Big Spenders

Whilst Wirral Council considers changing its form of governance, I cannot help but notice that there is a growing view against the adoption of the current model as used in Liverpool. We ought not to be surprised at this – it has hardly been an outstanding success. Within Liverpool City Council itself, there have also been voices raised against the city’s current arrangements. The Liberal Democrat concerns might be put down to politics, pure and simple; and those of Cllr O’Byrne explained in terms of her personal political ambitions. However, the views of Labour parties across the city cannot so easily be dismissed. They reflect real grass roots concern at the lack of transparency and accountability.

Unsurprisingly, the present Liverpool mayoral model has its defenders. Discredited political has-been and now regular Echo columnist, Derek Hatton, is one. The city, he opined, “didn’t need….tinkering around the edges of the governance system – that’s just like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic”. I do not think he meant that the city was doomed to disaster, but a more appropriate application of his metaphor would be in relation to the mayoral proposal for another £50 million development fund, effectively another of his “Invest to Earn” wheezes.  This money would be borrowed to invest in commercial property, not in Liverpool, but across the country!!!

This madcap scheme arises just as the chaos in the retail property sector is exposed by the troubles of Phillip Green and his Arcadia group of companies. This has led to some of his commercial landlords slashing rents while others are being more hard-nosed, a significant pointer to the state of health of the commercial property sector across the country. This downward spiral is having a direct effect on Liverpool – and Merseyside generally – through our old friends Peel. The Sunday Times reports this week on the difficulties facing John Whittaker, the billionaire owner of Peel, and erstwhile friend of Mayor Anderson. Bear in mind that the sole purpose of Peel companies and investments is to make money for Mr Whittaker.

One of Peel’s many companies is property giant Intu Properties, the share price of which has toppled by over two thirds from what it was. In a style which I am sure Anderson will have noted, Whittaker borrowed heavily against his stake in Intu; but this borrowing has forced Whittaker to twice restructure his debts. In turn, this has necessitated the sale by Peel of some of its interests. Alongside another investor under pressure – Deutsche Bank – Whittaker is trying to sell off part of his share in Peel Ports. At the same time, he is also set to reduce his stake in loss-making Liverpool Airport, from 80% to 30%. I wonder if Mayor Anderson learns anything from these signs of a downward trend, especially as he has committed the city in so much support of Peel.

Take a different perspective. It is a matter of record that the mayor has taken full advantage of the powers afforded to him, to play the part of entrepreneur. How many times has he parroted the phrase “Invest to Earn”? Yet his record in the eyes of many has been abysmal; not, perhaps, for favoured sections of business, but for the health of the city’s finances. Whether one considers the Cunard Building, Finch Farm, or the airport itself, there is repeated confirmation of his lack of business acumen.

A recent business survey by top international accountancy firm, Ernst Young (EY), has shown Liverpool’s recent record in attracting overseas investment in stark relief to that of Manchester, a city without an elected mayor. In 2018, Manchester attracted 37 Foreign Investment Projects, 53% of all those in the north-west region. Liverpool, on the other hand, managed to attract just 8. Even that was down from the 2017 figure of 9. Despite all of the fanfare at the time, I see no evidence that the much publicised mayoral trips to Shanghai (China), Birmingham (Alabama) and Surabaya (Indonesia) delivering anything other than publicity for the mayor. As Bob Ward, regional chief for EY commented on his report, these unbalanced figures are “a cause for some concern”. That is putting it mildly.

What can be concluded is that the mayoral model has not been the economic success which it has repeatedly been claimed to be. Too often, poor decision making has meant the use of the city’s money in the interests of a few major players rather than the people of the city. This situation might be reversed over time with a return to a more transparent and accountable governance model, one which involves the whole council rather than one individual aided by a handful of acolytes.

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Spinning Top

I could not believe it. I had caught a quick glimpse in a newsagent of an Echo banner headline. “Bordering on CRIMINAL”, it screamed, alongside a picture of Joe Anderson in his Bob the Builder outfit. What can it be, I wondered? Is it suggesting that the mayor has been apprehended up to no good? Have I been hard on the Echo, and its failure to date to do some genuine investigative journalism instead of plagiarising the work of others? For once, I willingly forked out 85p to feast on a possible Echo exclusive.

