Liverpool Echo

Politics in Merseyside is being covered more than ever before - long may it continue

Liverpool Echo logo Liverpool Echo 13/01/2019 22:34:38 Liam Thorp
a group of people posing for a photo: (l-r) Nick Tyrell, Faye Brown, political editor Liam Thorp, Kate Lally and Tom Houghton © Provided by Trinity Mirror Shared Services Limited(l-r) Nick Tyrell, Faye Brown, political editor Liam Thorp, Kate Lally and Tom Houghton

It has been a year since the BBC launched a new journalism project aimed at shedding more light on the goings on at town halls across the country.

Here Liverpool Echo Political Editor Liam Thorp talks about how our new local democracy team has changed the way we do things - and introduces the reporters responsible.

I will be perfectly honest here.

As the Liverpool ECHO's political reporter, I was a little apprehensive when I was first told that we would be getting four new reporters to cover the goings on at councils around Merseyside.

I was even more nervous when I found out these thrusting young go-getters would be funded by the BBC at no expense to our news organisation - I thought I was done for!

Joking aside, I realised straight away what a good move it would be to have dedicated council reporters sitting in the meetings I had often been unable to attend - watching, noting and reacting to the decisions being made that affect the lives of people in every borough of the Liverpool City Region.

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I was asked if I would oversee the new team - which would compliment my wider political work and I can only say it has been a pleasure and if I may say so, a real success story so far.

The crucial thing about any news story is getting people to read it and what our team of democracy reporters have quickly learnt are the skills to make what could initially be seen as dry subject matters work as content for a wide audience - who will read it in their thousands.

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Democracy is vital to our everyday lives - but it needs to be analysed, questioned and sometimes challenged thanks to the four people below, that is happening more than ever in Merseyside.

 

TOM HOUGHTON - WIRRAL

  a man wearing a suit and tie © Provided by Trinity Mirror Shared Services Limited

Having taken a keen interest in politics in my previous job, when I heard about the Local Democracy Reporting Service in December 2017, I couldn't get the application form sent off quickly enough.

I started the job here at the Liverpool Echo back in February, and quickly realised as a team, the challenge was to make local democracy issues our own, and fill a gap which, like in most areas, had so much potential but was underexploited.

That meant balancing a variety of factors - not treading on other reporters' toes and coming back from meetings with stories people would actually want to read, all the while sticking closely to the remit defined by the BBC.

All things considered, I think we have done a cracking job here on Merseyside.

Our stories are regular features on the news list for the Liverpool Echo and at the top of Chartbeat - the tool used to monitor traffic on the website - as well as appearing on countless other news sites and publications including the BBC.

That's testament to our excellent, fully comprehensive and (perhaps most crucially) interesting coverage of a huge number of local government topics important to the people that matter most: the readers.

Personally, I cover Wirral council and other bodies on the peninsula, as well as the Liverpool City Region combined authority - also covering certain duties for Politics Editor Liam Thorp when he's occupied on the main news desk or otherwise.

a bench in front of a building © Provided by Trinity Mirror Shared Services Limited  

I recently filed my 500th story, and one of the topics I've covered so far in depth is Wirral's green belt saga. That's included reporting before anyone else on the 50 huge sites in the borough that could be built on as the council looks to meet housing targets.

Others include getting there first on the walk-in closures that would see the face of Wirral's NHS services completely change, a separate complex piece investigating signs that the health service could be privatised, and most recently, divisive plans to ban dogs from 117 areas of the borough.

As well as taking a big interest in transport issues - helped by regularly attending Merseytravel's committee meetings - I've also hugely enjoyed the party political side of reporting on the Wirral - probably Merseyside's most politically diverse area.

Following on from various Labour councillors quitting due to allegations of 'hard-left' bullying and more, over Christmas I devoted a long read piece to unpick the intriguing divide in the party - holding a magnifying glass over a situation reflected not only on Merseyside but nationally too.

As well as the serious side of local politics, there is also a lighter side, and the past year has led me to report on the "epic" council contractor fail, who managed to misspell the word "school" back in June, and other stories including licensing meetings about Merseyside's secret swingers' club and the er. colourful events planned for the coming months.  

There's never a dull day in local democracy, after all.

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NICK TYRRELL - KNOWSLEY

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We don't talk enough about the fact that local authorities are at the heart of some of today's biggest stories.  

With responsibility for rolling out huge and often controversial policies like Universal Credit, all while providing services we take for granted every day, they play a massive role in our lives.

As the pot of money they have access to shrinks, there's a debate playing out in front of us about what services they'll be able to provide in the future - and what will be cut.

Knowsley, one of the authorities I cover, has found itself at the sharp end of many of these issues.

With high numbers of its residents requiring support from the council, it has simultaneously seen millions carved away from its budget, leaving its leaders with daunting financial choices.

Those facts are at the centre of by far the largest story in the borough when I started as a local democracy reporter early last year.

The council had voted to sell off all or part of 17 green spaces in Knowsley for house building, part of a plan to fill a hole in its budget to maintain the rest of its parks.

The reaction from the community had been swift - people were outraged.

