Fake News

Scarcely a day passes without President Trump chanting his mantra of “fake news” on twitter in his attacks on the American media. Here on Merseyside, it is too often a case of “no news” – at least in regard to anything meaningful. Yet we do have our poor people’s versions of what were once disparagingly referred to as spin doctors; and they have been fiddling their own version of fake news recently.

So, when I read of the mending of fences between the metromayor and the city mayor, I do so with a large degree of scepticism. Not, I hasten to add, about the notion of our senior representatives in the city-region working together constructively for the good of the city-region. I would expect that we all want to see positive collaboration between them for the good of all of our people. It is just that mayor Anderson has too often cried wolf whilst rejecting co-operative working – with the Combined Authority, with Steve Rotheram, and, most recently, with Dan Carden.

Perhaps it was the language that was used. It was that of a spin doctor, and one that was partial in favour of mayor Anderson. It sounded like an apology from the injured party in this latest spat – “we are immensely fortunate to have a leader with his (i.e. Anderson’s) experience and skills“, Rotheram is supposed to have said. I find this difficult to believe, given the way in which he has been abused and undermined by Anderson.

A more obvious use of fake news concerns the extraordinary line taken by Liverpool Council on the Chinatown fiasco. This is a huge development which has been used to dupe overseas investors, to their detriment and to that of Liverpool’s reputation as a place in which to invest. It is notable that mayor Anderson has ducked out of this one, dropping it on the toes of his ambitious deputy, Cllr. O’Byrne, for her to explain it away. The thrust of their line is to portray the council as a victim. I beg to differ. The victims are the investors and the unpaid contractors. The council leadership is one of the villains of the situation.

In a city currently without a chief executive and a chief planning officer, the buck stops fairly and squarely with the city’s newly self-designated executive mayor and his cabinet. The companies and individuals involved in the Chinatown scam have form, and are well known to the council. The same unsavoury bunch are also involved in other dodgy developments across the city, and elsewhere. Indeed, Greater Manchester Police are heavily investigating their deals in Manchester. All of this should, and would, have been apparent to a half-decent council applying due diligence to these cowboys. They did not, and continue to allow these con men to operate in Liverpool, apparently with impunity.

It is both ironic and sad that our reputation with Chinese investors is being tarnished. We have in Liverpool the oldest Chinatown in Europe; and we are twinned with Chinese megacity and economic powerhouse, Shanghai. Meanwhile, China invests £1 billion of real money in Manchester… Draw your own conclusions.


Liverpeel City Region

Speaking of their declining local airport on the Durham/Yorkshire border, the Northern Echo newspaper pithily concluded that “Peel’s masterplan….is based around housing and business development“. An apt summary, as far as it goes, of the ubiquitous Peel’s focus. We might say it has but passing interest in airports or docks, or industrial development. Its primary purpose is to make profits out of its vast land bank (over 5000 acres) by whatever means come to hand.

Those profits ultimately end up in the private Billown Trust based in the Isle of Man, run by and for billionaire tax exile John Whittaker. There is nothing illegal in amassing wealth in this way, nor, in the eyes of many, is it intrinsically immoral. Sadly, the world is full of individuals whose sole purpose is to fatten their bank accounts in every way possible. The question is how that is done, and how, in turn, it affects others.

So, where Peel has undercapitalised land, it is happy for others to “frack” thereon for oil or gas, or to erect wind turbines – at a price, of course. Where development is an option leading to bigger profits, it will partner with whoever comes along. Its objective is financial benefit, whether partnered with the public or the private sector.

The nature of this company came to mind when I noticed that the Combined Authority at its June meeting, awarded from the Single Investment Fund, another grant – of £1 million – to this capitalist hydra. Peel is very adept at accessing public funds (that is, those taxes which you pay and which Mr Whittaker strives so hard to avoid) for what are not always successful projects. Take the post-Panamax container berth on the docks.

It has cost £400 million to build, but has been virtually unusable since February when the first of several huge sinkholes appeared in the new structure. Although Peel claim two “visits” to the berth since then by container ships, it is in danger of being seen as a monstrous white elephant. Given that a major minority shareholder in Peel is the investment arm of Deutsche Bank, one might be forgiven for thinking that any pain was borne by the private sector alone. You would be wrong.

When the docks project was first floated, Peel insisted that it was contingent on a massive dredging programme in the Mersey, costing £41 million. OF this sum, £35 million came from the taxpayer via the Regional Growth Fund. In a highly unusual move, and to the outrage of rival ports, Sefton Council bid for the money which went directly to Peel, for its benefit. I have never understood how this came about.

