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All Change

All ChangeThere has been a  lot of change in matters connected with FBC in the past few weeks.

New people are in post, and new directions are being followed.

We have a new MP, and coalition governance in Whitehall which is set to make changes to the operating environment for Councils like Fylde.

We have a new leader of the Conservatives locally and thus a new leader of the Council. We also have a new Borough Mayor and change in the Ratepayer group, so we thought we'd look at the last two meetings of Fylde Council against this backdrop.

Quite unusually, Fylde's two most recent Full Council meetings took place on two consecutive days. We can't ever remember such an event taking place before.

The long-standing (and second) of these meetings was the Annual Meeting of the Council (also known as Mayor Making) - which we will come to in a few minutes.

The 'rushed' one was a special meeting, called as a matter of urgency, primarily to discuss John Coombes' final act of damage to Fylde - when he alone signed Fylde up to full membership of the 'Blackpool Fylde and Wyre Economic Development Company Ltd.'

But this Council meeting also had other items to consider. Items about Councillors Allowances and the appointment of a new Leader, so we're taking a closer look at the items on this agenda for our readers.

We broke news of this Special Council meeting in Snippets April 2010, where we also explained how Queen Elizabeth Oades of Kirkham had forced the meeting to be held, in order to allow the plan for membership to be debated in Council.

At the 11the hour before the Council meeting, Fylde's Chief Executive circulated a helpful 'Briefing Note' to councillors.

Ostensibly, this briefing note was produced to help members to understand the issues, it also (unsurprisingly), justified all the actions and decisions of the Commissar in this matter. It also had the effect of tempering the wind in Cllr Mrs Oades' sails, but we're sure he didn't do that on purpose.

Because of the complex legalities of forming a limited liability company comprising two district, one Unitary, and one County Council, as well as a Development Agency and other QUANGOs, the County Solicitor attended the meeting to deal with any 'complicated' questions. (We thought - if Fylde's Chief Executive couldn't understand it well enough to explain it to his Councillors, how was any (non-technical) Fylde Councillor going to frame the questions that needed to be asked?)

But they had a valiant go, especially Queen Elizabeth, and Cllrs Linda Nulty and Elaine Silverwood.

When he was answering one Members question about Directorships on the new body, the County Council solicitor said it was "expected" that Fylde's Chief Executive (Philip Woodward) would have a place in the new Company - to represent FBC.

We thought it odd that he was the man 'expected' to represent FBC on the new Board, but he was also the one that had brought a higher authority in to explain it to the Council. We leave that conundrum for readers to work out, it's beyond us. However, in response to pressure from Cllr Oades' questions, the LCC man did say it was up to the Council to decide who to appoint, and it didn't *have* to be the Chief Executive.

Given the tone of the meeting, we suspect it won't be.

During the debate, there were, as you would expect, lots of reassurances from the Commissar and his supporters that everything was OK, and all was in order, and this was all a good idea to be able to bring in funds from the Regional level.

But as we were in Lytham, listening to the Commissar spouting...... at Westminster, the former Chairman of the Conservative Party (Eric Pickles) was being lined up to become the Minister for Communities and Local Government - in charge of setting the parameters within which local Councils have to work. This was the chap who said he was going to abandon Regional Planning altogether, and probably do away with regional QUANGOs like the Regional Development Agency (whose funding potential is a main driver for the creation of the 'Blackpool Fylde and Wyre Economic Development Company Ltd.').

Mr Pickles is not a man to be trifled with. He shares the blunt, forthright manner of Fylde's Cllr Trevor Fiddler and, (as you would expect of such a man), he has since confirmed this proposition, and said there will be a lot less money available in future.

So we'd have thought that the Commissar, being that he's in the same gang as the Government - (well, more or less), would have noticed the way the wind was blowing, and not put too much reliance on an organisation that might be doomed anyway. And one that was certainly not going to have much in the way of cash to dole out in the future.

But spotting that sort of thing that never was the Commissar's strong point.

