Pandemic, Presidency and Party

Over the years, I have always tried to focus this blog on the many trials facing the Liverpool City Region. Goodness knows, there has been much to warrant a critical voice, from local government ineptitude all the way to downright corruption. That remains the case with what seems to be a sclerotic criminal justice system and an emasculated local media. Nevertheless, although all politics are essentially local, issues do arise which transcend the local but which have a direct effect on our city-region.

Three have come together in time which simply cannot be ignored – the pandemic; the American Presidential election; and the suspension of Jeremy Corbyn by the Labour Party. These might seem odd bedfellows, but each in its different way has the capacity to cause ever more difficulty for our city-region. Indeed, they already have. Let us begin with the pandemic.

We will all have followed the war of words between local leaders and central government. Like most people, I must confess that I am not very sure as to what has eventuated from these exchanges. I do recognise that Johnson and his government are inept, but I am none too sure what extra local government can bring to the battle against the spread of this dreadful virus. Like Boris Johnson, our local leaders seem to be caught between a rock and a hard place – that is, between a total lockdown and maintaining some semblance of viable economic activity.

Naturally, as a member of the highest risk group, I am acutely aware of my personal peril if exposed to the virus. I am also aware of the plight of my grandson who found himself in isolation from his first day as a Liverpool University fresher. Consider the many who have suffered wage cuts or who have been laid off, or the many small businesses which have gone to the wall. Of course, there are those who have contracted Covid-19, many of whom have sadly died. It is an extremely problematic situation for us all.

So is the American Presidential election. Its outcome could seriously affect our well-being across the city-region. A Trump success could embolden the Great Grifter to push his trade and environment agendas at a massive cost to us all. Imagine a trade deal with our present government which could lead to the import of chlorinated chicken and hormone-injected beef. We can say goodbye to what remains of our health and safety protections. Meanwhile, Big Pharma would be rubbing its hands with glee at the thought of carving up our already fragmented National Health Service. The stakes are huge even before we take a no-deal Brexit into account.

Last, but by no means least, the suspension of Corbyn can have shattering effects locally if Labour Party members are so minded. All six boroughs within the city-region are dominated by the Labour Party. Offices like Metromayor, Liverpool mayor and Police and Crime Commissioner are held by Labour nominees. Other than Southport and a little bit of Halton, the whole area is represented in Parliament by Labour MPs. A Labour Party civil war could have dire consequences for the city-region.

Yet I find myself appalled by the action of Labour’s national leadership. I have never voted for or nominated Jeremy Corbyn for anything; but I know that he is no racist. Much of his politics are very different from my own. However, he has always been an honourable man in my eyes, unlike many of his detractors. Not for him the personal abuse tossed about so freely by those who have vilified him. His apparent crime meriting suspension was to publicly disagree with parts of the report on anti-semitism in the Labour Party, published by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. Having read the report, I too disagree with much of it. I most certainly reject those who have been quick to gloat at Corbyn’s suspension.

A political, healthcare and economic meltdown across our region would be disastrous, far worse than anything in my lifetime. That is why I truly hope that local and national government can get their respective acts together on the pandemic; that Trump is soundly beaten in the Presidential election; and that the Labour Party leadership sees sense, and fully restores Jeremy Corbyn to his rightful place in the party. The stakes are too high for anything else.

Many Questions, Few Answers

It would be easy for many in the city-region to shrug, and imagine that the problems of corruption are within the city of Liverpool, and of little consequence to everyone else. They would be wrong. Sure, there are issues within, say, Sefton, concerning senior officers – one in breach of pandemic protocols, another allegedly running a company in opposition to his own council services. Perhaps they might quote Knowsley where one senior officer has taken leave as Covid cases explode, just when he is needed most; or cite the untrained bin man who ended up in the hugely dangerous rear of a refuse wagon. Yet these are, as the saying goes, small potatoes – in a different league to corruption in a public office.

There is, however, one issue which immediately comes to mind, affecting in one way or another all six boroughs in the city-region. That is, the construction of a new police headquarters. Five boroughs levy the police precept funding this build, whereas Halton has an interest via its role in the city-region Combined Authority. This project is one of those which does not make sense to me, try as I may to work it out. Let me recap.

Many sites across the city-region were offered for this new head quarters. The chosen site was in St. Anne’s Street, Liverpool. A number of separate properties needed to be parcelled together by the city council to ensure a viable footprint for the proposed build, and they proceeded to do so. According to the Land Registry, the price paid by the police commissioner for the total site was £5,051,000. The council had estimated the cost of the site £4,112,000. Interests which needed to be bought out included a firm of solicitors at a cost of about £300,000, and the Liverpool Catholic Archdiocese who were paid £127,000. The big winner was the North Liverpool Regeneration Company (NLRC) who received, by my calculation, £3,535,000.

That consisted of four separate parts. Firstly, NLRC received a building at 64, Mount Pleasant valued at £300,000. It has planning permission for five flats on its upper floors. Secondly, there was a payment to NLRC of £350,000 for “compensation based on 10% for disturbance, etc”. Thirdly, there was £35,000 payable as an agent’s fee, based on 1% of the total cost. Finally, there was a lump sum of £2,850,000 to NLRC for “land and property costs”. Quite a tidy total, you will agree.

This appears to be a great deal for a small charity like NLRC, a deal ultimately down to police commissioner Jane Kennedy. One must assume that she and her team exercised due diligence as the whole package was put together before committing Merseyside Police to it, looking at the people and organisations involved. The principal player, other than the city council, was the NLRC. What do we know of this organisation?

It was the brainchild of Cllr George Knibb; his fellow ward councillor, Barry Kushner, does consultancy work for it. Companies House names all of its directors since its inception and most of a long list appear to have been Labour Party rebels like Cllr Knibb, who were expelled in the eighties and nineties Most of these are long gone from the NLRC, as indeed has Cllr Knibb, although he remains involved in some way. The key to its current operation is its trustees – two more Labour rebels of yesteryear, Pauline Connolly and John Nelson (another former disbarred councillor).

On paper, Cllr Knibb no longer has a formal connection with NLRC. However, council regeneration documents record Cllr Knibb as the developer of the new NLRC headquarters at 64, Mount Pleasant, whilst a planning application lodged for the same building lists the NLRC as the applicant. Confusing this may be, but it does not end there. The period covered by what I relate, stretches from the end of 2018 up to the 20/01/20, the date when the transfer of the site to Merseyside Police was registered.

I should also point out that on the 31/12/18, NLRC loaned the Vauxhall Neighbourhood council (VNC) the sum of £167,212. The CEO of the VNC is Pauline Connolly. The NLRC also loaned £168,849 to its sister company, North Liverpool Regeneration Property Services. The chair of the board of the latter is also Pauline Connolly. This is an extremely cosy, if not financially incestuous, set of relationships. Given that MS Connolly and Mr Nelson are apparently empowered as the trustees to deal as they like with the unrestricted funds of the NLRC (over £9 million!), there is at the very least conflicts of interest here.

I could go on, tracing the direct links to the Alt Valley Partnership, “home” to another rebel ex-councillor – Tony Jennings – and Cllr Knibb’s brothers, together with their interests in Knowsley; but I think you get the picture. You can look these up with a little effort. However, it is surely for councillors to seek some transparency in deals like this, so that the council tax payer can see where their money is going. There are so many questions, and so few answers…