Volume 1 Number 3
Liverpool's 'Leading Authority on Chaos'
01 November 1987
`Liverpool is a city famous for three things: for soccer, for the Beatles and for political chaos.
`Liverpool is a city famous for three things: for soccer, for the Beatles and for political chaos. I don't know a great deal about soccer - though we regard Everton and Liverpool, our two top teams, as the best in Britain; I know rather less about the Beatles; but I'm a leading authority on chaos!'
Thus Alfred Stocks, who in 1986 completed 12 years as Chief Executive, responsible to the City Council of Liverpool for administering the city and its 31,000 municipal employees. He says it with a glint of sheer northern humour in his eye, so you feel that chaos is far from the whole story.
Many would describe Liverpool as Britain's hottest local government seat. Stocks comments, `Our city happens to focus in the sharpest form the enormous economic and social changes taking place so precipitately in Britain. The blizzard struck in the Sixties and Seventies. Tens of thousands were out of work in a very short time: the sense of bewilderment and despair put tremendous strains on locally-elected councils. Here political attitudes are bound to be more strongly marked than elsewhere. Conditions are right, the chemistry is right, for confrontation.'
The increasing polarization in Britain must hit any observer. The electoral map is cut neatly into a true blue Tory south and a Labourdominated north. One reads of 57 per cent of new investment going to the south-eastern counties, with the remaining 43 per cent spread thinly over the rest of the country. One senses a more strident bitterness and a frustration in many at what are seen as exclusive, dogmatic approaches of both Left and Right. Class divisions are sharpened. Nowhere is this more evident than in Liverpool, on the banks of the River Mersey, traditional gateway to the industries of northern England.
In 50 years the city's population has fallen from 850,000 to 500,000; unemployment is 20 per cent rising to 80 per cent among the young in some of the worst-hit districts -138,000 without work in wider Merseyside, which the EEC listed in 1985 as fifth hardesthit area out of 131 in Europe. I met one graduate with a good degree in economics and politics, who applied for 200 jobs one after the other only to sit morning after morning at the breakfast table opening 200 rejection slips. Nothing available.
The change has been tough to take after the heady, pioneering days of the industrial revolution and the expansionist era of the Empire when the `port of 1000 ships' controlled over 40 per cent of the world's trade. Since World War II the City Council has struggled against tremendous pressures: the pressures of a community with deep divisions of religion and race; the pressures of the economic slump and of appalling slums and social conditions; the pressures of being a cockpit of class feeling and of bitterly conflicting political and ideological ambitions.
Yet early in 1987, The Guardian, while describing the city as `the worst area of dockland dereliction in Britain' said that there were now `the first hints of a different future and an economic renaissance'. So what lies behind the story?
Each of the pressures has deep roots in the past. As an Irishman I was fascinated, for instance, to discover the many connections between the city and Ireland. In 1847 alone, in the wake of the terrible potato famine, 300,000 Irish immigrants landed in Liverpool. Many went on to America, but many stayed, struggling with abject poverty and somehow set apart by belonging, in the eyes of many, to an `alien' church. Religious riots were common until early this century. Today nearly half the city's population is Roman Catholic, but only in recent years have discrimination and sectarian politics become a thing of the past.
Today the close friendship of the Catholic Archbishop, Derek Worlock, and the Anglican Bishop, David Sheppard, is a symbol of how this has all altered. Hardly a month goes by now without them taking initiatives, together with Free Church leaders, in many different aspects of the city's life. The Anglican and the Catholic cathedrals have each been built in this century and stand, with wry symbolism perhaps, one at either end of Hope Street. And an Ecumenical Assembly, made up of 200 representatives of all the mainline denominations, meets regularly, setting a new pattern of joint action for the rest of Britain.
During the 18th century Liverpool's wealth burgeoned and the city grew, due in large part to its merchants taking a lion's share of the trade in slaves and slaveproduced goods. When the trade was abolished in 1807 it left behind both a reservoir of racism and a community of 'Black British'-escaped slaves and African and Chinese sailors who settled and married locally. Joined in more recent years by immigrants from the Caribbean, Africa and the Indian subcontinent, they number today some 30-40,000, 7-8 per cent of the city's population. They make up the oldest black community in Britain and feel that white prejudice and discrimination have excluded them from any effective role in their own affairs.
