Testing Time

There is little which I can add to the reaction to the racist tweet by former Lord Mayor, Cllr Brennan. All racism is to be condemned and those responsible called to account.  Yet I did note that Cllr Brennan made reference to “my friend Mayor Joe Anderson”, going on to say that “I have decided I cannot continue (as Lord Mayor)”. He also said that “I am also referring the matter to the Labour Party”. So far, so good – having been caught out, he finally did the right thing in such circumstances. Then along comes Mayor Anderson with his own statement. “I have referred the matter to the Labour Party regionally and nationally” as, he went on, “the action I have taken needed to be taken immediately”.

Firstly, I would point out that presumably, they did not both refer the matter to the Labour Party. Secondly, this surely would anyway initially be a matter for the city council and for the Labour group on that council. I do not know what “action” it was to which Mayor Anderson was himself referring. It does indicate, however, just how he views himself and his role within city politics. It is a sign of how he sees all matters as being for him to consider and to decide. This is extremely important as we rapidly approach the scheduled election of a mayor in 2020.

For what it is worth, I would remind those interested in the mechanics of politics to measure the worth of the office itself. The Echo and the current mayor have already embarked on a campaign to ensure in the first instance, the re-selection of Mayor Anderson as the Labour candidate. Part of this is a list of claims – some real, many inflated, and some downright bogus – as evidence of the merits of the post. Naturally, there is little mention of the disasters which have beset the city and its good standing in recent years, no reference to the many failed promises made by the mayor. The first question ought to be whether or not the post is worth keeping.

You will recall that of all cities, Liverpool was the only one never given a referendum on an elected mayor. Other cities turned it down flat and have prospered (generally more than Liverpool) under more traditional models of governance. Even if the post was to be retained, there is no guarantee that a different person at the helm would be any improvement on the present incumbent. On the contrary, there is much evidence to suggest the administration of the city would be just as lacking in transparency and accountability. It is no accident that so many public posts – from American president down! – are time limited with regard to the post holder.

I believe that, under Labour Party processes, Steve Rotheram has already been confirmed as the Labour candidate for metromayor. There is yet to be a selection of the Labour candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC). Merseyside’s experience of this Tory novelty has been an abject failure. The post holder since its inception has been former MP Jane Kennedy. She has been totally invisible in the role, despite a salary in excess of £80,000 pa and the backup of a bloated and expensive bureaucracy. To date, I have been contacted by two aspiring Labour candidates for the job, both of whom are Liverpool-based. I find it surprising that there has been no declared candidate from one of the other boroughs to date. I had expected Knowsley veteran, Bill Weightman, to go for it, given his experience and knowledge of police matters.

Speaking of Knowsley, I am told that two Knowsley council Health and Safety inspectors have been sacked after directing clients to a cheaper service elsewhere. This is another example of how councils are trying every way to increase income from in-house services, whilst the same service can be provided via external approved firms at a lower price. The opportunity for corrupt practice is glaringly obvious for all to see. I have certainly pointed out questionable  arrangements in Wirral in the past which suggests that the basis of such problems is systemic, rather than the odd bad apple.

Mention of Wirral brings the new Tory government to mind. The appointment of Esther McVey to the housing, communities and local government brief must be of concern in Wirral. I am told that she has never forgiven the voters of Wirral West for chucking her out as their MP. One must wonder whether she will be more or less supportive than her predecessors in, for example, helping to resolve the long standing difficulties in New Ferry since the gas explosion, or the ongoing dispute over the proposed Hoylake golfing development. Time will tell.

Tough Times

The past week has shown what difficult political waters we are now in. For most people on Merseyside, the fact that the diminishing number of people who subscribe to the Conservative Party should foist Boris Johnson on us as their leader and our Prime Minister was a blow, if a predictable one. Remember that this is the man who set out –“with malice aforethought” – to insult all of the people of Liverpool with a callous article related to Hillsborough and the city’s reaction to that miscarriage of justice. So tendentious was his article that he was compelled by his then party leader to come up to Liverpool to apologise in person.

Making for an even gloomier prospect for local government across the city region was the appointment of Esther McVey to his front bench in charge of housing, communities and local government. Normally, the appointment of a local person in such a key role would be welcomed. Unfortunately, Ms McVey is generally reviled across the city-region because of her record. Her attacks on those in receipt of benefits are well known, as are her views on food banks. Her support for the deeply disliked “bedroom tax” was followed by comments which offended the LGBT community. Our local government representatives will not feel confident of a sympathetic hearing from her.

