A Radical Change

I do not know if a sneaking admiration is due to either the mayor of Liverpool, or to his spin doctors. Either way, it is quite remarkable how positive a message is promoted from the Cunard Building regardless of a generally negative series of events and news. Take these past few weeks, normally a quiet time in politics.

The much-vaunted bid to host the Commonwealth Games fell flat on its face, but, of course, the show must go on and the mayor was suitably upbeat. He announced that the promised swimming pool on the river might still go ahead.  No firm commitment, just a vague suggestion of what might happen. That is the key for spin, of course – a non-stop stream of possibilities, very few of which ever come to fruition. Most of these schemes disappear into thin air.

This record of failed promises has become a major headache for the city administration. The story is one of repeated failure and missed opportunities. This dire reality is underscored by the failure to attract sufficient investment necessary to deliver the expanding local economy promised to the city – and, by extension, to the wider city-region. Prosperity has not been enhanced by the increased scepticism of investors towards the city. They witness officers being arrested and charged, whilst the administration’s competence is repeatedly questioned as allegations of corruption increase.

So the latest batch of “developers” to be arraigned before the courts was of no surprise to astute observers (and there are many!). The people concerned, their associates, accommodation addresses, and records of malfeasance, are well known to the police and other authorities. There is a widespread belief that the city-council and its officers have, at the very least, chosen to close their eyes to these people and their nefarious activities.

It is not as if there has simply been a failure to regulate who is operating in Liverpool and on what basis – I can think of half a dozen torching of development sites from which “developers” were to make huge gains. It is also the way in which core services are being managed. Thus, we now find ourselves nationally in the bottom failing five of 151 local education authorities for the quality of secondary education. The dissatisfaction, and even anger, amongst a large portion of the electorate is palpable. It will ultimately express itself against local Labour.

It is why I believe that there ought to be radical change at Liverpool City Council. The mayor should prepare to step aside and say so. Councillors ought to be urgently looking for ways to exercise their responsibilities to overhaul an outdated and self-serving organisation which is more preoccupied with its own interests rather than those of the city and its citizens. Perhaps one or more should have the courage to provide an alternative vision for the council and the city. I note the current mayor has said he favours a second referendum on Brexit. Many of us would like a first referendum on an elected city mayor.

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A Tale of Two Cities

It has not been a good week for Liverpool City Council. We must remember that a bad week for Liverpool city has a negative effect on each of the boroughs within the city-region. Outside of Merseyside, all of the boroughs are lumped together under the “Liverpool” brand, for better or for worse. Naturally, that branding can reflect positively on all of the boroughs, as Manchester appears to do on its adjacent boroughs. Liverpool too often fails to meet the same standard.

The week began with a leading announcement from the mayor of 1500 new possible jobs (my emphasis – how often have promised jobs failed to materialise?). These are supposed to be sited on a prime waterfront location. Once again, the major beneficiary seems to be a member of the magic circle of businessmen known as the Local Enterprise Partnership. On this occasion it is the LEP’s chairman, Asif Hamid. His company runs call centres and he wants to put one, with the mayor’s support, on the prestigious King’s Dock. How many proposals have we already had trumpeted for this location?

Now, I am all in favour of jobs for the city-region, but these are minimum wage, low skill positions. We have been told consistently that the future lies with high skill, high wage opportunities, based on a highly educated and highly trained workforce. In Manchester, they are actively pursuing such a regional economy. For example, they are developing such jobs on the back of their reputation for applications of their wonder material graphene; and this is backed up by real investment. Meanwhile, we are offering our youngsters call centres.

Nor is the name of the city enhanced by yet another revelation in “Private Eye”. A small business in the Baltic Triangle was negotiating a new lease with the council for its premises – fifteen existing jobs were at stake. Whilst the business was assured by the council of its secure tenure, the council treacherously sold the freehold to the property. They sold it to the con men who “ran” scam companies PHD1 and North Point Global (think New Chinatown!) These fly-by-nights were “developing” yet more luxury flats on the site. The business owner quite rightly kicked up a fuss with the council. Next thing, his premises, and those of another business on the site, were firebombed by arsonists. The flats project cruised ahead.

Controversy continues. Take the non-working but highly paid council chief executive, Ged Fitzgerald. Next Monday, the city council’s Appointments and Disciplinary Panel will meet to discuss Fitzgerald’s future. Not before time, you might say; but let us see what eventuates. The published agenda lists two items before any reports: who is to chair the meeting, and whether it will be open to press and public.

