Magic Numbers

I never cease to be amazed at how local authorities operate. They defy explanation other than to those employed as officers, it seems. Even then, it appears as if it is a select few senior officers who actually control all council matters, regardless of elected councillors who delude themselves that they are in charge. It is no different in Whitehall where ministers are often run ragged by real-life Sir Humphreys – I can personally attest to that experience!

It is one of the reasons that councillors should tread very warily when dealing with those who are technically servants of the council rather than its masters. One might believe oneself to be “in control” of a given brief without having a clue as to what is really going on. This thought occurred to me when I read of the declaration that Liverpool Council (LCC) – or rather, its mayor – would not allow schools to re-open in line with national government’s direction. At this point, I readily admit to a somewhat dated understanding of a local authority’s current remit with reference to schools. What I do know is that schools have been given a degree of autonomy which they never had in the past. Is that not what led to Mayor Anderson’s dismissal from his sinecure at a Sefton academy? Be careful, councillors, of uttering threats which you might not be able to deliver.

It is far more straightforward for councillors to maintain a diligent watching brief on what the higher echelons of their council are doing in their name. For example, in the name of the “Invest to Earn” policy, LCC have put over £1million into a small company, Briggs Automotive Company (BAC). It has a business address in Cheshire and two small buildings in Speke. By their own admission, BAC would not be in business if it was not for the financial support of LCC. So far, so good. Yet on inspection and in line with Contract Standing Orders, there are questions which ought to be asked relating to how the council operates in such cases. Who actually agreed the two payments made to BAC? Who signed off those payments? Why did those payments not go before Cabinet for approval as they ought to have done?

Getting Freedom of Information responses which are complete and meaningful from LCC is like getting the proverbial blood from a stone. Perhaps there are perfectly reasonable answers to these and many other questions which vague minutes of council meetings fail to answer. One must wonder why relatively new chief executive at LCC – Tony Reeves – has issued a contract (to Fraud Advisory Services Ltd), worth £320,000 for a forensic accountant. Is there some connection?

Back to BAC. It seems a regular company working in a niche market (high performance cars), although its accounts are not fully audited. It does have an exotic range of share holders based in Malta, Singapore and the British Virgin Islands. Others cannot be traced; LCC as a shareholder obviously can, yet it owes BAC £153,878! Payments to BAC by LCC do not show in the council’s payment list although the Local Government Transparency Code (2015) says that all payments over £500 should be so listed. I wondered whether this and similar cases explained the fact that LCC’s district auditors – Grant Thornton – failed to sign off the council’s accounts for the last four years. Who knows what to make of the magic numbers at the heart of any organisation, especially one as seemingly chaotic as LCC?

Incidentally, on April 16th last, Mayor Anderson was quoting as ordering £1.7 million worth of PPE, including 2million facemasks – “this was done through a proper process and we expect the order to arrive within a week”. Very laudable. On April 29th last, the European Journal listed three individual contracts for facemasks made by LCC:

HBS Healthcare of Preston              – £1.9million

Plaza Collection of Manchester       – £850,000

Fonebox Assets Ltd of Liverpool     – £257,000

This is a grand total slightly in excess of £3million, just for facemasks. There was also another contract with Kingsmoor Packaging of Somerset for visors. HBS is a regular company in this medical supplies field, but Plaza lists itself as a dealer in the wholesale of ladies clothing (will we get designer facemasks?) and Fonebox, a dormant telecoms company whose last accounts showed £1 cash in the bank and assets worth £34,769.

Once again, one wonders how and why these contracts were agreed, and by whom. No one would quibble with any local authority seeking to plug the gaps in dealing with the current pandemic, given the government’s catalogue of failures. Remember, however, that this PPE was to go, among others, to privately-owned, profit-making care homes. Whether these items were to be gifted or charged, we still need clarity as to the details of these transactions.

Straight Answers

Day by day, we are assailed by “fake news” emanating from Downing Street or the White House. Unfortunately, we have our own local imitators practising what we generally refer to as “spin”. There is a distinction between the two, and not just based on scale. The local variation is very much identified by what is not said, rather than the gush of claims constantly pushed out concerning local government “achievements”. These are usually dressed up – especially on behalf of Liverpool City Council – by the Echo in particular. Yet all people want is some semblance of transparency from their representatives so that, in due course, we might have some accountability based on facts rather than fiction.

Perhaps LCC, for example, could clear up the mystery of the Tarmacademy. Council tax payers are getting nowhere in the search for the truth about Fox Street, Chinatown, and numerous other disastrous projects. They are, however, increasingly aware of the very real problems with alleged developers, and the blatant scams associated with them. It would seem as if the Tarmacademy issue is (unlike some of the others which are subject to police investigation) virtually wholly within LCC’s competence to investigate. After all, the bulk of this scandal lies within LCC’s remit. Firstly, a little background.

Amid much fanfare, land was bought by LCC in Brunswick Place, for the purpose of a joint venture involving King Construction and Cemex. The rent payable was to be £500,000 pa, but the first year was to be rent free. The promise was great. The site was to be home to Liverpool Highways Training Ltd. This “Tarmacademy” was to provide training and jobs for 1000 young people from north Liverpool over five years. The courses offered were all to be related to the highway construction and repair business.

The link man between LCC and King Construction was Mr Mark Doyle, a senior figure with the latter. King Construction (trading as Knowsley Contractors) is actually based in Goodlass Road, Speke. According to Companies House, so is the Liverpool Highways Training Academy. Unfortunately, the latter is a dormant company. This leaves outstanding questions concerning the £3.5 million loan made to the Academy by the council. No one seems to be either able or willing to account for this money.

Mr Doyle is listed as a director at Kings. The assistant director for Highways and Planning at LCC – Mr Andy Barr – is also connected to Kings through his stepson who has a senior position in the company. Surely with such good relations between the two parties it would be simple to establish where the £3.5 million has gone. Instead of straight answers, we are bombarded with often spurious claims about the council’s – or rather, the mayor’s – successes in handling the city’s budget.

Voters are not stupid. Brassed off, perhaps, but very tuned in to some of the more silly claims which they are force fed. For example, we are told the LCC has built “over 12,000 homes in the last ten years” (the mayor’s latest missive). This is palpably untrue as the mayor seems to agree in the same piece when he says “We can once again include council housing in our growing provision”. The 12,000 figure – if it is accurate –  is a total figure for housing associations and the private sector, which itself would consist to a great degree of student accommodation, buy to let, and yuppy apartments. We should not think of it in relation to those areas where there is most need – the low earners and the homeless.

This repeated exaggeration or spin does nothing for the council’s or the mayor’s credibility. Another small example. Not long ago, you will recall that the council had acquired £1.7 million pounds worth of missing PPE, making up for the government’s failure to adequately supply our local needs in combating the coronavirus. Where has that fresh supply gone? To whom, and on what basis? I hope we can get an answer to that one.

Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention my favourite bugbear of developers. You may have noticed that Peel Land and Property had a big fanfare last week over a planned new skyscraper on Prince’s Dock. Goodness knows what such a building would mean for our World Heritage Status. Note it is planned and publicised as Peel go cap in hand to the delayed MIPIM annual knees up. As we know, they are on their uppers as a conglomerate, in dire financial straits. Is there a connection between Peel’s latest promise and the pressing need for investors? Time will tell as their bankers come knocking in June.