 Yet this overlap between the public and private sectors is not unusual in itself, nor necessarily undesirable. What is of concern in the case of Peel is the degree to which it is entwined with local authorities and their leading lights in the city-region. To their advantage, Peel have worked their way assiduously into the heart of decision –making affecting the people and communities of the city-region.

Liverpool Airport exemplifies the problem. In a competitive market, it lost £14 million between 2012 and 2014. Despite this record, Liverpool Council has put in millions to this privately owned operation. To ostensibly look after the council’s interests, there are five council representatives on two of the various airport companies’ boards – Mayor Anderson, councillors O’Byrne, Small and Kennedy, and suspended CEO Fitzgerald. However, given the nature of Peel, it is difficult to pin down which of the sixteen (yes, sixteen separate legal entities) Peel companies involved in Liverpool Airport actually has the controlling interest. Thus, we cannot know whose interests are being catered for. You never do with Peel – there are well in excess of 400 companies in the group, possibly hundreds more.

Of course, it is not only at the airport where this blurring of public and private interests can occur. Wirral leader Phil Davies sits on the city-region’s Local Enterprise Partnership which doles out millions of public money to private companies, including Peel. Halton’s leader Rob Polhill and assorted colleagues have also sat on a Peel company board (all of which, incidentally, are headquartered in Manchester). This is how Peel operates, to maximise its influence with, and funding from, public bodies.

There has been no more skilled and useful operative in this demi-monde between business and government than Robert Hough. A member of Peel’s main board from 1986 onwards and holder of 135 directorships, he was until recently the chair of the city-region LEP, and a co-opted member of the Combined Authority. A Manchester man but close collaborator with Joe Anderson, no-one could be better placed to peddle influence on behalf of Peel than he was.

Thus, it is little wonder that there is increasing scepticism about Peel. Notwithstanding their formidable public relations machine, people are seeing through their hyperbole. We have all heard the bull about Mersey Waters. We are supposed to wait 50 years to see if they have it right! They spoke too of the container quay as built by “a world class team” using “the very best of world engineering”. When their ship canal gates broke down (supposedly renewed with a £3.8 million grant) paralysing Warrington traffic, there was not a word of explanation or apology. Why should they? Profit is their game, not the community interest; and our representatives seem eager to help them. Peel appear to have more clout than the rest of us put together.

Is this representative democracy?

Connecting with Voters

When Labour entered national government back in 1997, it realised that news management was vital in keeping people informed about what government was doing. No fake news, no embellishment of the facts, nor false promises. It may have degenerated over time with an emphasis on spin, but it was not the original approach in office. I thought of this whilst reading a copy of the Liverpool Echo – nothing like the paper it was, but still a platform for local government to give out information.

The paper seems to concentrate on covering Liverpool rather than the other boroughs, when it covers local government at all. The edition I read carried press releases from the mayor and his deputy. The latter was a long “mea culpa” over the stagnation of Chinatown and other development sites. She offered no explanation of the real concerns over the dodgy people and companies who had been involved, despite national media interest. Nor was there any explanation as to how, if due diligence had been performed, these scam artists had got their hands on such important deals. Instead, we had the usual mantra of promises for the future without any obvious substance, and without accountability for the failures of the past.

Her line was partially echoed by the mayor in his comments about the Adelphi, and his thinly-veiled threat of its compulsory purchase. Hopefully, he is beginning to see that the city’s reputation – with visitors and with investors – is at stake, given recent high profile criticism in the national media, of the council’s attitude to green space, and the mayor’s reactionary view of the city’s threatened  World Heritage Site status. The latter is particularly puzzling. We are told that Peel’s illusory plans for the docks are more important in economic terms than WHS status. Yet I see that the head of Cumbria’s tourist authority has computed that their newly won WHS status for the Lake District is worth at least £20 million per annum to the area. Is the mayor unaware that even his cherished hopes for cruise ships are nourished in the sales brochures in part by our WHS status?

Who now remembers the mayoral freebie to Birmingham, Alabama? Despite the outpouring of PR at the time, nothing of any note has accrued to Liverpool from the mayor’s visit. Likewise, the massive sums afforded to Everton FC (and the privately owned club is still being underwritten by the council) whilst we read nightly of the huge amounts being paid by the club, for and to players? Who has truly explained what benefits there are to people suffering under austerity? In their minds, they simply see a total disconnect between the council’s priorities and their actual needs. All the spin in the world is not going to change their perception of the administration.

