Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Graham Burgess, Saviour of Liverpool City Council?





The man who helped bring down Militant

May 1 2007

David Higgerson meets one of the union leaders whose fight against redundancies brought political change to Liverpool

by David Higgerson, Liverpool Daily Post

Graham Burgess in front of Liverpool Town Hall

AS REFERENCES from an employer go, being named in an autobiography as one of two people who effectively triggered the end of a political administration hardly seems a helpful one when pursuing a career in local government.

But it doesn’t appear to have done Graham Burgess much harm. Those who know the affable 54-year-old Liverpudlian as the chief executive of a Lancashire Council raise an eyebrow when they hear what Derek Hatton, deputy leader of the militants in the 1980s, had to say about him in his auto-biography.

“He basically names me, and another man, Peter Cresswell, as a couple of the main reasons why things ended how they did for the militants in Liverpool,” says Graham, a father-of-two who grew up in Norris Green and still lives in the city, now in Allerton.

Graham’s role in the 1980s political circus which consumed Liverpool also surprises those who only know him as the man who helped transform the old mill town of Blackburn with regeneration projects now being copied in America: he was a leading trade unionist.

A case of poacher turned gamekeeper at some point? “No, I don’t think so,” says Graham, who attended Ellergreen High School after passing the 11-plus.

“Ever since I left school I have wanted to do a job which helps give people chances to improve their lives. I trained to be a teacher, actually worked as a social worker, then became heavily involved in the union before returning to social work, and moving to regeneration when I came to Blackburn with Darwen. All the jobs I have had, I hope, have helped people.

“I didn’t go straight into teaching after finishing my training because I wanted to get a bit of life experience away from the classroom.”

And that’s certainly what he got. The union Graham mentions was Nalgo, now part of Unison. And it was as one of the key leaders in Nalgo that he gained his place in Hatton’s memoirs.

In 1984, a broad coalition – including support from the unions – had demanded extra cash from government to help fund the city council. The minister responsible, Patrick Jenkin, agreed after meeting a delegation in London. The Conservative government had hoped the deal would be underplayed by the delegation, led by, among others, Hatton.

“Instead, it was heralded very publicly as a victory for Liverpool,” remembers Graham.

“Patrick Jenkin, when he talked about the triumphant announcements from people like Derek Hatton, talks about them dancing on his political grave. That pretty much meant that, when we asked for more the next year, the government wasn’t going to budge.”

And when that duly happened, the Militants’ solution to creating a legal budget – issuing 90-day redundancy notices to all 30,000 staff – immediately put the political leadership on collision course with unions.

Graham says: “They would say to us, ‘It’s just a piece of paper, of course we’ll re-employ everybody’ but from a union point of view, we couldn’t accept that because there was no guarantee.

“Liverpool at this time was, in many ways, in a desperate state. Hundreds of jobs were being lost at the big employers every week. The council was the employer of last resort, so we couldn’t let that happen.”

SUPPORTERS of the Milit-ants claimed the 90-day redundancy notices were meant to serve as breathing space during which time they would mount a fresh campaign to get the money from government, but they withdrew the redundancy notices idea when an all-out strike among council staff looked likely.

Which is where Graham’s place in Hatton’s version of events was secured: “The Militants wanted an all-out strike to put pressure on the Government to act, but not all the unions were supporting the action, because there was no guarantee of success.

“We were one of the largest unions and when we put it to the vote among our members, they said no, we won’t support the strike action. That meant it couldn’t go ahead in the way they wanted.”

Even the Militant supporters argue in retrospect that the redundancy notices idea was a bad one because it meant they lost the workers – up until that point, their biggest supporters.

And when the strike idea fell by the wayside, the redundancy notices re-appeared.

Graham says: “Our offices for the union were in what is now the Sir Thomas Hotel. I remem-ber being in there one day and people started coming in, looking very upset and waving papers at me. The redundancy notices had been sent out. We had to do something, and we told people to get on the phones and round up as many people as possible, we were going to protest.

“Later that day, about 3,000 people gathered and we marched to the Town Hall, on to Exchange Flags to oppose the redundancies. I remember standing on the statue in the middle of the Flags to address people, to tell them that we wouldn’t let this happen. Quite how it was going to end, we didn’t know, but hindsight means that I know the Government was very close to taking over the council itself to sort things out.”

The national outcry at a Labour council threatening to make 30,000 redundant served to further distance the national Labour leadership from the militants. A resolution was opened up when Maurice Stonefrost was sent in by Labour to find a way through.

“He proved that it was possible to produce a legal budget without laying off the entire workforce, and that led to a resolution, but up until that point, we had no idea how it was going to end,” Graham recalls.

“In many ways, it was a terrifying time. I was threatened on more than one occasion, as were my family, and my friends. But there was nothing else we could do. It wasn’t a situation I ever envisaged being involved when I first become a union rep.”

