Do the Government Commissioners in Liverpool really understand what Liverpool needs?

Today’s Commissioners Report told us little that was new but reiterated the huge amount of work that needs doing to correct the Joe Anderson era in the Council

Today the Liverpool Commissioners first report on the state of Liverpool Council is released not with a bang but with a whimper with a written answer in the Commons and publication of the full report of the Department of Levelling up (DOLUP) website.

I found it quite disappointing. The report tells us little that is new; fails to recognise the huge improvements that have been and makes contradictory recommendations for the way forward.

In the light of that report, I have four key questions about the work, of the Commissioner team in Liverpool.

  1. Are they aware of how far Liverpool has moved on its improvement journey?

There is a clear feeling from the Commissioners that the improvement journey in Liverpool started on the day in June when they arrived. This is wholly incorrect. It has had three prior key trigger points:

  1. The arrival of Tony Reeves in the summer of 2018 began the process of stopping bad things happening. He not only did this but commissioned work within the Council through internal audit which led to the involvement of the Police.
  2. The departure of the former Mayor of Liverpool in December 2020 which enabled the process of improvement and reorganisation to begin to pick up pace.
  3. The publication of the Caller Report in March 2021 which recognised that the process of improvement was already underway but highlighted the gravity of the journey that still needed to be made.

Having been around in Liverpool for a long time and having been involved in work in a large number of poorly performing councils I felt the difference within days of Mr Reeves arriving. I know he stopped a loss of £13 million when he blocked a property deal days before it was due to exchange.

He created the internal audit report that has led to the Police involvement; the Commissioners Report; the departure of staff, the Caller Report and the arrival of the Commissioners.

Everything that we have subsequently found out about how bad the Council was being run would eventually have come out but an even greater cost than the £135 million that is a current estimate of loss in the Joe Anderson/Labour era.

  • Have they the experience in turning around a crisis council?

Max Caller was able to view the situation with understanding the situation in Liverpool because he has been involved in the turn around of a council in crisis when he moved to Hackney as its Chief Executive. None of the commissioners, although they have considerable experience, have experience in this ‘turn around’ world. It is not clear what they bring to the change required at a strategic level. I find it hard to discern what their vision is of a long-term plan and how their work will add to the long-term capacity building that our council requires.

  • Are they moving into areas where they have no competence?

The Commissioners have considerable experience in relevant parts of the operation of Council with the exception of the Chief Commissioner who is looking at the issues from the experiences of another sector which is no bad thing.

Clearly some of them are providing valuable support to our stressed teams especially in the troubled highways and regeneration areas. However, I have real doubts that they are adding anything when they come together as a team.

Liverpool suggested that they needed to have a Councillor or ex-Councillor as a Commissioner. That has been proved a correct approach because the Commissioners clearly do not understand the democratic element of governance. I have repeatedly asked them to justify their work with the boundary reorganisation and reduction in councillors. They have signally failed to do so but instead issued ill-informed dictats.

They are also showing concerns about the Council’s work in education and children’s and adult social care. I have the same concerns, but the council is beginning to address those problems with the appointment of a new Director Adult Services.

  • Are they costing too much?

I am concerned that there is mission creep here. The 4 commissioners quite rightly need travel and subsistence costs in addition to payment for their time. They are seeking to hire in external expertise at huge cost. Every penny we spend on them means a penny we are not spending on either enhancing our permanent staff or on front line services. The Council has now informed me that the costs of the Commissioners team at their expected number of days over 4 years is over £2,000,000 with on costs.

Turning Liverpool Council around will be a long haul. The Council is in a similar shape to when the Lib Dems took over from Labour in 1988. A council that was poorly led; had the third worst service delivery and the highest council tax being more than 20% above the next Council. This is just another way that we will be paying for Anderson’s blundering for years to come. Every penny spent on this work is a penny that is not being spent

It took us more than 4 years to get the Council running well and that was with a much more experienced political team and with much more money to spend from a Labour Government that wanted to help. In fact, the joke was that Liverpool was the best New Labour Council in the UK!

There is more bad news to come; there is more waste to be exposed; there is more work to be done at the centre of the Council before we can release savings for front line services. But the good news is that the problems are being bottomed out and the changes are being made.

All politicians in Liverpool, all officers, all partners and the Commissioners must work together to get the very best services for the people of our city. That’s a concerted action that the Lib Dems have pledge to join in with.

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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