The moral of the story is straightforward: if you are straight with the electorate, they will be straight with you. If you try to snow them, they will see through it, and ultimately extract their revenge. Moreover, where those in public life are found wanting, then they must be held accountable for it, whether it be mismanagement, incompetence, or wrongdoing. The electorate expects nothing less. That is what those two, little but vital words – transparency and accountability – mean in practice.

A Semantic Issue

For your information, I attach below the official council response to my Freedom of Information request. I had sought to discover how much the Liverpool council taxpayers were shelling out to cover the legal costs of suspended chief executive, Ged Fitzgerald. These costs are being incurred, not for his time and deeds in Liverpool, but for the period when he was chief executive in Rotherham, whilst the child abuse scandal was in full drive.

Strictly speaking, one might say that the council reply to me is correct. I had asked how much his legal fees had cost us to date. According to today’s Echo, nothing has been paid YET to his lawyers – Eversheds – because their bills are yet to be finalised. What is unarguable is that the council is involved in Fitzgerald’s legal situation covering his time at Rotherham. Their defence appears to be remarkably similar to that used In Mayor Anderson’s notorious use of public funds (over £100,000) on a private matter. That is, it is somehow a principle relevant to LCC which justifies the legal largesse – in the case of Fitzgerald, as much as £300,000, I am told.

I just wonder when these people who use our city’s funds as a personal treasure trove, will be held to account. Is it the case that all of those in authority are devoid of any moral compass; are they cowed by the bullying atmosphere which pervades LCC;  or are they complicit in a politically corrupt cabal which is running things in Liverpool?


Manic Management

When Paul Brant resigned as a councillor, Mayor Anderson took over his role as the city’s finance guru. When Ged Fitzgerald had his collar felt by the old bill, our illustrious mayor declared that he would fill the gap as Liverpool Council’s chief executive. Now that Malcolm Kennedy has been demoted from the cabinet, it seems that our man for all seasons has added the regeneration brief to his onerous responsibilities. A stupefied citizenry asks: is there no limit to the man’s talents?

Er, it appears that there is, difficult although it may be to believe. In one of his usual spats of ill temper, the mayor has withdrawn those Liverpool Council staff who were seconded to the Combined Authority. Their role was to work on new funding for Liverpool, so it seems that hizzoner has shot himself – or, rather, the city of Liverpool – in both feet.

Still, this is small potatoes when compared to UNESCO’s looming decision on the city’s World Heritage status. Only one other World Heritage award has ever been rescinded – we can only hope we are not the second. Mind you, UNESCO have been deliberating since before the mayor added to difficulties with his proposal for a stadium at Bramley Moore dock. We should not be surprised by the mayor’s indifference given the his publicly expressed contempt for World Heritage status. It would be doubly ironic if we were to lose it in Liverpool just as Wirral Council seek the coveted status for Birkenhead Park and Sunlight Village.

The silence of the Liverpool Labour group on this is deafening. One would have expected some effort on their part to rein in the mayor and his flights of fancy. This tendency of the mayor to chase his fantasies (Cunard Building, Everton’s training ground, the International Garden Festival site) is costing the city dearly – and will cost many of them their council seats eventually. Who, for example, has questioned a Commonwealth Games bid that will “only” cost us £137 million? Who has sought guarantees that the money will be recouped? Of course, there are no guarantees despite the mayor’s bluster. Who has asked Everton if they have agreed to their proposed new stadium doubling up as an athletics track? Indeed, who will really own that stadium – EFC or LCC?

Catchy press releases and public relation gimmicks do not add up to a row of beans. I can see some small advantage to a politician whose vision is limited to a sycophantic report in “The Echo”. I can also anticipate the predictable support of the mayor’s hotelier and developer friends – there can be nice pay days in the mayor’s “bread and circuses” approach to running the city. Me? I would rather that the mayor concentrated on the legitimate interests of the many in Liverpool rather than the self-interest of the few.

Health and Safety

No-one can have failed to have been horrified by the death and destruction of the London tower block blaze.  Now, questions are being asked as to why concerns already registered with the authorities, were not met.  The tragedy naturally leads to questions elsewhere about similar buildings.

There are major problems with regulation, especially health and safety, and their enforcement.  Too often, a culture develops which seeks to avoid responsibility rather than meeting the needs of people.  I was an invited witness to a recent meeting concerning the Paramount flats complex in Liverpool.  This involved the Fire and Rescue Authority, Liverpool Council Building Control, and building experts.  The latter say that the building is unsafe, despite it already housing over 150 students.  I was struck by the urgency of the experts in contrast to the nonchalance of the two regulatory bodies.