Not for the first time, I was wrong and disappointed. It was effectively a rehash of the ongoing scandal that is the new Royal Hospital building. As I recall, it was the late Sam Semoff who had initiated the campaign against the outsourcing under PFI of this project to Carillion. I do not recall any comment from Joe Anderson at the time, certainly nothing to compare with this week’s declaration of the blindingly obvious that “it is bordering on the criminal and that is why we need a full public inquiry”.

Strangely, there are a whole series of new build scandals which directly involve Liverpool City Council – and that special breed so close to Joe’s heart, so-called developers. Yet I still await some kind of mayoral commitment to have a “full public inquiry” into that series of failed projects which have defrauded investors and contractors, and besmirched the good name of the city. The mayor also claimed that “Government took away the rights of local authorities to have building control inspections of buildings”. If that is so, how come that the city council building control inspected the new Alder Hey hospital as it was built?

Possibly his really outrageous comment was that “if you give the private sector free rein within the public sector, then profit comes before quality, and that is exactly what we have ended up with”. What a cheek! In my long experience, I have never known a city leader so willing to make any sort of accommodation with (or “give free rein to”) the private sector, even at the expense of the city’s reserves, its green spaces, and – potentially – its World Heritage status, for the sake of profit to the likes of Redrow and Peel.

Meanwhile, deep inside the pages of the Echo (which these days seems to consist primarily of adverts and quiz games), there was a business item giving a free bit of PR for the council’s Foundations company. You may recall that this company was set up to provide social housing for which there is a desperate need. Established with much fanfare on the 7th March, 2018, it appears to have accomplished nothing to date. However, it had raised enough concern at Companies House for the Registrar to formally threaten to strike the company off the companies register!  That was on May 28th just gone. Foundations were obviously shaken by this, and appear to have taken the necessary action to persuade the registrar to row back, although reading the Echo, you would not know about this.

Here we are, fifteen months after this quango’s incorporation, and it is finally proposing to actually do something. Fourteen homes are planned. Fourteen! Once again, it is a case of hyperbolic promises for tomorrow, but little action to date. A statement was put out (and slavishly promoted by the Echo) in the name of the company’s chief executive, Mark Kitts. His day job is deputy chief of regeneration in the council, taking over the Foundations role from his council boss, the vastly unpopular Nick Cavanagh. The real mystery is what has happened to the Foundations chairman, Joe’s chum, ex-councillor Frank Hont. Was he sold a pup with this non-job, or is there some other explanation for his invisibility?

Lastly, it is gratifying to see that the Echo jobsworths were dropped from contention in “Private Eye’s” Paul Foot Awards. This followed a barrage of objections from angry complainants, upset that the Echo could wangle their way onto the Awards long list in the first place. There is some justice in the world, after all.

Trolling

Well, oh, well.  As my old mother used to say, as she gave me a good old scolding: “The truth hurts”. And it did, as she was invariably spot on the money with her comments. Her admonition came to mind when tweets by Liverpool Echo staff were brought to my attention. Simply put, those tweets consisted of abuse and threats (I believe that this is called trolling) to those who had questioned press award nominations of Echo staff which claimed that they had pioneered the exposure of the development scams which plagued (and continue to plague) the city of Liverpool.

Such press awards tend to be a ritualised ego massage by the press of its own. Like many such awards in so many walks of life, they bear little relevance to reality. One “Scoop of the Year” listing proposes an award for Echo staff for their investigation “into Liverpool’s stalled developments” – a total joke. Those of us who have been monitoring these scandals for years know that it has been next to impossible to get the Echo and its “reporters” to publicise what has been going on. On the contrary, despite being repeatedly briefed, the local comic has continually promoted schemes run by the scam artists and gangsters who have given the city such a dirty name with so many investors.

The next round of “awards” will be the Echo Regional Business Awards. The judging panel will be chaired by Alistair Houghton of the Echo, one of those who has consistently failed to see the wood for the trees. A potential recipient of one of these worthless accolades is MSB solicitors. Yet MSB were involved in the sales of the failed Metalworks project, one of the dodgy “developments” currently under scrutiny. How does that qualify them for anything other than a loud raspberry ? Even to shortlist them is akin to asking Phillip Green for advice on good pension practice!