In 1981 in the Toxteth area of the city, this bitterness exploded into violence. For four days streets were in flames. There were attacks on business and commercial properties and the city centre was threatened.
Shaken by the depth of feeling, the church leaders walked the streets together, becoming confidants of many among the black community and the police alike.
No less shaken, Alfred Stocks asked the City Council to set up a committee consisting of 12 Councillors and 12 from the minority communities, to which every item of business affecting the minorities would be brought for thorough discussion before decisions were taken. And he insisted that the senior paid officials should attend the forum personally.
`The black leaders talked of discrimination,' Stocks says. `At first we officials said there was none.
`"Maybe you don't mean it," they answered, "but how many blacks do you employ?"
`"We don't know," we said. "We don't keep such records. Doesn't that show we don't discriminate?"
`"It shows nothing of the kind," they said. "How many blacks do you employ?"
`So we found out. 269 out of 31,000! When the City Council faced the facts on this pattern of employment, it gave them the basis from which to raise the question with other employers.'
As a member of the Area Board of the Manpower Services Commission, Stocks pursued the issue as part of a special study which confirmed equally low levels of black employment in all sections of Merseyside industrial and business activity. Initial training schemes are now beginning to put this right.
Cabinet Minister Michael Heseltine set up a special Task Force to coordinate government action `on the ground'. He himself became a familiar figure on the scene, nicknamed 'Tarzan', with Scouse (Liverpudlian) humour. Alfred Stocks recalls him returning from a day spent in one of the toughest areas of the city and exclaiming, `What marvellous people' What can we do?'
In 1985 Liverpool again burst into the national headlines. Two years earlier, after a series of minority administrations, a Council had been elected which was dominated by the Trotskyite `Militant Tendency' in the Labour Party. Confronting the Conservative Government, whose policies favoured the growth of private investment rather than central financial support for local authorities, and determined not to trim their own ambitious development plans, a majority of the 99 city councillors then deliberately decided to produce an unbalanced budget. They set rates sufficient only to meet the bills for three-quarters of the financial year. It was a calculated act of defiance towards Prime Minister Thatcher and her Cabinet. It was also a bid for power, aiming to use chaos to radicalize feelings.
So as the year went on the money ran out. On 30 September notices were issued to take effect on 31 December, dismissing all 31,000 employees whom the Council could no longer afford to pay. Teachers, lecturers, garbage collectors and the administrative staff who `thought themselves a cut above everyone else' all got the push. It was chaos. `And,' says Stocks, `in those circumstances people look to the Chief Executive to produce some kind of thought on the subject!'
The Local Government Chronicle picked up this dilemma in a feature article on Alfred Stocks in July this year, pointedly headlined, `The Secret of Managing Pressure'. It said, `Many people wish to commiserate with him over the experiences of the past few years.' But then having cross-questioned him, the author comes to the conclusion that `he is a man to be envied for a 35-year working life of fulfilment' and goes on, `At a time when morale of senior local government officers has never been so uncertain, Mr Stocks sheds a different light. He sees unrivalled opportunities to initiate improvements and to tackle problems.'
When you meet Alfred Stocks he might not at first strike you as a commanding figure. He could pass unnoticed in a crowd. But you sense a man who enjoys a certain to and fro. Though small in stature he has the authority to have been President of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Radio Merseyside regarded his part in recent events as so pivotal that it devoted six half-hour programmes exclusively to interviewing him. And Derek Hatton, then Deputy Leader of the Council and Militant Tendency frontrunner, described him on his retirement as `a giant'.
A remarkable comment. An exponent of class war might be expected to use rather different terms about a man from a background of considerable privilege.
What was Stocks alternative to a confrontational approach, I asked. In answering, he went back 40 years. `I was privileged in my upbringing and the chances it gave me at school and at Cambridge University,' he said. `But the relationship with my father had come to breaking point. Outbursts of bad temper, sulky silences punctuated by shouting and the slamming of doors. I wanted out, and I was determined to get out at the first opportunity.'
Stocks moved to his first government post in Morecambe, a Lancashire seaside resort. There he happened to meet a couple whose family life was markedly different from his own. `They radiated a peace and serenity,' Stocks said. `They preached no sermons. They did not moralize. But I knew that I wanted whatever it was they had.
