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.

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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.

Green Space

Each of the six boroughs within the Liverpool City-Region has recently experienced an explosive reaction to “development” proposals. There can be no doubt that the mix of local politics, developers and green belt is a very volatile combination indeed. Throw in allegations of dodgy dealings, and that reaction can be almost nuclear. Take, for example, the vexed issue of the encroachment of building onto the green space of Calderstones Park in Liverpool.

Granted, this is not strictly speaking a green belt issue like those of Wirral, Sefton, and St Helens. It is, however, fuelled by the same battle between private profit and public amenity. It appears that two original objectors to the plans of Redrow Homes and Liverpool Council, to stretch development into the heart of the park, switched to supporting the proposals. What, other objectors asked, stimulated this change of heart? Was it the award of grants to them (£300,000 to the Reader Group; and at least £120,000 to the Beechley stables) by the Steve Morgan Foundation (Mr Morgan being the head honcho of Redrow Homes)? Was it, as it now transpires – at least, in part – pressure brought to bear by the council (who, of course, claim otherwise)?

Either way, it leaves an extremely sour taste in the mouths of many voters. It is little wonder that opposition intensifies as suspicion grows. It is a fact that this popular resistance to the diminution of green space is not just limited to our city-region. Recent events in the adjacent authority of West Lancashire demonstrate just how widespread is the concern of voters about “development” proposals, and critically, what voters see as the absence of objective and meaningful consultation.

Naturally, when it suits an organisation – be it in the public or the private sector – it will claim support based on consultation. How trustworthy such claims are, will always be a matter of debate. For example, there has been coverage lately of proposals for tower blocks of flats in the Baltic Triangle. Quite apart from the whole debate on the type of housing which ought to be built (low rise houses for those in need?), we should examine the claimed support for such proposals. In this instance, it is said to come from the Baltic Triangle C.I.C (community interest company), as if it speaks for all interested parties. I note that a senior director of this CIC is a former Council employee, Ms Erika Rushton. She is also on the board of another CIC which I have written about, the Beautiful Ideas Company. This is still embroiled in controversy concerning the accounts of car parks on council land close to the Anfield and Goodison Park football grounds.

The self-styled developers of the plans in the Baltic Triangle are called Legacie. This “company” was first registered on March 17th, 2015. Its development arm was set up on August 13th, 2018.What bothers me is that there appears to be no obstacle to any company, created for any purpose, being permitted to operate without any apparent due diligence about their probity, experience or finances – or that of its principals – being done. I well recall the mayor posing for “Echo” pictures with the principals of a company days after its registration (June 16th, 2015) at Companies House. He was contracting with them to establish restaurants in his vanity project of the Cunard Building. That company, named “Astutus”, only lasted until November 22nd, 2016. Needless to say, there were no obvious positive results from the mayor’s laissez-faire approach to off-the-shelf companies.

A local authority must be rigorous in its dealing with the private sector, especially with developers. It is delusional to think that there is some kind of mutuality of interests – just consider Peel’s recent attack on Wirral Council. Developers are in things for the money – plain and simple; and there appears to be a lot of it swilling around, notwithstanding austerity. Is it any wonder, therefore, that crooks are attracted to development? Lots of money, no due diligence, and weak regulation make it an ideal marketplace for the dishonest and the disreputable.

Frank Field

I do not normally comment in this blog on matters from outside of the city-region. However, the recent actions and statements of Frank Field, MP, may well have an impact both within our city-region, and on the national scene, with unpredictable consequences for all of us.

Firstly, I must set out my credentials for this. Like Frank, I have more than fifty years membership of the Labour Party, and, like him, have served as a minister in a Labour government. Nevertheless, I can claim no intimate knowledge of the Birkenhead Labour Party, nor am I able to comment on any of the specific charges he has filed in recent days against members of that party. Another point on which we would diverge is Jeremy Corbyn. Frank’s was a critical nomination enabling Jeremy to become leader of the Labour Party. I have openly stated that had I still been in parliament, I would not have nominated Jeremy, amiable although he is. Critically, he is the party’s leader, and I accept the membership’s decision on that.

Before entering parliament, I was the Labour Party’s regional organiser in the north west of England. I recall two instances of Frank’s rather unique approach to party membership and all which that entails. These attitudes of thirty years ago are echoed in his recent performance. In the 1987 general election, he encouraged voters to opt for his friend – Tory MP for Wallasey, Linda Chalker – rather than support the Labour candidate, Lol Duffy. No action was taken against him at that time despite his disloyalty.

