Elections Looming

With less than two weeks before some of the most telling local elections ever to be held across the city-region, I have had some election material on the candidates sent to me. To be more precise, I have had two Labour leaflets, one in support of both the local council candidate AND the mayoral candidate; and another solely supporting the Labour mayoral candidate for Liverpool.

I have also had a booklet from Liverpool City Council, extolling the virtues of all of the candidates wishing to be Liverpool mayor. Having read many leaflets and manifestos in my long political life, I cannot say that I have read anything which might incline me to alter my pre-existing views on the mayoralty. Nor have I been impressed by the little I have seen on the aspirants for the post of Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC). No one could be worse than the outgoing PCC, presumably more preoccupied with the gendarmerie in France than Merseyside Police. However, I was astonished to see that Labour’s candidate – a Liverpool councillor! – had nothing to say about the corruption that is rife within the city council.

I should not be surprised – little appears to have been learnt since the Caller Report was published. A councillor resigns from cabinet, not over the dreadful state of affairs therein, but ostensibly over some disagreement concerning the reconfiguration of Lime Street. Not a word about the sorry state of what is widely perceived as a criminally inclined council. Another goes because of a foul-mouthed rant online about the dead Prince Phillip. One does not have to be a royalist to recognize the unacceptability of such behavior in any circumstances.

The attempts by councillors to regularize their entries on the register of interests, raise more questions. For example, the inept political editor of the Liverpool “Echo” listed the revised register without pointing out the incongruities in it. For example, the acting mayor had indeed updated her entries, as did her colleagues. However, she does not include her two directorships for the Liverpool Arena and the associated hotel. Given the appalling record of the  “Echo”, I rechecked this. Councillor Simon lists all of her unpaid interests but there is no mention of the two appointments in question. I noted this because I have tried – and failed – to discover which of the directors shared in a pot of over £500,000 declared to Companies House as directors’ emoluments. I simply cannot get an answer from the council.

This is the crux of the problem facing Liverpool voters at the ballot box in May. Has anything really changed? Have lessons been learned or is it business as usual? I find it difficult to believe that there has been any substantial change in the council culture. Nor do I anticipate any such change until there is some shock therapy. That means prosecutions followed by convictions.

Therefore, in this context, what does the Labour Party hope to achieve with its investigation panel; and what part might it play in the reform and rehabilitation of Liverpool City Council? Remember – the panel is restricted to looking at Labour Party issues. As the panel recognizes, council issues and police matters are beyond its remit. Thus, it is hard to envisage what changes will eventuate from the panel’s hearings which might dramatically impact on the culture of the council.

We seem to have been here so many times before. Now I read that Liverpool and Wirral are being dragged more and more into the Unite financial controversy. We all know that the present general secretary of Unite, Len McCluskey, is from Liverpool. We also know that the Flanagan Group and Joe Anderson’s son, David, have been embroiled in the Birmingham building project for Unite, where the costs have risen from an initial £7 million to a colossal £98 million! Now it seems that two Wirral figures were involved in this deal. One is Mike Ryder of Purple Apple Management; the other is McCluskey’s predecessor, Tony Woodley (now, would you believe, in the House of Lords!). They both had parts to play at different stages. Now I read also that Mr Ryder was the link for McCluskey’s preferred successor, Howard Beckett, to join the union’s hierarchy. What a crazy world we are in.

One last snippet before I go into purdah until after the elections. It appears that Knowsley Contractors/King Construction, central to the Tarmacademy controversy which has been of great interest to the police under Operation Aloft, has changed its name to VIAM Ltd. All of its current contracts have been suspended until the police investigations have been completed. Over now to the electors.

A Recap

It is becoming more and more difficult to keep track of the many failings of Liverpool City Council (LCC) over recent years. Quite apart from a now widespread understanding that many millions have been lost to council coffers, the devil is most certainly in the details – details which are now in danger of being overlooked or forgotten. I was reminded of this when I read that Banksy’s “Rat” – which once adorned the side of the White House pub in Duke Street – was up for auction in the Netherlands. How? Its recent history and whereabouts has been clouded in mystery since the White House fell into the hands of developers, the Ascot Group.

I confess to have forgotten about this; but who now remembers the deliberate destruction of a listed building in Wolstenholme Square by developers the Lawless Group? A council spokesman said at the time that it was a “criminal” act but that the council would be taking no action against the developers. We can refer to so-called developments galore, to exemplify the failure of LCC to secure on these projects, Section 106 monies which developers were obligated to pay the council for general environmental improvements. One can only hope that these issues and many others will be pursued under Operation Aloft. Although there are too many to itemise here, each one deserves to be investigated.

Nevertheless, the council ploughs on in its own way, with the same people, by and large. At least, the city solicitor is going, reportedly of her own volition. She will have a substantial pay-off and a secure pension, despite having been responsible for signing off so many of the council’s deals now under investigation. She will not be a loss to the council’s senior officer corps. Incidentally, speaking of pensions, during 2019, I raised twice in my blog concerns which had been raised about the conduct of the Merseyside Pension Fund (MPF), then chaired by Wirral councillor, Paul Doughty. It now appears that the transfer of the ownership of the Cunard Building – now owned by LCC – cost the MPF million of pounds in losses. Perhaps that is yet another deal which requires closer consideration.

Speaking of deals, we know that Merseyside Police were well aware of the conflicts of interests involving those who ran two of the match day car parks via the Beautiful Ideas Company. The internal council report on this, compiled by Councillor Kushner, highlighted the involvement of Councillor O’Byrne in this matter, and the role of her daughter, a former councillor. However, it was extremely sketchy about the biggest cash cow – the Priory Road car park – which was run for some years by the Flanagan Group.

