Step Forward

Before I get underway, I must apologise for repeating myself. However, I truly believe that the city of Liverpool – indeed, the entire city region – is at a critical juncture in its often turbulent history. I mention the city region because, in the words of the old cliché, when Liverpool sneezes, the city region catches a cold. The pivotal point is the approaching selection of a Labour candidate for the forthcoming mayoral election.

The people of Liverpool (unlike other comparable English cities) have never been given a say on whether or not they wanted an elected mayor in the first place. Moreover, there is little likelihood of that situation changing before 2023 at the earliest. Technically, enough local electors (about 16,500) could band together to demand a referendum as of right, but such an eventuality is highly improbable. The organisations which might be able to gather the names required – that is, the political parties – are unwilling to do so. The end result is a city mayor whether we like it or not.

That brings us directly to the Labour Party’s impending selection of a candidate to succeed Joe Anderson. Consider the background to this. Anderson, senior council officials and “businessmen” (I call them crooks) have been arrested and face a bewildering array of charges.  Many more within the “magic circle” are yet to have their collars felt. The reputation of the city is at a new low just as the city faces some of the most difficult challenges in its long history. It would seem to me that any aspiring candidate for the mayoralty would have to be purer than Caesar’s wife to have any credibility in the eyes of the local electorate or those who might consider legitimate investment in the city.

The reality is that the Labour candidate will be the favourite to win the actual mayoral election. A glance at the electoral records and the current composition of representation across the city explains why. The question is: who? We have all seen various names flagged up but I remain wholly unconvinced by all of them. Those who have been in the mayor’s cabinet during the past ten years leave me particularly unmoved. They fall into two broad camps. Given their privileged access to the council’s highest deliberations and decision making, they either saw what was happening and said or did nothing, or they were oblivious to the machinations which were occurring around them on a daily basis. The first group were therefore complicit, and the second group were incompetent. I suspect that some were both. Either way, they are unfit to fill the role of mayor, in my view.

Politically, I do not believe that the present government would choose radical surgery on Liverpool City Council, but they will watch carefully to see who the runners and riders are in the mayoral handicap race. If they have no faith in the capabilities of whoever is on offer, they might well decide that commissioners would be the lesser of two evils. That would mean three years of indirect rule of the city from Whitehall. Thus, you will appreciate the importance of getting a Labour candidate far removed from the charge of “guilt by association” with the administration of Mayor Anderson.

I know there are many good people out there, in the Labour Party and elsewhere, but there is little opportunity for them to project themselves as a potential candidate in the tightly-controlled environment of Liverpool local politics. Remember that candidates do not have to be councillors – in many cities, they have not been. Yet time is of the essence, given that the government inspector must report back within weeks so that the Secretary of State might decide what to do before local government elections purdah kicks in. Who, if anyone, will step forward?

Decisions, Decisions

As we begin the new year, it is hoped that in every way, it will be an improvement on the last one. The signs are not good. Covid rages and the government reveals staggering indecision in dealing with it. Ironically, covid has moved focus away from the previously dreaded nightmare of Brexit, which is certain to hit areas like the Liverpool City Region disproportionately. Notwithstanding these concerns, and predictably, the long arm of the law is finally reaching into the darker recesses of local government, particularly Liverpool.

A series of reports in “The Times” have opened up a fresh line of enquiry which potentially reaches back to Mayor Anderson. It is a saga concerning mega-union Unite which has strong local connections and traditions. The last two leaders of the union – Woodley and McCluskey – hail respectively from the Wirral and from Liverpool. What their legendary predecessor, Jack Jones (also from Liverpool) would make of the allegations being made about his beloved union can only be imagined. The whole sorry tale revolves around the award of a huge union building contract in Birmingham to Liverpudlian Paul Flanagan, a close friend of Joe Anderson and Len McCluskey.

Moreover, a sub-contract on the project was awarded to a company owned by Anderson’s son, David. He, in turn, had appointed as managing director of his company (Safety Support Consultants) a man fresh out of prison after being sent down for ten years for slashing someone with a Stanley knife. One can only hazard a guess as to what view of Liverpool and the wider city-region results from such connections.

Of course, a great deal depends on matters being considered and resolved far away from the banks of the Mersey. Firstly, the national executive committee of Unite will undoubtedly be scrutinising the Liverpool connection to the Birmingham project which is alleged to have cost their members millions of pounds . An upcoming election of a successor to McCluskey as Unite’s general secretary, is certain to see the issue weaponised against McCluskey’s favoured candidate, another man from the Wirral. Yet this issue will not remain in Birmingham. It goes to the heart of deals done in the Liverpool City Region.

In direct and practical political terms, the considerations of the national Labour Party leadership will have an even greater impact on the future prospects of the city-region. The scandals afflicting Liverpool have a toxic effect on the Labour “brand” across all six boroughs of the city-region, and beyond. The national party will not be unaware of that fact. It seems to me – and probably to them – that the Labour group on the city council is either unwilling or unable to rectify matters. In my view, they ought to have pre-empted the Lib Dem call for consultation on the city’s governance structure, with a straightforward move for a referendum on the future of the mayoralty. The idea that a current councillor might simply pick up where Anderson has left off, is unacceptable. The alleged leading lights on the council have either turned a Nelsonian blind eye to what has been happening, or were so inept as to fail to recognise the consistent malfeasance. Now I see that Labour List is suggesting a potential woman candidate whose last council activity was hallmarked by her breaking every rule and standing order governing Labour councillors!! Whatever the case, they are all unfit for the role. Does the city need a new mayor, never mind want one? It may end up as a decision for Keir Starmer.