`They said they had come to the conclusion that "as I am, so is my country". "As I am!" I thought to myself. "Then God help the country!" They spoke of "change" - starting with yourself. They pointed out that a way forward could be to measure my life against certain moral standards. They talked of honesty and unselfishness, purity and love.
`It wasn't long,' Stocks went on, `before the blindingly obvious thought hit me that the situation at home for which I blamed my father, was my fault; that I had deprived him of the care and affection due from a son and so had created the very tensions for which I blamed him.'
In the last years of his father's life a new understanding was born between them. And so, too, was a certainty that if something new could happen in the Stocks family it could happen anywhere. It could happen in a community.
`It was these friends in Moral ReArmament who gave me the idea that an ordinary fellow like me could actually have some part in the scheme of things, and that God might, for instance, have something to say about my choice of career,' Stocks told his interviewer on Radio Merseyside. `So it was, in fact, on this basis that I came to apply for a job in Liverpool, nervous as I was at the idea of such a big city.'
Second sight in the hurly burly
`Do you still seek particular divine assistance with the difficult, or indeed with the smaller, decisions?' the interviewer asked.
`I couldn't possibly manage without it,' answered Stocks. He told of starting each day with half an hour when he `opens mind and heart to the Almighty in a simple, direct way. Nothing fancy about it. Seeking forgiveness. Bringing into God's presence the tensions, the worries, the fears. Time and again I have found that the thing I was not looking forward to, or was dreading, turned out not at all as I had expected. Somehow the situation was taken care of.'
I took up this point with him. `Is it, then, just a way of avoiding trouble?'
`In no way,' he shot back. `It's an essential source of initiative. In the hurly burly of events it enables me to get a sense of the one or two priorities out of 20; to be prepared to meet what will be in the other person's mind. My assistant remarked to me one day, "Mr Stocks, you seem to be gifted with second sight." But it is not me. I just stand back in wonder at what God can do when anyone dares to listen to him.'
The budget crisis in Liverpool was a test case. His radio interviewer pressed Stocks that he must have been scared as to what would happen with the takeover of the Council by those with extreme left-wing views. Stocks refused to be boxed in. He acknowledged `a certain apprehension', but his job was to serve those whom the people chose. He described setting out to build trust with the personalities who lay behind the public statements, personalities portrayed by press and television as impossible extremists.
Again his own experience gave him a starting point. On going to Liverpool in 1951, one of his early responsibilities was for the legal work on slum clearance. This meant going, year after year, to the poorest areas, street by street, house by house; homes condemned to be demolished. `I saw the conditions those people had to endure. I smelt the smells. I'd seen nothing like this in Yorkshire, where I grew up, in Cambridge or in Morecambe. I was shattered. But it was an apprenticeship beyond price and it gave me a passion to have a direct part in doing something about it.'
In the next years, under different administrations involving Conservative, Liberal and Labour, much was accomplished. Bulldozers went into action and the worst of the slums were rebuilt. In 1974, coinciding with Stocks' appointment as Chief Executive, a Liberal-led administration began a Housing Area Action Plan to make grants for the upgrading of existing homes, a programme which continues today.
So, with his own particular concern for housing, Stocks was able, in 1983, to understand something of the motivation of the in coming radical councillors. They had decided that an entirely new priority must be given to replacing substandard housing and to raising the living standards of the poor, even if it meant sidelining existing programmes of economic development. This would involve greater spending by the local authority and, apart from other ideological motivations, it made inevitable a headon clash with the restrictive spending policies of Central Government.
Stocks emphasized to his radio audience one key point in his credo: `If you can learn to trust others and get them to trust you, you can do almost anything. Conversely, without trust, however good the policies, you can do almost nothing.'
He approached the new leaders of the Council in this spirit. They were wary, suspicious that the officials, because of their past identification with earlier administrations, might try to sabotage their plans.
Stocks says, `I, personally, have come to see valuable intentions in all the different parties I have served. My job is to build on the best. The most serious charge against any Council would be that of apathy. Those in the new administration felt that to leave people in present conditions, whatever the improvements already achieved, was something they could not live with. That I appreciated.'
`But did you not clash with them at times?' I asked.
`Of course! We had to fight points out to a conclusion. As any public servant, sometimes I agreed, sometimes I did not. But I was expected to express my own convictions without fear or favour.'
`And the budget crisis? You were a loyal servant of the Council, but their policy was bankrupting the city.'
