What does a £100m Birmingham hotel tell us about Liverpool’s politics?
An investigation plots the local connections with a controversial union project — plus the rest of your briefing
Dear readers — it was another weekend of welcomes at the Post family homestead, with 19 more of you signing up as paying members. You’ll be sitting on the arms of the chairs soon. We’ve now got 680 of you on our paid list and it would be great to push that above 700 in the coming weeks. Today’s big story looks at a fascinating new podcast from Tortoise Media which explores the links between union Unite, Liverpool and a £100m hotel in Birmingham.
For the second weekend running we saw a Post debut. Leo Hardwick delved into archives of Victorian Liverpool with a twisting tale of arsenic, infidelity and injustice as Florence Maybrick was put on trial for the murder of her husband. Leo retraced Maybrick’s steps, visiting her Liverpool residence — Battlecrease House on Riversdale Road in Aigburth — and finding a place which “carries so many ghosts”.
Last week we sent out two great pieces to members. On Tuesday was Edward Haynes’ (another first-time Post writer!) powerful and personal look at what it’s like to try and navigate Liverpool’s nightlife scene when you have a disability.
“Since a lot of disabilities are not so visible, and every disabled body is unique, we all have bespoke needs. But spaces can’t plan for all needs. They only have sledgehammers. They do the broadest, most obvious things: wheelchair access and notes on social media about ‘everyone being welcome’”.
Then on Thursday Jack completed our three-part mini-series on mooted regeneration attempts in some of the more deprived areas of the city region. He went to Kirkby, where even the arrival of a new supermarket after 40 years of waiting hasn’t been enough to prevent two Labour deputy council leaders in succession being unseated by Independents.
Coming up for members we’ve got a great dispatch from the Cavern Quarter by Mollie on Tuesday and an essay on noise from David Lloyd on Thursday. Yes, noise. David’s been out around town with a decibel reader because everywhere is simply too loud. To access those two pieces, as well as all the rest of our journalism — from culture features to in-depth investigations — sign up as a paying member today. You will be supporting an independent company and helping to ensure our long-term future.
Alternatively, get into the festive spirit and give the gift of good journalism. Not only will you be the toast of the Christmas dinner table, you’d be saving yourself the hassle of darting around Liverpool ONE on Christmas Eve too. Win-win.
This week’s weather
This week’s weather forecast is sourced from the Met Office and it’s for Liverpool.
The big story: The £100m hotel and questions about cronyism in Liverpool
Top line: A new podcast from Tortoise Media explores the connections between the massive union Unite, two construction firms in Liverpool and the council. It focuses on a hotel in Birmingham where costs spiralled from £7 million to £100 million, which has caused many to ask questions about the relationship between the union and our city.
The hotel: In 2012 Unite general secretary Len McCluskey wanted to build a hotel complex and conference centre at a site in Birmingham. The project was budgeted at £7 million. Two firms from Liverpool — Purple Apple and Flanagan Group — were hired to work on the project. Neither were experienced working on a project that large before.
Context: Both Purple Apple and Flanagan Group had clear connections to the leadership of Liverpool City Council under Joe Anderson. When Anderson became council leader in 2010, he felt that regeneration projects under the previous Liberal Democrat leadership — such as Liverpool ONE and ACC Arena — refused to give local developers a look in. He told Tortoise that he wanted to “make sure local companies were able to take advantage of regeneration”.
And so, the Flanagan Group became beneficiaries of the new order. One source recalled having to field 8am calls from founder Paul Flanagan, who had a “direct line” to the mayor. Anderson even dined in Flanagan’s box at Anfield. Flanagan Group began getting council contracts and were linked to the controversial Beautiful Ideas Company, although Anderson says proper processes were adhered to. On their relationship, he tells Tortoise:
“I’ve known Paul about 15, 20 years maybe, not a great friend but a friend, a Labour Party supporter who used to go to Labour Party functions. His party would have a dinner table. I met him and had lots of conversations with him about Labour.”