Meanwhile, we now discover that, eighteen months after a final decision on a new location for Merseyside Police was taken, the sum total of progress is zero. The Police and Crime Commissioner says that this has already added £500,000 to the cost (I would double that), and puts it down to the failure of Liverpool City Council to deliver the site to the Merseyside Police. In turn, Liverpool City Council puts the problem onto the shoulders of an awkward leaseholder who has refused to move to date. It would be interesting to know which leaseholder this is, and their reasons for delaying. Is it, I wonder, one of the protégés of new councillor, George Knibb, who have dominated the site hitherto?

Speaking of Merseyside Police, I notice that they have come in for some stick recently from Cllr Ann O’Byrne, a woman whose ambition is not matched by her talent. She is still in the frame over her involvement in the Chinatown debacle, and recently failed in her attempt to move the Liverpool Council Labour Group against the post of elected mayor. She also lost her position as deputy leader of the group for her pains. You may also recall how she was forced to resign her lucrative position as Deputy Police and Crime Commissioner when it transpired that she had done a runner after hitting another car with her own.

She has now accused the police of assault as she was forcibly removed from a demonstration against the presence in Bootle of neo-Fascist, Tommy Robinson.  I have no problem with legal demos against such malign influences; but presumably something triggered the police into carrying Cllr O’Byrne off the highway, a formidable feat in itself. The Chief Constable says that he has received messages of praise from various councillors for the exemplary conduct of his officers on the day. It will be interesting to see if Cllr O’Byrne formally complains about the alleged assault; and – if so – what success she has.

A Sorry State

Is it any wonder that crooks – particularly those of the white collar type – believe that they can act with impunity? Two very different stories have emerged this week which put into sharp perspective  the utter failure to do their duty of those whom we expect to act as public guardians. They cannot plead ignorance of the facts – if they do, it would certainly rank as culpable ignorance.

Firstly, excellent reporting by Matt O’Donoghue of Granada Television, dug out the details of the Fox Street Village debacle, one of many failed – or failing – Liverpool development projects. Matt pointed out that the building itself was a death trap with people still living in it (shades of the Paramount building). The developers had simply ignored the planning conditions set on the project. Moreover, the same developers had unilaterally decided not to provide the promised car parking. Instead, a fraction of the planned capacity was put on land designated as green space in the development. They had also failed to pay Liverpool Council £1 million in Section 106 fees – money due to a city council strapped for cash.  Another dismal tale of council ineptitude on Mayor Anderson’s watch.  All credit must go, however, to Granada who have exposed this scandal to a wider audience, just as they did with Chinatown.

In contrast, I refer you to the current edition of “Private Eye”. Now, I have long been a supporter of this publication’s efforts to shine a light on the hypocrisy and corruption which bedevil our society. Imagine, therefore, my shock upon reading the long list for the Paul Foot Award for 2019, an award dedicated to the recognition of those in the fourth estate who have pursued wrongdoing  wherever it has raised its pernicious head. Bang in the middle sits a nomination for the Liverpool Echo!! It reads that the Echo “persistently tackled the multiple failures of developments in Liverpool’s city centre”. To coin a phrase, I was gobsmacked. Was it an “Eye” mickey take, I wondered?  Tragically, not. This Echo is the local paper which has actively promoted the very developments which have ripped off so many, and which have sullied the good name of the city of Liverpool. These are the very people who have ignored the countless pleas of defrauded investors , refusing to open their eyes and their minds to the corruption all around them. It is an absolute travesty to even include the Echo in the long list. It merely serves to confirm my view that the fourth estate is, with one or two noble exceptions, at its all time lowest ebb.

Meanwhile, other councils in the city-region appear to be stumbling along since the local elections in the same old lack lustre way. A keen, young, trainee journalist , ran a story on the attempts of developers St. Modwen to off-load their commitments to Kirkby town centre back onto Knowsley Council. This led to him receiving a lengthy email from the council Leader, admonishing him for writing a fallacious article. Hey presto, within two weeks , the council announces that it is taking back the St Modwen leases, putting its own spin on the situation. Undoubtedly, the initial reaction of the Leader was with one eye on the local elections; but what does that say for transparency and trust?

