Difficult Questions

There I was, like most people, bored out of my wits, when, for want of something better to do, I read one of Liam Thorpe’s messages to Merseyside. In case you do not know, he is what is laughingly titled political editor of the “Echo”. What grabbed me in his piece was the outrageous – and demonstrably false – claim that “we will keep asking the difficult questions”. Most people see him as more or less cheerleader-in-chief for the Liverpool mayor, with little or nothing to say about the other five boroughs in our city-region. Perhaps we should remind him of some of the most recent difficult questions which have been put to the mayor and the city council, but which remain unanswered. Invariably, these have been posed by disgruntled council tax payers. If Mr Thorpe and his colleagues had anything to say on these matters, it has been a bland echo of the council’s line of the day. Very often, our local media have failed to speak truth unto power.

Obviously, the current pandemic has overwhelmed all other issues facing the people of our city-region, but we must not forget that the urgency of local politics still demands a critical appraisal. Even these past four weeks have thrown up the same systemic failures repeatedly exhibited in our area, most graphically within the city of Liverpool. Let me remind you of some examples about which I would have expected some searching questions from the local media.

LCC describes itself – at least the mayor does – as an entrepreneurial council. If that was the case, it would have been deemed a failure long before now. Let us take its approach to land and property. In the last ten years, LCC has undertaken 1417 deals concerning land and property, yet it apparently has been unable to establish a central data base collating these many and varied deals. Whilst many will relate to the sale of individual houses, for example, there will be some expensive gems amongst this massive sell-off. However, the LCC culture remains obdurate in making it as difficult as possible for citizens to have a clear picture of this sale of the century.

What about the local media demanding clarity on the council’s recent purchase of PPE? No right-minded person would object to such a purchase but they have every right to know how the purchase was effected. Assiduous research has revealed that two of the three contracts awarded for this purpose are questionable. One firm was a fashion wholesaler; the other was a redundant electronics firm using an accommodation address. They were contracted to supply LCC with masks and gowns. On the figures available, it seems that the masks cost £1.29 per item for a product that normally sold for 19p each. Thus, one contracted supplier was paid £256,000 for items costing £46,000 at source in China (remember Liverpool’s close relationship with its twin city, Shanghai). Why was LCC so incredibly slack?

Of course, LCC has always avoided transparency as if it was itself a virus. It is not – it is one of the best antidotes to corruption and inefficiency. Nevertheless, the council remains steadfast in maintaining its secretive ways. It refuses to publish the salaries paid to the board members of wholly owned businesses like the ACC and Liverpool Foundation Homes. The latter, for example, was launched with a grant of £900,000 and a loan of £1.7million, all from the city’s coffers. Why then do we not know what we are paying the cosy little groups who sit on their respective boards?

Perhaps some searching questions from the “Echo” might open up the ongoing scandal of the links between the mayor, the council and various developers? A passing reference to the fact that the Merseyside fraud squad is looking at LCC’s property deals is not enough. Why not try to pin down the absentee landlord that is our invisible (but highly paid) Police and Crime Commissioner on these matters? Whilst the Echo’s finest are at it, can they not look in depth at the extremely dubious financing of council land occupied by King Construction, Cemex and the fabled Tarmacademy? Indeed, those same on-the-spot reporters might examine the curious case of the hugely expensive Fire Marshals (once known to we older observers as cocky watchmen!) employed by Tory billionaire tax exile, Lord Ashcroft, to monitor the Fox Street fire trap.

The list goes on; there is much for our brave local fourth estate to question. They may choose to consider the sale of the Wishing Well apartments in Bootle; the link between our home grown coronavirus spike, and the Atletico Madrid-Liverpool match; and many others. There are so many serious questions which ought to put to those in power, but beginning with one to itself. Why has the “Echo” failed so abysmally in exposing the corrupt culture which has overwhelmed so much of local “regeneration”?