While they were beginning to pick up council work in Liverpool, Flanagan Group also began getting work on major Unite developments — in Stoke, Swansea and the union’s North West office in Liverpool. According to Tortoise, in 2015 when the company moved into a new building on Liverpool waterfront Purple Apple Management were the agents when the building was on sale.
Moreover, Purple Apple was run by Mike Ryder, a close friend of Anderson. It looks like the fortunes of both the firms changed under Anderson’s leadership. Tortoise asked Unite which processes were followed when handing out the contracts, but the union didn’t answer. As Tortoise say:
“It’s a morass of connections and it’s hard to parse coincidence from convenience from cronyism, especially when Liverpool is a small city.”
In 2021, the hotel finally opened, costing an astonishing £100 million. McCluskey hailed it as a triumph, but when he stepped down from Unite not long after and was replaced by Sharon Graham, cracks emerged. Two independent reports valued the hotel at £27 million and £29 million. Huge amounts had apparently been wasted.
Bottom line: The podcast skillfully shows the intricate shared relationships between the union and Liverpool City Council throughout the 2010s. In their separate ways, both have since fallen on hard times. Liverpool’s issues have been well documented and Unite have launched an inquiry into the hotel disaster. But for a time, as Tortoise says, they were “almost soulmates”.
To listen to the full podcast, use this link.
Your Post briefing
Costs at the Festival Gardens site in south Liverpool have ballooned to £60 million for Liverpool City Council. Already staring down the barrel of a £73m budget gap, the news is very damaging for the council. The Echo have reported that the site — which was transformed and landscaped for the Liverpool International Garden Festival in 1984 but now lies derelict — was previously expected to cost £52 million to clean up and prepare for a housing developer to move in. This has now risen again, after it became apparent that further unforeseen remediation work would need to be done. Liberal Democrat leader on the council Richard Kemp said it was “an absolute scandal”.
The mother of Ava White — the 12 year old girl who was stabbed to death at last year’s Christmas lights switch on in the city centre after a Snapchat row — says she feels as though she is living a “life sentence”. It’s the first time Leanne White has spoken publicly about the night of Ava’s death, saying that she “remember[s] getting a phone call off my sister saying Ava had been stabbed… and I can remember thinking she's made some kind of mistake”. Ava was rushed to Alder Hey Children's Hospital after the attack and died shortly after. Leanne described her as a “practical joker,” saying “she was always hiding behind the doors popping out when I was doing the dishes”. Leanne will lead a walk alongside Ava’s 19-year-old sister Mia on Saturday to commemorate her death.
A number of historic buildings across Merseyside have been labelled “at risk”. Alongside heritage sites in Cheshire, Cumbria, and Manchester, six out of ten buildings that have just been added to Historic England’s Heritage at Risk Register are on our turf. The gothic-style Church of St Chad in Knowsley, England’s best surviving glassmaking tank furnace building World of Glass in St Helens and Thornton Manor in Wirral — which was damaged by a fire this year — are all listed. Historic England have awarded £920,000 to 16 sites in the North West in the last year and will now attempt to secure grants for the latest additions.
The world’s oldest cat is a scouser. 26-year-old Flossie, who now lives in south-east London, was found living in a colony of cats near a Merseyside hospital more than two decades ago when some nearby workers took pity on her and took her in. Flossie lived with her adoptive mother for 10 years, and for 14 more years with her sister. With both women having now passed away, Flossie — who is deaf and with failing eyesight but still “playful” — has been rehomed. Guinness World Records confirmed her as the oldest cat on the planet, with an age in human years of 120.
Home of the week
Few homeowners have the chutzpah to slap lime green paint on the garden gate and window frames, but the owners of this semi-detached Southport home have done so and reaped the benefits. Now you can inherit their handiwork for £190,000. It’ll need a lot of work done inside, but the back garden is spacious and has incredible rural views.
🎷 From Philadelphia to the Philharmonic: American soul group The Stylistics are in town on Thursday playing their greatest hits, which have earned them seven gold albums, five gold singles, two double gold singles, eight platinum albums, one double platinum album, four platinum singles, and a Grammy nomination. Not to be sniffed at. Details here.