`Yes, I had to take issue with them on their statutory duty to set rates adequate to cover the cost of their proposals. They, however, still went ahead and war was declared between Liverpool and Westminster.
`It was a situation that can paralyse you. There was only one thing for me to do - to turn to the inner voice for direction, and for freedom from fear.'
Stocks felt that he must stick at it and that, somehow, the city must be kept going. When it came to it the trade unions made it clear that in no circumstances would they support the lay-off of 31,000 of their members. The dismissal notices were withdrawn. New sources of bridging finance were found and money borrowed. The immediate crisis was at least postponed.
As we go to press, however, proposals by the leader of the City Council for dealing with the city's financial emergency have been overwhelmingly rejected by the Council's controlling Labour group. In these circumstances the leader of the Council has resigned. Stocks says, `Permanent solutions to this continuing crisis call for real statesmanship on the part of both central and local government if serious damage to democracy is to be averted.'
Despite these continuing crises, there is also a new spirit blowing through Liverpool. As you drive down by the dockside you see imaginative development schemes, with art galleries, recreation centres, shops and office blocks where, before, there was decay. In housing estates soulless tower blocks are giving way to parklands and streetscapes on a much more human scale.
In 1974 when he became Chief Executive, the thought struck Alfred Stocks, in discussion with colleagues, that, whereas one individual city by itself might make a case for Government assistance, a group of cities acting together might have a stronger voice. So Liverpool joined forces with five others, Manchester and Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield and Newcastle upon Tyne, to say to Government that, while they realized that resources were limited, certain areas, deep in the cities, could no longer be tackled without external aid.
Turning the tide?
Government listened. An Act was passed through Parliament setting up a partnership machinery for joint action. Stocks chaired many meetings of officials working out detailed proposals for Liverpool. This initiative has survived changes from a Conservative government in the Seventies, through two Labour governments - who actually passed the Act - and back to the present Conservative government. Right across the political divide and through local turmoil, it has continued to provide a basis for common action.
The Merseyside Development Corporation, also funded by Government, has redeveloped acres of disused docks. It staged an International Garden Festival in 1984 on land reclaimed from years of pollution and decay and drew three million visitors.
In the port, where the dockers used to enjoy a reputation for industrial unrest, there has now been no major dispute for five years. Productivity has doubled since 1982, but containerization has reduced the workforce from 20,000 in 1960 to 2,516 today.
In May this year the Atlantic Container Line's new Atlantic Compass made maritime history as the largest ship ever to enter Liverpool Docks. She sailed in on the dawn tide, discharged 400 containers and 1100 tons of timber, reloaded and set out again for North America on the evening tide. At one time such a cargo would have taken a week to handle.
The Times wrote in the same month, `The port of Liverpool is now so successful that it is advising foreign rivals on how to recover trade.' In June, The Liverpool Echo commented, `A business boom is on the way for work-starved Liverpool'.
Ford's Halewood plant, once `a thorn in the side' of the company, is now described as their `jewel in the crown', producing more than 1,000 vehicles a day, up 30 per cent on the bad old days. They have overtaken their counterpart in Belgium for productivity. Meanwhile Vauxhall's are beating their West German counterparts on costs.
Where many had pulled out, some are now returning. Unilevers, General Motors, Royal Insurance, Littlewoods and Pilkingtons are among those pumping over £400 million into recent modernization. Some government departments are moving to Merseyside. Other investment has recently come from London. And imaginative schemes are encouraging small businesses.
The battle for regeneration is joined. No one pretends that it will be easy or pretends to know how it will develop. When asked about the future Alfred Stocks says simply, `Watch this space!' Meanwhile he and his wife remain at the heart of it all. He himself is currently Speaker of, the Ecumenical Assembly; President of the Athenaeum, the business and professional club; and continues to be deeply involved in programmes for rehousing.
With the vigour of deeply-felt conviction, he says, `What is at stake here is whether or not democracy works; whether, indeed, it will survive.
`If we pursue limited, dogmatic ends, we destroy; if we have an inclusive spirit, where everyone is needed, we build.
`There is no situation, however difficult, where there is not a next constructive step open to everyone.
`In Liverpool, just because we touch so profoundly on these crucial issues of race and class, of employment and economic survival, and of passionate political viewpoints, perhaps we can be a test case.’