Bridge over troubled water
A tribute to Nelson Mandela descends into acrimony
By Jack Walton
In Princes Park, graffitied dissent takes the politest of forms. On a sign detailing plans “to commemorate the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela” with a new bridge linking to the island on the park’s lake, a handwritten scrawl simply reads:
“Please leave for wildlife. No Bridge. Thankyou”.
A tribute to Mandela in the park has been a long-touted project, first proposed not long after the activist and politician’s death in 2013. Just four years later, a charity called Mandela8 registered themselves, and have led the campaign since, submitting their plans for a bridge, and a memorial on the island in 2018.
But there’s a surprising amount of backlash to this. On the face of things, this is because the bridge will destroy the habitats of birds nesting on the island, according to those who oppose it. But beneath the surface, there are other reasons for the anger which are to do with the way it speaks to already established conceptions of how things operate in Liverpool: concerns over cronyism, conflicts of interest, hundreds of thousands of pounds being passed around with little semblance of due process. So are those concerns founded?
Sonia Bassey, a well known community figure and chair of Mandela8, tells me that vandalism of the sign has been a running problem that resulted in several reports to the police. “Initial graffiti was suspected racism and further graffiti was from people who do not want the bridge,” she wrote in an email.
So what’s going on here exactly? Nelson Mandela, after all, is universally considered a hero, both back home in South Africa where he helped to bring about the end of apartheid, and across the globe. But walking around Princes Park on a hot summer’s afternoon, it’s surprising how popular this view — gently laid out in marker pen — is. Surveying the public on the proposed bridge elicits a mixed-to-negative response. A few men fishing just a few dozen yards along think it's a waste of money, an elderly couple think it's a nice idea, a local bird watcher bemoans the “constant ignoring of the public” and a couple of others seem confused as to why I’m wandering around asking people’s thoughts on an as-yet-unbuilt bridge.
And for a story about a bridge, and some nesting birds, it’s amazing how worried everyone is about speaking on the record. One source tells me they put all this behind them years ago, at a point at which it was “taking over [their] life,” another says they wouldn’t dare speak out for fear of being labelled a racist. In an email, one nearby opposition councillor calls the bridge “a stunningly bad idea”, but when approached for comment decides it's probably best “to be cautious” and not say anything publicly at all.
Anyway, next month Nelson Mandela’s eldest daughter Dr Makaziwe ‘Maki’ Mandela and his granddaughter Tukwini Mandela will arrive in Liverpool to unveil the new project. Or at least part of it. It’s been roughly a decade in the making now, four years since the plans were officially lodged, and around £250,000 of council money — most of which via Section 106 payments — has been earmarked for the bridge and memorial. The first part of the project, a temporary walkway over to an art installation on the island is finally under construction, with the actual bridge to follow.
At least at first, the primary concern appears to be for the wildlife in the park. We're currently in the middle of the nesting season for birds, and the island on the lake has become a known habitat, with a lot of chicks currently nesting there. A petition against the project cites fears not only of disruption to the habitats during construction, but also of the continued access of the public once it is complete — especially the teenage nature-despising section of the public which allegedly exists. “Recent reports to the police cite teens trying to create a bridge themselves to reach the island to attack ducks and smash eggs in nests,” it reads. “And with authorities like the RSPCA and local voluntary teams being called out to untangle birds wrapped in fishing wire stuck in trees or unhook swans from discarded gear.” The usual discarded NOS canisters can be found discarded around the area.
The council told us an evaluation of the birds nesting had been undertaken before construction began, which “assessed the buffer zones around the areas of construction to ensure they were free of any nesting birds”. But as a small group of residents started to look into the project, it became less about the NOS canisters and nesting birds, and more about how exactly this project had come to be in the first place.
The primary funding for the bridge came in three chunks, in 2018, 2019 and 2021, via Section 106 money, which are payments required from developers to the council in exchange for having their developments okayed. They’re meant to be spent on community benefit in the area. Documents obtained by The Post showed that councillor Wendy Simon, previously the deputy mayor of Liverpool and briefly the interim mayor after Joe Anderson was forced aside amid corruption allegations in 2021, was one of three cabinet members on the Section 106 Sub Committee at the time the decision was made to sign off on two chunks of money (£100,000 on 2 August 2019 and £70,000 on 24 April 2021).
Simon’s name alongside recommendations to distribute such hefty sums raised alarm bells among some, given her seeming conflict of interest. The previous year, she jetted out to South Africa to meet Nelson Mandela’s family with the charity. Facebook posts from Bassey document this trip (the charity paid for themselves and their South Africa hosts paid for Simon, who had stepped in on Anderson’s behalf).
In the words of one community member who agreed to speak to us on the condition of anonymity: “It’s an absolute piss take — they’re getting loads of public money because they’ve all gone off to South Africa”.
So was there a conflict of interest? According to an FOI response in 2021, Simon “recalls making and declaring an interest at these meetings as required”, but given no minutes were taken we only have her word for it. Then again, as the council points out, prior to the Caller Report, minuting declarations where no pecuniary interest is at play was rarely standard practice. The South Africa trip the previous year never appeared on her register of interests either, but again, not declaring interests was par for the course at that time under Anderson. Regardless, it’s reasonable to suggest that in Simon’s case, the conflict of interest was such that she ought to have not been involved in the process at all.
A City Council spokesperson told us:
“Cllr Simon sought advice from officers due to her involvement as a patron of Mandela 8 and followed the advice she received. This role was honorary and without remuneration and Cllr Simon had no personal involvement in the project. Cllr Simon raised her status as a patron of the organisation at the Sub Committee but under the Council’s rules at that time, and the statutory regime under the Localism Act 2011, Cllr Simon was not required to declare this interest or to withdraw from the meeting. As a consequence, Cllr Simon’s declaration was not minuted.”
