Hard Times

These are truly hard times for the bulk of the people within the city-region and beyond. Whether as individuals living in the shadow of coronavirus, or as those front-line workers, battling against the disease in order to keep us as safe as they are able to do so, it is a desperate period in time. Many have already suffered and, indeed, died in the pandemic. We are all charged with doing our bit to defeat this most vicious and pernicious of viruses.

Many are those who are suffering financially, from the huge numbers of employees who have been furloughed, to those slipping through the cracks of emergency government support. There are also the multitude of small businesses (which employ the majority of the workforce) which are struggling for survival. We must hope for an early breakthrough in dealing with the disease; it is vital that it comes sooner rather than later – for it will certainly come eventually. It is simply a matter of time. Whether or not that will be at an even greater human cost, we can only speculate.

This is a battle being fought on many fronts, and local authorities and agencies have their part to play in it. However, I must say that I believe that it is inappropriate that press releases on everything from lectures on hairdressers to pointless petitions and letters to government ministers, should be the order of the day. They have as little relevance as promises of VE-day style street parties. I also wonder how threats to close massive, unfenced parks like Sefton and Newsham Parks in Liverpool will be effective against people determined to use them despite advice to the contrary. Is it the best current use of Merseyside Police to patrol the parks, or to clear the beaches of Sefton and Wirral? Regular policing demands continue, even in these strange times, as do the demands of governing. Reflect on my repeated reports on the “developers” bedevilling this city-region.

In recent weeks, we have seen one of Mayor Anderson’s favourite entrepreneurs, Peel, in deep trouble. They are desperately trying to flog off the Port of Liverpool and John Lennon Airport as their creditors close in on them. Of course, whatever the outcome, it will have no effect on Peel owner John Whittaker’s Isle of Man trust fund. It may, however, affect many workers at the airport and the docks. Then there is Lawrence Kenwright, a close confederate of the mayor. His flagship Shankly Hotel has hit the rocks and gone into receivership as he simultaneously tries to off-load his James Street property. Perhaps the most visible sign of the mismanagement of development in Liverpool was the sight of builders Vermont dismantling their huge cranes on the crashed Infinity project of Elliot Lawless.

It is instructive, to say the least, to look at the meteoric rise of Mr Lawless, who has attained multi-millionaire status in less than a decade. Back in 2012, he became a co-director with a well-known North Merseyside “developer”, Terry Riley, in a company titled “EMR Columbus Quay, Ltd”. After that, he appeared to branch out on his own with a variety of companies although they were not all quite as they seemed to be. Although these companies listed him as a director, it was – and remains – unclear as to who actually controlled some of them. Nevertheless, as his business interests expanded, his name became more prominent in the city, until it morphed into a hallmark for development in Liverpool, Manchester, and beyond. Then came the crash.

Last December, Elliot Lawless was arrested, together with Liverpool City Council’s Director of Regeneration, Nick Kavanagh, in a corruption investigation. Three of his major developments went into administration (in a perverse way, these events may have stimulated Mayor Anderson to write in one of his publicity releases “I have been concerned by the sight of many building sites where construction continues…”!!). Yet, presumably, all has not yet been lost to Mr Lawless. He had had the foresight to set up the Equity Group “at the request of a business associate” (believed to be Mr Riley), as the Echo (unusually) reported.

This is interesting in itself, for it is based in the Seychelles, a tax haven. The Equity Group holds huge charges against the Lawless projects which are now in administration, and these add up to many millions of pounds. Furthermore, a spokesman for the Equity Group was quoted on April 6th last, as saying that Mr Lawless was “the sole director and shareholder” in the Equity Group. This is at odds with Companies House which lists one director for the Equity Group, a company named 1QD Ltd. This company was itself incorporated on the same day as the Equity Group (March 5th,2019) and with the same registered office (a business accommodation address in Liverpool). It had two developers as its directors – John Morley and Terry Riley.

It might appear that Mr Lawless had been taking steps for some time to protect his interests, both here in the United Kingdom, and in the Seychelles. He had had a long association with Mr Riley, so it is unsurprising that after the arrest of Mr Lawless last December, Mr Riley should take up board positions on two of Mr Lawless’ companies, Elliot Group Paramount Ltd and Sefton Street Developments. How these fit in to the chess game that developers play is yet to be divined. One can, however, be sure that there will be large sums of money at stake.

Meanwhile, Liverpool City Council still fails to publish anything meaningful about the Fox Street fiasco, another development rip-off. One would think that this ongoing problem with development and corruption would be a priority for the council. There are obviously honest businesses working in the field but there is ample evidence of a shed load of scam artists dragging the city down. By extension, this situation has a ripple effect across the whole city-region. I would expect the mayor to have something to say about this instead of his more fatuous comments made like a poor man’s Donald Trump.

Lastly, two comments arise from my last blog. I am happy to note that Sefton, Knowsley and Halton have maintained their green bin collections. Thus, I wonder why they manage it whilst Liverpool, Wirral, and St Helens cannot. Secondly, the Combined Authority wrote to me to say “There is no cost to the collaboration with the Heseltine Institute”. I am reminded of the old saw that there is no such thing as a free lunch.

Just Give Us The Truth

The whole world remains focussed on the coronavirus pandemic; and with good cause. Every aspect of what has been seen as normal human activity in a modern society is feeling its dire effects. Like many with too much time on their hands, I have watched too much television on the subject, especially the televised news conferences of the governments of the United States and of the United Kingdom. The performances of Trump would have been pure comedy if the consequences of the pandemic had not been so grim for so many people. As for our home grown version, it is little wonder that, with every passing day, more questions about the government’s mishandling of the pandemic have been raised than answers supplied.