The debate progressed, and searching questions were asked. However the result was never in doubt given the Commissar's majority. (Conservatives are nothing if not loyal to their leader - however wrong he might be).

The final resolution for the debate was a bland expression of support for membership that had been proposed by the Commissar.

It was carried of course - principally on the Conservative vote - at 25 for 15 against, (The Mayor declined to allow a recorded vote, even when reminded that Council had recently resolved to have all its votes recorded).

So whilst there will not be a list of who voted for and against this step, we can say it was the Conservative group and one or two of the Non-Conservative Councillors that seem to align themselves with, or share the policy views of, the Conservatives for most of the time.

However, all was not lost. Those attending the meeting from Lancashire County Council, and from the new Limited Company, and those who were there as observers from Blackpool Council, would have seen and heard that both the decision itself, and support for joining the Limited Company, was far from unanimous, and Cllrs Oades and Hayhurst have laid down markers for the future - that they, and their supporters - are not happy with these plans.

We think it was worth having the meeting just for that to be noted  - but there was more interest stuff to come elsewhere on the agenda.

The next item was the report of the Borough's Independent Remuneration Panel which suggested increases in Fylde Councillors allowances. The remuneration panel is composed of people completely independent of the Council who make the recommendations based on information and advice that is presented to them by the Council's Solicitor.

There is particular sensitivity on this sort of issue at the moment (in the wake of the MP's Expenses scandal), and it was never going to be approved.

The Commissar was quickly on his feet to say he was proposing that they note - rather than adopt - the report.

This means they will not give effect to the recommended increases - at least not at this time.

Very sensible.

The Commissar also said he'd like to tie the consideration of any future increase to the budget process, and ideally to link the allowances to inflation.

Readers will know we don't approve of allowances anyway. Expenses with receipts yes, but not allowances. But putting that view aside for a moment, this was a sensitive and wise decision. It would have been extremely foolish to try and implement increases in Councillors allowances at this time.

The next item was also about Member Allowances, but for Parish and Town Councils.

Here the proposer of the move had not been quite so sensitive to public opinion.

St Annes Town Council's Clerk had written to the Borough Council asking them to convene a meeting of the 'Parish Remuneration Panel' (We think this is more or less the same people as the Borough one, but with a different name)

It seems that the St Annes Town Council had wanted to be able to pay one of their members travelling expenses (after they had been on a training course for some aspect of parish work).

That's entirely appropriate of course.

But they had been told - wrongly in our view - that they could only make such payments if they had asked for, and received, the guidance of the Parish Remuneration Panel (which only the Borough Council can convene) about how much they should pay, so this agenda item was a request to convene such a panel.

Cllr Roger Small was quickly on his feet to say he didn't agree with this at all.

He understood the St Annes Town Council only wanted to be able to pay travelling expenses, and he had checked with some other parish councils, who had said they did this without the need for a parish remuneration panel to be convened.

For once, we couldn't agree more with Cllr Small.

It was tommyrot to say that in order to pay travel expenses they had to have a full-blown scheme of allowances in place.

Cllr Small went on to say he thought it would send out entirely the wrong message, and in any case it shouldn't be considered unless it was a collective approach from all Fylde's Town and Parish Councils.

Once again we completely agree with Cllr Small. In fact we were getting ready to run up a flag at hearing such common sense.

Cllr Chedd said that Elswick Parish Council had seen that this item was on the Borough Council agenda and had considered the matter at their meeting only a couple of days ago, and they had decided they didn't want anything to do with it.

Cllr Ford, who chairs the St Annes Town Council, found himself in a difficult position. He had to present, and probably ought to have supported, the request his own Town Council had made, but he was clearly in some difficulty because the advice he had received before or during his own Town Council meeting that authorised the request, was conflicting with advice given to him by other Parish Councils he spoke to just before the Borough Council meeting. We understand they had confirmed Cllr Small's view - that it was entirely unnecessary, and would be damaging to the reputation of all Town and Parish Councils in Fylde if it were to go ahead.