Given the subject matter under discussion, I fully expect the press and public to be excluded. However, the chairmanship is interesting. Normally, the mayor is the official chair of this meeting. However, he is hardly impartial when it comes to Fitzgerald. They have been thick as thieves for years, and the mayor has been his staunchest supporter since he was charged by the police. Still, impartiality has never been the mayor’s strongest suit. I see no reason why the mayor would not once again force through his view on the backs of the relatively junior councillors on the Panel. Such is the Liverpool of today, to the detriment of us all.

A Rotten Hulk

The world of politics is too often crippled by deception. Although it is a current trend to speak of  “fake news”, as if it was a recent innovation, it is not. Public affairs have always been bedevilled by spin, evasion, and downright lies. The unscrupulous have always endeavoured to mislead their colleagues and the wider public, whether for political or financial gain.

This is probably more the case at a local level than it is at a national level. There are effective mechanisms within parliament, for example, specifically designed to root out wrongdoing. The Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office have, between them, uncovered many a scandal. Likewise, the constant scrutiny of national media is devoted to catching out any impropriety by those entrusted with maintaining the highest standards in parliament and in government. Who will forget the media’s role in exposing the MPs’ expenses scandal?

Unfortunately, local government is not monitored so effectively or so thoroughly. We have seen how, in Liverpool, the intended scrutiny of an elected mayor was quickly scrapped. As for a vigilant local media, that role was abandoned by them years ago. For whatever reason, the award-winning scrutiny of the 1980s has been consigned to the dustbin of history.

There is yet another telling feature in standards of local governance – the disappearance in many areas of a meaningful political opposition. Although I have been a Labour Party member for over 50 years, I have never been one of those zealots who wished for a total Labour hegemony. Where is the democracy in that? Without a vibrant and assiduous opposition, any elected authority is prey to corruption; and Labour corruption is no more acceptable than that in any other party. Do you recall the old adage that while “power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely”?

For these reasons, amongst others, we should always be wary of the rumour mill. Far too often, gossip becomes the received wisdom about both politics and politicians. Poor judgements by the latter are sometimes transmuted into corrupt practice. It is essential that any such charges levelled at elected representatives must be rooted in fact rather than fancy. If I had a pound for every unsubstantiated allegation I had heard concerning local politicians, I would be a very rich man indeed.

That does not mean that every allegation ought to be discounted. Quite the reverse, as there is so often a truth behind them. What is necessary is some concrete evidence rather than a simple leap of the imagination concerning someone you might not like or trust.

Here on Merseyside, if we look at what we know, it is clear that the police have seen fit to look at senior council officers concerning at least three councils. Back in the 1960s, when the Poulsen scandal was at its height in local government, it was established as a principle that, if an officer was corrupt, there would need to be a corrupt councillor or councillors to partner that officer in some way. That remains true today.

 In conclusion, it is not just the laws on slander and libel which demand that we back up allegations with hard evidence. After all, honest and effective local government is at stake. It is also why I harp on so much about accountability and transparency. Without them, local government is simply a rotten hulk, doomed to collapse.

Tough Challenge

A recent newspaper report related another setback to attempts to upskill people on Merseyside. Any barrier to improving job chances for our people is to be deplored, and must be removed at the earliest opportunity. What struck me, however, was how this problem arose, according to the report, and the parties involved.

A dispute between the “skills provider“ and the contract commissioners centred – as usual – on who paid what. Yet the reality was that the £5.5 million contract was ultimately down to public funding. Learndirect were the providers. Contracting them was the wholly-unelected Liverpool City Region Local Enterprise Partnership, spending money from the European Social Fund, together with some funds from central government.

A later newspaper report said that central government had, in fact, cancelled all funding to Learndirect throughout the country. It had been revealed that this so-called training company spent 84% of its income (£631 million from government since 2011) on payments to managers and financiers! I immediately thought of the task facing our elected metromayor.

Steve Rotheram has a background in skills training; it is one of his official priorities. However, he can do little about training provision when the dedicated funding is disbursed by an unelected quango, and where the training provider selected by them is actually exploiting the unemployed. He must find himself in an impossible situation.

This unfair demand on the metromayor is paralleled in another area said to be within his responsibilities – that is, transport. As he faces the long-running dispute between Merseyrail and the RMT union, he knows that the Combined Authority, when it was led by Joe Anderson, had ordered new, one-man trains, long before a metromayor was elected. That certainly left the incoming metromayor between a rock and a hard place in trying to help to resolve the dispute.

