Sup With A Long Spoon

The spin doctors for the Liverpool mayor had a tricky week. Their task was to reconcile what might be considered irreconcilable. I am thinking of the message put out in their master’ voice concerning the mayoral line on the Cammell Laird’s dispute. Prior to this and in Trumpian fashion, the mayor had not been able to help himself in pontificating on the dispute. Never mind the fact that it is a dispute not in Liverpool ; nor perhaps should we worry overmuch that in normal circumstances, one would expect the Wirral leader to lead on this, with the active support of Members of Parliament. Such niceties have never bothered Mayor Anderson in the past.

What struck me was the careful wording used by the spin doctors.  Knowing that Unite and others were well aware of the true situation, they wished to square the circle between the mayor’s ostentatious support for the striking workers and his repeated support for Peel in their many local enterprises. The email sent to Labour Party members blithely commented that Peel “owned the land (where the shipyard is) and are a major shareholder”. It is almost as if Peel are casual bystanders in the matter. In fact, Peel  OWN  Cammell Laird’s through one of the many companies in the Peel group. Profits from the yard end up in the personal trust of John Whittaker, billionaire owner of the web of Peel companies, a man who is more of a land speculator than a shipbuilder.

Mayor Anderson appears to be doing all that he can to assist Peel in realising its Liverpool Waters investment (with a little help from Everton FC). As many will be aware, he has already bent over backwards to aid Peel in and around Prince’s Dock (not originally part of the Liverpool Waters fantasy).  In addition, one of the mayor’s financial misjudgements has been to invest in Peel-owned Liverpool Airport without the kind of scrutiny appropriate to the commitment of public money. This is the danger of dancing with the devil sometimes masquerading as a developer when they are, in fact, simple get-rich- quick merchants.

This was brought home with brutal clarity when “developer” Nigel Russell walked away from court this week when the case against him collapsed. The key witness against him was a senior council officer who was a convicted benefit fraudster. Naturally, he challenged her credibility and the CPS decided that they had no chance of securing a conviction, despite the huge concerns about Mr Russell and his activities in the city. It goes to show what can happen when you sup with the devil, but it also begs the question as to how Liverpool Council employed someone of doubtful probity in a key job. Once again, due diligence is an irrelevant phrase within the LCC.

I note too the repeated prominence of late of two other locally based “developers” – Elliot Lawless and Lawrence Kenwright. Whilst the former seems to be buying up the derelict sites deserted by the North Point Global con artists, the latter has spread his wings as far afield as Cardiff and Belfast whilst maintaining his high profile on Merseyside. Both are close to the mayor, and both appear to have come out of nowhere to success. They are well worth a study. Mr Kenwright was a bankrupt who has essentially become a property speculator. A trip to Companies House will show that his parent company pays its two directors a modest amount (the directors are Mr Kenwright and his wife). Their income as the two shareholders in the company, however, is very substantial – several hundred thousands of pounds as dividends. More than enough to pay off debts to HMRC if they so chose to do so. In the case of their contracting company, they chose not to, and, as a result, that part of their empire was wound up in July last in the High Court.

Mr Lawless is interesting in other ways. He began a few years ago – he is only in his early thirties – and rapidly rose up the developers’ ladder. Perhaps he is most notable for some of the local personalities he chose to both liaise with and to do business with. It is an old cliché that one cannot choose one’s family, but one can certainly choose one’s friends and business associates. Naturally, we must all be glad if derelict development sites are brought back on stream when they have been junked. However, the same cautionary note must be sounded if we are ever to clean out the more pernicious players bedevilling our city-region.

Advertisements

State of Play

Regardless of one’s personal political leanings, there is one incontrovertible fact about our city-region. That is, it is currently dominated from top to bottom by the Labour Party. Therefore, whether one identifies with any particular political party or none at all, there is a need to understand what is happening within local Labour parties if you are to have any real understanding of current political developments within the Liverpool city-region.

