What went wrong at Liverpool City Council and why should you care?
By John Brace (Editor) and Leonora Brace (Co-Editor)
First publication date: 3rd March 2021, 11:49 (GMT).
Considering the reaction to yesterday’s Is Liverpool City Council in denial? I thought it a good idea to write another piece about Liverpool City Council.
You’d have to have been a hermit the last few years to not have come across some bad news about Liverpool City Council, but as I don’t have time to write a 6,000-9,000 word piece on this topic I am going to split it into just four main themes followed by a conclusion on why you should care (listed below):-
So let’s start with that first theme of how do you fund a local council? The short answer being through taxes (both locally raised such as council tax and business rates and through redistribution of other taxes) with some borrowing.
Around 2010 (although there had been problems leading up to this point) things went somewhat pear shaped for the majority Lib Dem administration on Liverpool City Council and after the 2010 elections majority control passed over to the Labour Party (who lost power nationally after 13 years).
This also marked a policy shift by the then new Coalition (Lib Dem and Conservative) government. Drawing on my interesting face to face conversation around that time with the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at Department of Communities and Local Government (Andrew Stunnell), he explained that the aim of the change in policy was to encourage councils to increase economic growth in their areas and in return such councils would be rewarded by the increased business rates collected.
Prior to this (although this is somewhat simplified), the funding formula under the previous Labour government had benefitted poorer areas by reflecting (from a Labour perspective in a better way) that areas of increased need needed increased funding.
So for a decade, there were a lot of speeches, letters written and protesting by Liverpool Labour politicians about this all.
Meanwhile the Coalition government implemented its plans in this area and in other areas that appalled Labour politicians.
Other key moments in this timeline was the creation of the elected Mayor of Liverpool position in 2012 and the creation of the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority (previously the Liverpool City Region Cabinet) in 2014. It is also pointed out that a variety of functions that previously were with the local councils in the Liverpool City Region area such as economic development and regeneration became the remit of the new Liverpool City Region Combined Authority rather than the councils as it had previously. As a new political body various funding in some areas was also devolved from national to local control and after a further iteration of an agreement between the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority and the national government, in 2017 the people of the Liverpool City Region elected Mayor Steve Rotheram as LCRCA Mayor.
However, Liverpool City Council faced a variety of problems (some of its own doing), that bit by bit led to the current crisis. There were a whole host of problems in how it delivered services to residents and despite the promises that an elected Mayor model would bring a new era of prosperity and allow the city to regain some of its previous reputation, a reputation which had been somewhat tarnished by the riots sparked by racism in the 1980s, as both a city and a city council the signs of a decline from its glory days were readily apparent.
If there is a theme for the current nationally imposed inspection of Liverpool City Council by Max Caller and a team of assistant inspectors it is corporate governance. Whether you lay blame for the corporate governance fiascos on the politicians, senior managers or junior employees with insufficient oversight is probably one for the history books. However a series of redundancies, early retirements and turmoil eventually led to a lot of the councillors being deliberately put in what I can only describe as a psychological state of learned helplessness.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit and despite a public health function of Liverpool City Council any failings of corporate governance now became a matter of life and death for its residents. Its multiculturalism, which had been one of its strengths now saw ethnic minority communities face disruption and death on a rapid scale. The pointless racism stirred up by the 2016 Brexit referendum was now on full display, especially in Chinatown and those from ethnic communities felt oppressed by the local population and under siege by a virus that was out of control.
Liverpool City Council had tried to encourage inward investment, such as the New Chinatown development (now subject to a Serious Fraud Office investigation). However a series of stalled building projects and angry investors both domestically and abroad had tarnished both the reputation of Liverpool City Council and the city itself.
The hope at a brighter future had turned to anger and a sense of injustice.
The demands for something to be done over these and other scandals that were like a pot coming to the boil, demands for someone to be held accountable, led to a series of arrests by people associated with Liverpool City Council.
The arrests and who they are of is a matter of public record, although there is probably a fair deal of public comment as to how and why this happened? I have on this blog covered many whistleblower’s stories and this response (agreed by the Assistant Chief Constable) from Merseyside Police about the Memorandum of Understanding explains the serious concerns that Merseyside Police have regarding reprisals.
As an aside, as someone who has had death threats made against him and taken my wife to hospital after being shot in her eye (which annoys me), much as I may be described as fearless, I do have a sense of self preservation and as there are those at large that believe in violence for political ends, I come from that perspective in reluctantly agreeing with the Assistant Chief Constable Ian Critchley about how volatile this has all become.
However, back to political oversight, Liverpool City Council has a Cabinet of councillors of the ruling party, with oversight provided by select committees (although the general term in local government is scrutiny committees). At times, when meetings were held in person, it’s no secret to say there has always been a tension between the pace of change that some of the people of Liverpool want, the desires and wishes of backbench councillors and the realpolitik explanations given by Cabinet Members.
As is widely known, on this side of the River Mersey a coup by opposition councillors forced a change in September 2020 to move Wirral Council away from the Cabinet system of governance to the Committee system which suits Wirral Council’s political stalemate of no overall control.
Yet, whatever system of political oversight Liverpool City Council has had, does have or will have, it can only be as good as the people who are involved in it.
The disruption to the running of Liverpool City Council following the arrest of Mayor Anderson in (this is from memory December 2020) who has now stepped back from his role leaving Assistant Mayor Councillor Wendy Simon filling his shoes has led to an internal power struggle and a power vacuum.
Added to this, the reputational damage to Liverpool outlined above and the imposition of inspectors by the government minister in conjunction with the pandemic pressures has led to further mistakes.
Any turmoil on this scale, symptomatic of much wider issues, although some may say this the above is just criticism from a wool, impacts those beyond the city of Liverpool. There aren’t any easy answers to such entrenched problems, although the multiple elections in May 2021 give the people of Liverpool (Police and Crime Commissioner, LCRCA Mayor, Mayor of Liverpool and councillor) a chance to have a say in who governs them next.
The different solutions to what has gone on in the past will no doubt form part of the political campaigns of the candidates.
In the end though whatever people and systems of political oversight come about, there is a stated desire to move away from the elected Mayoral system of governance at Liverpool City Council to something else (the something else and when that happens being the matter of current political debate).
The short answer to why things went wrong is that multiple people made mistakes. Whether you believe the somewhat clichéd “lessons have been learned”, “let’s move on” and “it’s not our fault!” is of course entirely up to you.
My personal opinion is that endlessly playing the political blame game is to a large degree unimportant at this stage, the why is largely a matter of public record anyway. What is important however is change. What is important is Liverpool City Council repairing its damaged relationship with the people of Liverpool and what is important is an honest political debate this election about what happened and what should be changed. After that it is down to the people of Liverpool to decide.
Whether you care or not about the fate of Liverpool and Liverpool City Council is down to you, but the events that led to writing this piece happen again and again when to put it politely power goes to people’s heads. I will not be around forever and someone needs to be vigilant about what local politicians are up to before it gets to this stage again.
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