The Only Game in Town
The local government secretary, Robert Jenrick, is sending commissioners to run parts of Liverpool City Council after a report found that its planning, regeneration and highways departments were dysfunctional and unaccountable.
This is the same Robert Jenrick who, two years ago, authorised the spending of special funds in his colleague Jake Berry’s Lancashire constituency, while Berry authorised the spending of special funds in Jenrick’s seat. Last summer, Jenrick told a Commons select committee that being lobbied by developers was an ‘occupational hazard’ for housing ministers. But never mind all that: make Scousers pay.
The mayor of Liverpool, Joe Anderson, was arrested last December along with four other men – including Derek Hatton, the onetime deputy council leader now turned property developer – on charges of bribery and witness intimidation.
Anderson insists he will be cleared, but from what I’ve seen happen – or not happen – in the city since moving to Liverpool in 2012, the year he was elected mayor, the rot has always been in plain sight. Plans to deface the historic waterfront led to Unesco’s threatening to revoke the city’s status as a World Heritage Site. The ‘New Chinatown’ development never amounted to more than flashy hoardings and the aggressive hustling of investors in Hong Kong for deposits on luxury flats that never got built. A property developer called Elliot Lawless, who had bought up half the city centre, was arrested in 2019, on the same day and the same charges (fraud, bribery and corruption) as the council’s director of regeneration.
Anderson believed he could fuse popular socialism with trickle-down economics. Whenever he was asked why he was letting Liverpool be ruined by shoddy student blocks and bland investor towers, he would say: ‘It’s the only game in town.’ It was never going to be a game that he could win, or that Liverpudlians, bar a few crooked flat-builders, would benefit from.
Jenrick has held back from a full takeover of the council, which would have meant Liverpool – home to Labour’s four safest parliamentary seats and part of a Tory-free zone stretching well beyond its city boundaries – being ruled twice over by a government its people did not elect.
The implications of direct rule for a city with a history of political insubordination are huge and troubling, suggesting that those who consistently speak up about their suffering will, eventually, be made an example of. Liverpool is used to it: in the 1980s Neil Kinnock made the public shaming of its Militant council a central plank of his doomed attempt to make Labour ‘electable’. In 2004 Boris Johnson rounded on Scousers, claiming they had ‘a peculiar, and deeply unattractive, psyche’ based on ‘vicarious victimhood’; it didn’t stop him becoming prime minister.
Keir Starmer has yet again sided with the government – in this instance against his own party’s most solid electoral base. He’s prepared to risk disowning Labour voters in Liverpool because he believes there’s no other party they’d be willing to vote for. The local elections in May could tell him otherwise.
In their way, the council figures implicated in this grim mess have abided by George Lansbury’s maxim as leader of Poplar Council in the 1930s: better to break the law than to break the poor. Militant, 35 years ago, took this to mean ignoring centrally imposed budget constraints and getting on with building five thousand council houses. More recently, it has meant treating property development as a murky means to a better end, allowing local wide boys to get their way if it will plug the vast gap between the city’s income and the needs of its residents. But there were, and are, other ways for local authorities to defy a punitive government, without waving through dodgy land deals.
Between 2010 and 2018 Liverpool lost 32 per cent of its funding, mostly through the removal of government block grants designed to make up for the fact that poorer cities raise less money from council tax and business rates. Through this period, the city built new schools, kept most of its libraries open and provided statutory services to a population with very high levels of need. Exactly how it managed this is now open to question, but you also have to ask whether austerity wasn’t the bigger crime.