The second occasion was the selection of the Labour parliamentary candidate for Birkenhead in 1989. The process ended up with a shortlist of three – Frank; Paul Davies, a union official; and Cathy Wilson, a Militant. Difficulties began at the hustings, held in Birkenhead Town Hall. Frank could not produce a union card as the then rules demanded. I suspected that this was a tactic by Frank to delay the reselection as he did not have the numbers to win. To the rescue came Paul Davies, offering to give me a letter to the effect that Frank was indeed a member of one of his branches – a docks branch, of all things. Problem solved.

When we came to the count, Paul Davies was the clear choice of the membership, with the Militant a very distant third. A very agitated Frank was impatient to go outside to the waiting press to tell them what he would and would not do. I had to implore Frank to at least thank his own supporters for their vain attempts to win him reselection. He did so in a brusque fashion, but still he exited, uttering threats of a by-election to his press audience. His current posture shows little change in Frank’s sense of entitlement to what is effectively a parliamentary sinecure. To me, this is at odds with what he has often condemned as the fecklessness of some of those who view a life on benefits as their entitlement.

Thus, I was not too surprised by Frank’s recent fit of pique. He has form. Back in 1989, he threatened a by-election if his local party’s choice was not overturned. After I left my job as regional organiser, he got his way. This was much to my dismay, and, indeed, to many local party members who had previously supported Frank, but were outraged by what they saw as his political blackmail.

As for Frank’s use of the anti-semitism row to back his vague claims of thuggery in his local party, I am cynical – I think of his own comments on immigration. I can only say what I have said before – that I have never witnessed, in my fifty five years in the Labour Party, any anti-semitism. My biggest concern is that the legitimate fears of those who see a surge in anti-semitism, are being manipulated by some for political reasons, both within and without the Labour Party. Conflating criticism of the Israeli government with anti-semitism has the objective of neutralising public policy towards that government across the political spectrum.

Summer’s End

As we all come to terms with the fading days of summer, minds turn to the challenges facing councillors across the city-region. Many of the difficulties to be faced this autumn, and on into the winter, are entirely down to the failure of councils to act responsibly, despite having a mandate to do so. Important although it is, finance – and government imposed austerity – is not the only issue to be resolved.

Take, for example, the ongoing saga of Liverpool’s failed development projects, and the scams associated with them. No one can say that the mayor and council were not aware of what was going on. Naturally, although it now claims otherwise, the mealy-mouthed Echo failed in its duty to inform the wider public of the truth, until forced to do so by the pressure brought to bear by private citizens and defrauded investors. Even now, they give an extremely partial version of events. There are none so blind as those who will not see. Nevertheless, notwithstanding the belated posturing of the Echo, the councillors themselves were most certainly informed of the burgeoning scandal.

Now there has been an announcement of a council panel to look at the root of the scams – what is known as fractional selling of properties not yet built. As usual, the council (or the mayor) has been slow to react; but what is proposed is wholly unsatisfactory. Firstly, the panel which has been assembled to examine the issue is comprised solely of councillors. With great respect to the members of that panel, one must wonder at their qualifications for this particular job, given the councillors’ collective failure to address the problem even as the council’s coffers and investors were being ripped off. There will be little faith in their objectivity in the matter.

Secondly, it is not clear what the terms of reference for this panel’s work are. Fractional selling is only part of the problem. What about the council’s failure to exercise due diligence when dealing with the cowboys involved in the failed developments? Are panel councillors to beat their breasts for the collective failure of the council and the mayor on so many levels?  I doubt it. It is why only an independent panel, chaired by a reputable and knowledgeable person, is able to do the job required, if there is to be a credible outcome.

Meanwhile, I note that Liverpool’s mayor is to meet the EFC owner this coming week for discussions. With every passing day, it appears that there are increasing doubts about the viability of the mayor’s irresponsible proposal to borrow money to finance a new EFC stadium. Perhaps the rumours are true that Mr Moshiri’s sidekick – Russian oligarch Mr Alisher Usmanov  – will buy into EFC now that he has sold his interest in Arsenal FC. For his part, the mayor should be more focussed on Operation Sheridan in Lancashire. We know about the involvement of three former Liverpool Council senior executives in Lancashire’s One Direct organisation. It now transpires that there are four additional unnamed suspects whose files have been passed to the Crown Prosecution Service for consideration for prosecution – and the police have yet to decide on the scandal of our equivalent organisation- Liverpool Direct – in their work.