These concerns about the quality of buildings overlap with the question of due diligence of companies with no track record which are prominent in Liverpool.  The Paramount building to which I have referred was in the hands of developers alleged to be involved in money laundering and sales scams.  Yet these outfits still seem to prosper in Liverpool.

I noted another development in the Baltic Triangle, involving yet more flats.  One partner is the Elliot Group – a firm much favoured by the Council, but which in a few years, has risen from nowhere to a multi-million pound organisation.  The other partner is Ibrahim Seytanpir, a London-based Turk, who has gone from chef to contracts manager to property developer at an equally rapid pace.  Who does due diligence on these firms and their principals?

It is not a new phenomenon.  Signature Living has appeared to prosper via Liverpool Council in the last few years.  Its principal, Laurence Kenwright, is a good friend of the Liverpool mayor.  In Cardiff, he is a friend of the Tories, having attacked a local Cardiff MP and Jeremy Corbyn during the recent campaign whilst hobnobbing with what he presumably saw as Tory winners!

It stands to reason that on any new build, there should be responsible professional practice by reputable people with a proven track record.  This means stringent regulation in building to ensure the health and safety of all.  Otherwise, there will be more Grenfell Towers. In addition , developers should be more than mere property speculators.

For thirty years, there has been acquiescence by government after government to the pressure of business demanding less regulation.  That became an end in itself, reflected in the decimation of the Health and Safety Executive, and the demoralisation of local regulators.  For the health and wellbeing of our people, this must change – and dramatically.

In Liverpool, we could begin by re-instating due diligence on mickey mouse firms.  Hopefully, this would minimise the proliferation of scam artists who damage the city’s reputation in the eyes of investors as well as raising building standards.

Electoral Lessons

Reading the newspapers and watching television since the election, I recalled reading St. Paul’s injunction to “hate the act but love the man”. It struck me that it would be extremely hard for Jeremy Corbyn to follow that advice. Having been subjected to an even more scurrilous and defamatory media than that visited on Neil Kinnock in Thatcher’s heyday, and despite Jeremy’s astounding election campaign, the self-righteous commentators of the London chatterati are still – at best – damning him with faint praise  when they are not vilifying him.

However, there are profound lessons to be learnt from the events of the past few weeks and Labour’s performance. The bilious bias of a toxic media can be overcome. The advances in the use of social media, for example, connect far more effectively, particularly with younger voters, than do the fake news of conventional media. We saw the result of this last Thursday. Of course, communication tools, of themselves, are not enough – the message is vital. As the Tories discovered, if the message jars with the audience, you have failed. Happily, Labour had a manifesto which reflected the political priorities of a wide range of voters and the election results showed that.

For many, it was the messenger who was the biggest surprise. As an MP, I would never have nominated Jeremy for leader. Nothing personal – I have always got on rather well with him. I just did not think he had the inter-personal skills I believe a leader should have. Nor was I inspired by some of his political friends. Nevertheless, I had no idea that he was capable of connecting with so many voters – especially the young – in the way in which he did. All credit to him. Now, we must await developments in Westminster.

What lessons, then, can be learnt here in the Liverpool City Region from the national campaign outcomes? Firstly, we must NEVER underestimate the electorate’s ability to see through spin and deceit. Voters know what they want. Offer it to them where you can, in an honest and realistic way, and they will turn out to vote for you. Give them flannel, and they will, if you are lucky, ignore you.

Secondly, we need to understand what leadership is and is not. It is NOT shouting and bullying to get your own way; nor is it, like Theresa May, keeping everything within a tight little circle of cronies. (she even kept her manifesto from her cabinet colleagues). Look what has happened to the Tories. They have gone from political power to political paralysis in a matter of days, despite the overwhelming support of the right-wing media. Politics MUST be open and consensual.

Thirdly, Labour locally must recognise that politics have changed, with a new dynamic spearheaded by young voters and activists who have no interest in the old political cabals. I was asked by one such enthused individual about Labour of old. I said that the best government in my lifetime was that of Clem Atlee.

A quiet, modest and unprepossessing man, he was not afraid to surround himself with the best talents around, and give them their head. He offered a war-weary electorate their priorities – health, welfare housing, education, and public ownership of key industries. People power responded with a parliament to deliver the welfare state which we now take for granted. Surely there are lessons therein to inspire a satisfactory local disposition – traditional values in a modern setting?