Wendy Simon was preparing for a Liverpool-wide open council Zoom meeting on Friday 4 December, when she got a message asking if she, as the council’s designated deputy, would lead the session. That wasn’t unusual, she’d done it several times before. The reason, however, couldn’t have been more out of the ordinary.
“My phone was on charge upstairs, I went to make a cup of tea and then I came back into the lounge to lock everybody else out and do the meeting and the chief exec said to me: ‘Have you not seen your phone? I need to speak to you.’”
The city’s larger-than-life mayor, Joe Anderson, had been arrested by Merseyside police on suspicion of conspiracy to commit bribery and witness intimidation, alongside four other men from the city as part of an investigation into building and development contracts in Liverpool.
Hit by this controversy at the same time as the number of coronavirus cases in the city was starting to rise exponentially, Simon took over as interim mayor with immediate effect and has been running the city out of the living room of the house she shares with her partner, daughter, son-in-law and two-year-old granddaughter ever since.
Not put off by the long days and occasional sleepless nights, she is bidding to become the first woman to do the role on a more permanent basis, this week launching her candidacy for mayor if local elections go ahead in May. Anderson has denied wrongdoing and is on bail until mid-February, but has said he will not be Labour’s candidate.
“It isn’t something I aspired to do, but as I’ve seen the enormity of what we were facing over the coming months and coming years, I do feel it is important that I put myself forward,” says the softly spoken former social worker. “I am fully aware of the situation we face, and I’m confident of being able to work together with the team to get us through this together and make sure Liverpool comes through this stronger.”
In the lead-up to Christmas, Liverpool’s role in fighting the pandemic was being praised by the government and city leaders alike. A groundbreaking mass test-and-trace system was piloted in the city from the second week of November, identifying hundreds of asymptomatic cases. On 19 November the city region had 189 cases per 100,000 people; by 3 December that number had fallen to 88. However, by 7 January it had rocketed to 1,017 cases per 100,000, with 602 Covid beds occupied, compared with 314 in mid-November.
The crisis has been monumentally difficult for local authorities to cope with, but has highlighted the extent of the work they do and the expertise they have to offer, says Simon.
“Because of the range of services we provide, we’re really at the frontline,” she says. “But as well as it being really intense, it’s been a time when local government has shone.”
Often seen as one of the sharpest thorns in the side of any Conservative government, Liverpool has been cited as a shining example of local and national government collaboration – praise that Anderson likened to a viper showing its teeth. Simon is more pragmatic, pointing out that with only 12% of the council’s funding generated locally, the city has little choice.
“There’s a difference between criticising policies and trying to get the best for your city, between highlighting the unfairness and injustice and actually trying to work to bring about better policies to get support and services into the city,” she says. “That doesn’t mean we need to agree with everything that they do, because we certainly don’t.”
It could be harder for the city to maintain its position in the limelight with the shadow of criminal proceedings hanging over it. While no charges have been made against Anderson, the government has ordered an emergency inspection of the council following the arrests of the mayor and, in 2019, the council’s director of regeneration, Nick Kavanagh.
Simon was first elected to the council in 2007 and has held the tourism brief for a decade as well as working as a senior social worker – a job she resigned from at the end of last month. Seen as an Anderson loyalist over the years, she has insisted she is “her own woman”, adding that the city wants to be as transparent as possible during the corruption inquiry.
People “do still want to talk to us as a city”, she insists, but when pushed she admits the scale of the damage is not yet known. “We can’t begin to believe that it’s not devastating, for the individuals concerned and for the city as a whole,” she says. “We’ll have to assess the impact of that in the weeks and months to come.”
For now, she will continue to slog away in her living room, the door handle of which is fortunately too high for her granddaughter to reach. Despite the scale of the task ahead, she feels “that little bit of hope that you’re moving towards”, and like the city she hopes to serve, says she has to be resilient.
“People are really, really tired. And people have been scared,” she says. “But I think as a city, we still have fantastic opportunities. I think we’re a world-class city, the best city in the world,” she says. “But I would say that, wouldn’t I?”