I feel it is time to draw your attention to the curious incident of the violent uprising by the people of Liverpool against the imposition by a Conservative Government of a commissioner to run their City. The curious incident being, of course, that no such uprising has taken place. Not so much as a peep. It is nearly two years since Robert Jenrick, then the Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary, appointed four commissioners to take charge of Liverpool City Council after a report found “that the council had failed in numerous ways to comply with its Best Value Duty (Part 1 of the Local Government Act 1999).” Last year the degree of control from central Government actually increased. Yet in a City once synonymous with rioting and the Militant Tendency it is hard to spot much revolutionary fervour. The Scousers have merely shrugged.
One explanation is that the intervention was to combat corruption. Details of what was going on continue to emerge. Here is a report from the Liverpool Echo from February:
“Five key questions have been submitted to an influential Liverpool Council committee regarding the parking fines scandal at the local authority.
Last week the ECHO published the results of a 16-month investigation into a “back door” operation at the council that saw officers cancelling the parking fines of elected members without using the proper processes. We named 14 current and former Labour politicians in our investigation which the current chief executive said highlighted an “unacceptable culture” at the council.
Now an opposition group has submitted a number of key questions to the council’s audit committee ahead of a meeting next month. Cllr Alan Gibbons is the deputy leader of the Liverpool Community Independents group who have suspended their own leader Cllr Anna Rothery after she was named in the investigation.
In his questions to the audit committee, Cllr Gibbons asked why it took 16 months for Liverpool City Council to respond to the Liverpool ECHO’s Freedom of Information requests about the rescinded parking tickets.
He also enquired about claims from Labour that there was a “custom and practice” at the council at the time which saw councillors passing their tickets to officers who then cancelled them. Cllr Gibbons asked who initiated this process, why it only involved Labour councillors and whether the practice was minuted or scrutinised at any meetings.”
The apathy becomes a bit more explicable. A protest against austerity or defending democracy is one matter. Demanding that councillors have their parking tickets rescinded is a less attractive banner to march under.
But there have also been considerable demographic changes in Liverpool in recent decades. It has got richer. The rage of the ghetto has ceased to apply to the same extent. The City has half a million residents many of whom are prospering. Those who wear a suit to the office and have a mortgage to pay each month are less likely to pop out to lob bricks – though their teenage offspring might. There are still areas of deprivation, notably around Anfield, but this is a relative measure. Across Liverpool overall the unemployment rate is comparable to the British average. Parts of Liverpool are poor but then so are parts of London. As a whole, Liverpool is less deprived than Blackpool and plenty of other places. A century ago Liverpool was the richest city in the world. There is nothing inevitable about wealth or poverty.
While the councillors have limited powers, there will be elections for all 83 council seats in Liverpool on May 4th. Despite its growing affluence, at least in some areas, it is not expected that the Conservatives will win any of them. Most wards don’t even have a Conservative candidate. Election results are not all about economic determinism. One thinks back to the 1997 General Election result when the Conservatives did not win in a single one of the 72 constituencies in Scotland. But the Conservatives won 165 out of 529 constituencies in England. Not everywhere in Scotland was poorer than everywhere in England. Economics counts for less in voting intention now than it did then. Liverpool’s large Roman Catholic population has been culturally aligned with the Labour Party. Then there is the hostility to The Sun over its coverage of the Hillsborough disaster – some of the hostility to that newspaper rubbing off on the Conservatives.
Another difficulty is that in Liverpool the Liberal Party and later the Liberal Democrats became established as the viable rivals to Labour in the City. But even if the Conservatives don’t make any breakthrough this time there could still be a significant change. Lots of independents are standing. There is quite a clear out among the Labour councillors with the Party putting up new candidates. Boundary changes help to shake things up.
Meanwhile, the real power is exercised by the well-paid Commissioners pleased to have maintained calm while gradually moving towards proper financial arrangements.
Perhaps the criticism might be that they have been too calm. Should they not have achieved more by now in lifting the burden of wasteful spending? They are putting up the Council Tax this year to £2,305, among the highest in the country. The Council employs 17 media officers at a cost of a million pounds. It also employs four diversity officers. 13 trade union officials (full time equivalents). It could have saved money on pothole repairs by using a JCB PotholePro vehicle, as other Councils have done. But it has chosen not to.
What about the vast number of children in care? In Liverpool, it is 172 per 10,000. That is exceptionally high. In Sheffield, it is 59 per 10,000. Why are so many children in Liverpool stuck in the care system – combining disastrous outcomes and astronomic costs – rather than having the permanent loving home that adoption could provide?
A good indication of whether an adoption placement would be viable is if a child in care is in mainstream edcuation. The most recent figures I had were that 1,508 children in Liverpool were in care and that 607 them were in mainstream education. It should certainly be viable for such children to be with foster carers rather than in institutional care. Children’s Home placements cost over £100,000 per child per year and have exceptionally poor outcomes. There are 55 children in Liverpool placed in children’s homes despite being in mainstream education. Millions a year spent needlessly putting them on a conveyer belt to prison.
Liverpool Council spends £48 million a year on interest on its billion pounds of debt. Why is not more being done to sell surplus land and buildings? Apart from clearing the debt this would mean sites could be made available for new businesses and new homes – extending opportunities for job creation and home ownership.
Freeport status gives ground for optimism. But financial rigour at the Council should go beyond proper safeguards against fraud and corruption. The culture of profligate municipal spending which is such a burden on households and businesses should be addressed. The Commissioners are each paid more than a thousand pounds a day. Are they really providing good value for money? It would be reasonable to have ambitions for rather more than safety first and steady as she goes. Something more transformational is required for Liverpool to regain a reputation as a great centre of enterprise.