Cllr Ford said the Town Council had no intention of paying allowances to Town Councillors, they only wanted to be able to meet legitimate out-of-parish travelling costs for training courses and the like. He said he would welcome the matter being deferred and re-considered.

Cllr Small - whilst he was having none of the idea - also wanted to help Cllr Ford to obtain the clarity of view he had been given by his colleagues (presumably Conservative members of Town and Parish Councils in Fylde) where paying travelling expenses already happens - so he asked for the view of Mr Curtis, FBC's Solicitor.

At this point the plot thickened.

With the sliver tongue of a competent advocate, Mr Curtis said that if the St Annes Town Council wanted to pay allowances to Councillors, then they must ask for a meeting of the Parish Remuneration Panel to be convened (as they had done) and they must have regard to its recommendations.

He paused for a moment to let that sink in before adding, quickly, that if the Town Council want to be able to pay travel and subsistence allowances to Town Councillors that too would require the advice of the Parish Remuneration Panel to be sought.

The look on Cllr Small's face was a picture.

With a shrug of his shoulders (rightly in this instance) he dismissed the advice of the Council's Solicitor, suggesting that whilst he could not understand the answer he had been given, he nevertheless maintained his view it was not necessary to have the Remuneration Panel meet in order to be able to pay travelling expenses.


What we think we might be seeing here dear reader is an attempted stitch-up of two councils by their officer class.

We have learned over time that when Mr Curtis pronounces, you have to listen to, or read, the words very carefully.

He was quite right in what he said - but he used the A word - "allowances" - not the E word "expenses" and he added-in the word "Subsistence"  to travelling which, so far as allowances are concerned, relates to the payment of a pre-determined sum to be paid for food or accommodation (irrespective of whether it is, in fact, spent).

And those subtle changes made all the difference to the appearance of what he said.

Allowances are something that are paid as of right, irrespective of whether the person has incurred the cost.

Expenses are the re-imbursement of money laid out, usually against a receipt for purchase.

So if you go on a training course to Preston on the train you can subsequently claim for the expense of the train tickets. You shouldn't (in our view) get an allowance from which you can buy them (and maybe make a surplus or deficit on their actual cost)

This is a matter very close to our heart.

Allowances were on the very slippery path that eventually led to the disastrous loss of trust in our MPs.

They are always worth making a fuss about.

We made a fuss about them a year or two back, when the St Annes Town Council budget heading was changed from "Mayoral Expenses £250" to "Mayoral Allowance £250". That was done when the Clerk to the Council restructured the accounts after they bought a software programme to manage them. That change would have slid through unnoticed had we not been at the meeting to make a fuss. Clearly some of the Councillors at that meeting had not realised that the change in the nature of that item of expenditure was being made by their clerk.

As we have said, we did make a fuss at that time - but the change to a 'Mayoral Allowance' was approved anyway.

We hope that one day someone with a greater sense of the importance of this principle than those presently occupying elected office at St Annes TC will change it back to being an expense.

It's not the amount that's important, a few hundred pounds for legitimate Mayoral cost or travel expenses to courses is neither here nor there.

What is important is the principle that *all* spending of public money should be accompanied by at least receipts, or their like, to provide an audit trail of who spent how much, for what purpose, and when. And for those receipts to be available for public inspection.

Not doing so leads not only to moat cleaning and duck houses, but to damage of the very fabric of our democracy.

So, going back to the matter of the Parish Remuneration Panel and possible allowances for St Annes Town Councillors......, why might it be that the Town Council had received advice that they should ask for the Remuneration Panel to be convened in order to pay travelling expenses?

And why - when Cllr Ford had made it crystal clear in the Borough Council meeting that the Town Council only wanted to be able to pay travelling expenses - did Mr Curtis use the "A word" which had the effect of appearing to suggest the remuneration panel was necessary.