This is quite apart from the many questions which you may have about national politics, and where Labour stands on national – and international – issues of the day. It can be argued that our local brand of Labour often stands outside of the Labour mainstream. Such political exceptionalism is a phenomenon which has marked out our conurbation historically. Where else, for example, has returned an Irish nationalist as a Member of Parliament?

Let me begin with Momentum. I raise this because I am often asked if this is a revived Militant Tendency by another name, reappearing zombie-like from its political grave. My repeated answer is that it is not. I am fully aware that former members and supporters of Militant have re-applied for Labour Party membership of local Labour parties. Militant as a political organisation, however, collapsed thirty years ago. It was a small but disciplined and well-organised sect in those days, hell bent on subverting Labour. It failed; and there is no evidence of an equivalent group, either within Momentum or elsewhere, ready to replicate it.

Momentum is, in my view, a much broader movement, seeking to shake the Labour party out of its embedded complacency. Whilst there are , I am sure, within its ranks, those who seek  to use Momentum for their own personal or political purposes, the sheer number of members, their energy, and their diversity of views, make Momentum a unique political development, an entirely different proposition to the malignancy that was Militant. It is, it seems, dedicated to the reinvigoration of Labour, rather than bleed it to death as Militant tried to do. Remember, too, that long before the infection of Militant, a Stalinist Communist Party was unsuccessful in its attempts to undermine the Labour Party.

I have more concerns about literal corruption locally rather than fear ideological corruption, with good reason. In my fifty-four years in the Labour Party, I have witnessed three cycles of corruption within local government. They invariably have involved planning consents and building contracts. Such corruption rots the body politic whenever, and wherever, complacency is the order of the day, with politicians taking themselves and their positions for granted. This is self-evident, with many sound elected representatives, and many activists, throughout the city-region, fuming with frustration at recent local events. Most importantly, there is a widely held view amongst the electorate that all of their local representatives are either corrupt themselves or willing to turn a Nelsonian blind eye to those who are.

This was a major factor in recent local upheavals. It was of little surprise to me to see the steady deselection of sitting councillors and lay officers by local Labour parties. Rightly or wrongly, old hands are viewed as out of touch with the priorities of both rank and file members and their electorates. An internal political tide has turned, scouring out some local parties of the detritus of yesteryear. Only time will tell whether or not these changes will be enough to effect the required change in the local political culture.

I have long believed that there is a need to change our local political culture if we are to see real, sustainable change in local government. I always felt that this was particularly problematic in Liverpool, probably because I knew the city best. However, I know that the problem is far wider than one borough. In a nutshell, it is a culture which looks first and foremost after the interests – political and personal – of those tied into a council and its dependent bodies (residuaries, community interest companies and the like).Thus, it is more than elected members but also officers (another senior LCC officer will be shown to be corrupt in court this Friday) and anyone reliant for income through the local council. The last person in the queue is the local council tax payer – and they know it!

I have argued before for structural change within the LCR. We have gone some way with a metromayor; but do we need a city mayor (especially given the performance of the current incumbent)? Do we need a bloated Police and Crime Commissioner’s office? Manchester has subsumed theirs into their metromayor’s set up. Do we, in fact, need so many councillors with so little to do? Fewer of them with more responsibility could be the order of the day. Above all, we need that cultural change, based on transparency and accountability, with the public interest placed first, foremost and last. Then we might hope to reawaken the support of the wider electorate for those elected to represent them.

Corruption in Councils?

Having taken a break from writing my blog, I felt compelled to quickly resume now so that I might share some information. It concerns a long-standing issue which draws together so many worrying aspects of current local government, and the opportunities available to those in positions of trust, to betray that trust. Although the issue at hand is a Liverpool one, many of the questions raised could be asked within councils across the country.

You may recall that I have previously raised the highly questionable arrangements surrounding parking on three city council sites which service the Anfield and Goodison Park football grounds. Large amounts of income was generated on these sites on match days, but the vague figures garnered in regard to them did not seem to tally in any way with the actual usage of that car parking. Despite the efforts of individual councillors, community groups, and local residents, there was never a meaningful response from the city council leadership. I understand, however, that there was an internal report some years ago, but access to it has always been denied to those seeking to view it.

