MHCLG HQ Marsham Street London
The headquarters of MHCLG on Marsham Street, London

Whitehall intervenes in Liverpool arrests scandal

Sarah Townsend

The council has been ordered to disclose to the Government details of any of its upcoming property development or disposal plans, and its strategy to secure “effective governance” following a string of high-profile arrests.

Mayor of Liverpool Joe Anderson was arrested last Friday on suspicion of conspiracy to commit bribery and witness intimation as part of an ongoing Merseyside Police corruption probe into building and development contracts, named Operation Aloft.

Anderson was arrested along with four other men, including Liverpool City Council’s assistant director of highways and planning Andy Barr. All five were released on bail the following day pending further enquiries.

They were the latest arrests in an investigation that has been ongoing for more than a year and has seen other high-profile arrests during that time – including that of council regeneration chief Nick Kavanagh, who was arrested last December on suspicion of conspiracy to defraud and misconduct in public office, and again in September. He was released on bail without charge on both occasions.

This week, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government at central Government sent a letter to Liverpool City Council asking for evidence that the council “is now operating properly and in line with its duty…given the seriousness of the issues”.

The letter dated 8 December and signed by Catherine Frances, director-general of Local Government, Strategy & Analysis at MHCLG, stated: “As you are aware, Merseyside Police have been conducting an investigation, which has resulted in a number of arrests made on suspicion of fraud, bribery, corruption and misconduct in public office, in December 2019, in September 2020 and most recently on 4 December 2020 in connection with offences of bribery and witness intimidation.

“This investigation involves a significant connection to Liverpool City Council. As you are also aware, the Secretary of State has a range of powers available to him under the Local Government Act 1999 in relation to the Best Value duty on councils.”

The letter notes that Reeves met with Secretary of State Robert Jenrick on 7 December and gave him a range of assurances about the steps the council has taken to improve governance.

However, “given the seriousness of the issues”, the letter asks Reeves to provide further information as evidence of the steps it is taking, by 11 December.

This includes:

1) “Information about any proposals or plans for the authority to enter into any commitment to dispose of, otherwise transfer to third parties, or relating to the development of, any real property other than existing domestic property for the purposes of residential accommodation. This information should include identifying the property, indicating its value, and the current position and likely future timetable for the disposal, transfer, or commitment relating to the development of the property.”

2) “Information on the steps the authority has taken and proposes to take to secure effective governance, with particular reference to its planning, highways, regeneration and property management functions, and to provide regular updates to the department on these steps.”

The letter also asks Reeves to “keep [MHCLG] informed on a regular basis about the council’s ongoing response to these issues”.

The department “stands ready to provide the council with the support it needs to support the people and city of Liverpool as effectively as possible at this challenging time”, it added. It is understood that Whitehall officials could be sent to Liverpool to assist the council with its response to the scandal.

A Liverpool City Council spokesman said in a statement to Place North West: “The council will be responding to the terms of the letter within the timescale requested.”

Meanwhile, Liverpool’s Labour group meets at 6pm tonight and councillors are expected to demand clarity and updates on the most recent arrests and the action being taken by the council to address allegations made over the past year.

 

 

 

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