Greater Liverpool needs a Seventh Leader

Liverpool Seventh leader

One of the details of the deal that Greater Manchester has done with government to achieve its outstanding devolution package is that the Combined Authority will appoint an interim ‘eleventh leader’ who will chair the organisation through to the transition that will see the city region elect a metro mayor.

It has been largely assumed that the ‘interim’ chairman would come from the existing group of council leaders who make up the Combined Authority. However I understand that it is now more likely that an additional person will be appointed to head the organisation for the next two years.

This got me thinking about the impasse that has been reached here in the Liverpool city region, and whether the appointment of a ‘seventh leader’ for our Combined Authority may assist in breaking through what is becoming another bun fight among the six men who currently run Merseyside. This latest Liverpool drama, with the pro and anti- metro mayor campaigns becoming increasingly vociferous and antagonistic, has left the rest of us as frustrated by-standers who can only watch with a combination of admiration and disappointment as the civic leaders of Manchester trail blaze on the devolution agenda; whilst Liverpool’s six Labour leaders fall out very publically on an almost daily basis.

What value could a ‘seventh’ leader add? Well perhaps if it was the right personality they could act as a much needed negotiator in an increasingly bitter battle that sees Liverpool and Sefton up against Wirral, St Helens, Halton and Knowsley in an almighty row over the notion of a metro mayor for Greater Liverpool.

A new face, a fresh pair of eyes, and if at all possible a character who would command the respect of all parties would surely only help what is becoming a debilitating disagreement among the city region leadership.

Identifying who that man or woman is and getting unanimous support for that person could prove as equally fractious, but I think it’s worth a discussion. There are certainly no shortage of candidates, though they may not thank me for suggesting their involvement in what external observers perceive as a ‘permanent and typical Liverpool problem’.

The MP for Wirral West and Employment Minister Esther McVey has the ear of ministers and would be well placed to act as an influential and, in the Labour leader’s case, non-partisan chair. She could give the Combined Authority the benefit of her ‘inside’ knowledge as to what Chancellor Osborne really needs to relinquish additional powers and resources; and draw on her experience as an entrepreneur in the city region when she will well recall the bewilderment the private sector feels when this type of nonsensical row is going on.

Another potential parliamentarian who would be eminently qualified to play a part in progressing the devolution debate is Liverpool Riverside MP Louise Ellman. Currently the well- respected chair of the influential Transport select committee in Westminster, as the former Leader of Lancashire County Council and a strong advocate of regional devolution for the Northwest over a twenty year period, there are few politicians who know their way around local government and the potential prize- and pitfalls- of the devolution deal that is being offered than Mrs Ellman.

Of course a less radical approach would be to appoint an individual already involved in the existing structures of Merseyside governance, and that would open the door for the chair of the Local Enterprise Partnership Robert Hough, or the talented head of Mersey Travel Councillor Liam Robinson.

The chances of this ‘seventh leader’ option being adopted are slim, to say the least. But in the absence of any positive movement on an issue that is the most important the city region will face politically in a generation, we need to do something that will break the existing log-jam. Does anyone else have a better idea?

Groundhog Day

The case for a city region governance structure is now won. On the back of the recent Scottish Referendum, and the concession of a huge number of powers to the Scottish Parliament, Westminster politicians reluctantly acknowledge that the devolution of powers to England’s regions can no longer be denied.

In terms of managing this transition of powers effectively, city regions are seen as the most natural model for a new level of government, and many existing structures are set up in this way anyhow, including Local Enterprise Partnership’s.

In Liverpool, depressingly and predictably, war has broken out once again between Liverpool’s elected mayor Joe Anderson and the leaders of the Merseyside borough councils over how such an organisation would look here.

The argument, on the face of it, may appear to be based more on personalities than anything else, but recent history tells us the problem of our disconnected city region goes back a long way before Joe Anderson came to lead Liverpool.

Mike Story and Warren Bradley had their own challenges with their neighbouring authorities during their time at the helm of the city council. Back then the shenanigans were put down to the fact that the Liberal Democrat led city was surrounded by Labour controlled boroughs.

Now the city and all the boroughs are ‘red’ too, it is obvious that a simple lack of support for brand Liverpool to be the focus for investment, marketing and economic growth is the real problem.

Does this matter to the business community? It absolutely does.

Whilst Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle get ready to celebrate being named as pilots for super combined authorities, with additional powers and more importantly resources, Liverpool once again engages in a bout of civil war which has led to:

  • Liverpool sharing an exhibition stand at MIPIM UK in London next week with Manchester – but Knowsley taking its own place at this expensive conference!
  • £18 Million of training and skills money being sent back to central government from Merseyside, as agencies failed to engage with businesses effectively or lobby government to loosen the burdensome bureaucracy that surrounded the initiative
  • The Marketing Liverpool agreement that saw all promotional activity come under a single management structure for the past year thrown into doubt as partners squabble over who should be doing and getting what.

It is this sort of internal chaos that has civil servants shaking their heads in disbelief and running to Manchester or Leeds or Newcastle. When you have a limited amount of cash to dole out, you invest it where you have confidence in delivery.

Capital of Culture, the Global Entrepreneurship Congress and the International Festival for Business are all very recent examples of the city of Liverpool delivering. Unfortunately, the city region partners choose not to accept this; or the need for a more co-ordinated and coherent approach across Greater Liverpool – and so here we are again – Groundhog Day!

We need a strategic Combined Authority. It needs to be led by a full time politician and figurehead. We need to get on with it before we fall further behind our northern counterparts.

The Mayor, the city region and car boot sales…

Combined Authority

Downtown Liverpool joined forces with the Liverpool Chamber of Commerce and Pro Liverpool yesterday morning to discuss the future of our city region with Mayor Joe Anderson and 200 business leaders.

The issues that have caused most controversy and consternation in recent weeks – the name of the proposed combined authority that brings together the six local authorities from across the Liverpool city region, and who should lead that body, were high on the agenda, but seemingly have still to be fully resolved.

As Liverpool’s leading politician Joe Anderson is clearly doing his best to cajole, compromise and convince his fellow colleagues from Halton, Knowsley, Sefton, St Helens and Wirral to do the right thing, but in the end he must resist giving in too much, otherwise the potential power and influence of the new body will be lost before it has even got off the ground.

That being said, one cannot do anything other than admire the passion and fire in the belly that Joe Anderson demonstrates when he articulates the case for Liverpool to collaborate not just with neighbouring districts but other core cities too in order to deliver continued progress and economic growth for his home town.

As the excellent Michael Parkinson of the University of Liverpool stated at the breakfast seminar, the opportunities that exist for attracting inward investment are all the more powerful if we can get the whole region rowing in the same direction. But his more pertinent point was this: With an ever shrinking pot of public funding, governments will want to spend their cash with partners they trust to deliver.

Manchester has that credibility in abundance. Liverpool city region, in no small part because of petty rows over name checking Halton in every strategy document, or marketing the latest car boot sale in Wirral as an official IFB event, has a reputation in Whitehall of being a ‘risky’ partner; a bit of a basket case.

Government ministers, particularly Eric Pickles, have been immature in taking advantage of a local row among Labour council leaders and MP’s with the absurd name he has saddled the Combined Authority with, but he should never have been given the open goal to shoot in to in the first place.

It is time for our local authority leaders to put their parochial agenda’s aside and accept Liverpool, once and for all, as the attack brand for the city region, and Joe Anderson as the best personality to lead a Combined Authority. Then Whitehall may take us a little more seriously than it appears to at the moment.