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Living in exile, Joe Anderson thinks we've got him wrong
In his most in-depth interview since his fall from grace, the former mayor tells The Post: 'I can look you in the eye and swear on the holy Bible. I’ve never done anything to hurt this city'
By Jack Walton
Joe Anderson’s book hasn’t been written yet, but it already has a title: Guilty Until Proven Innocent. It’s all there in his head, the scores to be settled, the triumphs he feels have been overlooked. He lists them in some detail as I sit in the front room of his home in Old Swan, picking at a small platter of biscuits and cakes the deposed mayor of Liverpool has put out. He talks about Paddington Village, Festival Gardens, employment figures, hospitals and schools built, The Cunard Building — “bought for £10.5 million, now worth £40-45 million” — only pausing for breath to implore me to take another bourbon. “My legacy matters to me,” he adds, a statement that will reveal itself to be a grand understatement over the proceeding six hours of conversation.
His home is modest but immaculate. On a table beside his brown leather sofa sits a book of “favourite Catholic prayers”. His faith, he says, has helped him through his dramatic fall from grace. “It tends to get stronger in hard times,” he says. It’s been there his whole life though, including through his childhood when his alcoholic father would go on drinking binges, raiding the leccy meter to fund his habit and returning home abusive and violent, throwing plates at his mother, who on many occasions would usher the family away to a friend’s house for safety. They’d return to a home where the electricity had been cut off, and cook the rest of the week’s meals under a paraffin stove using methylated spirits from the local chemist.
It was early one November morning two years ago that 21 police officers burst into his house. It was 7am and Anderson was still in bed, but at the kitchen table he had set up all his equipment ready for the morning’s cabinet meeting. His wife — having just returned home from an early morning dog walk — was in floods of tears as he was hauled away to the station. He sat in a police cell wondering whether it was game over for his eight-year stint as mayor, emerging three times for questioning.
Two years have passed, and we’re no closer to knowing whether or not Anderson committed any crime. The investigation is still open but no charges have been brought. Which, though far from irrelevant, isn’t really what I’m here for. What I want to know is how Anderson is doing. Because however you view it, going from being the most powerful man in Liverpool, said to be able to snap your fingers and get real estate erected, to being the subject of a police investigation and widespread ridicule, can’t be fun.
From the sounds of things, he certainly has plenty of scores to settle. There’s former council allies Nick Small and Ann O’Byrne (“hypocrites with no scruples”), government minister Grant Shapps (“a total tithead”), local Liberal Democrat leader Richard Kemp (a man so deceitful he could “crawl under a snake's belly with a top hat on”), most of his former Labour colleagues who haven’t reached out to him since his arrest (“spineless”), former Labour MP Peter Kilfoyle (“a boring old codger”), Lancashire Police (“utterly clueless”), Max Caller (a “nobody”) and of course, former council chief executive Tony Reeves (redacted).
The popular image of Anderson was as a city mayor in the traditional, even American sense, but with a hardy Scouse twist; passionate about his city but not to be crossed. Dealmaker and kingmaker; somewhere between Mr Monopoly and Phil Mitchell. It's a characterisation that befits the folklore idiosyncrasies of the city; where the lines between politics, business and criminality are said to smudge.
As the newly elected mayor in 2012, he bemoaned how local developers hadn’t been given a fair shot in Liverpool, and said that it should change. Very quickly it did. The likes of Flanagan Group, led by Paul Flanagan, Liverpool born-and-bred developers, suddenly found themselves landing multiple contracts with the council. A recent podcast explored Anderson’s relationship with Flanagan, how they became friends and would frequently drink port together at a local hotel. Everton-supporting Anderson even visited Flanagan’s box at a Liverpool game.
Flanagan Group is just one example, there are others, but they make a good example of how certain individuals saw their fortunes flip in the Anderson years: including nine acres of council land they were given for free in 2016. They were able to sell one piece of the land they’d been gifted for £1, for £1.6 million. These are the kind of stories one source calls “par for the course” under Anderson. Many of them were documented on Peter Kilfoyle’s blog — Anderson replies that Kilfoyle was “probably onto his second bottle of wine” when writing most of these posts.
