37 years a councillor (and still going strong!!)

Of all the work I do as a Councillor the stuff I like doing best is working within my Church Ward with my fellow Councillors Liz and Andrew Makinson. How can we speak in the Council Chamber with authority and devise practical solutions for our City’s problems unless we go and talk to the people of the City?

At midnight tonight I complete my 37th year as a Councillor. I was first elected in1975 for St Michaels. In 1980 the ward was split and I was elected for the Dingle Ward and left the Council in 1984. In 1992 I re-joined the Council as a Councillor for Picton Ward and when that ward also disappeared in 2004 became a Church Ward Councillor and, despite many efforts to unseat me have remained here ever since.

Many things have changed in that time mostly for the good. As Chair of the Housing Committee in 1979/81 we began what became the largest housing cooperative programme in Western Europe. We built them as we demolished the tenement blocks of the 1930s which were good for their time but outdated and largely unloved just 50 years later.

I remember the amazement when we were provided with complaints pads with three types of paper. You kept one, gave one to your constituent and sent one to the Council. Now we zip off emails and to prove our point can attach photographs to them. In 1975 the only way to communicate with our constituents was to go and knock on the door, have many surgeries and hold public meetings. Now public meetings are a thing of the past and we regularly get roasted on social media.

Council meetings were worth going to with real characters making real speeches which were distinctly better than the low level invective which passes for oratory in the Council these days.

In some ways the scale of the Council has changed to. In 1975 every school in Liverpool was under our control as was the Liverpool Polytechnic which became Liverpool John Moore’s University and a variety of colleges which came together to become Liverpool FE College. We had more than 72,000 council houses a figure that I remember because I entertained the Minister for Housing from the Isle of Man on a  visit to the City and he pointed out that that was almost as many as the total number of people on the island!

Having all that delivery to do, however, meant that we didn’t have time for much strategic thought. We moved from delivery crisis to delivery crisis without being able to think too much about the long term. When Labour, much to our amazement, moved that all houses owned by the Council should be subject to stock transfer to housing associations we supported their plan. We then went on to deliver it when we retook control of the Council in 1998.

But much of our ability to change things in our City has been taken away from us. The money has gone to other bodies. Our powers were whittled down under both Tory and Labour Governments and it was only with the Localism Act in 2012 that we began to get just a few of those powers back although the Deputy PM John  Prescott had started to achieve a few things on our behalf in the Blair Years.

It’s never been easy to be a councillor in Liverpool. We have been a poor city since the 1920s when the wealthy moved out under the Mersey to Wirral or out to Maghull and Formby. There have always been more challenges than money or will to do anything about them. However, the last 10 years for 8 of which I have been our Party Leader have been the most difficult of all.

A Shakespearian character tells us, “the evil that men do lives after them the good is often interr’d with their bones”. That is certainly true of the Coalition Government. At times, I despaired of some of the actions taken. I don’t regret the fact that 3,000,000 people were taken out of income tax and that all workers benefitted; that rich people could put less money tax free into their pension pots; that state pensions for the first time in 25 years began to catch up with earnings; and that the amount of energy produced by wind and solar power doubled.

The Coalition made mistakes. They didn’t explain that many of the global cuts they introduced were actually in the last Labour budget. Crucially, for Liverpool’s sake, they failed to realise the distorting effects of council tax and a failure to revalue property, which caused huge losses to the council’s budgets. What was done out of necessity up to 2015 where there was a Lib Dem restraint was done for political reasons after 2015 when basic budgets like Public Health were cut.

Liverpool however did not help itself. It employed a top tier of staff who were not up to the job. It encouraged a Wild West mentality that brought inappropriate and poor quality development to the City. It had financial programmes that allowed us to pay a fortune in redundancy payments and then have to employ new staff to cover essential positions where people had been paid off.

I think that the last decade will be seen as a lost decade for Liverpool where the many good things that were done were too often overshadowed by the bad; the incompetent; and the poorly explained. In particular, the City Centre with its huge leisure and hotel offer has been improved building on the success of the 2008 European Capital of Culture. I believe that even in the uncertain shadow of Covid-19 the next decade will be better for Liverpool. We have a strong team of officers in place and over the past year the two main Parties have been far less adversarial as we have tried to work together to put Liverpool on a sound footing. All my experience locally, nationally and internationally leads me to believe that for Liverpool the best is yet to come.

So after this reflection its back to the grindstone; there’s case work to be done and a complex paper from the Local Government Association to review. If I’m going to do another 37 years (which means that I will be 104!) I must keep those electors happy!

About richardkemp

Leader of the Liberal Democrats in Liverpool. Deputy Chair and Lib Dem Spokesperson on the LGA Community Wellbeing Board. Married to the lovely Cllr Erica Kemp CBE with three children and four grandchildren.
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