For some reason, Mayor Anderson has belatedly commissioned another report on two of the sites, authored by a member of his cabinet. He has apparently separated out a review of the third site – the old Anfield Comprehensive site on Priory Road – for himself to conduct. The first report has been completed, and it raises very, very serious questions which demand speedy and unambiguous answers.

At the core of the completed report is the disparity between the declared income for the car parks in question, and what has been computed to be the actual income. Questions are also raised about the declared costs of staffing the car parks, and the monies said to have been distributed to local community groups. Specifically, three senior councillors face trenchant criticism for their role in relation to the sites and the CIC (community interest company) overseeing them. The CIC concerned – run by a former council employee – is also in the frame.

Of course, Liverpool City Council is notorious for its lack of transparency, so we must wait and see if this report is published – unexpurgated, and complete with its recommendations. I suspect it is for the eyes of the Labour group only. The report also throws a light on the sometimes dubious nature of CICs and their stewardship. After all, it is public money which is at the heart of their operation. How effectively are these bodies monitored? How responsibly are they audited? How, at their outset, does a council – any council –ensure due diligence of these CICs and the people who run them?

There still remains the second report on the Priory Road site which is in the hands of Mayor Anderson. Whether he has done anything on this is highly unlikely. There is sometimes method in his madness. For three years or more, this site was run by a private company very closely associated with the mayor. There is, therefore, an immediate conflict of interest for him. During the period in which that company were custodians of the site, there were no receipts to cover its usage. It was a straightforward cash business, and there were no audited accounts. Staff on the site were paid cash in hand (as was the case on the other two car parks) against all council procedures. Once again, the notional income raised – never evidenced in any way to date – bore no relation to the capacity of the site and the parking fees charged.

One must be aware that there has been an extremely partial approach to this disgraceful situation, in an area of the city crying out for any realistic investment it can get. Perhaps the real motive behind the first report is a wish to settle political scores within the Labour group on the council. In addition, it is hard to imagine a readiness of the current regime to come clean about the Priory Road site, now that it is in the hands of Liverpool Football Club.

Nevertheless, this is surely a case crying out for those two bulwarks of local democracy – transparency and accountability. Where they are denied, corruption creeps in.

Parallel Universes

I once thought that the very idea of parallel universes belonged solely within the realm of science fiction fantasy. These days, I am not so certain… I was reminded of this when I saw the Echo headline – “Cheating tactics of university students”. Now, I do not condone cheating, but such prominence given to an issue of rather peripheral importance to most people in the city-region at this time, I decided was undeserved. Where and when was such emphasis given to reporting on the scam artists, career crooks, and sham developers who have bedevilled the LCR in recent years? I cannot recall such a banner headline describing the failure of public officials, councillors and police to protect the many sub-contractors, investors and councils who have been defrauded on a massive scale in the last few years.

Of course, it would be wrong to place the blame on the young journalists tasked with writing up the trivial, or pushing the press releases of the local “great and good”. They are acting under orders, and – in my experience – are often naively ignorant of the subject matter which carries their names. Unprofessional perhaps, but the real culprits in this are the senior editorial staff who seem to inhabit one of those parallel universes to which I have referred.  In their eyes, all developers are ministering angels, and the crooks are actually benevolent, hard-working entrepreneurs, committed to the public good.

One story in the same edition of the Echo caught my eye. It was the inquest on a young Widnes groom-to-be who tragically fell to his death in a Liverpool hotel. The jury said that the death “may have been avoided” had previous concerns about an internal balustrade been addressed, and a thorough risk assessment and action taken. Previously, it was reported, Liverpool council had seen no problems in the hotel. However, following the jury’s report, the family of the deceased are to take civil action against the hotel’s owners, Signature Living. This is the firm of noted self-publicist Lawrence Kenwright and his wife, although they, like Liverpool council, apparently live in another parallel universe as there is no mention of them in this court report.

