Saturday, 02 August 2014

The man on the Mersey

Joe Anderson’s leadership of Liverpool Council has landed him in hot water with the prime minister. But, as Martin Hilditch finds out, David Cameron’s criticism isn’t what gets him hot under the collar.

Joe Anderson runs the council that the Conservative Party loves to hate. If you can judge a man by the quality of his enemies then the Labour leader of Liverpool Council is something of a political heavyweight. Both prime minister David Cameron and communities secretary Eric Pickles have lined up to criticise Mr Anderson’s approach over the past six months.

The key line of attack has been the council’s huge cuts to its Supporting People budget from £36 million in 2010/11 to £27 million in 2011/12. In February Mr Cameron suggested Mr Anderson was making ‘politically motivated cuts’ and raised the spectre of Liverpool’s militant past - it was run by the extreme left-wing of the Labour Party in the 1980s - by adding, ‘I remember a time when Labour leaders stood up to Labour councils that were making these decisions’.

A hasty meeting with Mr Pickles followed, after which Mr Anderson said that Mr Pickles recognised tough decisions had to be made and the two had ‘buried the hatchet’. Weeks later Mr Pickles demonstrated that as hatchet burying goes, he favours the ‘straight in the middle of the back’ approach by stating on the BBC’s Newsnight that Liverpool seemed to be ‘glorifying in cuts to the most vulnerable’.

So is Mr Anderson, who has been leader of the council since Labour took control of the city last year, the canny axe-man that Mr Pickles would have us believe? Can he really be the slavering militant Mr Cameron makes him out to be? If not, what steps is he taking to protect Liverpool’s vulnerable communities in these tough times and what do housing providers in the city think about his actions?

Sitting behind a desk in his roomy office slap in the middle of Liverpool city centre, Mr Anderson swats aside the accusations that have been thrown at him with a casual disdain. ‘With the greatest of respect to the prime minister, I have been insulted by cleverer people than him,’ he states with a smile that gives the impression he secretly enjoys the political rough and tumble.

‘He needs to get his history right and he needs to know me before he makes those comments. I stood up against militancy in this city.’

It is also true that the probable reason the 53-year-old has attracted so much ire nationally has little to with Liverpool’s cuts. The most likely explanation is the fact that he pulled Liverpool out of the prime minister’s big society project in January - it’s worth noting that the government’s attacks on the city started shortly afterwards. The move was an embarrassing slight for the prime minister as the city had been one of four areas selected to pilot the scheme, which aims to expand the role of the voluntary sector and move power into the hands of councils. Mr Anderson pulled out after losing £100 million of government funding he says would have been spent on the voluntary sector. In a letter to Mr Cameron at the time he stated: ‘How can the city council support the big society and its aim to help communities do more for themselves when we will have to cut the lifeline to hundreds of these vital and worthwhile groups?’

No regrets

Today Mr Anderson is unrepentant - and if anything even more outspoken. Far from devolving power, he says government cuts mean it is ‘attacking local government’. He doesn’t regret his decision to pull out of the pilot because ‘quite simply you can’t cut funding to the voluntary sector and then say “we expect you to work with us to deliver support to people in a voluntary way”. He adds that government promises to look at removing red tape as part of the pilot had failed to materialise too.

This is all safe ground for Mr Anderson, but there is an implicit acknowledgement that the attacks from Messrs Cameron and Pickles, coupled with huge cuts, present a risk both to the city’s communities and its council’s ruling party.

Mr Anderson sounds relaxed - ‘they [the Liverpool electorate] voted in droves against them [the Conservatives and Lib Dems in May’s local elections]’ - but he is taking steps to ensure the council cannot be accused of plotting behind closed doors to make cuts that will stoke anti-government sentiment by throwing open budget discussions to the public. The idea is that they will now be able to see exactly how much money the council has to play with and how decisions on the inevitable cuts are made.

‘The idea that I would sit on reserves and cut services is obscene,’ he states. ‘It is not only annoying it is quite disrespectful. I have got nothing to hide. That is why we decided to hold our budget discussions in public this year. I am not aware of that happening before in any authority.’

Personal experience

Mr Anderson’s background would also suggest it is unlikely he would play fast and loose with public services. Raised in Liverpool and a trained social worker (after a stint in the merchant navy and running a pub) he chose his profession partly because his father was an alcoholic and his family was occasionally dependent on social services for support.

