City Editor David Bartlett reflects on the squandered millions at Merseytravel and its plans for a brighter future
AFTER the millions wasted on a tram network that was never built came a vanity project of headquarters for transport authority Merseytravel.
Combined, the two fiascos are costing Merseyside taxpayers £9m a year.
Yet despite the squandered millions Merseytravel does not appear to be in short supply of cash.
It receives a large amount of its £300m-plus budget from a levy on the district councils, which has been frozen for the past three years.
While district councils are being forced to close libraries and slash services, Labour-run Merseytravel has seemingly been immune from the cuts.
A review into corporate governance lifted the lid on the scandalous wasting of money.
Despite a three-year freeze on budgets there has apparently been “no budget pressure points” and surpluses are still being identified.
One key revelation was the annual £4m deficit on the “very expensive and as of yet unjustified” move to the new HQ at Mann Island on Liverpool’s waterfront.
It was just one of many shocking revelations contained in two reviews into corporate governance by a firm of accountants and Merseyside councils.
Former chief executive Neil Scales was criticised for racking up hundreds of thousands of pounds of costs on solicitors when the work had not been properly tendered for.
And acting chief executive Jim Barclay (who is currently off sick with stress) was also criticised for failing to take action in his previous role as finance director, which carries statutory responsibility to protect the taxpayer.
In 2008 the Audit Commission issued a Public Interest Report against Merseytravel for the way it had spent £70m on the Merseytram project without a rail of track ever being laid. Taxpayers are still paying £5m a year in interest payments on that project.
Liverpool deputy mayor Paul Brant said it was “deeply frustrating” such a culture has existed at the transport authority.
He declined to say what pressure would be put on Merseytravel with regard to the annual levy.
But he praised new chairman Liam Robinson for tackling the issues.
He said: “Even though the reports are uncomfortable reading for Merseytravel it shows that they are serious about changing that culture.”
Cllr Robinson took over in June after former chairman Cllr Mark Dowd was forced to resign for failing to deal with mismanagement.
Cllr Robinson hopes the publication of the reports will draw a line under one of the most damaging eras in Merseytravel’s almost 40 year history.
Mr Scales departed to a new £300,000-a-year job in Australia at the start of the year before the blood-letting began.
The ill-fated move to Mann Island will now be the subject of a further report.
Cllr Robinson said: “As we examine the report in detail, any further areas where action is required will be dealt with thoroughly and firmly.”
But Cllr Robinson still has much work to do within staffing at the organisation.
One review found that: “Trust between officers is thin on the ground.”
The report said there is a “fear culture”, and a “fear of whistleblowing and the repercussions”.
Releasing the reviews will go some way to reassuring the public that Merseytravel is prepared to be much more transparent than before and is serious in addressing its deep-rooted problems.