The City of Liverpool is poorly led and poorly managed. But even under Labour it could be a better council if we did the 5 things suggested here.
In my last but one blog, I indicated a whole series of problems that Liverpool Council has with openness, transparency, governance and political and managerial leadership. This was exemplified to me by the fact that Liverpool is one of the few councils that has failed to take up the offer of a free ‘Peer Challenge’ from the Local Government Association.
I have asked the council on a number of occasions to take advantage of this free service to no avail. The Peer Challenge is not an inspection but a review by councillors and officials from other, similar councils who hold up a mirror to the work of the council that they are visiting; review the council and make recommendations as to how that council could improve. The reviews can be about the whole council or part of it. It can be a week or three days depending on the subject area to be looked at.
Good councils have had a number of these and even pay for them when their free allocation is used up. They do so because every council can learn how to do things better. The good councils want to be the best councils. The mediocre councils hope to pick up a few tips and the poor councils, and Liverpool is definitely one of those, hope that no-one will notice them.
A challenge would be good but we don’t have to wait that long. There are things that we could put in place quickly:
- Abolish the position of Elected Mayor of Liverpool. Lib Dems do not believe that one was ever necessary. The whole of Liverpool now knows that! The creation of a City Region Mayor has changed the dynamics for the political and governance processes throughout the City Region. We have an influential Mayor at Regional level able to take the lead in key issues of inward investment, infrastructure, transport and training. He should have more power over police and the health service as well. That integration of service and strategic delivery which Liverpool Council needed to lead has now gone from our hands. Even Joe Anderson knows that the game is up. He has applied for two other jobs in the past year and got neither of them!
- Make the Political Leadership of the Council more accountable to the people of Liverpool. Whether it is a Mayor or a Council Leader there need to be far more opportunities whereby they can be questioned by the taxpayers and businesses of Liverpool. As far as I can see the Mayor cannot even be scrutinised by Councillors as he attends on a regular basis no scrutiny committees. There is little engagement with ordinary people but lots of meeting with vested interests and cronies
- Make Council meetings useful. Fortunately, we only have 6 a year but with the exception of the formal Annual Meeting the other 5 are a complete waste of time. The sole outputs from these apart from the Budget, and occasionally a key strategy is to listen to political rants. Every meeting we pass at least 6 motions and they all have just about the same ending. Requests the Chief Executive (or Mayor) to write to…. The reply is usually the same. A polite reply from a junior minister saying why the Government is really already doing what the Council wants and thanks for the letter. We all normally agree these motions unanimously so there is no real exchange of views. What if every motion had to conclude with a suggestion about things that the Council could actually do!!
- Reform the Scrutiny process. As well as the 6 council meetings, we are all a member of at least one Select Committee which is supposed to have three main purposes:
- To scrutinise the work of the Mayor, Cabinet and Council as a whole.
- To review Cabinet decisions that have been called in by councillors for review.
- To make positive suggestions about things that can be done within their reemit.
I went to four of the Select Committees during the last cycle of meetings. One was totally useless, one was very useful and the other two were of marginal use. The useless one was the Regeneration Select Committee which, like most of the Select Committees was poorly chaired and the agenda of which was a plethora of PowerPoints which did not enable members to get to the heart of issues.
The really good one was the ETS Select Committee. Here the Chair and Cabinet Member (Patrick Hurley and Lana Orr) have overthrown the suggested programme and involved all the members of the Committee and officers in a free ranging discussion about what could be looked at and what the Committee could seek to lead on for the Cabinet Member. Every single member of that Committee said it was the best Select Committee that they had been to.
- Reform the Managerial Team. Just as the political structure needs reviewing in the light of the creation of the LCR so does the management team. At the budget meeting, we suggested the deletion of the post of Chief Executive. Little did we know that our suggestion that we did not need one would be so quickly put into practice as we have managed for months with Mr Fitzgerald absent from the office. We should not fill this post, recognise that we only need 4 chief officers, create a new post of Head of the Paid Service and Regeneration and focus our work better and save money.
If the Council put into effect the things suggested here supported by a Peer Challenge from experienced members and officers there would be three immediate consequences:
- We would save up to £1million a year on bureaucracy and unnecessary staff.
- We would focus better and use the experience of both Officers and members in a better way to address the problems of the City.
- We would be much better informed both by a better scrutiny process and the active involvement of local people in decision making.
The sad fact is that most Labour Members have no experience of other Councils or our Council when it was controlled by anyone other than Joe Anderson. They think that what goes on here is good practice at best or the normal at worst. Neither of these things is true. My simple request to Labour members? Get out a bit, talk to and visit other councils and let the scales fall from your eyes!