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Liverpool City Council leaders meet Chamber members to discuss progress to date and future ambitions.

We were pleased to bring together Liverpool Chamber members with the leaders of Liverpool City Council for a special roundtable discussion about the key social, economic and political challenges and opportunities facing the city.

The event at the Hilton Hotel featured Councillor Liam Robinson (leader of Liverpool City Council), Andrew Lewis (chief executive) and Kate Bull (director of economic strategy, skills and sustainability) joined by 20 Chamber members from a range of industries including engineering, education, digital, housing and culture.

Several key themes emerged from the event, including:

Progress without complacency

There has been much progress over the past year since Liam Robinson and Andrew Lewis assumed their leadership positions, but there is no room for complacency.

Described as an “intensive but necessary” year, this period has seen the council resolve a challenging budget deficit by making difficult decisions and becoming more robust in collecting overdue business rates and council tax.

Improvement was noted across various departments including finance, planning and neighbourhood services, with the council hopeful that it has now “drawn a thick black line” under the problems of the past. This progress was acknowledged and seconded by many around the table.

Evidence of the city’s upward trajectory can be seen in the quality and volume of applications for senior positions from external candidates across the UK who can see its potential.

Commissioner intervention

The challenges that led to the intervention of commissioners are being resolved at speed and there is a shared hope with the commissioner team that a framework can soon be created that will allow for their eventual disengagement.

The council’s ambitions do not end with the departure of the commissioners and there is a clear understanding that there is much work to do to fully repair the city’s reputation as a place to invest and do business and encourage potential investors to “take another look” at what we have to offer.

Looking to the future

Aside from those issues and the clear economic challenges facing people and businesses in the city and wider region, there are greenshoots of economic prosperity and confidence returning.

Alongside exciting public sector-backed projects including Paddington Village, Smithdown Place and Speke, in conjunction with the Combined Authority and DLUHC, there also are high quality private sector developments coming forward.

The agreement for Global, one of the world’s largest cruise operators, to take over the Cruise Liner Terminal should be viewed as a vote of confidence. There can be similar positivity around the plans for King Edward Triangle and Capital & Centric’s plans for the former Littlewoods building on Edge Lane.

Deals such as the Cruise Liner Terminal also reflect a change in council approach, recognising that they had created a successful operation but acknowledging they could not realistically take it any further, so being ambitious in its search for a private sector partner.

The council acknowledges that the local economy is deeper and richer than large projects alone, and it is eager to understand how it can continue to work with Chamber members and other local businesses to continue forward momentum.

While the recent focus has been on ‘fixing’ issues, we must start looking at the plan for the next 30 years, using our reputation to our advantage and highlighting our strengths, such as a significant health and life sciences cluster, or digital and immersive technologies, and spend less time focusing on features you might expect to find in most towns and cities.

Provision for local suppliers within procurement

While the council cannot force private sector providers to hire local firms, it is important for it to partner with and support businesses from the city.

The Chamber and other professional groups have a pivotal role to play in helping the council develop its network proposition and engage with the local supply chain. If there are opportunities for the council to do more, they want to hear about it, as it is an important part of growing the overall city economy.

The council plans to review and update its Social Value Framework needs to be made tighter and more clear, including strengthening pre-application questions around the use of local supply chains. There may also be scope to use section 106 agreements more actively to drive change.

It was also noted by delegates that other anchor institutions in the city, such as healthcare or academia, would benefit from a similar approach.

There is a clear appetite for more ‘meet the buyer’ events and looking to other local authorities for examples of best practice that can be implemented here to make procurement more robust and reduce the carbon impact of procuring from elsewhere.

Planning approvals

Delegates praised recent reductions in planning responses, but urged the council to be more transparent and proactive in its handling of requests to ensure applicants have a clear view of what to expect and can better manage costs.

Planning teams at local authorities across the UK are experiencing similar challenges, while Liverpool has the added complexities of an historic setting. It should also be noted that the involvement of external national bodies can further affect the speed of responses.

The council wants to experience more pressure, as that will mean more development demand, and it understands that making the policy framework more transparent will breed greater confidence. It was agreed that planning should never feel like a ‘black box’ where applications disappear and the process needs to feel more intuitive.

There is an ‘arc of opportunity’ across the city centre, especially around north Liverpool, including the waterfront, Liverpool Waters and Knowledge Quarter Liverpool, and the council will do what it can within its means to accelerate development without weakening the levers of planning or the democratic process.

Some delegates felt strongly that there would be merit in the council offering specialist planning advisors for specific types of development, even if this meant paying a premium for the service, as it would still yield a return in the bigger development picture.

Public realm

Many around the table felt strongly about the perceived rise in grime and litter around the city’s streets and the negative impression this might leave with visitors and potential investors. Nefarious parking was also highlighted as an issue.

There is a broad acceptance that street cleaning is an area that has been acutely detrimental by funding cuts in recent years and it is now a key area of focus for the council, which has invested £4m into its Neighbourhood Services, the first increase in over a decade.

It is also working harder to target transgressions and work with community groups to strengthen its activity. There may also be opportunity to use devolved local powers to create a bespoke deterrent for the city.

Liverpool has relatively lower crime figures compared to most other major cities, and more could be done to promote that, including the Purple Flag accreditation, to further elevate the night-time economy in the city centre. Indeed, some of the council’s neighbourhood team are Purple Flag moderators who assess the provision of other cities.

Skills

Several delegates highlighted skills shortages as the greatest barrier to growth, notably accessing college leavers with the right skill sets and encouraging the brightest talent from the city’s universities to remain in the city.

It was acknowledged that post-16 outcomes are generally stronger than those for pre-16, and the council is working to better coordinate provision and facilities. By improving pore-16 education, we can hope to see even greater outcomes in the post-16 sector.