I’ve always been fond of Liverpool – it’s a vibrant, good humoured and fiercely proud city and in many ways unlike any other in the UK.
It is not a city prone to introspection and it has always done things its own way. Maybe recent events will change that.
At the end of last year, Joe Anderson, the city’s elected mayor, and a tight circle of his associates were arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to commit bribery and witness intimidation. In response, the government tasked former local government chief executive, Max Caller to lead an inquiry into what had been going on.
Caller has seen much of this before – he was part of the team looking into maladministration in Tower Hamlets in 2014 and Northamptonshire County in 2018. His findings with Liverpool point to ‘a serious breakdown of governance’ of ‘a dysfunctional culture of intimidation’ and of ‘rule avoidance’.
To many people (possibly including those who told Caller’s team which skips to look in for the files that had been thrown out) the government’s decision to send in the commissioners is a logical one. However, for others it represents the heavy and dictatorial hand of Westminster interfering in local matters.
Liverpool City Council is the fourth local authority in the last 25 years to have government commissioners take control. For many working in the authority the only surprise has been how long it has taken for it to happen – council accounts for instance had not been signed off by auditors for the last five years.
No doubt, there will be many reasons why Liverpool City Council has ended up in this situation and I suspect some of these go back decades. However, what has come out very clearly in the Caller report is that there needed to be significantly more scrutiny of decision making which in turn should help to create more trust in those decisions within the local community.
The Caller report points to Liverpool needing to embrace ‘culture change’. Certainly moving their elections from thirds to full elections should help give greater transparency and accountability.
With Joe Anderson having stepped down as elected mayor, Liverpudlians will need to select a new mayor in May. Labour’s candidate, as chance would have it, is called Jo Anderson (no relation). If elected and the likelihood is that she will be, she will make history not only for being the city’s first female in the role but also the first black woman. Whoever the new mayor is will need to work closely alongside the government commissioners for the next three years.
Some will see the government sending in the commissioners as a Tory takeover of a (usually) Labour authority. Many others will welcome the move seeing it as an opportunity to get the council functioning properly again.
Although many positive changes have taken place in Liverpool in recent years, particularly around regeneration, the message from government is clear, local authorities can’t operate as personal fiefdoms (for either a politician or an officer); uphold the standards we expect, or we’ll come and do it for you.
Jenny Marshall is a director at Camargue