Meanwhile, dependent on your politics, the same cosmological phenomenon might apply in the Wirral. Amongst the dominant Labour group, there are those who see a black hole opening up before them, as councillors long in positions of power, are removed from their political offices within the Labour Party, or their candidacy at the next election. Others seem to be jumping ship before they too are sucked down a worm hole. In their world, all is doom and gloom. For those displacing them, the outlook could not be brighter as they anticipate a brave, new world in both the Wirral Labour Party and in Wallasey Town Hall.

Yet even in this multiplicity of universes, there is no show without Punch. On cue, step forward the Liverpool Mayor and the new, young Labour candidate for Church ward. Joe Anderson, declares our brave, teenage wannabe, is – politically speaking – a dead man walking. Unusually, hizzoner appeared to be lost for a suitable response. Perhaps in his heart, he recognises that his political days are numbered. However, it could be that that the mayor has gone too close to his own event horizon, edging him into his own unique universe. In this weird place, all of the nonsense he has spoken over the last eight years; all of the promises he has broken; all of the money which has been wasted; all of the political enemies he has made – are totally irrelevant.  At least they are to the mayor.

Still he ploughs his furrow of borrowing many millions of pounds to finance a new stadium for Everton FC, despite a steady stream of leaks from the latter that the football club is keen to get its finance elsewhere (from Moshiri’s chum Usmanov?). Alongside his failure to appreciate that many thousands of electors have expressed their opposition to his attacks on parks and green space, many, many more who are broadly supportive of a new stadium, have no wish to see the council involved in the financing of it. Lost in another dimension, this doppelganger of Liverpool’s mayor is totally divorced from the political reality in this bit of the cosmos, where he faces the oblivion of his own political black hole.

Development Deceptions

Long serving Sefton councillors might recall the huge disappointment around the Housing Market Renewal Initiative of the Blair government. The Merseyside allocation was split three ways between Liverpool, Wirral and Sefton. Each borough, in its own way, discovered that, despite its early promise, it did not meet expectations. In the case of Sefton, plans for new housing became extremely problematic when virtually all of their funding share was spent on the remediation of toxic brown field land. Necessary, of course, but there are lessons in this experience for today in neighbouring Liverpool.

I thought of Sefton’s challenge when I read of the latest gross exaggeration to emanate from the Cunard Building. This related to the mayor’s plans for the long redundant International Garden Festival site, which lies forlorn and forgotten alongside the river bank. Older voters remember when this was the site of Liverpool’s municipal dump. One would drive on to a vast expanse of mud to unload whatever one deemed rubbish at that time. Little wonder that it is today considered highly toxic given goodness knows what was dumped there. Certainly there is a constant build up of methane below ground, as organic matter decomposes. Some of it is still burnt off as you can see from the heads of the exhaust pipes dotted about the site. There is even a small gas-generated power plant at the site’s edge.

One-time owners of the site – developers Langtree – managed to palm it off onto Liverpool’s mayor for six million pounds in 2015. It is claimed that the council spent another six million pounds in 2016 on “site investigations”. Now we are being told that remediation of this very difficult site could cost anywhere between 13.9 million ponds and 22.7 million pounds. That would be a total cost of between 26 million pounds and 35 million pounds before a brick is laid, with all of the attendant risk on the council taxpayer. A gamble, in effect, to feed the mayor’s delusion of himself as a wheeler dealer.

Now, the mayor claims that he knew all about these cost projections back in 2015 when the Langtree bail-out happened. He says that any delay in the site’s development is entirely due to long time lines in sorting out grants. In short, he bought the land on speck in the hope, perhaps, that the land could be used for something, sometime. The real winner was Langtree. Given that no grants for such work as is required are automatic, he has actually taken an enormous gamble with the council’s hard pressed finances. If, as he claims, the council has already received an offer of 20 million pounds for the site in its current condition, it would perhaps be wisest to walk away with what would be a profit of 8 million pounds, to help fund council finances now.

