Southport – Its Indoor Market – What goes around comes…….

In my latter days as a Sefton Councillor I opposed the rebuild of Southport Indoor Market, indeed my Lib Dem Council Group did too. It was pushed through via a Tory/Lab coalition on the then balanced council. We Lib’s said it was not a wise project and that we felt the rebuild would not be the economic success which was at that time being promoted. It seems our concerns were well placed.

The BBC has an article on its web site about the current situation of the market – see link below:-

www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-merseyside-49045174

I mentioned the rebuild of Southport Indoor Market a while back when Sefton Council bought Bootle Strand Shopping Center and here’s a link back to that posting:-

tonyrobertson.mycouncillor.org.uk/2018/12/29/sefton-council-will-it-be-buying-more-shopping-centers-in-the-borough/

Councils buying up retail buildings/shopping centers seems to be all the rage these days as they desperately try to combat the demise of high street retail and on an emotional level you can see what they are trying to do. However, from a public policy perspective the buying up of shopping centers, indoor markets etc. must be highly dubious and financially very risky.

I never thought that a rebuilt Indoor Market for Southport would be financially sustainable as a retail operation and sadly my fears seem to have been proved right. Likewise Sefton Council buying the Strand Shopping Centre never looked to me to be anything other than a risky short term fix to a complicated set of economic/regeneration challenges in Bootle.

I get that when retail is doing well the rents may well outstrip all the costs of being a property developer and that good returns can be made but the retail market is very much like a big dipper – big highs and big lows.

That property developers are backing off/delaying investing further in shopping centers (Maghull and Kirkby come to mind locally at present) and are willing to off load such retail developments onto local authorities is telling. If the experts can’t make the books balance satisfactorily how on earth are inexperienced councils going to do it? Yes, maybe councils are willing to simply break even but that is a dangerous approach in itself as decent profits are needed in the good years to help smooth out the bad years and the ongoing cost of maintenance.

My head still says that apart from in exceptional circumstances (Kirkby may well be such a circumstance) council’s should be very wary of thinking they can be successful property developers. The pages of Private Eye have been full of such failures for many years.

Local Democracy – Who investigates the goings on in local government these days?

I recently came across a scheme funded by the BBC (or more to the point more probably by its licence fee payers) to address a matter I have long had concerns about – see the link below:-

www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/latestnews/2017/local-democracy-reporters

Having been a councillor since 1985 I have watched the demise of local reporting on local government with increasing concern. The demise has followed the loss of many local newspapers but even where the local newspapers do exist there is rarely any serious investigative journalism going on these days. I can recall 3 former newspapers that served my community from the not so distant past – The Maghull & Aintree Star, The Maghull Times & The Maghull & Aintree Advertiser and of course we have also lost the regional Daily Post too. This loss of local newspapers is sadly replicated across most communities.

I recall the days when the Maghull reporter for the Maghull & Aintree Advertiser would sit through most meetings of Maghull Town Council listening to and reporting on the debates that went on. Every year or so the reporters would change as new trainees were taken on. Nowadays you would be hard pressed to see local reporters at any meeting of Sefton Borough Council (or Merseytravel, the Fire Authority, NHS decision making bodies etc. etc.) unless a big issue is already on the agenda and even then the reporting is usually of ‘x’ said this and ‘y’ said that nature. You might say the local media often just passes on opinions these days. My point is there is little in the way of getting behind the politicians/officials spin.

A local paper on the warpath would once have been as worrying to a local council as the District Auditor if things were going wrong; now neither pay much attention to what a Council does so who is uncovering the goings on within local government and indeed within the other local decision making bodies that affect the lives of us all? Putting it bluntly no one the vast majority of the time.

Yes we see local government stories in the local press but they are virtually always built upon press releases from councils or the politicians who run the councils, or they are about party political spats between opposing politicians.

Is the issue that the remaining local media is not training young journalists to get to the heart of what is going on in local government? Is it that they can’t afford to pay the kind of wages required to bring on good investigative journalists? A good and experienced local government reporter would once have been expected to know as much or indeed more than the local political bigwigs they were reporting on so that they could take on the spin and expose the facts.

The problem is of course a national one, of that I have little doubt. I wonder how many uncomfortable moments that councils and publicly accountable local bodies across the land should have had (and would have had in the days when the local media was a force to contend with) are not being picked up at all these days, unless the matter is so bad that it reaches the national press/media such as the Rotten Boroughs page of Private Eye?

This challenge is, I think, what the BBC scheme is trying to address but will it have any effect? Are a new generation of independently minded investigative journalists going to be created via it? Is the present day poor reporting by the BBC a reflection of too few good investigative journalists coming through the system and is that why the BBC has launched the scheme?

As the majority of journalists will have started at the bottom of the journalistic ladder reporting on the goings on of the local parish councils will we once again see bored young reporters sat listening to the debates of Little Twittering Parish Council awaiting a juicy story?

In a functioning healthy democracy well informed investigative journalists are a big part of keeping the powerful on their toes and I fear the demise of them at a local level is doing us all a disservice.