Steve may carry overall responsibility for transport, but this – like the training agenda – is a hard row to hoe. Just consider the public reaction to tolls on the new Mersey Gateway bridge. Not only will that long-awaited crossing be tolled, but the existing Widnes-Runcorn bridge is also to be tolled. This is after fifty seven years without a toll regime. We have tried for years to secure an end to the charges on the two existing Mersey tunnels. Other parts of the country seem to get a better deal on tunnels and bridges – just look at Wales – but I fear the metromayor’s hands are as tied on transport as they appear to be on training.

In my view, the government has failed to give our metromayor what he needs. My fear, given the expectations that so many have, is that metromayors become whipping boys for national government’s areas of failure in transport and training. Unless our metromayor is assured of the funding, the authority and the autonomy to address these matters, he could be on a hiding to nothing. He needs to be able to act decisively if he is to succeed, but he cannot unless the right tools are put at his disposal.

Mind Games

I awoke today to a radio discussion on Liverpool’s bid to host the Commonwealth Games. The central point was that a successful bid might be based on the use of the London Olympic stadium, whether the successful city is Liverpool or Birmingham. Ed Warner – head of UK Athletics – also mentioned a possible subsidy from government of up to £500 million. I was left more perplexed than ever. After all, there are many questions yet to be answered.

Firstly, as far as we have been told to date, the grand plan is to use Everton’s new stadium as the central venue for athletics. The problem with this, is that a new stadium is far from confirmed. I would like to hear Everton’s unequivocal commitment to the Bramley Moore project rather than the musings of the mayor. Then I would want to know first of all that there has been a change to the planning permission given to Peel – owners of Bramley Moore.

Such a radical proposed change of use might mean the whole project being called in for ministerial revue. Remember that the original planning consent had no mention of a stadium. What, for example, would be the Section 106 conditions applied to such a major project? What of the affected local businesses – to where would they be relocated, and at what cost? Have they been consulted? This is before the bizarre financing of the project is brought under proper scrutiny.

Assuming that all of this can be satisfactorily covered, we would need to look at the proposed games themselves. The mayor has spoken of “the legacy” of those Games if held in Liverpool. Before every Olympics and Commonwealth Games, proponents talk of  “the legacy”; but far too often, the only legacy after the games in question has been debt and disappointment. There may be advantages for hotels and travel specialists, but what of the people of the city?

A brief look at the little that has been said to date is puzzling. Cycling would be at the Manchester Velodrome – little legacy there. There would be a temporary athletics track at Bramley Moore (unless the London option came into play) – again, no lasting benefit to local athletes. The third major venue would be a temporary swimming pool at the docks.

According to the mayor, next year the city goes into financial meltdown after, by then, eight years of austerity. There is no sign of relief from central government, so I wonder from where the necessary finance will come. The suggestion of massive funding for a Commonwealth Games suggested in the radio debate appears to be wishful thinking. That leaves private sector funding as the only option. That in turn tends to come where a profit can be made; but it appears highly unlikely given current uncertainty and the increasing economic strains of Brexit.

My fear is that this could turn out to be another pointless promise consistent with the “bread and circus” style of running Liverpool. Personally, I am not averse to the Commonwealth Games experience – I saw first-hand what can be achieved during the 1982 Brisbane Games. However, the lesson of those games was the close co-operation and support of all levels of government in more propitious economic times, together with first class, purpose –built facilities which are still open to all of the people of Brisbane today.

Reputational Risk

Only in recent years has there been the rise in the public’s mind of a rivalry between the cities of Liverpool and Manchester (football excepted!). It was never so – they were traditionally complementary cities, Liverpool as a commercial hub and Manchester as a manufacturing one.Those days, of course, have well and truly gone.

Yet there is a glimmer of the old spirit of mutually advantageous co-operation (remember, it was Manchester businessmen who set up the old Mersey Docks and Harbour Board) with the election of Steve Rotheram and Andy Burnham as metromayors. Both have expressed a commitment to joint working between the two great city regions, to the benefit of all. However, one must ask how realistic that is. The varying fortunes of the two cities at the heart of these conurbations may mean very different outcomes for each of the wider city-regions.

Manchester has been far more successful in recent years than Liverpool, and its neighbouring boroughs have benefitted. When Mrs Thatcher abolished the old metropolitan counties, Manchester led its associated councils constructively, coalescing around their joint ownership of their very successful airport. The extent of their ongoing success was emphasised by the cast-iron investment of £1 billion recently by Chinese investors.