Similarly, one of the intrepid band trying to preserve the green space at the Oglet foreshore on the Halton-Liverpool border, has been trying without success, to discover exactly what are Halton’s plans for the area. What is it that Halton Council – and Liverpool Council, together with the airport – is trying to hide about the green space involved, land much coveted by Peel? Again I ask: what price transparency? Small although it might appear in the wider scheme of things, it is a timely reminder of the salience of green space as a political issue across the whole city-region.

Generally, green space is being sacrificed for housing, whilst brownfield sites are often ignored. I understand the extra costs often associated with brownfield sites but there are other issues involved. For example, the emphasis is on houses for sale whilst social housing remains a secondary priority. As developers want the best return, they will focus on the most desirable areas in which to build. That means “desirable” in terms of profits. Other factors fall way behind in their scale of things. Do you think that the developers clustering around the potential of the Waterloo Dock, for example, give a care about Liverpool’s World Heritage status? Do those desperate to build on the green belt give a toss about the associated environmental degradation? They want profits, pure and simple. Meanwhile, the award-nominated Echo has little to say on these people, other than praise for the money grubbers. What a sorry state of affairs!

Job for Joe

Hot on the heels of the announcement that Liverpool City Council is to sell half of its 20% stake in Liverpool John Lennon Airport, I am reminded of what Mayor Anderson said three years ago when putting the council tax payers’ money into this Peel-owned venture. He said  “airport growth is around 20% year on year”. Oh, no, it is not, say the passenger figures compiled by the Civil Aviation Authority. Methinks that this is yet another example of the mayor’s flexibility with facts as he keeps his private sector friends sweet, only for his sublime business ignorance to be revealed down the line.

He is apparently now looking for a massive return on the £12 million of our money he put up to bail out Peel in their time of need. I would not bank on him being successful, given the mayor’s record to date. All of his failures came flooding back to my mind when it was announced that he was to set forth to Liverpool Labour Party members  why his post should be retained, despite widespread calls for it to be abolished. In order to persuade them of his case, he has emailed party members across the city, citing a number of justifications for keeping the role, if not himself.

The first claim is that the mayoralty has enabled leadership in times of austerity. Presumably, therefore, in his view, there has been no leadership in all of those local authorities across the land which do not have elected mayors. The mayoralty has, in turn, led to extra funding for the city in a government-inspired “city deal”. If that is the case, why have Manchester and other comparable cities, all without elected mayors, received similar “city deals” or better ones compared to Liverpool?

Secondly, the mayoralty has, he argues, given us “community cohesion”. Again, if that is the case, how does he account for the massive opposition – reflected in local election results – to the mayor’s ill-founded proposals for selling off parks and green space? I can recall nothing more divisive in the city in recent years than the attempts led by the mayor to ride roughshod over community wishes.

The third silly claim is that the mayoralty facilitates government responsiveness to the needs of the city. This a straightforward line from George Osborne, implying a government bribe. Utter rubbish. We all recall the mayor playing Cameron’s dupe for the failed “Big Society” con, only to be forced to angrily distance himself when there was nothing for the city behind the rhetoric. The mayor has constantly emphasised the huge cuts in government grant to the city, partly to excuse his own failings. It would be nice to know where this supposed increased government responsiveness to the mayor has led to positive outcomes for the city and its people.

I do partially accept the mayor’s fourth point about the business response to the mayoralty. Let me put it this way. Some business  – principally “developers” – have had an extended Christmas under Mayor Anderson. However, it is surely the case that the mayor has responded to business and its greed, more than business responding to the mayor. He has also extended massive generosity towards billionaire-owned Everton FC. It would be gratifying to see the same kind of support given to local SMEs. Consider, if you will, small contractors ripped off, alongside investors, in the numerous local development scams.

