A Mayor arrested, a city in turmoil - but what happens now?

Former Liverpool Mayor Joe Anderson
-Credit: (Image: Liverpool Echo)

On December 4 2020, Liverpool was shaken by a series of arrests.

The sitting mayor of the city, Joe Anderson, was due to hold a cabinet meeting that morning from home, as the country was in lockdown thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Mayor Anderson was going to honour the armed forces who had helped the city to carry out a successful trial of mass covid testing in the previous month. It was a project he had personally been praised for by the government.

But his morning turned out to be very different as police detectives turned up at his Old Swan home, arrested him and took him away for questioning.

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Joe Anderson was one of four men arrested that day as part of Merseyside Police's Operation Aloft - an investigation into building contracts within the city of Liverpool. Another to be held that day was the former mayor's son, David Anderson. Both men have not been charged and have denied any wrongdoing.

It was actually a year earlier that Operation Aloft was launched. The investigation exploded into view in dramatic fashion in December 2019 when Liverpool Council's then Director of Regeneration - Nick Kavanagh - was arrested at the local authority's Cunard Building headquarters on suspicion of conspiracy to defraud and misconduct in a public office.

At the same time, city developer Elliot Lawless was held by Aloft detectives on suspicion of conspiracy to defraud, bribery and corruption. Both men deny wrongdoing and have not been charged.

Aloft has seen numerous other figures arrested since it began, with several of those believed to be linked to Liverpool City Council. For legal reasons the ECHO cannot name all of those who have been arrested as part of the investigation.

The latest of those arrests came in November 2022 when a 47-year-old woman was held on suspicion of misconduct in public office, conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office and breaches under the Data Protection Act following a dawn raid at an address in Livingstone Drive in Aigburth. The woman was the 13th arrest to come out of the investigation.

The high profile investigation has led to huge ramifications for the city of Liverpool. Mr Anderson stood down from his position as mayor and did not seek re-election as he had planned. The arrests led to a major government investigation and subsequent intervention at the city council - with a team of commissioners arriving to oversee huge aspects of how the city was run.

After three years, that government intervention has now ended, with the council - under its new leader Liam Robinson - said to be in a much better position, but the shadow of Aloft still hangs over Liverpool.

At this stage, none of those arrested as part of the investigation have been charged. In June last year, the ECHO reported that a significant step in the probe had been taken.

We reported that Merseyside Police had submitted a file of evidence from the investigation to the Crown Prosecution Service.

In the majority of criminal investigations, police will make a decision about whether a suspect can be charged with an offence, however in more serious cases, the charging decision lies with the Crown Prosecution Service.

In these cases, the police will conduct an investigation and send a file to the CPS only when they think the case against a suspect is strong enough that it has the potential to pass the CPS charging test.

So this was a significant moment in the case, but a year later there has been no further movement.

The most recent moment when Operation Aloft made headlines came in April of this year and in the unlikely setting of the House of Lords.

This was the moment when Conservative Party grandee and former deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine made a surprise intervention, asking about "the conduct of the police in their treatment of former Mayor of Liverpool Joe Anderson."

Lord Heseltine said: "The Mayor of Liverpool Joe Anderson was arrested on serious charges including fraud and bribery. That was three years and four months ago. He lost his job, his reputation and his income. No charge has been laid since then, I would like to ask the minister, does he think that's justice?"

And he wasn't the only peer to ask a question of this nature in the house. Labour peer Tony Woodley, who declared an interest as a friend of Joe Anderson. said: "He is a man who has been destroyed, his reputation is completely and totally destroyed and everything that goes with it having not been charged with a single thing. It reminds me of Cliff Richard."

"Don't start giving allegations across anywhere to anyone if you haven't got proof and you can't substantiate what you are saying. It is an absolute disgrace what has happened to this man."

Conservative peer Lord Deben agreed, adding: "This is unacceptable. We really cannot have a justice system which punishes people, guilty or not guilty, without knowing what the case is, what the charge is and why it has been held up for so long. The police really do have to come to some conclusion rapidly."

Responding to the questions, the parliamentary under-secretary for the Home Office, Lord Sharpe of Epsom, provided our only recent hint at what may be going on with the police investigation.

He said: "The fact is the force has advised that this investigation is ongoing and live and that includes ongoing investigations with the Crown Prosecution Service.

"By way of further context, Mr Anderson has previously challenged the decision to arrest him by way of judicial review including an appeal and was unsuccessful in the courts. Since then neither he nor anyone acting on his behalf has made a complaint to the police."

He added: "However the force have confirmed that they are seeking to conclude this investigation as expeditiously as possible."

When asked for an update, a spokesperson for Merseyside Police said: "Following an extensive and thorough investigation we have handed the files over to the CPS for consideration and are awaiting a decision."

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