The grey area is whether or not Anderson was himself pulling strings to get his friends ahead. He insists that those who make such allegations have “a fundamental misunderstanding of how the council works”, and that processes are in place in which the council’s statutory officers can veto contractors they are unsure of. Which is true. His many detractors would of course say: yes, but that process was rigged.
A figure in the property industry who has dealt directly with Anderson tells me that “an incredibly tight-knit gang were repeatedly pushed to the top of the chain of command.” This is a comment that gets made a lot. The source adds: “Whether or not you can prove Joe was pushing them up, I doubt you can very easily, but somehow or other the same faces got all the work”.
Ever since his arrest, Anderson has vociferously denied that he did anything wrong and he does so again in the interviews for this story. He rejects point blank the most serious allegations against him, like the suggestion that he took bribes, as well as the more obscure ones — like that he sent himself Freedom of Information requests using fake accounts to undermine then-council chief executive Tony Reeves.
So I try a different tack. What about regrets? Does he regret getting so close to developers who were getting deals from the council? “If I had my time again I’d probably keep more of a distance, yeah, but hindsight is a wonderful thing”.
Throughout our time together, I put this same question to Anderson a number of times. Do you regret anything? He tends to give half-answers, as though to concede any ground is to concede it all. As in: do you regret using £89,000 of council money to fight a legal case against Chesterfield High School after they sacked you from a £4,500 a year job whilst you were mayor? He says he does, but he regrets taking the advice of former senior council colleagues, who he claims told him to do this. Or, do you regret your son David’s firm Safety Support Consultants being subcontracted to work on the demolition of the Churchill Flyovers on the “direct instruction” of council officials, despite having no experience doing such work? “I regret how it looks, but I didn’t even know about it,” he says. And again: “hindsight is a wonderful thing”.
It’s a good thing that hindsight is wonderful, though, because hindsight is mostly what Anderson is left with. He tells me he keeps himself busy with his grandkids, and when one of them bursts through the door during our time together, he perks right up. But his new life also includes a lot of time spent stewing on the sofa, looking back. A favourite tale of his is the time he supposedly “screwed” Grant Shapps out of £13 million: “dead easy”. To cut a long story short, Shapps, then housing minister in the Cameron government, had heard Ringo Starr’s childhood home in the Welsh Streets was to be demolished. “Sensing a photo opp,” at least in Anderson’s telling, Shapps rang up the mayor asking how much the government would need to commit to save it along with some surrounding homes.
Anderson asked his council officers for a rough price, and they told him somewhere around £4 million. When Shapps rang back, Anderson told him they’d need £13.5 million. Shapps gave the green light. Not long after, the minister was in town for that photo opp. “He was standing there posing for the cameras with his sleeves rolled up. If only everyone knew what had really happened”.
He laughs heartily as this story concludes. This stands out, because Anderson doesn’t laugh too often. He sits in his tracksuit with Sky News running in the background at a kind of ambient level. I get the sense he spends a lot of time sitting in this spot, with this setup. He talks about “misconceptions” and “smears” in granular detail then apologises for “rambling on” or “boring you”. Within days of leaving his house he rings me multiple times to correct himself or add in details, but acknowledges that he “probably sounds like a crank”. I don’t know that he sounds like a crank. But it sounds like the experience of living in limbo, waiting to see what Merseyside Police will do with their very drawn out investigation, is taking a toll.
Everyone in Liverpool knows chapter and verse about Anderson's supposed mistakes, faults and maybe even crimes. They have been documented over hundreds of pages in official reports and on dozens of newspaper front pages. But I was also interested in finding out from people who know him what they think he got right — why he became such a well known mayor in the first place?
A few responses come back, but it’s telling that no one will put their praise on-the-record. One source talks about Michael Shields, the Liverpool supporter wrongly convicted of murder in Bulgaria in 2005, whose freedom was won in part through Anderson’s campaigning. Another talks about how Anderson’s force of personality was useful for “getting things done”. Another tells me “Joe was tremendous” during Liverpool’s bid for the 2022 Commonwealth Games and that he “impressed a lot of very powerful people”.
