Special report: Inside Liverpool's turbulent politics
Critics say it’s a council in limbo - under weak leadership and in hock to the all-powerful government commissioners. Is that true?
By Joshi Herrmann, Robin Brown, Mollie Simpson and Harry Shukman
When asked to describe how he wields his influence, Mike Cunningham likens Liverpool City Council to a suspect that could be arrested at any moment. The 60-year-old was sent in by the government to act as lead commissioner almost a year ago, charged with turning around an organisation in crisis. But Cunningham is a police officer by training, previously serving as chief constable in Staffordshire and then as one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Constabulary.
The commissioners’ executive powers allow them to step in if they feel the council is veering off track. Have those powers ever been used? “No, not directly,” says Cunningham, before casting back to his years in uniform. “The fact that I have got policing powers when I speak to you as a suspect — I might not need to arrest you or to use my powers of stop and search, but the fact that those powers are available influences the way you speak to me. So I think the fact that we come with the authority of the [government’s] directions allows us to influence senior people and influence decision-making.”
It’s a revealing quote, and it illustrates how the presence of the four commissioners has warped the dynamics of a troubled council. In recent weeks The Post has spoken to a range of figures in Liverpool politics to understand how the city is being governed, some of whom say the Labour administration in charge seems to be “scared” of the commissioners. One of the figures we have spoken to is Cunningham himself, who gave us a rare interview about what he has seen on the inside, and how he thinks the council is progressing after the humiliation of the Max Caller report and the arrest of senior figures suspected of bribery and witness intimidation.
In recent months, some have suggested that Caller’s report went too far, including the former union boss Len McCluskey, who told us in an interview that the report was “unfair on Liverpool”. Cunningham says he has found evidence of all the problems identified by Caller, and in some cases those issues have been “more serious”.
“The Caller report was absolutely bang on the money,” Cunningham says. How bad have been things inside the organisation? “People have been arrested, people are being moved on,” he says. “And there are some vestiges of that way of doing things.” He refers to instances where council officers have claimed certain reports don’t need to be made public. “Now, there's nothing inherently sinister about the reports,” says Cunningham. “But we would remind officers that there have to be exceptional reasons why something isn't public.”
Early on, he says the commissioners had to establish their authority in the Cunard building. “There was some pushback, but nothing that became critical,” Cunningham says, when asked about those early tensions. “I've seen a lot worse in my career,” he adds, smiling. The commissioners were largely brought in to overhaul the departments that came in for heavy criticism from Caller, but according to the sources we have spoken to for this story, their influence has been much broader. “Some [people] believed we should focus only on highways, transport, and regeneration,” says Cunningham. “And we were clear that, actually, the directions [from the government] required us to be more expansive than that.”
To some, the notion of unelected government commissioners having significant powers over a city’s governance may sound troubling, even after the problems Liverpool has experienced. Cunningham — who has regular meetings with the mayor and chief executive, as well as signing off key decisions — clearly doesn’t see it that way: “We go where we feel we need to go,” he says. But preventing the scenario where the commissioners wield their executive powers is uppermost in everyone’s minds. “We want to make sure that ultimately, the commissioners don't have to press that button and take over the council in full,” says assistant mayor Harry Doyle.
Again and again, Cunningham comes back to the concept of culture. “The really tough nut to crack is the culture, because cultural change is always hard,” he says. But he also repeatedly emphasises that the current leadership of the council — both the chief executive Tony Reeves and the elected mayor Joanne Anderson — are committed to change and have worked effectively with the commissioners to achieve it.
Out of her depth
That’s one interpretation. The 10 months since last May’s local elections, when the new mayor was elected and appointed a fresh cabinet of mostly inexperienced councillors to lead the city, has been a difficult time, characterised by Cunningham as a period of “transition” but by other sources as a time of “stasis” and “drift”. Sitting in a restaurant near the docks, one veteran figure, who knows some of the key players, lays out an alternative reading of how the council is faring.
“[Joanne] has got no experience and she's out of her depth. So Tony is trying to run it. You've got commissioners looking over his shoulder, so everyone is frightened of doing anything. The officers don't rate the commissioners, the commissioners don't rate the council, so you've got this paralysis and drift.” And it’s not just off-the-record sources in mid-priced restaurants saying that the presence of the commissioners is distorting things. “I think Joanne and the cabinet are basically scared,” says Kris Brown, the Liberal Democrat councillor who chairs the new audit committee. “They are scared to challenge anything, otherwise the commissioners will be here longer.”
He says the mayor and her cabinet haven’t shown the strength and political nous to push through a distinctive agenda, instead falling back on doing what Reeves and his army of professional council staff recommend. “You just have to go to a committee or council meeting where everything is scripted and you can tell that everything is officer-written,” Brown told The Post, highlighting the decision to build up £10 million in budget reserves as an example of excessive caution. At a debate about the city plan last year, the cabinet read out short speeches that “were obviously written by the commissioners,” says Richard Kemp, the leader of the city’s Liberal Democrats.
