Mayor of Liverpool Joe Anderson has steered the city through deep austerity cuts and helped re-build its confidence and investment. He talks to New Start about investing to save, changing the course of the city and why growth alone is not enough.
Q: Liverpool has been one of the places worst hit by austerity. What has been the impact of cuts?
A: We are trying to do as best we can. This is a council that is 82% reliant on central government for funding and we’ve lost 58% of that funding. It’s been a massive blow; £340m pounds taken away. We’ve seen cuts to the voluntary sector, in adult education and in a whole host of ways in which we engage with people to make their lives better and improve their skills. We get £137m in council tax and last year we spent £172m on adult social care, which is £100m less than we used to. We saw half a billion pound of public sector funds – for Housing Market Renewal and Building Schools for the Future – taken away after the 2010 election.
A few years ago Sheffield Hallam University came up with the graph of doom and pointed out that Liverpool was the poorest city and worst hit by the cuts. The government, when it passported responsibilities to us, has done so by sleight of hand. They’ve handed over responsibility but at the same time a huge subsidy has been taken away and we have to get on with it.
Many people would go under and not be able to survive but when people ask me what gives me most satisfaction in my six years as leader and then as mayor of Liverpool I always say being able to steer the city through these turbulent times and the unprecedented levels of cuts to this city’s funding. The fact we are able to do that is truly amazing. The fact is that we are still growing the economy and creating jobs and building houses. Every one of the pledges we made we’ve smashed, on apprenticeships or jobs, schools and homes. We’ve invested in the city and brought more money into our coffers through our invest-to-save programme but the reality is that that money is being used to prop up services rather than to invest in growth and that is the folly and failure of central government to realise that.
Q: Can you explain the invest-to-save programme?
A: Yes, we brought the Cunard building in which the council and mayor’s office is now based. We bought and refurbished it for £15m and it’s now full of tenants and worth £27.8m and bringing in more than £1m in revenue for the council each year. We’ve set up the mayoral development fund to invest and support businesses and get a return. We supported a company called HS energy which actually uses waste food to generate electricity and gas. The building which once housed the Royal Insurance Company and was closed for 30 years has been taken on and turned into a hotel. Its created around 90 jobs and now one of city’s great buildings is back in use. We’ve done things differently. We bought the new exhibition centre for £65m and as a result of that investment we brought in the Pullman hotel and can now compete with cities across world in terms of conference facilities. We’re seeing a return on that already so it’s cost neutral. It’s that entrepreneurial spirit we have – we show confidence in the city and we lead.
Q: What has been the impact of public sector cuts on jobs and services?
A: We’ve attracted more private sector jobs to the city than have been lost by the public sector but we now have fewer people working on things like street cleansing and cleaning our parks. We’ve had to lose professional staff and work in partnership with volunteer groups to keep some of the libraries open. But we have kept our children’s centres open and the libraries and leisure centres open but the cuts keep coming. It’s like putting your finger in the dyke. So while the city is doing well in terms of investment, there is concern that we are reducing services and not able to deliver services to people.
Q: Liverpool has seen investment in its city centre in recent years but many of its periphery areas are struggling. What are you doing to spread wealth more evenly around the city?
A: The private sector has, in the last four years, spent over a billion pounds a year and there have been two massive hospital developments in the city. It’s difficult because the city centre is the economic hub and the vibrancy of the city but one of the things we’ve consciously tried to do is to create as many opportunities for people across the whole of the city from Fazakerley in the north to Speke in the south. We’ve tried to create regeneration as these developments have happened, by making sure they include local labour and training. We have a construction charter and that has helped. In Anfield we’ve spent £23m and it’s a completely different place to what it was four years ago. We’re not there yet but we’ve improved the quality of housing and these things go hand in hand with creating jobs and opportunities.
I accept that there is still a need for massive improvement in communities across the city. That’s why its so frustrating that we are faced with the most economically severe challenge the city has ever faced – and that’s including after the 2nd world war.
Q: Will devolution help the city to do things differently?
A: It gets really frustrating to watch some people struggling in the city. I was brought up in a family that was reliant on social services and care and it’s something that I’m aware of and that hasn’t gone away. Devolution can provide us with opportunities to do things differently, whether that’s being able to ensure offenders get to work or helping people make that transition to sustainable employment. These things have to be done. I’m keen to negotiate welfare to work programmes for us to manage that will help people with drug problems and reoffending rather just throwing them to rehabilitation and then back to society.
What we can do is provide solutions to help people. I was a community development worker years ago and could see the problems. It’s not that people didn’t want to change but that they couldn’t. We need to reshape services and invest in early intervention. In the same way as I do that from an economic point of view you can do that from a social point of view – invest to get a return.
Q: The Liverpool city region was named in the budget as one of the areas to pilot the retention of business rates. What difference do you think it will make on the city?
A: I’m a great believer in devolution. Localism should mean the ability to make decisions by the authority where it is. I want our city to be sustainable but in order to achieve that we need to be given the right level of support. Kensington in Liverpool is very different to Kensington in London. David Cameron’s own constituency of Witney in Oxfordshire gets more in council tax than the five constituencies here in Liverpool so that imbalance is something that needs to be addressed. So when we talk about devolution or the ability to retain business rates it’s great but we need to make sure there is a mechanism in place to protect cities. I’ve no problem with cities being able to create jobs and new business – in principle I agree with it – but you have to accept there are differences. It’s not one size fits all. The inequality of funding between north and south is meant to be addressed with the northern powerhouse concept but it’s currently a long way short of what is required and needed.
Q: Do you think economic growth alone is enough to solve the city’s problems?
A: Growth on its own won’t budge the poverty in the city. We need to make sure it permeates. I want young people to be motivated by the opportunities of the city and for us to work with the institutions and providers of jobs and businesses and motivate young people to take those opportunities. Poverty traps still exists in Liverpool and Manchester and elsewhere where people aren’t accessing those jobs and skills. But welfare-to-work can only work if there’s a job at the end. We need a focus for people at the end of it. Part of the reason why people get into mental health problems is that they have no hope and future. If we support and help them through that process and deliver a job it breaks the cycle.
My vision for the city over the next 10-20 years is to create a city which is more equal – north, south, east and west –and where equalities of opportunity are more inclusive. I want to see there’s been a hefty transition. This city has underperformed for many decades and its up to me as mayor and leader to set the course and direction and make sure we stick to it.