🎅 Fizz, films and full permission to belt out classic Christmas tunes in the screeching tenor that drives your family mad. White Christmas will be playing at Fashion Hub Liverpool on Saturday and every song is a singalong. It’s £5 for the film and another £5 for refreshments but all proceeds go to a variety of charities (you can find out which here).
🎄 And a more calming Christmas pick. Also on Saturday there’s a ceramic bauble decorating class at John Lewis, to personalise this year’s decorations. If you’re less confident on the art side of things, Katie the professional calligrapher will be on hand to write on your bauble for you. Then you can sit back with a drink and a mince pie and watch. It’s £28.
🖼️ Art and grief go hand-in-hand in the latest event of Fion Gunn’s residency at the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Irish Studies. The workshop includes a short film created in Virtual Reality which considers re-framing personal loss. Some good news: “the artist promises not to make the event depressing” according to the description. It’s free but you’ll need to reserve a spot.
Our favourite reads
It’s been a hard few years to work in hospitality, but Eurovision could be the jump-start Liverpool’s struggling restaurants and bars have been craving. This BBC piece talks to a number of business owners, with Paul Askew — chef patron of Art Club — saying that “the city was bouncing” when Liverpool found out it would be on hosting duties. Askew sees it as the possible “saviour” of many venues. Meanwhile Liverpool’s Royal Court theatre is getting in on the action with Eurovision-inspired play A Thong For Europe — Liverpool Calling in the works.
“When David Johnson heard Bill Shankly give his famous speech promising to make Liverpool Football Club a 'bastion of invincibility' the young fan ‘believed every word’”, begins this obituary to Johnson in The Times, who passed away aged 71 last week. Johnson won four league titles for Liverpool during their years of dominance between the late 70s and early 80s. He scored six goals in eight England appearances too, including what legendary England striker Geoff Hurst considered the greatest headed goal Wembley has ever seen. After his playing career he helped set up football camps and was a much-loved matchday host at Anfield.
This piece in The Conversation looks at how Liverpool’s arts organisations and charities adapted and rose to the challenge during the pandemic. With their normal functions shut down, many instead pivoted to run zoom crash courses, partnered up with the NHS or provided shared phone reading sessions for people spending long days by themselves. It’s a great read for showing the extent some of these organisations went to. One arts organiser says: “I was phoning people asking: ‘Have you got food, have you been to your GP, did you get your prescription sorted?’ But sometimes they just wanted to have somebody to have a laugh with – some human interaction.”
Photo of the week
University of Liverpool staff took part in rallies last week as strike action hit universities across the country over pay, working conditions and pension cuts. Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images.
On a similar note, we’d still like to speak to staff at The City of Liverpool College in relation to an ongoing dispute over pay and conditions. If that’s you, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. We are always happy to speak to people off the record in the first instance, and we will treat your information with confidence and sensitivity.
Letters from readers
A great piece. Very true and a subject close to my heart as I use a 6 wheel electric wheelchair. Like Edward and Vie, I have to do a tremendous amount of research before going anywhere I haven't been before and I am often encumbered by lovely staff who are desperate to help but haven't got a clue what to do. Helpful hint for those staff: 1) Ask the disabled person. 2) Listen to their answer, ‘Sledgehammers and aeroplane signs: Liverpool’s nightlife must do more to accommodate disability’, Rob Elmour
Absolutely loved this article, so well written and full of atmosphere. It makes me want to do the whole journey from Battlecrease to St George’s myself. What an interesting tour that would be. Yes it highlights the clear differences between what men could do and get away with in those times, thankfully society has changed but the gutter press still have a lot to answer to. I’m so glad we have a paper like the Post that publishes interesting relevant articles. I’ve started to save them for Saturday morning and read them with my morning coffee. What a wonderful way to start the day, ‘Did Florence Maybrick really kill her husband?’, Carolyn Thornton