Well, sadly, we can't know the answer to this. We can only speculate. But one possible speculation is that the Borough Council has a strong desire to create a Town Council for Lytham. It is also likely that St Annes Town Council will, in the not too distant future, be allowed to have the number of Parish Councillors it should have had from its inception (had the Commissar not tried to emasculate the infant Council at birth).

Taken together, those two events - if they come to fruition in the next year or so, (which is likely) - mean that there will need to be a large intake of new Town Councillors in Lytham and St Annes. And the Borough Council will want to attract as many people as possible to apply to become Councillors in Lytham, in order that they can effect their disastrous Special Expenses scheme that will dump the cost of looking after parks and open spaces on an unwilling population, who will end up paying a lot more Council tax for this insidious capping avoidance measure.

So we can just imagine a future message being given out to the forerunner of a Lytham Town Council, or to the about-to-enlarge St Annes Town Council (who, as Cllr Ford says, have expressed no desire whatsoever to pay allowances to Councillors)....... - well it's important to be able to attract people of the right calibre of people to become Town Councillors, we need especially to bring in the viewpoint of younger people, perhaps people who are at work and would have to take time off from work to come to meetings, or where people are unable to afford say, childcare costs to be able to afford to come to meetings, so you really shouldn't deprive the Town Council of the balance and diversity it needs to be a Council that is representative of all the people in the area, and you really ought now to consider offering some modest remuneration as an allowance for Town Councillors.

This would not be something you'd be doing for your own benefit of course, you should think of it more as your duty toward future councillors. And it will be quite easy to do because we had the scheme that set out the allowances which *could* be paid to Town Councillors approved by the Borough Council's Parish Remuneration Panel back in May 2010. So all you need to do tonight is to agree to adopt its recommendations.

And with one little vote on something like that, the Town Council could be led by the nose along a path on which they had no intention of going, doing huge damage to the perceived common sense and independence that marks sensible small Town and Parish Councils out.

As we said. That is just one possible speculation as to why the St Annes Town Council might have been advised to have Remuneration Panel convened, and why the Council's Solicitor seemed to be so in favour of the need for such a move.

Of course, if that speculation - or something like it - were to turn out to be near the mark, it might be thought to show a frightening level of collaboration between officers of the respective authorities - when their respective elected members had no understanding of how they were being manipulated.

And if that were to be the case, Cllr Roger Small deserves substantial credit for putting a stop to it - even when it appeared to be against the advice given by his own Solicitor, and Cllr Ford deserves significant credit for being willing to look at it again.

We suspect this scheme to pay allowances to Town and Parish Councillors now sits comfortably alongside the Dodo.

Dead and extinct.

Thank goodness.

This item might have been something exciting, but it was actually a very low-key affair.

We think this suggests a degree of seat-shuffling discomfort on the part of Fylde's Conservative councillors who, in effect, had removed Cllr Coombes as Leader in just the same way that Thatcher's unpopularity in the nation caused the 'men in grey suits' to effect her removal.

Either way, he was no longer to be their leader.

Cllr Roger Small stood to propose Cllr David Eaves as the new Leader, and Cllr Fabian Craig-Wilson stood to second him.

This was followed with an immediate show of hands vote of the whole Council. There was no dissent from any quarter, and The Mayor (Cllr Paul Rigby) said he wasn't sure whether to congratulate Cllr Eaves or to commiserate with him in his new role as Leader.

The Mayor went on to thank Cllr Coombes "for all the sterling work he has done on behalf of the Council and the residents during the last seven years since he took over the leadership of the Council. I don't think there can be any doubt that he has steered the Council through a voyage of improvement in the last seven years and although his dedication and enthusiasm has raised the profile of the Council significantly during his leadership, I know he has made some personal sacrifices to achieve this, and has driven through some difficult and controversial decisions. But one thing you can say about John is that he has always stood fairly and squarely at the helm of the ship during these times, and he has never shirked away from the responsibility that goes with the office of Leader of the Council. I would certainly like to wish him all the best for the future, and I await with interest to see how he is going to cope with being on the back benches. Good luck Councillor Coombes"

Cllr Janine Owen stood to express her thanks, and said that whether you agree with Cllr Coombes or not, he had always done what he believed to be in the best interests if the Council. She also sent her best wishes to Cllr Eaves as he accepted a poisoned chalice.

