Quiet Times

The summer has always been the quiet season for politics, as politicians and their officers alike look forward to their regular holidays. This Year of the Coronavirus is even quieter than usual, of course, as the general focus remains on the pandemic, even after four months of crisis. There seems to be relatively little which can be done locally by those ostensibly responsible for local government, other than to exhort residents to observe central government’s guidelines. Needless to say, there remain many who are either too stupid or too selfish to follow good advice.

Nevertheless, politics, in the way that life itself does, continues to trundle on. That is why I and others have questioned the strange purchases of Personal Protective Equipment by Liverpool City Council.  In themselves, these deals exemplify why so many view all council activities with suspicion. Very simply, council tax payers are cynical because of the council’s repeated duplicity and lack of transparency. If only those in public life recognised that at the very least, openness and honesty make life very much easier.

For example, the current buzz in Knowsley is that the former head of estates for the borough – Mike Fagan – has made very serious allegations against past and present senior Knowsley Council officers. Now, I have no idea whether or not there is any substance to the claim that such allegations have been formally made. If they have, I am unable to comment on their veracity. What should bother those who care about the standing of local government, is the fact that residents are no longer shocked at such reports. They seem to take it for granted that local politics is wholly corrupt.

Much of this comes down to communication. For many years now, there have been attempts to open up public discourse with more accessible language to go hand in hand with a citizen’s right to information. The latter was supposed to have come with the Freedom of Information Act. However, public authorities at all levels have deliberately set out to negate the positive elements of the latter. Even when information is made available, it is either in an indigestible form or so vague as to be virtually useless. The jargon-laden missives emanating from town halls are extremely frustrating to interested residents given the mind-numbing effect they can have on the average citizen. I am not apportioning blame but merely describing the outcome of this contradiction of transparency.

With plenty of time on my hands last week, I took a light read (I joke!) of the contracts register which records all of the contracts which all public bodies (including councils) enter into. Browsing through those of our six local councils in the city-region, there seemed to be a hugely disproportionate distribution between them. In part, this is explained by the different sizes of the six boroughs, but that is a discussion for another day. I was more taken by the weird and wonderful contracts themselves. I took a closer look at those involving Liverpool City Council. There are literally hundreds of these of all costs and subjects so I picked five at random –

          Terrorism insurance for the Cunard Building                £150,000

          Consultancy to improve pedestrian crossing design   £196,000

          Provision of a gig boat service                                         £90,000

          Coroner’s removal service in Wirral                               £127,000

          Fraud Advisory Service (with Wirral)                              £320,000

            -for process serving and investigation

Do not misunderstand me – I am not suggesting that there is something untoward here. However, given the sheer volume of such contracts, there is little if any explanation of what they are for. Officers and some very experienced councillors may appreciate what they are. I doubt whether the majority of councillors, much less the average taxpayer,  would have a clue where city funds are going.

People in Denial

In the United States, people have finally woken up to the fact that most services are delivered by local government rather than national government. Admittedly, with such a dreadful president as Trump – and the sycophants with whom he has surrounded himself – it is little wonder that the urgent matters of the moment are being addressed solely at a state or city level. Nationally, there is no lead whatsoever. We have a similar situation here with what will, at best, be recorded as a woefully inefficient government facing the pandemic. It needs everyone else to do their bit, especially the NHS and local government.

As Trump blames everyone else for his own failings, so now Johnson and his inept cabinet have started the blame game, beginning with Leicester, our own latest hot spot (so look out local government!). You know that old saw that while success has many fathers, failure is an orphan? Needless to say, I am more taken by matters closer to home. I have written before about Liverpool City Council and its award of contracts for PPE. There are no quibbles from me in the council doing what is necessary to protect front line workers battling the coronavirus – no one in their right mind would take issue over this. What I do question is how this PPE has been sourced, and for whom.

We all know how slack LCC is when it comes to procurement; and I have already commented on the strange suppliers of PPE – one contract went to a Manchester company which deals in ladies’ fashion and another to a tiny and dormant telecomms company which is reduced to crowd funding to stay afloat. Now another telecomms company – 1st Communications and Maintenance – has been given a contract to supply PPE. These firms come up with hugely inflated prices without any rational explanation as to why that is. We may be in the middle of a pandemic but there are more experienced and reputable sources than these to meet our needs. It causes me to reflect on the recent revelation that the council’s accounts have not been signed off by auditors Grant Thornton, for five years!! Mind you, I am told that the principal reason for this strange refusal of the auditors relates to a hole of £24 million in the areas of property sales and teachers pension funding.

It is hard to believe that the accounts of a council could be in such a parlous state, but we should not be surprised. If we hark back to the huge drain on LCC funds which began with the empty Speke school – built under PFI and sucking the blood from LCC’s finances. Since then, council tax payers have been outraged by one financial scandal after another. We have had the purchase of properties from Finch Farm to the Cunard Building by a mayor who spends our money like a drunken sailor. We have watched the scam artist developers leave a trail of devastation behind them with ruined investors and defrauded contractors. They owe the council millions and seem able to operate with impunity – the same old names with the same old accommodation business addresses. The council does not seem to practice any due diligence with these cowboys who continue ripping people off and besmirching the good name of the city. Nigel Russell was just one person who was able to buy St Andrew’s church in prestigious Rodney Street for just £1 despite having an unspent conviction. How can that be??

The list of revelations and failed projects is long – New Chinatown, the Paramount, Fox Street, Eldon Street, the Metalworks, the Rise, and so on. So are the big names associated with development in the city, like Lawrence Kenwright and Elliot Lawless, who have come unstuck. The list of failed developments has cost investors and the city hundreds of millions of pounds. Yet the scallywags behind the scams re-invent themselves and their companies to play the same tricks all over again. No answer to questions about this is forthcoming from the council or anyone else. Recently, I raised the odd case of the land deals done at great expense to itself by the council with King Construction. These were supposed to involve the proposed Tarmacademy which was in turn to provide training and jobs for the unemployed of north Liverpool. Instead, it only seems to have provided advantageous locations at give away prices for Kings and Cemex, in the heart of the proposed development area of the new stadium and the associated development.

Due diligence? Forget it. Competitive tendering? Not on your life. Transparent accounts? You must be joking. Accountability? Don’t make me laugh. What we do get from the Cunard Building is a deafening and ominous silence on this dreadful state of affairs. Meanwhile, LCC press releases, published in the failing Echo, continue to proclaim that all is well.

PS: Here is a more positive tale, you might say.

2015:       A small company is founded in August – Huyton Ashphalt Civils

2016:       It has a bank balance of £42 in March

2017:       Takes an office in Cunard Building and joins the Mayoral 100 Club

2019:       Shows a bank balance of £1,607,952 on a turnover of £19,464,217

Is that a success story or what?