One who might feel differently, however, is Mayor Anderson. The Liverpool mayor is fond of projecting himself as the friend and defender of all sections of the Liverpool populace, including the aforementioned LGBT community. However, he obviously saw it as a greater priority to go scurrying to Manchester this weekend to curry favour with Boris Johnson rather than show up at Liverpool Pride. We should not be too surprised by this. After all, was it not Mayor Anderson who made much play of his support for Prime Minister Cameron and his failed “Big Society” initiative?  Was it not Mayor Anderson who became great pals with discredited chancellor, George Osborne, the champion of austerity?

As Labour Party members receive a flurry of missives from the Labour Party, all promoting Anderson personally, they will surely see these for what they are – the early shots in his campaign to be reselected for the role from which he tried so hard to escape! They will be scrutinising the claims being made with extra care and noting the systematic exaggeration of many, and the downright misrepresentation of others. The Liverpool Labour Party has been down this road of fake news before, with bloated or invented figures; but as they choose – if they get that far – a candidate for the post of mayor in the 2020 elections, one has to hope that they will be far more circumspect than they were in the past.

As an example of the nonsense we were fed in the last few years, one needs look no further than the proposed new stadium for Everton FC. I seem to recall being told that it would (a) cost about £300 million, and (b) be financed through the city acquiring a loan from the Public Works Loan Board. Now the club is clarifying matters. The real cost is to be £500 million (and upwards?), financed through normal business channels, according to the club’s recent presentation. That, of course, is a matter for the club. It is most certainly NOT a matter for the city’s council tax payers.

Meanwhile, the city-region’s other councils appear to be getting on with their core business – not without difficulty, as all councils still face the burdens of austerity. Regardless of what the new prime minister may, or may not, say, austerity will continue. Like the proverbial super tanker, it takes a long time to turn things around (on the assumption that there is any genuine intention to do so). However, there are some items which might well come to pass as they seem to have a degree of cross-party support.

The first is the notion of a Mersey Barrage revived by metromayor, Steve Rotheram, and publicly agreed last week with current Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Incidentally, I note that mayor Anderson again attempted to claim credit for the whole idea of a Mersey Barrage. However, I first recall this being tabled back in the 1980s, by David Alton, when Mayor Anderson was a junior deckhand. The other major project important to us all is the Johnson commitment (for what it is worth!) to a high-speed trans-Pennine rail route. My reservation is the statement that its first stage is the Manchester-Leeds permanent way. Too often, that has indicated that we on Merseyside will be left behind. Let us hope not. The only acceptable link is all the way from Liverpool to Hull.

Democratic Change

I have seen many misleading publications in politics (fake news??), but few locally to match an email sent out by the national Labour Party under the authority of its general secretary, Jenny Formby. It took the form of a letter from the mayor of Liverpool, Joe Anderson. In effect, it was a free introductory campaign leaflet on behalf of Mayor Anderson, in his quest to be reselected as Labour’s candidate for the next election of a city mayor.

The email was extraordinary for a number of reasons besides the obvious unease of the mayor as his unpopularity hits home. Firstly, given the rising tide of opposition to the whole notion of an elected mayor, it attempts to present a wholly questionable case for the retention of the post. Before looking at some of the sins of both commission and omission within Mayor Anderson’s plea, we should remember two things. This is the mayor who was determined to leave this “necessary” post to become metromayor. Instead, he failed, and publicly attacked the successful nominee, Steve Rotheram. This is also the mayor who set out to win the Labour nomination to stand as Member of Parliament for the Liverpool Walton seat. Again, he failed, and attacked the successful candidate, Dan Carden.

Does not Mayor Anderson ask himself why Labour Party members declined to give him their support on these entirely separate occasions? Perhaps he would counter that he was reselected in 2016; but much information about his tenure of office has come into the public domain since then. Besides, although he sees the decision on the form of governance in Liverpool to be principally about him, it is most certainly not. It is about the office which gives him such power and influence within the city (and beyond, if we are to believe him). It concerns the essence of local democracy, hallmarked by transparency and accountability, neither of which figure prominently with mayor Anderson. Let us not forget that, unlike other major cities, the people of Liverpool were denied any say in whether or not we had an elected mayor. It came out of a grubby backroom deal between then council leader Anderson, and then Tory Chancellor, George Osborne.

As one wades through the welter of statistics used in the email, it is sensible to remember the old saw about “Lies, damned lies, and statistics”. Liverpool has consistently failed to keep pace with sister cities which chose not to have a mayor. Neighbouring Manchester repeatedly leaves Liverpool behind by virtually every measure by which we might judge cities to be successful. No elected mayor, there, thank you very much. Meanwhile, we in Liverpool await the promised dividends from mayoral visits to China, Indonesia, and the United States.