“She and the rest of her cabinet are delightful people to work with, I think their hearts are in the right place,” says Kemp. But Anderson’s inexperience and a sense that the council lacks direction have emboldened her opponents. In Brown’s words, “Nearly everyone around her, bar her closest people, is closing in.”
Alfie Hincks, the ringleader of the Labour dissenters who voted against their party’s budget earlier this month, in part because of the decision over the reserves and the attendant service cuts, is one of those applying pressure. He claims other cabinet members also read from scripts and says the only time the mayor diverged from her prepared notes was when she challenged him over shaking his head during the budget meeting. “I thought good on her,” says Hincks, “at least she’s saying what she thinks”.
“She's the mayor and we're stuck with her,” says a Labour councillor from the party’s centre, who thinks Anderson has become bogged down in issues she inherited from her predecessor Joe Anderson. “She's too weak to impose her political will on the organisation, as opposed to the will of the council staff or officers,” says the councillor. “She's exacerbated that weakness by appointing an inexperienced cabinet; by not standing up to officers; by not imposing a political direction on the city.”
Without that direction, voices in the private sector say big investors are put off from coming to Liverpool. The city has received some of the lowest levels of inward investment of any major UK city in recent years, and changing that is near the top of the council’s to-do list. Frank McKenna, chief executive of the lobbying firm Downtown in Business, told The Post that some of his clients – including major property companies — have become deeply frustrated by the council in recent months, often failing to get the customary meetings with officials and waiting long times for planning decisions. “Companies like [the property firm] Bruntwood, who were saying Liverpool was their second priority, are now looking at Birmingham,” says another source with deep connections at the council. “Because there's clearly trouble at t’mill.”
Clean skin in this game
Sarah Doyle, the council’s assistant mayor and cabinet member for development and housing, whose age (she is 26, but turns 27 in July, she adds) and candour on Twitter have made her a lightning rod for this administration’s critics, says Anderson has been dealt a poor hand but is making progress.
When Anderson appointed her to the cabinet last spring and the commissioners entered the fray, “We were sort of in crisis management mode,” she told The Post. But Doyle says that some of the things that looked like inertia from the outside were really the consequence of a council that had to put new systems in place and work through massive backlogs (including 300 planning applications that needed to be validated). “It does feel that we're starting to turn the ship around,” she says. Politically, she says the voices who are critical in public are not representative of what she is seeing within the council, where she says the mayor’s effective neutrality in the Labour group — the fact she didn’t come from a particular wing of the party — is proving useful. “Joanne has pressed the reset button and people are coming together,” says Doyle.
Another member of Anderson’s senior team of councillors — referred to uncharitably as the “babes in the wood cabinet” by one opponent — is equally fulsome in praise for his boss. “Why I love working with her is because the way she leads, it's not all about one person,” says the other assistant mayor Harry Doyle, who is 25 and leads on culture and the visitor economy. “She does empower other people.” He says he is proud of Anderson’s recent social value policy and an increase in spending on leisure facilities. “The level of investments in neighbourhoods, for example, is something that we haven't seen in decades.”
The age and inexperience of Liverpool’s political leadership is a recurring theme in pretty much every conversation we had for this story, but one person who doesn’t emphasise it is Mike Cunningham: the ex-copper overseeing the whole operation. He describes the cabinet as “bright” and “willing to learn” and says “they appear to want the best for Liverpool”.
Cunningham also pushes back against the idea of a council that isn’t getting things done. He says better processes – like proper report writing and transitioning a “traditional council” to better technology systems – can account for some of the delays mentioned by investors and others. In fact, he says, given the problems of the past, it’s useful to have a team of people looking at things anew. “I don't see that as overly problematic,” he says about the inexperience in the upper ranks. “In fact, you could argue that it is absolutely required to have clean skin in this game”.
Hanging over everything is a political tidal wave to come, in the shape of major boundary changes, expected reductions in the number of councillors and the consultation about the future of the mayoralty itself. For now, the wave is cresting on the horizon. But everyone quoted in this story knows it will crash over Liverpool’s politics soon. Many leading figures, including the mayor and many of the cabinet, may be out of the picture entirely come next summer. As one source puts it, “There will be a lot of casualties”.
That’s next time on The Post.
In Part 2 of our special report on Liverpool’s politics:
A year of political upheaval ahead: “Some people must be absolutely sh***ing themselves,” one councillor tells us.
A city that needs investment – but does it want it? “I'm not anti-development,” says Sarah Doyle.
The council struggles to fill its ranks: “There will be some people who will need to move on,” says Mike Cunningham.
And a chief executive in danger: “When are these prosecutions coming? The longer it goes on, the weaker Tony is”.
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