“And so this is Christmas; and what have you done?”, sang John Lennon fifty years ago. It is a question that several bodies need to answer, given recent events, as we try to assess the state of play in Liverpool. The record of those with the power and the responsibility to play a part in correcting the serious mismanagement of the city’s finances, is not a distinguished one to date. Let us begin with the council itself. As a body, it has failed to hold to account those who have been systematically corrupting the council’s dealings over a period of years. They cannot but accept a degree of blame for the way in which council taxpayers’ money has been brazenly plundered; but they are not alone. Others have looked on in magisterial inactivity.
Take the council’s auditors. I approached them in person years ago to ask how and why the council was not exercising due diligence in their property transactions. They did nothing. The local newspaper was also missing in action – it could (or would) not see the wood for the trees when it came to the council. It was a betrayal of its own traditions and of its readers. Worse still, it became habituated to stealing credit for exposing council malfeasance long after brave individuals had made the case on social media. Instead, they published every bit of false news emanating from the council public relations unit and from developers keen to promote their latest money-grubbing project. Its investigative journalism was non-existent.
Although there have recently been high profile arrests, I remain puzzled at the slow response of Merseyside Police to what has been apparent to any observer of the local council scene. I put the question directly to the previous chief constable, only to receive a delphic reply. I have spoken to other members of our finest. I have even raised it directly with the Police and Crime Commissioner, who, unlike her peers across the country, appears to have taken no interest in her responsibilities. It is no surprise, if regrettable, that she has gained a reputation as the Invisible Woman.
I know that there are still ongoing inquiries like Operation Sheridan. This led to the downfall of the previous chief executive amongst others, but it appears to be stuck within the machinery of the Crown Prosecution Service. Lancashire Police led this inquiry, and have done their bit. However, once it is before the courts, it leads right into the heart of Liverpool and the Liverpool Direct set-up. This remains one of the many areas where there are serious questions to be answered.
The government bears its own responsibility. It has hidden behind the argument that it is for the electors of Liverpool to decide who they have as mayor, judging the latter’s performance for good or ill. There are obvious problems with this view. Firstly, in a virtually one-party city like Liverpool, it is very difficult to challenge the dominant party’s choice of candidate. Secondly, there is an assumption that all issues can be resolved with a change at the top. This is wrong when there is a deeply-embedded culture of corruption wider than one individual and one administration. Thirdly, the city is being run under a model which resulted from a stitch-up between ex-Chancellor, George Osborne, and a present mayor. The people of Liverpool, unlike other cities, were not given a say in this via a referendum.
So what can be done? The use of commissioners should be extended to a root and branch excision within the council, and wholesale change (e.g. delegated powers) of practices which facilitate abuse. Secondly, I would like the people of Liverpool to be given a choice – in line with other cities – as to the system of governance they would like. If that was not to happen, the Labour Party must step in to ensure that their candidate for mayor next May, is purer than Caesar’s wife. That would exclude all of those in the council who have been closely identified with the present mayor. Rightly or wrongly, people’s attitudes towards anyone within the mayor’s circle of associates will be viewed through jaundiced eyes.
This coming year will be a really telling one for the city of Liverpool and the other members of the city-region. We all know that if Liverpool sneezes, they will each catch a cold. It will not be easy to get the city back on track, but it is incumbent on us all, at every level, to give it our best shorts.
Happy New Year!