Tougher Times Ahead

A hasty missive from Mayor Anderson to Labour Party members in Liverpool ensured that he was associated with the latest round of Labour group disciplinary action. It repeated the news that two members of his cabinet – Barry Kushner and Lynnie Hinnegan – were suspended due to their breach of the coronavirus guidelines concerning social distancing. In both instances, the councillors stood accused of having a party at home. Given the times that we are in, few will take issue with the chief whip’s decision on this. After the Dominic Cummings fiasco, nothing else would suffice, even on a local level. All the more surprising, then, that the mayor has yet to see fit to say anything from his Old Swan redoubt about the ballooning concern regarding so-called developers in the city.

To recap, just before Christmas, Elliot Lawless was arrested along with the city’s director of regeneration, Nick Kavanagh. Since then, several of his projects have collapsed as his companies have gone bust, leaving him struggling to stay afloat. His “success” had been remarkable, given his age and apparent lack of real business experience. In themselves, his difficulties came as no surprise to keen observers of the exploitation of the city in the name of development. However, more was to come.

Another favoured pal of the mayor, Lawrence Kenwright (he even co- hosted one of the mayor’s political fundraisers) has watched helplessly as one after another of his companies has failed – as have his attempts to flog off his properties to raise cash. Kenwright had a remarkable resurrection from bankrupt in 2010 (the year Anderson came to power) to self-styled success story although sensible business figures saw that his business model was unsustainable. Promised returns to investors were grossly exaggerated and now the chickens have come home to roost. I think of his approach as akin to a Ponzi scheme. His most recent news appearance was related to a Belfast property of his planned for conversion to a hotel, but which police say has been torched in an arson attack.

Now we come to the Fox Street development. Like the Paramount project in the city centre, it was shown to be a firetrap. The developers went bust owing £10 million but having let the properties to unsuspecting tenants. Apparently, the council undertook to monitor the development until the necessary repairs could be effected. According to residents, the monitoring consisted of two men in high visibility jackets keeping a weather eye on the property like a modern pair of “cocky watchmen”. The council is showing the cost of this exercise as £340,000! This was for a period of eight months! Figure out the hourly rate for that nice little earner!

You may recall that LCC has already established an investigative committee under the chairmanship of Cllr Corbett (another cabinet member) to look at the Fox Street scam. Unfortunately, it operated in total secrecy with no published committee minutes, no published concluding report and no answers to questions from council tax payers. Is this surprising when the whole culture of the council is dedicated to avoiding any kind of legitimate scrutiny? Sadly, the answer is no.

I could go on (some think that I go on too much already!!) and I have done so for years; but it would add little or nothing to a prevailing view that there is something rotten at the heart of Liverpool City Council. The mayor remains silent – he has nothing to say about these matters which is remarkable if only because of the huge amount of money owing to the council by these dodgy developers. Remember, too, that this should not just be a worry for the good burghers of Liverpool. The city is the principal driver for the whole city-region. Thus, when things go awry in the city, there is a ripple effect which is felt in one way or another in each of the neighbouring boroughs. The sorry state of affairs in Liverpool should, therefore, be a matter of concern for each of the five neighbouring boroughs as well as for the people of the city itself.

As I said earlier, these are difficult times. They will get worse as the full effects of the extended lockdown and any renewed surge in coronavirus cases kick in. In addition, we have still to begin to feel the full ramifications of Brexit. I can see little immediate relief from austerity. The Public Works Loan Board appears to feel the same, given its recent hike in interest rates (thank goodness EFC turned down the mayor’s offer of a loan from the Board in the name of the city). Higher education looks likely to take a big hit with fewer students including those from overseas. A drop in numbers will mean fewer student flats occupied and reduced employment at the universities and a reduced night time economy. Given the city’s questionable standing with investors, we can only speculate as to the source of necessary future investment. Yet still, the mayor has only platitudes to offer the city and its neighbours.

I believe that we all realise that there are indeed tougher times ahead, perhaps of a magnitude outside of the experience of virtually all living people. The dilemmas facing policy makers and those charged with applying policy will be many and complex, far more challenging than those of recent years. It cannot be done without taking people with you in meeting those looming demands. Will that not entail a level of leadership and a degree of transparency and accountability too often missing in the local political arena?