Most outrageous of all is the mayor’s spurious claim that the mayoralty has the support of the people of Liverpool. How on earth can that statement be justified? Unlike everywhere else, where local people were given a vote on the matter, electors in Liverpool were denied the opportunity to say whether or not they wanted an elected mayor. If Mayor Anderson believes it is the case that the public approve of a mayoralty, why did he connive with Osborne to sneak it in by the council’s back door? Why not opt now for a referendum to see what electors want? I suspect that the real answer is Mayor Anderson’s desperate wish to hang on to his well paid job, after failing in his attempts to find an alternative (he could not garner support to be either metromayor or Walton MP).

Other claims flow, including one that Liverpool is “close to being the best council in the country” (wait for the court cases to begin!). One further assertion which I can accept is that “the media prefers a mayoralty”. That is certainly the case with local comic, the Echo. It is enamoured of the current incumbent – I have long raised questions about its reporting and editorial partiality. It has also consistently failed to raise the many problems which have arisen under Mayor Anderson, acting like his in-house publicity magazine. Thus, on that basis alone, I have to agree that the mayor has that one right.

Mayor or Leader?

As the battle for control of Liverpool City council hots up within the controlling Labour Group, it is for far too many, a question of personalities rather than policies. Whilst personality is undeniably an issue, it can too easily overwhelm what really matters when it comes to the future of the city and its residents. To all intents and purposes, St Helens and Wirral councils have changed their council leadership without the public acrimony that appears to be part and parcel of just about everything concerning Liverpool City Council.

Perhaps the current situation was unintentionally summed up by the widely reviled former deputy leader of the city council – Derek Hatton – whose own brand of personality politics caused so much damage to the city in the 1980s. “This is Anderson’s Liverpool”, he declared in local comic, the Echo. His paean of praise to the current mayor – Joe Anderson – bore all the hallmarks of his own failed political career on the council – distortions, hyperbole, and misrepresentations. I would imagine that anyone serious about being selected for anything, would rate Hatton’s endorsement as about as much use as a chocolate fireguard. Still, they are old mates – two of a kind, you might say.

We should look at what really matters. Back in 2011, the city had the concept of an elected mayor foisted on it without any reference to its people. It was a backroom stitch-up between Anderson and former Tory Chancellor, George Osborne. The role has created a huge democratic deficit in the city as it is neither transparent nor accountable. The mayor dominates all council matters and decides at his whim who serves in his cabinet.  As Cllr Harry Doyle aptly summed up, councillors are effectively surplus to requirements, with virtually no role in the council where all decisions are made in their name by the mayor. This is evidently a mayor who prefers backroom deals with developers to open and democratic debate.

His record has been appalling to objective eyes, from the outrageous use of over £100,000 of public money in his private legal case against his former employers, through his gross mishandling of green issues, to his abject failure to address the corruption involved in the failed development projects boom which has given rise to the label of “Scam City” being attached to the city. His misdirection of huge amounts of public money has been a reflection of his own ego – an incredible inability to recognize his own very obvious limitations. Whether we refer to his “investment” in Finch Farm; his purchase of Cunard Building: his bail out of developers Langtree at the Garden Festival site – the list goes on and on. Even by his own “entrepreneurial” standards, he has been a disaster.

Yet none of this cavalier conduct in the name of the city would have been so easy if he had been council leader rather than mayor, with the sweeping powers which the mayoralty gave him. That is why, first and foremost, one would hope that the council will see the role abolished at the earliest opportunity rather than simply change the occupant of the role. If the current mayor was simply replaced, there is no reason to believe that his replacement would be any more transparent and accountable. Certainly, there is no one in the council front rank who stands out as a potentially  more capable and honest candidate for the role of mayor.

Naturally, the question then arises: who would be the most likely candidate for the role of leader of the council? Under the council’s present political composition, it would be a member of the Labour Group; and it would be for the Labour Group to determine who is best suited for that role. I would like to think that they would look for a new broom to sweep out the political detritus of recent years. Amongst the current crop of “leading lights”, there is too much bad blood, too much involvement in recent scandals, too much history. A new face, a new name, does not guarantee a new approach; but it would be a welcome relief from what has gone before.

Incidentally, Len McCluskey took issue with my last blog, and my reference to an event he attended. Firstly, he tells me, his predecessor, Tony Woodley, was not in attendance. Secondly, he insists that in his speech at the event, he merely thanked Joe Anderson for his support in an industrial dispute. There you are, Len – a simple correction costs nothing.

