolling) to those who had questioned press award nominations of Echo staff which claimed that they had pioneered the exposure of the development scams which plagued (and continue to plague) the city of Liverpool.

Such press awards tend to be a ritualised ego massage by the press of its own. Like many such awards in so many walks of life, they bear little relevance to reality. One “Scoop of the Year” listing proposes an award for Echo staff for their investigation “into Liverpool’s stalled developments” – a total joke. Those of us who have been monitoring these scandals for years know that it has been next to impossible to get the Echo and its “reporters” to publicise what has been going on. On the contrary, despite being repeatedly briefed, the local comic has continually promoted schemes run by the scam artists and gangsters who have given the city such a dirty name with so many investors.

The next round of “awards” will be the Echo Regional Business Awards. The judging panel will be chaired by Alistair Houghton of the Echo, one of those who has consistently failed to see the wood for the trees. A potential recipient of one of these worthless accolades is MSB solicitors. Yet MSB were involved in the sales of the failed Metalworks project, one of the dodgy “developments” currently under scrutiny. How does that qualify them for anything other than a loud raspberry ? Even to shortlist them is akin to asking Phillip Green for advice on good pension practice!

Meanwhile, we now discover that, eighteen months after a final decision on a new location for Merseyside Police was taken, the sum total of progress is zero. The Police and Crime Commissioner says that this has already added £500,000 to the cost (I would double that), and puts it down to the failure of Liverpool City Council to deliver the site to the Merseyside Police. In turn, Liverpool City Council puts the problem onto the shoulders of an awkward leaseholder who has refused to move to date. It would be interesting to know which leaseholder this is, and their reasons for delaying. Is it, I wonder, one of the protégés of new councillor, George Knibb, who have dominated the site hitherto?

Speaking of Merseyside Police, I notice that they have come in for some stick recently from Cllr Ann O’Byrne, a woman whose ambition is not matched by her talent. She is still in the frame over her involvement in the Chinatown debacle, and recently failed in her attempt to move the Liverpool Council Labour Group against the post of elected mayor. She also lost her position as deputy leader of the group for her pains. You may also recall how she was forced to resign her lucrative position as Deputy Police and Crime Commissioner when it transpired that she had done a runner after hitting another car with her own.

She has now accused the police of assault as she was forcibly removed from a demonstration against the presence in Bootle of neo-Fascist, Tommy Robinson.  I have no problem with legal demos against such malign influences; but presumably something triggered the police into carrying Cllr O’Byrne off the highway, a formidable feat in itself. The Chief Constable says that he has received messages of praise from various councillors for the exemplary conduct of his officers on the day. It will be interesting to see if Cllr O’Byrne formally complains about the alleged assault; and – if so – what success she has.