Of course, he was a very powerful person himself. The sixth most powerful Labour politician in the country, as he corrects me when I tell him I recall he was once ranked in the top ten. During the pandemic his profile reached its zenith and he was giving interviews almost daily, often to TV channels in China or America. Upstairs somewhere he has a letter from Boris Johnson commending his work through the crisis. But it was also early in the pandemic when it all began to unravel.
Anderson believes he can pinpoint the beginning of the end quite precisely. It was a speech, he says, that he gave after securing the Labour Party’s nomination to run for a third term as mayor of Liverpool with 94% of the vote in 2020. In it, he spoke about how Liverpool City Council had suffered greater losses than any other local authority during Tory austerity, £426 million in a decade. “I will refuse to make any further cuts to our budget because we are now at the stage where doing so will mean closing down vital services that people rely on,” he said.
Allegedly, a senior Whitehall civil servant rang Reeves in concern, and Reeves went in to see Anderson asking what he had meant by the comments. “I meant what I said,” he tells me. Anderson’s view is that at this stage, the deterioration of his relationship with Reeves accelerated, with the chief executive attempting to protect the council’s relationship with the government. He believes Reeves began blocking his ideas, such as building new council houses or relocating council staff to an unused school building in Speke. It was Reeves who was the hero in the government’s bombshell Caller Report, and — in most accounts — an orchestrator of Anderson’s downfall.
The irony is that it was Anderson who fought for Reeves to take on the chief executive post. When there was uncertainty on the appointing committee, he put in a good word. “Do you hate him?” I ask at one point. He umms and errs and considers the question carefully. “Tony Reeves loved telling lies”.
Anderson’s biggest gripe with Caller is that he wasn’t given the opportunity to explain himself (this prompts a lengthy tangent about the “Maxwellisation” principle — look it up). Anderson is mentioned 82 times in the report and the general impression it gives is of a piggish bully with his snout in the trough. Many people would say that’s a pretty accurate description, but it stands to reason he should have been granted an interview. One source tells me “Caller was undeniably sexed up” and others think he was overly focused on blaming Anderson.
But even if this is true, Caller did speak to dozens of his former colleagues. “Why do you think no one stuck up for you then?” I ask. “That’s a very good question,” he replies.
Reeves has now gone too of course, disappearing under a cloud after the council’s humiliating energy bill gaffe, which cost the city £16 million. Anderson says he “had a good laugh” at Reeves' downfall, given that he’d “claimed I’d done wrong, then fucked up worse than I ever did” but adds that ultimately it is the people of the city who will suffer the consequences. Nonetheless, it’s the second time he laughs heartily and looks enthused.
A few weeks later I find myself sitting in the passenger seat of Anderson’s car gazing out into the drizzle as diggers roam the Festival Gardens site in south Liverpool. We’re on a kind of tour of what he sees as his proudest achievements in office. He explains how he purchased the site in front of us for £4.5 million and secured £20 million from the government for remediation work. Now, he says, the value is many tens of millions.
“They should call me Best Value Joe,” he remarks. I mishear this, and reply: “who calls you Best Value Joe?” Anderson laughs. “No, no, that’s what I call myself. Best Value Joe. I look in the mirror and say: ‘look, it’s Best Value Joe’”.
He’s joking, but it’s the kind of joke people make where the humour is a front for what they actually believe. Perhaps more than anything else, the Caller Report’s assertion that of the 65 deals it looked at, zero represented best value for the city, is what he finds most hurtful. Getting value, doing deals, being the toughest bastard in the boardroom, that was meant to be his thing.
Our drive starts on Hope Street at the Everyman Theatre, where Anderson tells me he handed over the freehold for free, “a masterstroke” which helped revive the venue, and one that few people even know about. “This is what no one seems to get,” he says. “Best value isn’t just about the money you sell something for. They now pay the loads to the council in business rates and they’re one of the most culturally important sites in the city. That’s best value”.
