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.