Graham’s career with the union went on to take him to the very top of the Nalgo tree at a national level, before he returned to social work in Liverpool, again working with young people.

He rose steadily through the social services department at Liverpool to become assistant director, before moving to Blackburn with Darwen as executive director for regeneration, and then being promoted to chief executive of the council last autumn.

Yet he still has incredibly fond memories of being on the frontline of social services, in what most would agree were – and still are for his successors – very hard circumstances.

‘THERE is a real sense of achievement when you work with a young person, who needs social services help, and they come on in leaps and bounds, thanks, in part, to your help,” he says. “It is that sense of achievement that I originally thought I’d get from teaching, but instead came from being a social worker.”

The threats, the harassment and the bitter acrimony of 1985 aren’t what Graham thinks of when asked to mention his lowest moment working in Liverpool. He instead goes back to the typists’ strike, which, for many, has simply been forgotten.

He says: “We’d been through a social services strike in the late 1970s when departments across the UK went out for nearly six months, and in the end we got many concessions which improved the working lives of social workers.

“We were promised similar support for a group of typists who wanted a better deal. They were poorly paid, and we hoped to do something for them. That support from elsewhere never came, and in the end, after several months, they had to go back. They didn’t get much more, certainly not enough to cover what they’d lost. That was a bitter disappointment for me because they didn’t get what they deserved.”

At Blackburn, he is at the helm of an authority which has scooped all the top accolades and badges which can be awarded to authorities by the Government – and Graham is quick to add, a constructive relationship with the unions, including Unison.

That point is illustrated by the fact he was invited to speak at Unison’s last conference, and he adds: “I’m still a member.”

A heart full of Merseypride >>>

A heart full of Merseypride

GRAHAM, left, is very proud of what has been achieved in Blackburn, an area which, like Liverpool, has suffered at the hands of a manufacturing exodus in recent years, but which is regenerating itself.

“There is a lot to be proud of here, but we know we have our work to do in the future, too,” he says. “But I’m also very proud of being from Liverpool and of what it is achieving.

“Simply winning Capital of Culture shows how far the city has come, and I hope that I do my bit to sell the city to people who perhaps still think of stereotypes when thinking about Liverpool.

“I was showing a man from a Merseyside authority around some of our regeneration projects a few years ago and the first thing he said when he got in my car was: ‘Don’t worry, I’m not from Liverpool’. I felt like chucking him out there and then.

“People sometimes ask why I don’t move from Liverpool to the Blackburn area, and there are lovely areas to live in. I just tell them that I lived through Liverpool at a time when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, and at a time when events like the Toxteth riots were greeted with headlines like ‘Liverpool is burning’.

“I lived in the city then, and I want to enjoy living in the city now, in a city where my children know they can stay and find work because it really has turned itself around.”

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Council leader Warren Bradley said that some individual councillors’ behaviour was “appalling” and not fitting of a democratic society.