Is it not, to say the least, curious that the same names repeatedly occur in so many of these sorry tales? Much has been made of late of the involvement of Councillor Anderson’s son, David, in the award of controversial contracts to a firm which he owned. Little has been said of the ex-mayor’s daughter, Councillor Joanne Calvert. She, like many of her council colleagues, hastily updated her register of interests when her father was arrested. On this, she was shown to be an “administrator” for a company called Bike2Work Scheme, Ltd. Coincidentally, one of that company’s directors resigned as a director at the same time. His name? Derek Hatton. It is important to note that the company had received a £500,000 grant from LCC courtesy of then Mayor Anderson.

Predictably, none of this will figure in any way in the Labour Party’s inquiry into itself. The Labour Party will concern itself solely with constitutional issues and failings. The logic is that they must not look at or do anything which might in any way undermine or prejudice the police inquiries and potential prosecutions. It is reasonable, therefore, to wonder what effect the Labour Party Inquiry Team can have on the wider problems afflicting a Labour-dominated city like Liverpool.

On an equally sombre note, I read with sincere sadness of the death of veteran GMB Branch 5 leader, Ian Lowes. I was always of the belief that he had seen Militant Tendency for what it was. He remained committed, however, to giving the best possible service to his union members. Sometimes, he got it right, and sometimes he got it wrong, just like the rest of us. I bumped into him on occasion in our local supermarket, and, as an ex-chef, he would volunteer advice on the best meat to buy. Fancying himself as something of a wine buff, he would also recommend a nice (cheap!) red to go with it. Not for Ian the trade union career path: he left that for other contemporaries who, to this day, too often give trade unionism a bad name.

Worms and Woodwork

If nothing else, the Caller report on Liverpool City Council has shaken the worms out of the woodwork of the city.  Settling down to some late evening television, I was dismayed to see that Echo “political editor” (a title I concede hesitantly) Liam Thorp pontificating on the daily headlines on Sky television.  This man, who ignored all of the evidence of the corruption rife in LCC, coincidentally published an interview with academic Stuart Wilks-Heeg.  He is yet another who has had nothing to do or say about Liverpool’s sickness these past ten years, along with another of Thorp’s “expert” academics, Michael Parkinson, remembered for his panegyrics to Joe on behalf of the Heseltine Institute. Talk about the three wise monkeys… The only local academic who has said anything sensible on our travails is Professor Jon Tonge.

Ah, well – they are not alone in belatedly seeing the blindingly obvious.  I note that the city solicitor for these past ten years is to depart.  I am sure that she will be cheered by the Law Society Gazette report, showering support for LCC’s legal beagles.  What humbug to exonerate them from any culpability because of pressure.  They must have seen what was happening, but they still signed off on a catalogue of dodgy deals.  Refusal to sign, or resignation, was surely the proper (dare I say ethical?) course to follow.

The district auditors have not been left behind in issuing a “not me, guv” statement.  Their spokesman, Mr Andrew Smith, claimed that there was no flagging up of issues prior to the arrival of chief executive, Tony Reeves.  His actual reported words were “no red flags to us of these issues until … the arrests”.  This is absolutely untrue.  I went to meet with Grant Thornton at their waterfront offices, and highlighted what was happening in the city council.  This was as LCC sold Millennium House about seven years ago!

Meanwhile, within the council’s political arm, I was intrigued to read that Cllr Leon Tootle – chair of the audit and governance committee – was leaving.  Apparently, he did so with a heavy heart, but worn down by the abuse he has suffered.  Is this the same Cllr Tootle who abused me for taking the council to task over the hugely wasteful – and empty – Parklands School in Speke?  Good riddance, many will say.

Still, as Cllr Simon – acting mayor – still insists that she saw nothing untoward in her years alongside Mayor Anderson as his deputy, another councillor has shown his true colours.  Cllr Kennedy is councillor for Kirkdale, and has been living in Spain for over a year.  His term of office does not end until May 2022, and he fully intends to stay in his new home until then.  He continues to draw his council allowances, and will do so until his term is up.  What does that say to the people in his ward?  It is bad enough that there is a war being waged between his fellow councillor, Joe Hanson, and residents.  It does not augur well for future Labour prospects thereabouts.

The ex-wife of Cllr Kennedy is the infamously low profile Merseyside Police and Crime Commissioner.  Like her ex-consort, she too has an overseas home.  Many believe that she spends far more time in France than on Merseyside.  She was elected under the Labour banner, although she left Labour in accord with the trumped up charges of anti-Semitism in the local party.  Nevertheless, her poor performance will reflect badly on Labour as she is still associated with Labour in the minds of the voters.

Finally, it has been announced that the job creation project for ex-councillor Frank Hont, known as Liverpool Foundation Homes, is to be wound up, with losses of over £700,000.  I am sure that there is more to come.  Meanwhile, the national Labour Party has appointed Deeside MP, David Hanson, and former Leeds City Council Leader, Dame Judith Blake, to carry out a root and branch reform of Liverpool Labour.  Where will they begin?  Do they understand what they are letting themselves in for?

Over three years ago, Lancashire Police handed their conclusions resulting from their long-running and expensive Operation Sheridan to the Crown Prosecution Service.  This investigation, although Lancashire based, leads into the very heart of Liverpool City Council.  To date, the CPS has launched no prosecutions.  The moral of this legal saga is to wait and see what, if any, prosecutions eventuate from the murky chaos of the city council.  Until there are prosecutions and convictions, nothing much will change.