Above all else, Mr Max Caller is reviewing the key operations of the city council on behalf of the government. It might well be that he finds the problems so entrenched that the council needs major surgery. After all, it is difficult to see simple solutions to changing the corrupted culture embedded within the higher echelons of the city council. A band aid will not suffice when the rot is so deep. I dread to think what the outcome of Mr Caller’s review might be if he makes the wrong call (no pun intended!).

I am not naive. I recognise that there are major problems in a number of local authorities around the country. That has always been the case and will continue to be so. It is the price that we pay for our imperfect form of local democracy; but there is nowhere as blighted by the scale of malpractice that we witness here in Liverpool. I also recognise that other councils have, like Liverpool, have suffered from incessant government funding cuts. However, I know of nowhere where the council tax payers, investors and local contractors have been ripped off as they have been in Liverpool, due to the complicity of senior public servants.

Deja Vu – Again

I read recently that a Wirral solicitor, Mr David Hayhurst, had been hauled up before a tribunal of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. He had been charged with taking money from clients for extremely speculative building projects without explaining the risks involved. The tribunal was kind – he was only fined £10,000 with £15,000 costs. I say “kind” because of the huge total sums involved in these scam projects. Moreover, he has now set himself up in the heart of Birkenhead as a consultant.

I mention this because it illustrates the context in which so many people appear to operate schemes and scams with little or no regulation until, on the odd occasion, the long arm of the law intervenes. This is despite the colossal amount of money lost to investors, contractors and local authorities. On a par with the lack of effective regulation is the ease with which malefactors can re-invent themselves with yet another sham company via which they can employ the same wholly unacceptable “business” practices.

Attempts to run local authorities as businesses only exacerbate such problems. By and large, councillors across our city-region are not business people. Furthermore, local authorities exist to provide services, not to dabble in the risk-taking that is part of business life. By the same token, business is about turning a profit. It does not take a genius to see the contradictions in the so-called “entrepreneurial” council. A very small example is found in my old constituency among the “Cobra” houses around Bala Street in Anfield. About three years ago, many of them were put up for sale by LCC. A number were kept back and the remainder were sold on condition that they were substantially improved within six months. Owner-occupiers and investors duly complied, only to watch the council-owned properties sink further and further into dereliction. Why, three years on, is there such a double standard between the council and everyone else? I cannot explain it.

I was checking a spreadsheet of LCC-owned properties. There are literally thousands of them, primarily older housing stock requiring upgrading and renewal. It strikes me that that it would be far more sensible for them to put into hands which might improve them, rather than leaving them to further degenerate by the day, especially those which are empty and derelict. After all, the council owned housing company – Liverpool Foundation Homes – appears to be either incapable or unwilling to address this massive problem. Sadly, LCC seems more interested in enabling property speculators’ fancies for blocks of flats rather than rejuvenating family homes.

Mind you, I am increasingly susceptible to the old suggestion that there is something problematic in the city-region’s water supply. How else does one explain the area’s characteristics of chaos, argument, and trouble? These traits seem to follow people from Merseyside around the country. I recall that when Lawrence Kenwright obtained ownership of the local council’s Coal Exchange in Cardiff, he did so with a loan/grant from Cardiff Council facilitated by a council official who had learned his trade in Liverpool! There was a major dingdong in Cardiff as a result. More recently, there was the case of former Knowsley officer, Mike Fagan. He insisted that he had been forced to take early retirement because he had been a whistleblower over a case of nepotism in council employment. When former CEO Sheena Ramsay moved to the West Country, he doggedly pursued her with his grievance, briefing local councillors down there on his charges. This led in turn to a three way stand off, involving council officers, Mr Fagan and the Information Commissioner. The winner? Mr Fagan. Happily truth often does win out; too often dishonesty prevails.

However, the electors of Liverpool were – unlike all the other cities of England – denied a say on how the city should be run. Is it not now the time for the council to organise a referendum before we get into election mode for a new city mayor? We now have a metromayor, whilst for so many people, the city mayor has been a failed experiment. A referendum on their view is long overdue. Prevarication by the council just will not wash.

This leads me to the gross dishonesty which surrounded the establishment of a mayoral system in Liverpool. It is easy to forget that this came about through a series of untruths. At the time, Cameron’s government pushed hard for mayoral systems in England’s major cities. Other than Liverpool, all of those cities had a referendum on the issue; and, with the exception of Bristol, all rejected the offer. Joe Anderson persuaded the council to forego a referendum – “only political anoraks would want a referendum”, he asserted. The principal argument was that by following Anderson’s lead, the city would get an enhanced City Deal. It was also suggested that the city could end up with no City Deal at all without a mayoral settlement. Both of these arguments were false.

In February, 2012 the BBC quoted then Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg: “No City Deal, including Liverpool’s proposal is contingent on having an elected mayor”. Fast forward to the 9/12/20 and an FoI response from the Communities Secretary on the same subject: “The requirement to have a City Mayoral Model was not a pre-requisite for agreeing a City Deal with government”. Digest those quotes for a moment. The role of city mayor was decided on the basis of a false prospectus. There was no extra cash, and the City Deal was coming regardless.