Roger: This is not a good report for us is it Warren?
Fireman:Well Roger we’ve got to put it into perspective really haven’t we and remember where Liverpool was and that’s not thinking back 10 years. Liverpool has come an awful long way. The people of Liverpool were asking for lower Council Tax and the Liberal Democrats have delivered that and they also wanted better services and you look at the services that are now delivered by Liverpool City Council. If we look at the most vulnerable either elderly or the Children’s Services the social care we are now delivering at a level that Liverpool has never delivered before. We also look at the bread and butter your schools, your sports centres, your libraries, One Stop Shops in communities, our parks, we’ve got 13 green flag parks. It’s like a new home to me when you get an old dilapidated derelict building you’ve got to bring it up to a standard and I think Liverpool City Council under the Liberal Democrats have certainly done that and I am certain if we did a survey of people in the City do you want Liverpool City Council to sit on £20m worth of reserves or do you want the City Council delivering front line services that affect the most vulnerable and people’s lives in the City. I think that they would vote with their feet and say that we support the policies of Liverpool City Council. We’ve got to look at the financial regulations put in by Government and if you want my opinion about this Roger it is purely political.
Roger: Well come on, you know the Audit Commission is not a political body
Fireman: Well with respect Roger and I would beg to differ on that
Roger: Well how can it be a political, it’s an independent organisation?
Fireman: We can say everything is independent to a certain extent but you know you look at what we’ve got at the moment in Liverpool and we’re delivering top quality services.
Roger: But the problem with this is that you’ve got an overall score rating of 2 which was adequate performance into 05, overall score in 06 was 2 which is adequate performance.
This year it is down to 1 below minimum requirements inadequate performance.
Fireman: Based around financial regulations…
Roger: Yes I’m talking about the financial…..
Fireman: Laid down by government. I mean that’s what you’ve got to remember. Don’t try and muddy the waters and say oh this is about Liverpool City Council and their overall performance. It’s not. You look at the issue that we’ve done about achievements. Liverpool scoring 3-4 on achievement at the moment through the Audit Commission.
Roger: I didn’t know that.
(EDs: Pitiful, just pitiful.)
Fireman: And we do seem to always go to the negatives when we’re looking for something like this.
Roger: The District Auditor was pretty negative about you wasn’t he and…
Fireman: No, I have got to say Roger I would love to have £50m in reserves. I would also love not to have to put additions of £7m into adult social care and £2-3m into children’s social care. The facts are we have got to do that because of the pressures that are on Liverpool at the moment.
Roger: So are other Councils….
Fireman: I’m not willing as Leader of this Council to take away care to the most vulnerable to allow it to sit in reserve. I am not willing to do that and I will go to the stake on that the people of the City. Liverpool now is only one of a handful of Councils up and down the country that is providing moderate care to the most vulnerable people in the City. Now to give people an idea of what moderate care is that is home care. These people who’ve got no family to support them and require a visit in the morning or a visit in the evening to make sure they’re ok to help them to take the pills, to make sure that they’ve got the food. Most Councils up and down this country have removed that care. Liverpool City Council is still allowing our most vulnerable people our sort of care. Now is that wrong, is that wrong?
Roger: Now no one would argue that’s wrong but everyone. But many people are affected by housing. Housing is really poor isn’t it. I mean you are so poor you’ve had to hand it over to a different group to run it.
Fireman: Well with respect Roger, with respect, you’ve got to know what the Housing Corporation have done and in partnership with the Government again it’s easy to say it’s the Council, in partnership with the Government we’ve tackled head on through the Pathfinder areas of the inner core of the City some of the housing inefficiencies of the City. That hasn’t happened over the last five years that’s happened over 30 or 40 years. The problems in Norris Green in housing were prevalent 30 or 40 years ago and weren’t tackled. As an Authority we’ve challenged what wasn’t tackled and we’ve challenged it head on and I opened a couple of weeks ago with Flo Clucas and Marilyn Fielding with Cobalt Housing the first phase of Norris Green. We’ve transformed that area and its got houses for sale and social housing in Norris Green that people are seeking to live in now. We’ve got in a core Edge Hill, Kensington, Kirkdale the same issues that have been there for 30 or 40 years that we’re tackling now hand in hand with the Government. I’m not taking the credit for it and the Government isn’t. We’ve got a schools’ programme that is second to none. Liverpool’s young people are now achieving at the national average. I want it higher than national average to give new opportunity but again I’ll say I’m not going to suit accountants’ financial regulations in London and leave £millions sitting in reserve while we have still got the challenges Liverpool has got and I think people you know.
Roger: Do you think it was a mistake to keep Council Tax down or freeze it over the past few years?
Fireman: Well isn’t it ironic Roger how last week John Healey said how Liverpool is charging £101 a head...
Roger: Because its inefficiencies….
Fireman: Well we have taken £150m worth of inefficiencies out of our budget over the last 10 years. We’ve kept Council tax down which is exactly what Government policy is and is exactly what John Healey is saying. Councillor Joe Anderson is saying something completely different to the people of Liverpool that he will put taxes up to build reserves to put in reserve well again this administration this Lib Dem administration is not going to tax for the sake of taxing to leave money sitting in reserve. We will build up the reserves over a period of years and then we will be able to tackle some of the other issues that we’ve got to do. We recognise the health inequalities. To improve health inequalities we’ve got to have a real stable economy offering real opportunity and raising the aspirations in them poorer communities. You cannot do that leaving millions and millions of pounds laying in reserves and this administration will continue the robust financial management that we’ve done. We’ll carry on delivering…
Roger: If it was that robust we wouldn’t have this problem of £20m overdrawn on Capital of Culture.
Fireman: Roger, lets put things into hindsight. We are still delivering front line services. We are still…
Roger: It’s about £20m overall that we’re short this year – now that’s not robust management
Fireman: But Roger we are going through a budget setting process. Every Local Authority up and down the country is in the same process as us. I remember reading about Wirral being £50m short. Other Local Authorities. I meet the core city leaders who are £40-£50m short exactly the same as Liverpool . And let’s not forget I haven’t come on here to knock the Government I’ve come on here to say that I believe we’ve got a robust financial programme in place that is going to deal with the shortfall. We’ve delivered year on year but I’ll say again I am not going to allow millions and millions of pounds to lay in reserve. Cut front line services to the most vulnerable and then say that’s acceptable. Nor as Leader of this Council am I going to allow Council Tax to go through the roof again which will drive the inability to bring further investment into this City. While the Lib Dems have been in control we’ve brought Council Tax down, we’ve brought renewed confidence and we’ve brought real investment that will bring opportunities to the most vulnerable and I think that is the most important and I think the people of this City will stand full square with us on that. I’m proud of what we’ve delivered in this City over the last 10 years and Capital of Culture is part of that."