Apart from anything else, costs of major developments tend to go far beyond their early estimates. Besides, the mayor is currently seeking to load another burden of risk onto Liverpool’s council tax payers with his proposal to finance a new stadium for EFC via the Public Works Loan Board. He is also committed to building a new cruise liner terminal, along with the infrastructure investments ancillary to the terminal and the stadium. All of this whilst austerity is still alive and kicking, and debts like that for the empty, unused Parklands secondary school in Speke, still hanging like a millstone around the municipal neck.

Never, in my mind, has a slogan – “Invest to Earn ” – been more inappropriate. Invest in what, and for whose benefit? Generally, it seems that developers and scam artists are the happiest people in town. The tens of thousands who have signed up in opposition to current Liverpool council plans in south Liverpool are not happy; nor, it seems, are many rank-and-file Labour Party members who are keen to dispose of sitting councillors. Little of the mayor’s delusional entrepreneurship has percolated out of the city centre where voters are more concerned with their green spaces, their rubbish collection, and their road repairs.

Perhaps minds on Liverpool City Council will become more focussed as evidence increases that change is on its way, with them or without them. Whether it is an external grab for the mayoralty – keep an eye on erstwhile chum of the mayor, developer Lawrence Kenwright – or an internal coup led by one of his former cabinet members, the mayor ought to recognise that his empty spin, whilst alienating voters, is also exhausting the patience of those whose support he would need to remain in office. The city needs a change, based on transparency, accountability, and a meaningful dialogue with electors, rather than with a few favoured developers.

Whither Local Democracy?

In a recent email, a serving councillor within the Liverpool City Region lamented the way in which Labour Party mechanisms have been changed for the worse over recent years. This is important for the Liverpool City Region (LCR) as a whole, given the current dominance of Labour within the six constituent boroughs. For the councillor in question, patronage and self-interest dominate contemporary local government. With the scrapping of District Labour Parties, accountability has gone out of the window. Selection of candidates is dominated by sitting councillors in a diminution of the collective, which was once the hallmark of internal Labour Party politics. With the advent of Leader and cabinet, and mayoralty, models of local government, councils have become largely self-perpetuating and self-interested, my correspondent argues.

I would not dispute much of this thinking, but I must also point out that the supposed days of democratic accountability, were not as bright as is often suggested. There were often cliques of councillors who ensured that office was kept in the “right” hands, whether for political or pecuniary purposes. The notion of a golden age in local politics is chimerical in my experience – and I have been in the Labour Party for fifty four years!

These thoughts are given currency by reports over the past week that Momentum have taken over various Labour parties in the LCR, including Birkenhead and Riverside. Long-standing councillors are being eased out of party positions  and representative ones, as the impression is given on one side that incumbency – as a councillor, an officer or a Member of Parliament – is some kind of divine right come what may, especially where Labour holds a comfortable pole position.

I confess that I do not hold this view, nor have I ever done. I have always believed that if someone within the Labour Party is doing their job to the satisfaction of party members, their position will remain secure. However, if an individual is believed to be derelict in their duties, it is not only the right, but the duty of members to seek someone who will do the job in accord with what is expected. Obviously, if, for example, there was an organised conspiracy to unseat someone on behalf of an entrist organisation, that would be an entirely different matter as membership of such a group would, by definition, be incompatible with membership of the Labour Party. However, crying “Wolf!” as Frank Field has done, will do nothing to convince anyone of the legitimacy of his curious claim to Labour Party representation when he has so very publicly resigned the Labour parliamentary whip.

Local government in particular is crying out for change – for fresh blood, fresh ideas, and an entirely different approach. I was struck by some recent quotes from Chinese intellectual , Minxin Pei, taken from his book entitled “China’s Crony Capitalism”:

“local governments penetrated by elites unavoidably experience degradation in their capacity for providing public goods”

and –

“corruption networks consisting of officials, businessmen and gangsters, seize control of these jurisdictions and turn them into local mafia states.”

