Festival chief quits on eve of Culture year

Shock resignation is just the latest in a string of controversies that threaten to derail Liverpool's prestigious arts gala
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The Independent Online

Days before the start of Liverpool's high-profile year as European Capital of Culture, organisers are reeling from the resignation of their chief executive the latest in a series of controversies that have threatened to derail the prestigious arts festival.

Just before Christmas, the chief executive of the Liverpool Culture Company, the year's organising body, quit amid claims that his position had been made untenable by plots against him. Jason Harborow is reported to be negotiating a 250,000 settlement with the company's creator, the city council.

Meanwhile, Liverpool's Lib Dem leader, Councillor Warren Bradley, and his predecessor, Mike Storey, are being investigated by the Standards Board for England following allegations that they secretly plotted to oust Mr Harborow.

Mr Bradley dismissed these allegations and the complaint to the Standards Board (the local government watchdog) as mischief-making by opposition Labour politicians.

It was hoped that the preparations for the year and a calendar of top-flight arts events would bring regeneration and permanently change the reputation of the city. Liverpool natives Sir Paul McCartney and Sir Simon Rattle are due to play prominent roles in the event.

Alarm bells rang in August when the city's Beatles-inspired Mathew Street Festival was cancelled. Billed as Europe's biggest free music festival, the Culture Company event attracts up to 200,000 visitors a year. It was cancelled after part of its budget was raided to pay for the city's 800th birthday celebrations.

On top of all this, there is a 20m shortfall in the budget for the 100m project, one that the council's finance chief warns will lead to service cuts if it is not plugged.

Liam Fogarty, a former local BBC reporter who runs the Mayor for Liverpool campaign, said much of the problem stemmed from the fact that the Culture Company was staffed by seconded council officers, blurring its independence.

"It just doesn't look good when you lose your chief executive two weeks before the year begins," he said. "Creative people across the city have complained that they are not being listened to and not being included."

Some confidence was restored, however, when Phil Redmond, the television executive who created Brookside and Grange Hill, was brought on to the Culture Company board in September. He has invited local artists and organisations who felt overlooked to resubmit ideas, promising that every one would be looked at.

"We've separated the politics from the cultural festival," he said. "There is now a clear demarcation from what are council issues and festival decisions."