This brilliant Liverpool panorama has been designed by my good friend Tom Maguire who has also designed a Scouse passport! Will it come to that? Possibly not but we should set our ambitions for the future high!
So now the dust has settled and we have had time to think more and harder about the results of the vote last Thursday. I’d like to be able to tell you that on reflection I think things won’t get as bad as I first thought. That would be untrue. I now think that will get even worse than my first thoughts!
I mentioned on Friday that I had agreed to work with Mayor Anderson on dealing with the immediate future. I do this not because Joe and I have forgotten our differences but because the immediate needs demand that all of us should get on with dealing with some huge immediate problems.
Those problems are immense. Just 18 months ago we started a five year programme of investment in infrastructure, training and employment initiatives with the support of the EU. That amount across the City Region amounted to some £270 million. But it is not just that amount that is affected. The money was used as part of a cocktail of funding from council resources, central government and the private sector.
We need to understand urgently which schemes will be affected. In theory we have two years before we leave the EU. But will we be allowed to continue to spend until that time? Will we have our programmes stopped not in retaliation but because we could not complete them within the timeframe set for the final departure.
Some of the programmes are capital programmes which would, in any event have last longer than the immediate EU time frame. Some of these programmes are funded by loans from the European investment Bank which might not now be prepared to invest at all in what will shortly become a none-member state.
We don’t know the answer to these questions but not knowing will itself cause problems. Uncertainty is never good for trade and investment. There will be a huge slowdown in certain types of schemes in the area even if they do eventually pick up again. This could mean that up to £1 billion of work in the City Region is stalled or will be scrapped. This money will not be replaced by the Westminster Government.
The Liberal Democrats are the only Party apart from Labour to be on all 6 Liverpool City Region councils. We are, therefore, the major opposition party in the region. I have consulted all my Group Leader colleagues and we have agreed that all of us will work, wherever possible, to deal with the sorts of problems, and more, mentioned above. This does not, of course, prejudice our own Party positions or the positions of the Councils to which we belong. In two weeks’ time we will be meeting as a Group of Leaders to consider our position on a range of issues including the adoption of our own candidate for the mayoral elections next year.
But that is the short term. I have my own views on the medium to long-term which are mine and mine alone but which I throw out now to invite discussion.
My good friend, Tom Maguire, recently designed a Scouse passport and a whole series of gifts and illustrations to back up his passport. I don’t think that it will ever come to that but we have to realise that in many ways the power of nations is waning anyway. Increasingly across the World city region works with city region to bring economic, cultural and educational potential to a higher level. Some of these City regions are huge. Places like Mexico City; Istanbul; New Delhi have populations way in excess of 17 million. They are huge economic and political realities with many opportunities to do things together.
This, to my mind must be the ultimate aim of our ambition. We must not wait for crumbs to drop from the table of Westminster and London we must learn to seize the opportunities for ourselves. That is why Lib Dems generally supported the deal which created the Liverpool City Region. The deal on offer is not brilliant but we believe that it could be the start of something much more important.
The LCR is a place with a population of about 1.7 million people. It has a huge port; four universities, 3 football clubs and a huge international reputation enhanced by a large of number of people from all over the world who visit us on a daily basis for the Beatles, Golf, Commerce and learning and every other reason under the sun. I believe that if we brought together the best of our politicians, academics, business people and community leaders we could create in our City Region a body and a region which could surf across the choppy seas in which we operate.
The City Region currently does not have a cohesive and coherent vision for the City Region for the next 20 years based on a sound analysis of our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. The City Region does not yet have a coherent view about how it projects itself in the UK; Europe and the rest of the World.
Our City Region cannot be all things to all men. We need to pick up those areas of commerce and industry where we have the potential for growth or where we need to arrest decline. Employment; trade; jobs call it what you will is the area that must attract our attention and efforts above all. We then need to make sure that the public; private and academic sectors pitch in behind those efforts.
These criticisms should not be taken too far. These are still early days for the City Region and all acknowledge that much still needs to be done. But we will never be big if we think small. We will never have a long-term future if we confine ourselves to short-term thinking processes.
The City Region as presently constituted does not have the intellectual fire power in place to deliver both the vision and the programmes which will flow from it. We need to recruit a new team of officers at City Region level and sprinkle them with people from the Universities and business. Not just as Board members but actually in the structure of the officer and member secretariats. Ideally we would attract in to run the LCR people with international experience of diplomacy and trade. Perhaps we could snaffle a top civil servant from BIS or the Foreign Office?
We need to look at the political structure of the City Region Board. At present this is just composed of Labour politicians. It needs to be changed by adding in representatives of opposition parties even if they are only there to advise and do not have a vote.
The scrutiny process needs much greater inputs and much more publicity. Scrutiny should not be about trying to catch the other lot out. It should be about a constructive probing of what is happening internally and what could happen externally. That is what happens when the Select Committees of the House of Commons are at their best but does not really happen within local government.
We need to build on Liverpool’s office in London and make it the City Region’s Embassy in London. We need to consider opening an ‘Embassy’ in Brussels. In the short-term we need to negotiate our own Brexit conditions and not wait to hope that someone sent from London will understand our needs. In the longer term we will need someone ‘over there’ to replace our MEPs and CoR members in a place which will still exert a massive influence over our lives.
As we face the future we simply must do more together. We need to create a neutral space where people from different political parties and all sectors can come together in way that difference is respected and that plans and proposals are modified in the light of a wider experience and knowledge than can come from intelligent and purposeful discussion. We should not constrain ourselves by what is in the Deal with Government. We should set our targets well beyond that and do anything that we think is important providing that it is not actually forbidden by law.
If that is what Mayor Anderson is proposing I am up for it. Now is not the time for amateur posturing and tribalism. The need is too great for that. Now is the time for big thinking, big ideas and a unity of purpose. If we can achieve this we can survive Brexit; we can survive what a Tory Government throws at us. We can survive and we can thrive.