It is not as if it is only Liverpool’s council facing difficulties in the weeks and months ahead. I note that Knowsley Council’s returning officer, amid claims of bullying at polling stations, felt it necessary to publicly appeal for calm in the recent Halewood South by-election. The ruling Labour group was nervously trying to ensure the quick return to the council of former aspiring council leader, Gary See. Their worry was that their dominant position in the council would be weakened with the loss of a seat in an area which has always, until this year, been a shoo-in for Labour candidates.

Meanwhile, I am being told that the Labour leadership on Wirral council – the Chuckle Brothers of the Labour group, Phil and George Davies – could be on their way out. They stand accused, amongst other things, of being out of touch with both their members and the electorate. Problems range from Peel’s failure to come good on their exaggerated promises for the Twelve Quays site, to catastrophic misjudgement on green spaces proposals. There is real anger across the borough and someone will carry the can. Perhaps they will learn that with power comes responsibility.

One thing is certain. The city-region is never short of controversy; nor can we be surprised at whatever turns up next. I will be looking at the Labour Party annual conference to see who gives to delegates the traditional welcoming address. It is normally the role of the ceremonial Lord Mayor, but I wonder if the executive mayor’s ego leads him to try to muscle in on his party’s showpiece.

Time for Change

Some years ago, I was visited in my office by a well-known local “personality” and solicitor, the late Kevin Alphonsus Dooley. One of his striking features was the amount of gold jewellery which he sported – rings and bracelets – an obvious signal of his material success. He had also represented many local notables, including former chief constable, Ken Oxford, and former Liverpool FC manager, Roy Evans. His issue was a simple one. Although he had never been convicted, or even charged, with any criminal offence, he had been disbarred as a lawyer by the solicitors’ regulatory authority.

In the course of the interview, he told me that he had been accused of money laundering on behalf of local criminals, but no action of any sort had been taken against him within the criminal justice system. To evidence his innocence of any wrongdoing, he showed me what he claimed were receipts for the transfer of large sums of money to the celebrated Hollywood producer/director, Francis Ford Coppola, a man made mega-rich via classic films like “The Godfather” and “Apocalypse Now”. Of course, I had no way of judging whether or not these documents were authentic. Nor could I properly evaluate Mr. Dooley’s claim that he was transferring money as investments in the movie mogul’s film making. What was most striking to me was the power of the solicitors’ regulatory body to stop Mr. Dooley – or any other solicitor – in his tracks.

I was reminded of this when I discovered recently that Wirral solicitor David Roberts had met the same fate at the hands of the solicitors’ regulatory body, being disbarred and his practice closed down. I had noted that Mr. Roberts (very often alongside another Wirral solicitor, Mr. David Sewell) had been a director of a whole range of development companies. More pertinently, Mr. Roberts’ name cropped up time and again in relation to that string of off -the-shelf companies involved in the dodgy developments blighting Liverpool and other northern cities.

Now, I do not know the reasons why Mr. Roberts was struck off, or whether or not his disbarring was connected in any way to the malpractice of the con artists behind the dodgy developments which affect inner Liverpool. However, it underlines the powers available to various kinds of regulators to hold people to account outside of the criminal justice system if those regulators are so disposed, and believe their intervention to be appropriate. It also raises questions about the apparent indifference of the council, the police, and the district auditor to alleged malfeasance  within areas for which they have responsibility. Until they all wake up and get their respective acts together, the crooks will continue to prosper.

There are a lot of honest people who are increasingly disillusioned with the quality of representation which they get at both a local and a national level. When, for example, they witness the coarse and degrading behaviour of councillors, as was recently the case in Liverpool, they are no longer as shocked as they might have once been. Citizens have become inured to lower standards in public life. They are tired of the lack of transparency and accountability; and, therefore, in many cases, have decided to try to do something about it.

The city-region being generally a Labour fiefdom (at least, at present), changes therein are mightily significant. Long-serving Labour councillors are now fearful for their hitherto comfortable seats and comfy council positions. The impetus behind Momentum is a great part of this. I am well aware that Momentum is more or less a new name for an old entity – the Broad Left in Labour Party circles. I am also aware that some tired old sectarian voices from the past are with them; but the majority of Momentum members appear to simply want a change from the out-dated clique-based politics of yesteryear. They want truly accountable and transparent representation.

As we see more young men and women selected for council seats, so we will see the demand for change increase. I hope they are successful because without fresh blood, I cannot see from where the motivation will arise which is necessary to effect positive democratic change across the city-region. Who knows, it might be kick-started locally with a debate on the Liverpool mayoralty, or the debate on the financing of Everton’s proposed stadium.