The fact that the money was obtained via Section 106, including £94,000 from the deeply controversial Elliot Lawless-led Parliament Place scheme in Toxteth — reporting in the Echo last month said that land is now held by a “secretive offshore trust” — has heighted the angers (Lawless was arrested as part of a corruption probe in 2019 but was never charged). “I don’t care if the lottery gives them money, [the lottery] has a reasonable process. Giving away council money, tens of thousands of pounds to your mates is another matter,” says one source. The council reminds me that the role of the committee Simon was sitting on is to make recommendations that still have to be ratified by the full cabinet and reiterates that the Section 106 process cannot be breached in this way.
The recipients of that Section 106 money will be the London-based gardening firm Wayward Limited, frustrating those who want to see the money reinvested in local companies or jobs. But the strangest part of this already-bizarre story is that, through all of this, the bridge didn’t even have planning permission. After the application had been submitted in 2018 it was allowed to lapse, suddenly being approved nearly four years later in 2022. The council say the delays here were in part due to Covid, which is understandable of course, but throughout most of that time a sign has been up in the park announcing the new bridge with no mention of the fact it hadn’t been approved.
The sign — stamped with the Liverpool City Council logo — has been up since 2019. “To the public witnessing that sign it would appear a foregone conclusion,” says the local resident. “That board is a statement of intent…and if you disapproved for any reason, it’s already too late”.
Anyway, when sizable amounts of money are allocated to a project such as this, proposing changes to a historic public park, community consultations will normally be undertaken to gauge public support. Those behind the project say that this process has been “extensive”, but once again their appears to be disagreement. Several of those in the community say it has been virtually non-existent.
The council says that after the initial plans were submitted, feedback was taken on board which resulted in the technical drawings being improved. However, it’s true that the two main consultations seemingly came after the plans were submitted. One of them, undertaken at the Africa Oye festival in 2018, came two weeks after.
“Whatever consultation that was done, [it] wasn’t what do you want, here are some ideas, but this is what we’re doing, do you like it? Not in any sense a meaningful consultation,” says one community member. Despite Bassey writing this week on Facebook that “full consultation” had been undertaken, and assuring me of this in an email — she noted a gathering of community groups in 2017, the large attendance of the Africa Oye festival and a stall at a community event attracting 200 visitors — few people we spoke to seemed to agree. “We have also continued to engage with residents via other activities we have done to agree quotes for the memorial stones, including a stall at Granby Market,” Bassey added. Wherever the truth lies, it all appears to be a bit of a mess.
Only moments before filing this story, I received a text. The signboard dissenter had struck again. This time, with a series of sheets of A4 extensively laying out the problems with the project, including fears the island was being turned into a “tacky theme park”. “NELSON MANDELA HIMSELF WOULD’VE BEEN APPALLED BY THIS SHEER ACT OF VANITY AND VANDALISM” read sheet five of eight.
It was far from the first strike. Bassey suggested to me in an email that one of the early acts of vandalism was racially motivated, and we know the police were called at one point. While I’ve seen no proof of that specifically, there were occasional moments during the reporting of this story that seemed like red flags, including one bizarre phone call in which a disgruntled resident suggested the end of apartheid had caused South Africa to spiral into chaos, among his reasons for opposition. Meanwhile Bassey herself has faced abuse on social media over the project (among other things) from would-be ‘anti-corruption’ campaigners. I can understand why some those who are genuinely just confused at the motivations behind spending a quarter of a million pounds on a bridge — disturbing habitats in the process — would rather stay clear, lest they associate themselves with the more conspiratorial-minded.
It is hard to work out what all this amounts to. There’s certainly a quasi-comic tint to the use of Mandela’s name in a place like Liverpool, with more than its own share of black or non-white heroes to choose from. It recalls the 80s and the accusations that a number of councils — many of which did great campaigning work — would fall over themselves to commemorate Mandela in any and every way possible, from random street names to tower blocks. In Only Fools and Horses, Del Boy’s tower block address is Nelson Mandela House. It’s intended as a piss take.
Perhaps more than anything though, much of the annoyance here appears to be at how things work. Or even, how things are perceived to work. Even if conflicts of interest do appear present to the outside eye, it’s more about an abstract sense that can easily fester — even in hyperlocal debates like this one — that the system is gamed against people not ‘in the in crowd’. As such, it’s hard not to think, at least from some quarters, that perhaps the annoyance at the bridge is only in part to do with the bridge itself and more in fact to do with something that has arisen in Liverpool’s political culture more broadly.
Liverpool has clearly become a place where people don’t have a lot of trust in recent years. For a decade under Joe Anderson a hardy band of outsiders cried foul at every council funding decision, appointment, or contract seemingly handed out on the basis of nepotism, whether there was good reason to or not, and were scoffed at as conspiracy theorists. When the Caller Report arrived in 2021, and Anderson was subsequently arrested (though still not charged) on suspicion of bribery and witness intimidation, it seemingly validated all their worst concerns. Since then, there isn’t a great deal of automatic goodwill.
And that’s the position we’re left in. The bridge is now under construction. The Mandelas will arrive in a couple of weeks. What should be a nice (if slightly random) tribute to a great man, is now tinged with doubt and talk of backroom deals. “Nelson Mandela would be spinning in his grave,” one source tells me. Or, according to an old lady walking through the park: “it seems like a nice enough idea”.