I am well aware that these are references to China, but they might very well be applied to examples of local government here in the United Kingdom, including the LCR. Locally, I fully expect there to be concrete evidence put before the courts by Christmas to support my belief and the assertions of Mr Pei – and it will not be before time. Many of the new Labour members themselves believe that malfeasance is commonplace in some of our boroughs, and ardently wish to clear out the malefactors. They are tired of being denied transparency and accountability, indispensable in any democratic organisation. Given the current situation, is it any wonder that they are ringing the changes now, rather than await action from the powers that be?

Political Posturing

Now that we are approaching the end of the political party conference season with the Tories bickering in Birmingham, we should all be able to look for policies on offer which we can either accept or reject in the months to come. Of course, all sensible debate has been overwhelmed by the shadow of Brexit in both Labour and Conservative parties. Like most people, I have no idea what the eventual outcome on Brexit will be. I do know, however, what I fear.

Already there are increasing concerns within our city-region. There could well be for example, a severe knock-on for specific industries like car manufacturing. More generalised and widespread effects due to diminished access to European markets could include transport chaos and increased unemployment. One thing is certain – there will be very serious consequences for the people of the Liverpool City Region whether there is a deal or not. I find it extraordinary that any nation should take such a gamble with its economic well being, particularly one so economically entwined as we are with the European Union.

Meanwhile, the largest of the LCR’s six boroughs – Liverpool – is yet again plunged into controversy. An independent peer group review by the Local Government Association has condemned the way in which the council conducts its business. Without naming names, it referred specifically to the conduct of council meetings and fraught relationships between council officers and elected members. Amongst the latter, the report concluded that many had no real involvement in either the running of the council or in its decision making.

None of this is surprising to many of us who have repeatedly pointed out that Mayor Anderson in particular conducts himself as if he is in a bar room argument rather than in the Town Hall. You might recall also how early in his mayoralty, he closed down the scrutiny panel in the council, lessening the chances of transparency of his actions as mayor. Thus, it was entirely predictable that former cabinet member, Cllr Munby, should call for an alternative to Anderson as mayoral candidate when the selection is made in 2019. He joins another former cabinet member, Cllr Small, in advocating change. I presume that these voices were not raised out of grievance or narrow self interest, but because they had witnessed first hand the way in which Anderson operates as mayor and find it wanting.

This stirring of the local political pot comes at a time when local comic – the Liverpool Echo – affords a two-page splash on the return of its columnist, Derek Hatton, to the Labour fold. Before the Echo congratulates itself prematurely on its scoop, it should be aware that under Labour Party rules, Hatton’s re-admission is subject to the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee. Their decision on the re-admittance or otherwise of Hatton, will speak volumes on where as a body, the NEC stands. It is not as if he will be taking over the local party if they allow him back in. He will not – his time has been and gone.

Nevertheless, his re-appearance as a Labour member in Liverpool would, I believe, send out a very negative message to many voters across Merseyside, especially those who remember the chaos wrought by him and his erstwhile Militant comrades, people who have a hearty detestation of Hatton. What is clear is that he is a vote loser, most emphatically not a vote winner. Interestingly, the Echo’s paean of praise included extended references to Mayor Anderson. I do recall Hatton as a guest at Anderson’s reception for Ed Milliband when the latter came as Labour leader to Liverpool. As Hatton was quoted “I’ve known Joe for a long, long time, and I’ve got a lot of time for him”. I bet he has!!

It really is a sad piece of self indulgence for the Echo to give such a platform on what it would deem to be political coverage, to a has-been considered by  many to be a wide boy, albeit an ageing one. Perhaps if they gave complete and detailed coverage to the corrupt developers and known criminals besmirching the name of the city (and by extension the LCR), they might begin to reclaim some of the lost respect which has resulted from their highly partial and cavalier approach to council malfeasance.