He is clearly a clever political operator, happy to challenge the government to prove him wrong. ‘I said to Eric Pickles two months ago, “You put four Tory local authorities together and ask them what they have saved because none of them would be able to match what we have saved [already]”. We have cut back on middle management. We did that not because we were forced to by a Tory government but because it was the right thing to do.’

He is firmly on-message with the central Labour Party line that the government is cutting too fast and speaks with seemingly genuine passion.

‘It seems to be the economics of madness to take away resources from public authorities who are [then] making people redundant. They are going to have to pick up the bill with benefit that people are going to get. It [cutting] should have been over the lifetime of the parliament rather than 12 months or two years.’

Whatever he does now, Mr Anderson implies, there is little he can do to stop communities in Liverpool suffering over the next few years, although the council has asked housing minister Grant Shapps - more in hope than expectation - to make up the Supporting People shortfall after he pledged to do so if the council could prove it was unavoidable because of government cuts. Apart from the Supporting People cuts, which he insists were impossible to avoid because of the £90 million slashed from the council’s budget, the city has also lost funding to help regenerate its most vulnerable communities due to the axing of the national housing market renewal programme. The government has acknowledged the precarious state in which this has left some communities by launching a £30 million emergency fund for five of the 10 areas in the midlands and the north of England that had received market renewal funding. The fact Liverpool is allowed to bid means it is judged to have some of the ‘most vulnerable communities’ in the UK. But finding anyone who thinks £30 million represents anything more than a drop in the ocean is like trying to find a music critic who rates Jedward’s musical prowess above the Beatles.

Crumbling communities

Mr Anderson is certainly crystal clear about what is likely to happen over the next year or two. ‘People are living in appalling conditions,’ he states. ‘I don’t want those people to go through another winter in terms of the way they have lived for the last few years [in near derelict streets].’

The council leader has been critical in the past about the approach of the HMR programme in some areas - but worrying about past errors would only let people down now, he states.

‘We are where we are,’ he adds. ‘Whoever wins the debate [about decisions taken during the HMR programme] it is academic.’ For the time being the council will do its best to win as much of the £30 million that’s now on offer as possible and garner private investment too, he adds.

Until now Mr Anderson’s response to government criticism of his council’s cuts has been controlled. He is clearly comfortable enough with his approach to bat accusations of political point scoring aside without breaking sweat. But his voice begins to rise with real anger as the conversation moves to potential delays and even the scuppering of a huge regeneration project on the city’s riverfront at the hands of English Heritage and design body Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment.

Outside interference

The £5.5 billion Liverpool Waters scheme, the largest planning application in the UK, plans to regenerate disused dockland in north Liverpool and create 9,000 new homes, along with office space, a cultural building and a new cruise terminal. The plans, from developer Peel Holdings, include 55-storey Shanghai Tower, which would be the UK’s tallest building outside London. It could be a rare success story in these straitened times but an English Heritage report states that the proposed development would have a ‘harmful effect’ on the area because of the density of development and cluster of tall buildings.

Mr Anderson cannot contain his frustration. ‘I think English Heritage and CABE need to understand that this is about compromise,’ he starts. ‘It is very problematic. The bottom line is these are people that shouldn’t be interfering in what this city needs.’

Warming to his theme he adds vehemently: ‘We’ll fight them tooth and nail to make sure the we get this development. I’m convinced that 99 per cent of the city wants the redevelopment to go through and go through quickly. It is the people from this city that English Heritage and CABE should be listening to - they are people who don’t live in this city, by the way.’

It is a passionate outburst that goes on for some time. If Mr Anderson is a firebrand it is the building of new homes and the creation of jobs that seems to get him going - not cutting services.

Tough times lie ahead for the city. But it seems he’s up for the fight.

The sector on Joe Anderson

‘Joe has set out a number of priorities for the economic success of Liverpool and providing a housing offer which supports this. He has also committed to supporting the less well off and vulnerable members of our communities. We will work closely with Joe, the team and other partners to deliver these outcomes.’

Steve Coffey, chief executive, Liverpool Mutual Homes

‘I think he has provided real clarity of leadership and direction. I like people who are doing the job for the right reasons. He’s absolutely an authentic guy. He sees himself as a servant of the people.

‘The accusations [he glorifies in cuts] are totally unjustified.’

Ken Perry, chief executive, Plus Dane Housing Group

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