Perhaps Her Majesty’s Government will now be held to account with a functioning Opposition front bench now in position. We shall see. However, one can only wonder whether what passes for local government democracy in our own city-region will also resurrect those two staples of good governance – transparency and accountability. In the current crisis situation, I really cannot see how it is possible. What was known as glasnost at the fall of the old Soviet Union, transparency has never been an outstanding feature of local government hereabouts, given that councillors are currently told to cancel surgeries and meetings, and any council meetings which are held (if at all), are held on line, accountability has been kicked into touch. Even the ultimate test of accountability – elections – have been postponed for a year.

Presumably, a handful of senior councillors and council officers are making all decisions within local civic bodies. For example, the LCR Combined Authority has decided to commission the Liverpool University Heseltine Institute to investigate the economic outcomes of the present crisis. Rather presumptuous, you might think, since we have no idea when or how this pandemic will be over. One wonders who was behind this no doubt hefty expenditure and who was consulted about it. It has all the hallmarks of a previous £100,000 commission of Tory Philip Blond to report the blindingly obvious on the HS2 rail by-pass of Liverpool.

The waste disposal authority decided to close all tips, just as Liverpool council (and elsewhere, for all I know) cancelled its green bin collection service. Is it any surprise that there has been a surge in fly tipping? The Police and Crime Commissioner has done her bit to add to a growing confusion about governance in the city-region. She appointed former Wirral council leader Phil Davies to be her deputy (her fourth in a row) apparently without clearing it with him or anyone else.

No one would dispute the need under current circumstances for councils and other representative bodies to follow the regime of lock down and social distancing just like everyone else. However, great care is required in both what is done and how it is done. Our national government has taken to hiding behind distractions like their soul mate in the White House, in order to cover their tardiness in tackling the virus. Locally, we have no need for comments on hairdressers, pointless petitions or promises of VE-day style street parties. Far better to have clear explanations of what is being done and why.

Even in these perilous times, there remain important local issues to be addressed. Despite the restrictions placed on much economic activity, for example, building was exempted. It is ironic, therefore, to see the difficulties now apparent to all, faced by the long-standing friends of Mayor Anderson. Elliot Lawless, having been arrested, can only watch his “developments” grind to a halt. Lawrence Kenwright wrings his hands as his iconic Shankly Hotel goes into administration. Peel tries to bleed as much cash from the Irish ferries as they can as they struggle to stay afloat.

These developers have had a favoured position in the economic life of the city-region, most particularly Liverpool. It would be of profound interest to so many in the region to hear an honest appraisal of them – and their contributions to the local economy – by local political leaders. I do not want to see any further encomiums of praise from the Echo, the Heseltine Institute or anyone else. We have had enough of that in the past. Just give us the truth.

A Local Virus

These are unique times, given the coronavirus pandemic and its incredibly far-reaching effects. From the Prime Minister and the royal family, down to the most humble of households, this insidious infection has found its way into families across the nation. It has struck all parts of our national life. I cannot speak of all of the boroughs within the city-region, but with regard to Liverpool City Council, there have been a number of signs of the effects of the virus on the Liverpool borough. Council tips are closed and the green bin service has been suspended. The council’s telephone service centre appears to be totally overloaded. Such is the price that one branch of local government in our region is paying – a further diminution of services with all which that entails.

This is as nothing when compared to the effects being suffered by individuals and families hit directly by this deadly disease. Nor does it help those who have lost their income because of the lock down decreed in order to prevent the spread of the virus; or those unable to access a regular food supply due to panic buying. I was, therefore, all the more surprised to receive one of Mayor Anderson’s public relations sheets, put out in the name of the Labour Party – an “update” as he describes it.

In this email, with exquisite timing, the mayor says: “Like others, I have been concerned by the sight of many building sites where construction continues, despite Government advice”. I mention timing as today, in a rare excursion into investigative journalism, the “Echo” has published an account of developer (and friend of Mayor Anderson) Elliot Lawless, and his activities with his Seychelles-registered company, the Equity Group.

The mayor seeing all these busy building sites around the city suggests that he has been out and about during the lockdown. Yet by his own admission in his email, he is one of those who should be staying at home. Is this a case of “do as I say, not as I do “; or is he so indispensable, that he must go down to the Cunard Building to do I know not what? More priceless is the “Echo” report on Lawless. As his property and development empire has sunk into the mire, many building workers have lost their jobs, and sub-contractors have been crippled. Intriguingly, the “Echo” hints at a conspiracy when it says: “Mr Lawless launched the Equity Group at the request of a business associate around six years ago”. It does not take a genius to work out through Companies House records who this “business associate” might be. I would put my money on a seasoned property developer well-known to police and local government, a man who likes to keep a low profile.

I would have thought that, notwithstanding concerns about coronavirus  and men busily at work, we might anyway have heard from the mayor about men out of work and out of pocket due to the incredible cost and number of property  scams in the city. Unlike the virus, this is something which he can do something about on a large scale. For example, in recent days, one of the charlatans involved in the New Chinatown fiasco – Mr David Choules – has been banned as a director for seven years. When will the mayor have something to say on these matters? Although coronavirus has pulled all attention its way, government carries on, including local government (as well as criminal activity!). At some point, the Liverpool mayor/council must make a full declaration about the huge reputational damage continuously being inflicted on the city and its wider hinterland.

Incidentally, I have been asked whether councillors across the city-region are in total shutdown. If not, who is monitoring council activities? Who makes the decisions? If they meet, what form do meetings take? Are they video-conferencing, or meeting two metres apart from each other? Are they still holding surgeries? Are they being penalised financially under the current coronavirus regime? Many electors would be keen to know.