There has been one regular overseas jaunt which has brought results. That is the mayor’s annual trip to the developers’ knees-up in the South of France – MIPIM. If there is one group which appears to have done well for themselves in Liverpool, it is without doubt, self-styled developers. Many of these have turned out to be scam artists, who have viewed Liverpool as the city with the easiest of pickings. They have brought nil value to the city, and the mayor has remained silent about their activities. There have been repeated attempts to build on green space against overwhelming opposition; and there is the ongoing dismissal of our prized World Heritage status as secondary to developers’ profits. Despite the mayor’s claims to the contrary, his “investment” decisions have been woeful, and his financial management deeply flawed. His housing claims sum up the distorted case he puts to justify his period of office, by means of two questions: how many social housing units have been built, and how many student flats are in his figures?

Ever since Mayor Anderson had the gall to bill the city for his private legal fees (over £106,000), there has been widespread concern about his fitness to hold public office. There has also been public concern about the arbitrary nature of the powers invested in an elected mayor, and how Mayor Anderson has chosen to use them. The fear of many voters is that the removal of Mayor Anderson is not enough – another, acting in the same cavalier way, may easily take his place. That is why it is most important to remove the post all together, and to have an open and honest council, headed by a truly accountable Leader, acting in the interests of the whole city.

Civic Climate Challenges

Apparently, Mayor Anderson is to declare a “Climate Emergency” on the 17th of July. Now, let me state at the outset, I am supportive of all positive initiatives to address the very real dangers posed by global warming and the general neglect of our environment. I really cannot comprehend the mentality of those who are in stubborn denial when it comes to the degradation of the planet, and its effects on climate. However, what I do deplore are public relations exercises, unsupported by wide consent and a plan of action.

It will be of more than passing interest to see what is being proposed, and how the general public will be involved in the city’s attempts to do its bit at this critical time. I do recall a visit to the United States ten years ago when I was admittedly surprised at how proactive many individual states and cities were in their attempts to counter federal government inertia on the most pressing problem of our age. Therefore, recognising that this is an issue that knows no boundaries, my first question is whether Liverpool is acting in concert with sister cities throughout the country. My second question? Is there an international dimension to this initiative?

These are fundamental questions which get to the heart of things – is it a serious proposal, or perhaps well-meaning political spin ? As I say, this is an emergency which crosses all boundaries and borders. We (for there is ample evidence of radical climate change which has already occurred), our children and our grandchildren, need to be signed up to a global crusade to halt so many harmful practices which are damaging our everyday lives. Whether it is the explosion of carbon into the air or plastic into our seas, we all have a part to play.

Yet it is also about an appreciation of the natural world in and around our communities. It is part of the reason why increasing numbers of people are passionate about short-sighted attempts to monetise all of our green spaces. There is an old Arab saying which, roughly translated, says “Give me a penny, and I will spend half on bread and half on the narcissus; because bread is the food of the body and the narcissus is the food of the soul”. Perhaps that is a somewhat poetic way of expressing the need to strike a balance in all things in life.

Thus, it concerned me to discover that Liverpool’s World Heritage Status is imperilled once more. Social media is replete once again with the usual philistine comments about this. We have a city with some very special features of which we ought to be proud. It is also the case that the city – like all of its contemporary rivals – is keen to attract investment. Yet investment and maintenance of that which makes us special are not mutually exclusive. They do, however, require intelligent consideration in both the planning and the execution of development projects. That has not been the case in recent years.

For example, I have been a regular Cassandra about Peel and its grandiose claims. I make no apologies for that. Their sole objective is to make money, not to think of the wider welfare of Liverpool or the planet. Their principal business is the buying and selling of land. It does not seem to be successful at other ventures designed to increase its income. That is why they have sold off Teeside Airport as they also try to flog off Liverpool Airport. Even their stake in the Port of Liverpool is up for sale – that is, the working docks. Where dockland real estate can turn a profit, they will still jump into any old deal.

Ironically, Peel has withdrawn its proposal for a solar energy farm behind Liverpool Airport. I am confident that Halton Council would have rejected it anyway (the bulk of the proposed site was in Halton). However, this change of tack by Peel is simply about its own liquidity problems, not about the greater issues to do with climate change.

We need to take a far more comprehensive view across the whole city-region – and far beyond – if we are to have any impact on the climate change challenge. Climate issues are far, far bigger than any single company, city, or country. I look forward to a debate, therefore, open to full public participation, on July 17th.