Post-Election Thoughts

This holiday weekend has seen local politicians throughout the city-region, reflecting on the results of last Thursday’s elections. The immediate reaction of those who lost out was to blame Brexit; in all honesty, there is some truth in that. However, there was also a linkage across the city-region suggesting an increased salience of environmental issues in the minds of voters. It would be as well for councillors to think long and hard as to why this was the case.

In my mind, the biggest winners across the city-region on the night were the Green Party – not just because of the number of seats which they won, but also because of the number of votes which they amassed. In ward after ward – many of which had not had a Green candidate before – Green nominees polled a surprisingly high vote, given their previously low (or non-existent) base. It is too simple to just write this off as a result of a protest vote. Perhaps it is a sign of increasing public awareness of the criminal damage being done to our environment locally, nationally, and internationally.

Nationally, the Lib Dems were without doubt the biggest winners in terms of seats won, as the Tories were demonstrably the biggest losers in terms of seats lost. Hereabouts, the Tories actually gained a seat on the Wirral, whilst gains for the Lib Dems, the Greens and independents were dotted across the city-region. It would be glib to point out that Labour were generally losers; but they were coming from a very high base in all six of our local councils. Other than in Wirral, Labour retain a strong control of our local authorities. Nevertheless, only time will tell if lessons have been learnt from some quite remarkable reverses for Labour.

Ironically, the biggest “news” on election night in Liverpool was not the continued dilution of Labour support at the ballot box, but another huge fissure within the council ranks. Cllr O’Byrne announced as the ballot closed her intention to move the abolition of the post of city mayor at the council’s annual meeting later in May. As it happens , whilst I am certainly no supporter of Cllr O’Byrne, I have often written that the role is superfluous. Moreover, under the stewardship of Mayor Anderson, the role has shown itself to be anti-democratic, wasteful and inefficient. It is also profoundly politically corrupt. Unlike Manchester, for example, which has prospered without a city mayor, Liverpool has been subject to the whimsical leadership of Anderson, a man not noted for either interpersonal or entrepreneurial skills. Furthermore, it is my belief that simply replacing Anderson is not enough. Sadly, most local politicians, given the apparently unbridled powers within the city which Anderson seems to have, would fall prey to the same kind of ego trip which has characterized Anderson’s tenure of office.

I was interested to hear that Anderson attended a recent community awards event, organized by Cllr Woodhouse. Other guests included former Unite head honcho, Tony Woodley, and the union’s current boss, Len McCluskey. The latter spoke in fulsome support of Anderson as mayor, pledging help from Unite in maintaining his personal grip on power. One wonders what the quid pro quo might be for the two trade unionists, one of whom lives in Wirral and the other in London. Sup with a long spoon would be my advice. Unite members might not share their leader’s enthusiasm for a mayor who is so heartily disliked and distrusted, both within the Liverpool Labour Party and within the wider city.

Of course, if Anderson was to put himself up for mayor again, it has been suggested that he would face strong opposition for the Labour nomination in the city. One of those tipped to oppose him was Cllr O’Byrne, who is now seeking to abolish the post altogether, reverting to a more traditional council leader. Politics can be a strange land. Any leadership post she sought would surely first demand an explanation of her run-in with the police which led to her dramatic departure from her role as deputy Police Commissioner (another of Jane Kennedy’s disastrous misjudgements).

The other “hot tip” for the nomination as city mayor was one-time buddy of Anderson, “developer” Lawrence Kenwright. Again, we must wait and see what the future holds for Mr Kenwright. He has just put up for sale his two busiest (he says) hotels in Liverpool at the same time that it has leaked out that “hundreds” of investors in his speculative projects are clamouring for the overdue monies owed to them by Mr Kenwright’s company, Signature Living. I have long been advised that the rates of return which he has been in the habit of promising were wholly unrealistic, only repayable if he could keep attracting new investors to pay off the old.

Perhaps chickens are coming home to roost for Mr Kenwright. He has, of course, been down this road before, ending up in bankruptcy. It seems as if he and Mayor Anderson (remember his Munro collapse?) have still one thing in common – personal business failure.