Government troubleshooters say there is 'no quick fix' for Liverpool Council

Lead commissioner Mike Cunningham talks to ITV Granada Reports' political correspondent Líse McNally

A team of government troubleshooters, brought in to oversee Liverpool City Council after a damning report, have found there is a "lack of prioritisation and planning" at the authority and warned there is "no quick fix" to its problems.

In the first regular progress report to the Communities Secretary Michael Gove, the commissioners say that despite evidence of change there is a "somewhat frenetic rather than purposeful and targeted approach."

They say major work to overhaul planning and highways will take at least 18 months.

The team was brought in to oversee changes at the authority and remedy a culture of bullying and intimidation.

However, lead commissioner Mike Cunningham told ITV Granada Reports that it appears there are "still vestiges of bullying in parts of the council."

Liverpool Town Hall Credit: Peter Byrne/PA Archive/PA Images

The commissioners, who started work in June, say the political and managerial leadership of Liverpool “clearly desire change at pace”.

The report says the council is “at the beginning of a long improvement journey and has a great deal to do in the next three years”.

What are the initial findings?

  • Best value has not been achieved in a number of existing property transactions

  • Regeneration and property management teams need to develop commercial awareness

  • In Highways, it will take at least another 12-18 months to put improvements in place, and five years to become a top performer

Liverpool’s mayor Joanne Anderson and the council's chief executive Tony Reeves say an "immense amount of work" is underway to bring in changes and that the culture of bullying and intimidation that had existed in parts of the organisation is also being tackled.

They outlined the local authority's commitment to working with the commissioners to ensure improved services for taxpayers is delivered.

What changes does the council say it has made since March?

  • Produced a strategic improvement plan focussed on addressing accountability and transparency

  • Introduced a new whistle-blowing process to tackle claims of bullying and intimidation

  • Started restructuring the senior management team

  • Assembled a new consultation and engagement process to encourage greater transparency and dialogue with residents

  • Procured a new call-centre system to ensure a smoother and speedier response to residents’ complaints

  • Created a new audit select committee and appointed two independent advisers

  • Established an ethics and standards select committee

The Liverpool skyline Credit: Peter Byrne/PA Wire/PA Images

In response to the report, the leader of the opposition on Liverpool Council said some commissioners are making a "huge impact" on the work of the transport and regeneration sections.

But Cllr Richard Kemp added that the team is collectively "adding little value to our change processes".

Liverpool City Council has been under scrutiny since police began investigating building and development contracts in December 2019.

Detectives arrested five men including Joe Anderson, who at the time was the city's mayor and is no relation to the current mayor. All of those arrested deny any wrongdoing.

The government ordered a best value inspection to be led by Max Caller, a former council boss with experience of investigating failings in local authorities.

His report, published in March 2021, found evidence of a dysfunctional council which frequently carried out deals that did not provide good value for taxpayers. He omitted the names of employees who spoke to him because they worried about reprisals.

Mr Caller recommended "radical" changes "delivered at pace so as to restoreconfidence in the integrity" of decision-making by the council.

What are the commissioners' priorities?

  • Developing a Strategic Improvement Plan

  • Addressing capacity and capability gaps in corporate functions

  • Developing a finance improvement plan and interim medium term financial strategy

  • Producing and reforming the Constitution, including scrutiny

  • Strengthening leadership capacity

ITV Granada Reports was given the opportunity to interview Mike Cunningham and Mayor Joanne Anderson shortly before the publication of the report without being allowed to read it in advance.

Mike Cunningham said that decision rested with the secretary of state but added that "there won't be many surprises in the report" for those people familiar with Mr Caller's inspection.

Asked if she felt like the council was making good progress, Mayor Joanne Anderson replied, "Well we are making progress. We have got a big task ahead of us."

Who is Mike Cunningham?

Mike Cunningham leads four commissioners overseeing the authority until June 2024.

Together, they have been tasked with helping Liverpool City Council come up with its improvement plan. 

Mr Cunningham, a former Chief Constable of Staffordshire and Assistant Chief Constable in Lancashire, grew up in Crosby, Merseyside and is an Everton supporter.

Michael Gove MP, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, said he was pleased to hear about the steps the council has taken "to expose and stop wrong-doing".

However, he added that the authority has a significant challenge ahead of it.

A review of the council's financial resilience is expected to be completed before Christmas.

The findings of that review, together with a progress report on its electoral reforms, are expected to be included in the commissioners' next report in April 2022.