Despite the fact that Liverpool is home to the oldest Chinese community in Europe, and that we are twinned with super-rich Shanghai, our name is being besmirched with investors in China and elsewhere  by the scams perpetrated in the Liverpool development bubble. Worse still, these scams are considered by Asian investors to be endorsed by the city council. Such a view endangers investment across the whole of the city-region.

Put yourself in the position of a potential investor. Their first concern is the security of their investment, regardless of the returns promised. In a competitive investment environment, the investor would, in their own form of due diligence (ironically, not a strength of Liverpool City Council), make comparisons with similar opportunities in similar cities. What do they see, for example, in Manchester? They see a record of success, based on stability, continuity, and competence in local government. When they look at Liverpool, they may be excused for taking fright.

We have a mayor who has in succession, despite being spectacularly unqualified, taken on responsibility for finance, regeneration and the duties of chief executive. Meanwhile, we have a (paid) chief executive on long term leave having been arrested on charges of conspiracy and intimidation. We have a cravenly supine council hiding their heads in the sand whilst self-styled developers of very doubtful character run riot. A city that is at odds with UNESCO over its World Heritage Site status whilst it lacks the planning professionals capable of dealing with high-end planning matters.

A local businessman with whom I spoke, was very pessimistic. A man with an extensive and successful investment track record, he told me that he had made no significant investment in Liverpool for seventeen years. When I asked why, he said “I do not want to sit in the same room as the people who you have to deal with in the council”. If that is a local view, what must outside interests think when they look at the Chinatown debacle, or the Paramount “development”?

Bear in mind that this is not just a Liverpool issue. As the core city, Liverpool reflects on each borough in the city-region. We all want to see inward investment and development across all six boroughs; but that is jeopardised if the city-region, viewed through the prism of Liverpool, is seen as either a poor risk, or – worse still – as fertile ground for crooks.

Lessons to be Learned

It has been both instructive and alarming to watch events unfold in Washington in recent days; but, oddly, it has also been heartening. There are lessons to be learnt, and it appears as if Americans might at last be realising the bitter truth about their parody of a president. It is heartening to see the erosion of the “credibility” of the massive ego at the heart of the current administration as even his ultra right-wing  support begins to wilt. The alarm comes with the danger to us all with the breakdown in American government.

Whether we like it or not, America remains the only true super-power in both military and economic terms. As such, it has as many enemies as it has friends. Crude and insensitive behaviour on the international stage is not peculiar to Trump, but he and his cronies have taken it to new heights (or depths!). As the saying goes, if America sneezes, we all catch a cold. Thus, if it seeks military solutions to international problems, we are all potentially placed in the line of fire.

Remember, America prides itself on its constitutional arrangements whereby the three arms of state power are separated – the executive (i.e. the President); Congress; and the courts. Yet they now have a president with no regard for constitutional niceties, and who is trying to dominate his country (and elsewhere) through his own monstrous prejudices. It is disturbing to observe as a technically independent Congress fails in its duty to restrain him.

One can argue that America is currently a one-party state. Theoretically, the Republican Party controls the presidency, the senate and the House of Representatives. Through the latter, they also control appointments to the Supreme Court – hugely important in American public life. Nevertheless, because of one man’s ego, and the political cowardice of the Republican Party, the current administration is being viewed as the worst ever in United States history and out of control. What can WE learn from this?

Firstly, that one party rule is disastrous. It inevitably reduces accountability and transparency. Internal factions and feuding become the order of the day as political corruption takes a deadly grip. Personal advancement becomes the only measure of political success. Leadership grows ever more detached from reality, buoyed by a belief that their mandate takes them over and above the bounds of conventional political behaviour.

Thereafter, the leadership in such a dominant party is in danger of political paranoia, looking for plots and conspiracies within party ranks. As pressures increase, so does the influence of “friends” and advisers, both official and unofficial. Dependant on the leadership for their own fortunes, the temptation for the latter is to say what they believe the leadership wants to hear, rather than “speaking the truth unto power”. Of course, if the leadership weakens or is inept, real power drifts to these advisers and to paid officials.

Unfortunately, intellectually limited leaders tend to believe that, like Trump, they have much more to offer than is actually the case. Devoid of a meaningful opposition and sycophantically supported within the ranks of the governing party, they quickly sow the seeds of their own demise, along with that of their party. It is merely a matter of time before they are held to account. It is why it is in the political interests of ALL parties to insist on the twin pillars of real democracy – true and full accountability and transparency.