Cllr Eaves stood to say he would like to thank all members of the Council who had elected him as leader. He saw it as a great challenge. He saw it as a great honour, and he thanked his colleagues for all the support he had received. He wanted to say to everybody that he is passionate about Fylde and he wanted to work with every member of the council, in order to take it forward, and provide the residents of the Borough with the quality services that it deserves. He echoed the comments of others to Cllr Coombes who, he sad, "had shown great determination within his leadership and had made some extremely difficult decisions"

Cllr Henshaw (Lib Dem group leader) stood and said (of Cllr Coombes we believe) "We've had our disagreements over the years, but I think we've stayed the best of friends despite all that." He also congratulated Cllr Eaves, as did Cllr Eastham on behalf of Cllr Mrs Oades who had had to leave the meeting early for another function in Kirkham.

Then the Council meeting closed.

We are going to be slightly less charitable. As we have said before - on a personal basis, Cllr Coombes is as pleasant and engaging a chap as you might wish to meet. He is always well turned out, has a very sharp mind, and is a convincing orator.

But as Council Leader he has been a dramatic failure. He has failed to understand or at least respect, the distinct and separate culture of this area. He has sought to modernise and spoil. He has overtly party politicised both the Council, and worse, the officer class with his dogmatic style. But above all, he has presided over a series of financial incompetences the like of which has never been seen in any previous Fylde Council.

We wish him well as a person, but we are very glad his tenure as leader is now over.

Cllr Eaves - the new Leader - is an unknown quantity to us. He carries the baggage of being part of the group that allowed Cllr Coombes to cause so much trouble with the Swimming Pool (and numerous other matters), and he also has some potential baggage from his time at Blackpool Transport which is rehearsed on other local websites, but we're not going into that here.

He was elected to Fylde Council in 2007, (and to the Cabinet even more recently), so that will be his greatest weakness. He will not have the 'usual' experience of procedures and managing officer and member meetings that he probably should have to be 'top dog'. That situation brings with it the risk of being given the run-around by those with more experience. However, his character suggests to us that such an event would be unlikely to happen twice.

With one notable exception, the areas for which he has taken responsibility have been dealt with in a way that we can find no objection to thus far. Indeed from the limited amount we have seen of his performance overall, it has been very much as we would have done ourselves in that situation.

He told us that he hoped we would see a different approach to the way the Council is run. His early pronouncements are much more bridge-building and inclusive. He is signalling a willingness to work with  councillors from other persuasions rather than attempting to beat them into submission.  We were happy to say we looked forward to such a new direction.

As far as we are concerned, he starts as Leader with a clean slate.

Time, and the decisions he makes, will show his mettle, but from what we have seen, we are hopeful.

This was the second Full Council meeting in two days and, because these days, the Annual Meeting it is seen as, and is encouraged to be, a ceremonial occasion, the powers that be like to keep the 'business items' to a minimum. Hence having it on a separate day.

In some ways, it's Fylde's equivalent of  Ascot.

A day for Sunday suits for the men, and big hats for the ladies. The audience is generally invited (but, technically we believe, anyone from Fylde can attend as of right). However there is a light buffet and tea (a classic British 'Afternoon Tea') at the conclusion of the formalities, so they like to know how many are likely to come.

The process is tried and tested. The Mayoral address is generous and warm it its praise and thanks. This year's was both moving and emotional for Cllr Paul Rigby when he noted attending the funeral of one of the 'Fylde's own lads killed on a distant battlefield', and when he thanked his family for the help and support they had given him during his Mayoral year.