This story was big enough that it would always have been covered.

a large building © Credits: Copyright Unknown

Copyright Unknown

 

But having a local democracy reporter specifically to scrutinise decision-making meant we were able to look more closely at it - and were at every meeting where the topic was discussed.

Without the LDRS it's unlikely that we would have kept tabs as closely on the efforts to stop the sale - and the reasoning behind it in the first place.

And there's almost no way there would have been a reporter at a small town council meeting months later to hear an off-the-cuff remark that the sell off plan had been shelved.

The official announcement wouldn't come until a month later - but sitting in that meeting meant we, and thousands of Knowsley residents, had the story then and there.

It isn't just the big events like this that we cover - in fact plenty of our time is spent on issues that most people are likely to recognise as part of their daily life, from problems with train timetables to bin collections.

This variety means it's sometimes challenging to try and define whether a story is or isn't 'local democracy' - and even more difficult to convince some councillors or press officers that it is.

The only people who don't seem to need convincing are our readers.

They are the ones with an implicit understanding of the issues affecting their everyday lives, whether that be a lack of buses running through an area or being told to wait several days to have a live rat removed from their home.

They're the ones who we have to take our lead from - and hopefully as this scheme progresses we'll be able to become a permanent touchstone for them to tell us about what's happening in their communities.

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FAYE BROWN - HALTON

a woman standing in front of a building © Provided by Trinity Mirror Shared Services Limited

I started the local democracy role straight out of studying for my journalism qualification - so it's safe to say I had a lot to learn.

Covering Halton, it was initially a challenge finding stories that fitted the brief whilst having a wider appeal to readers across Merseyside.

Agendas, on paper, can look horrifyingly dull, so it is no surprise that hard pressed news rooms have been struggling to send reporters to meetings where there was no obvious item of interest to them before this scheme.

But being a fly on the wall of the council meetings has taught me that even the dullest of dullest documents can transform into tales of drama and despair in the town hall chambers - which sometimes even make national headlines.

In Halton, a  council meeting about complicated changes to a road charging order on the fairly new Mersey Gateway bridge led to an anti-tolls protest outside the town hall which appeared on BBC North West Tonight.

The road charging order had a number of mistakes which put the legality of the tolls in doubt, leading to a whole new saga, which continues to rumble on a year later.

At a safer policy and performance board meeting about knife crime  in Runcorn, a youth worker revealed that a samurai sword had been discovered yards away from a primary school- a story which also appeared on the BBC news website.

a bridge lit up at night © Provided by Trinity Mirror Shared Services Limited  

More recently,  a seemingly dull  planning meeting about a waste transfer site in Widnes told a tale of despair over fouls smells plaguing Halton and fears it was becoming 'the dustbin of the north west.'

But it's not just the meetings that are a rich source of content.

Residents, whose ears have clearly pricked up after seeing their local councillors under so much scrutiny, have been quick to dish the dirt on their local authority.

From those living on a 'lawless street' with inadequate speeding measures, to a declining town centre brimming with takeaways and a former beauty spot that has become one of the worst fly-tipping dumps in the region- there's a lot of anger over the water in Halton.

But it's not all bad. Covering meetings means you're also there to catch the good stuff - such as radical plans to give Runcorn the 'wow factor'  and the introduction of budget funerals for those who can't afford them.

I've thoroughly enjoyed my first 10 months in the job and look forward to seeing what 2019 brings.

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KATE LALLY - SEFTON

  a woman smiling for the camera © Provided by Trinity Mirror Shared Services Limited

 

In the seven months I have (so far) worked as a local democracy reporter, I have learned a lot.

As journalism topics go, you'd be forgiven for thinking local politics wasn't the most interesting.

But with local authorities facing major financial challenges, set against a national political backdrop that is never dull, there has never been a more important time to report on what goes on in council chambers.

To begin with - councillors, press officers, members of the public and even other journalists often wouldn't quite understand what my job was.

I was a bit nervous to tell council officers I was literally being paid to scrutinise them and hold them to account, but it went down much better than I'd hoped.

That said, councillors don't always welcome my coverage, but reporting on what they do and decide is so vital for democracy.

I'm honoured to be a part of this pioneering scheme, and I have already had some real successes.

an old stone building: Look inside Bootle Town Hall.(Pic Andrew Teebay). © LIVERPOOL ECHOLook inside Bootle Town Hall.(Pic Andrew Teebay).

LIVERPOOL ECHO

 

And it's not just councils we probe. We also look at groups such as NHS Trusts, the Care Quality Commission (CQC) and Ofsted.

Between them, these bodies make decisions that affect almost every aspect of our lives, on an almost-daily basis. Before the LDR scheme, low numbers in newsrooms meant a lot of this would go unreported.

And there's clearly an audience for it.

 

I've received many emails from readers and listeners following stories I've supplied for radio, online and newspapers.

Some of my most notable stories to date include a panto-esque council meeting which took an emotional turn and saw officers told they had 'blood on their hands',  the deputy leader of Sefton Conservatives involved in a 'lefty pleb' Twitter row, and a woman who was explicitly told by her council that she was 'not allowed' to park  on her OWN driveway.

See what I mean? It's anything but boring.

14. tammikuuta 2019 0:34:38 Categories: Business Insider Australia Liverpool Echo

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