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.

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