After his address, Cllr Elaine Silverwood stood to propose Cllr Elizabeth Oades to be the Mayor of Fylde Borough for "the ensuing municipal year". She - as is customary - set out in generous terms what Cllr Mrs Oades has done for the Fylde and gave personal insights into her work.

Cllr Mrs Oades was seconded by Cllr Paul Hayhurst who had known and worked with her for many years (he was able to go back 19 years but he said it felt a lot longer). He recounted that, unlike most new councillors who are over-awed when attending their first meeting, and don't like to say much at the beginning, Cllr Mrs Oades took to it like a duck to water. He had soon learned just what a skilled, determined and astute negotiator she was. In fact, he said, her husband was the only person he had ever seen win an argument with her. He catalogued her progress through Kirkham Town Council and the Borough Council to the County Council and said she was well respected and admired by all - so much so "that she had attained the position of 'Queen Elizabeth' with counterbalance, the well known blog site, which has got to be recognition indeed." He concluded with some of her achievements - including running the first Fylde in Bloom scheme, and introducing recycling to Fylde.

After the unanimous vote of approval, the old and new Mayors left together to an ante-room and swapped the red, fur-edged cloak and other regalia of office that mark the Mayor as the Queen's direct representative in the Borough. This position means that within Fylde Borough, the Mayor takes second place to no-one except royalty, and the Mayor is always the one to meet and greet any royalty that might arrive in Fylde.

After the exchange of robes came the ceremonial procession though the assembled ranks of friends, family, councillors, aldermen, and representatives of all the main organisations in Fylde, to formally take the office and chair the meeting.

Fylde has, in recent years taken to playing music for this ceremonial procession. It's usually classical, and we quite enjoy trying to guess what piece will have been chosen by the incoming Mayor each year.

Not difficult this year. The arrival of the Queen of Sheba.

We smiled.

As soon as she settled in the chair she was off. She took change of the meeting straight away in a no-nonsense, businesslike way that augurs well for the management of Fylde's meetings for the next year.

Deputies and Consorts were then installed with due ceremony and swapping of chains before the new Mayor gave her thanks to Cllr Paul Rigby for his year's work. She said how he had chaired the Council Meetings in a fair and even handed way. We know that to be the case. His oratory may be sometimes a bit short, but his chairmanship is very good.

Cllr Mrs Oades (We're using Sunday names here since it was a very formal occasion) ran the meeting with clear ability and with wit and humour in the right places. It looks as though it could be a good year for Fylde.

To conclude the meeting, she asked everyone to stand for the National Anthem.

Nice touch.

We were reminded how infrequently you hear that done these days, and we noted it was the sort of thing that makes Fylde distinct from some other areas. Civility, manners, formality and tradition are what count here - and that's probably why people are queuing up to get in.

As a concluding note of other changes in Fylde's civic scene, we hear that Cllr John Davies has taken the helm of the Fylde Ratepayers Association, and Cllr Eaves has slimmed his cabinet to seven and re-ordered responsibilities. It now runs:

Cllr David Eaves - leader.
Corporate planning, organisational development, co-ordination of Fylde Local Strategic Partnership.

Cllr Roger Small - deputy leader,
'Finance and Resources'. Responsibilities include efficiency and financial services, legal services, audit and inspection.

Cllr Karen Buckley
'Partnerships and Community Engagement' Responsibilities include customer access, young people's services, Fylde Children's Trust.

Cllr Cheryl Little
'Social Wellbeing'. Responsibilities include housing, community safety, environmental health, licensing.

Cllr Sue Fazackerley
'Leisure and Culture'. Responsibilities include leisure management, parks, events promotion and tourism management.

Cllr Trevor Fiddler
'Planning'. Responsibilities include economic regeneration, planning management and asset management.

Cllr Albert Pounder
'Environmental Wellbeing'. Responsibilities include waste management, environmental quality, car parking and coastal defences.

We hope there will be another change in this area in the not too distant future, but we'll bring you more when we can.

Dated:  22 May 2010


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