Anderson is full of beans as we weave our way around the city. Paddington Village, he says, is “totally and completely [his] doing”, and talks about how he — along with other figures such as Sciontec’s Colin Sinclair — put together a killer pitch to bring in the Royal College of Physicians ahead of other big cities. Ten Streets, Project Jennifer, the Bramley-Moore Dock Stadium (which “would never have happened” without his intervention), countless hotels and housing developments and so on. The car barely travels 100 metres at any point without him pointing and launching into a minute-by-minute account of how a dramatic deal was thrashed out. His mark is everywhere in this city, at least in his telling.
The tour is supplemented by a 37-page document awaiting me on the backseat that Anderson has written himself. It lists just about every single Labour “achievement” over his mayoral stint, from major developments to things like 3G football pitches at schools or Liverpool being ranked as TripAdvisor’s third best UK travel destination of 2018 (it isn’t exhaustive though — Anderson has left annotations in red saying things like: “flesh out!”).
The tragicomedy of this image isn’t lost on me. A fallen mayor, largely rejected by his city, driving loops around it pointing at his achievements in the knowledge that few people will likely care. But it does strike me that there is at least an element of revisionism in appraisals of Anderson. Whilst mayor he was largely regarded as a powerful can-do figure, whose abrasiveness and desire to develop the city quickly made him enemies. Since the arrest he’s now often portrayed as cartoonish, a bit of a joke and a chancer. “Joe certainly exaggerates his role in a lot of stuff that happened, but if he was that much of a joke he wouldn’t have been in the position he ended up in,” says the property industry figure I spoke to. “A lot of people tend to write it all off because he’s now such a pariah”.
Anderson’s arrest still casts a long shadow, and clarity doesn’t feel any closer. The two years the council has had to supposedly clean up its act have merely seen a continuation of the farce. Stalled development sites remain dotted across the map; the city’s reputation continues to sink. Peter Kilfoyle is unforgiving: “Justice must not only be done but be seen to be done, he wasted so much money it’s incredible”.
Regeneration expert and University of Liverpool lecturer Michael Parkinson is more diplomatic, saying that it’s “really important” that the case is heard as soon as possible. “Nobody knows exactly what’s involved and for the sake of the city people need to know what the story is”. And a well-connected source outside the council says: “I find myself at a loss. He’s a broken man. Whatever you think of him, he deserves answers.”
And a broken man he is, he’ll admit that. He’s become a “recluse,” he says. He’s stopped going to Everton games, or going out at all for that matter. He’s had death threats, hate mail and his grandson has been mocked in the school yard. The number of councillors he maintains contact with can be counted on one hand. “This has been a really hard time for me,” he says. “There’s been moments where I’ve been really depressed.”
Partly this is because his political downfall has coincided with personal tragedy. By the January after his November arrest Anderson had lost three siblings in relatively quick succession; two brothers and a sister. On top of that, two of his sons were diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma, a form of cancer. It isn’t hereditary, “the doctors said it was a million to one,” Anderson says. One son is in remission and the other recently finished treatment.
There’s no doubt he has huge questions to answer. There’s also no doubt that the uncertainty hanging over him allows people to fill in the blanks as they please. Some will tell you they know “for a fact” Anderson was the recipient of back-handers and spent his weekend bobbing around in yachts, not just in the headlights of Aloft, but Venetic. Others will say he's been “crushed financially” and lives on a pittance.
Wherever the truth lies, and whether or not it eventually all comes out in the wash, the public’s mind is made up. Mayor Joe is a guilty man. Our time at its end, we get out of the car and walk around the streets where he grew up in tenements close to the city centre. He seems reflective, and tells me he doesn’t expect any favours when I write this up. “I know what people think. But I don’t believe it's the majority. The majority aren’t stupid,” he says.
I’m not sure he really believes that. Anderson, once the city’s most powerful man, no longer has any control of the narrative. One more time for the road, I ask: any regrets? This time he considers it more carefully. “There are things I could’ve done differently, of course,” he says after a pause. “But I can look you in the eye and swear on the holy Bible. I’ve never done anything to hurt this city.”