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A Small Deception?

A Small Deception?Quite disgraceful. That's the only way to describe the behaviour of Councillor Roger Small, Fylde Cabinet's Portfolio Holder for Finance and Resources as he wove a twisting path with smoke and mirrors whilst giving evidence to the Policy Development Scrutiny Committee last week.

We can't say he lied, because he didn't.

What he did was to distort the whole truth and to tell half-truths. He sought - at times it seemed, desperately - to avoid answering direct questions put to him by members of the Scrutiny Committee.

So what was it all about? Why did the Cabinet's own 'Voice of Reason' get himself into a position where everyone on the Scrutiny Committee could see he was trying to mislead them with evasive answers?

Well, it all came about after the last Cabinet meeting  where a report - nominally on whether to transfer parks and leisure management in Kirkham to Kirkham Town Council - let slip some truly awful plans to raise Council Tax for Fylde residents by £1.6 million, and to bypass the Governments cap on Council Tax increases.

You can read all the details from the link above, but in essence, the plan was: to push the work onto parish councils; to spend what FBC was spending on parks and leisure on something else; and to leave the parishes to pick up the tab.

But there was a problem. Having classified this money as a 'Special Expense' last year, it meant that if the work went to Kirkham, the Special Expense charge could no longer be justified, and to be able to spend this money on something else, meant it would show in Council Tax bills as an increase of 9.26% in Fylde's Council Tax.

So the Cabinet said they would not transfer the assets to Kirkham before 2012. (In reality, they wanted time to court St Annes and to create a new Town Council in Lytham), but they would spend some time until then looking at how best they could do it.

At the Cabinet meeting itself, Roger Small let the cat out of the bag. He said the best way to deal with it was to take Special Expenses out of the equation altogether.

What he actually meant was that he planned to reclassify the Special Expenses this year WITHOUT letting Kirkham take on the work and raise a precept itself. That way there would be no visible tax increase. But later on, say in 2012, he would push the work onto Kirkham (and hopefully, St Annes and Lytham) without reducing Fylde's own spending.

This would make it look as though Kirkham (and St Annes and Lytham) had made the extra charge, when in fact it was Fylde that has failed to reduce its spending by the value of the work it had pushed onto the others!

Queen Elizabeth Oades of Kirkham saw through this sham.  We heard she went to talk to a senior Financial Officer in Fylde where the conversation went something like this.

Clr Oades: Is it right that when Kirkham takes over the work, Fylde won't reduce its spending by the same amount?

Officer: Yes, that's right.

Clr Oades: But that means people will be paying twice!

Officer: We don't see it like that.

Clr Oades: But it means people will be paying a lot more, and it will bypass the capping rules.

Officer: Fylde is a small council with a small taxbase [not a big population to pay Council Tax] and it has traditionally has a low tax income. This plan the only way we can significantly raise the tax income without being capped.

We understand Cllr Mrs Oades concluded the conversation by saying that if this was the way things were going to work, they could save a lot of time by doing nothing more on it, because Kirkham would tell them to 'stuff it' - although we're sure she used much more polite language than we have used here.

Having spoken with her Independent councillor colleagues she decided to invoke a request for a Call-In of the Cabinet's decision. Once invoked, this has the effect of un-making the decision of Cabinet and putting it on hold, until a Scrutiny Committee has reviewed it.

On Thursday 4the Feb, the Policy and Development Scrutiny Committee heard her request for the decision to be called in.

Before getting to that item, the Committee first heard reports on Policy Development relating to the use of the beach for windsports, sand dune management. The also heard an awful report on 'Moving to Excellence' from Chief Executive Philip Woodward. (We'll bring you more on that shortly).

Then came the Call-in request.

Cllr Mrs Oades opened the batting and set out the basis of her request to call in the Cabinet's decision. She went back to the formation of Fylde in 1974 and explained how parish management of open spaces came about, and how they were all funded from general Council tax raised by Fylde Council.

She did a thoroughly competent and professional job, leaving almost no stone unturned to expose the real intent of the proposals.

It looked to us as though the Committee had been rocked back on its heels by her revelations.

She did such a good job there was not one single question to her from any member of the Scrutiny Committee.

Then Cllr Small set out his position.

He said he had not done as much work to prepare for the meeting as Mrs Oades had done, but he certainly didn't want to have anyone think he was looking at double taxation or tax increases by the back door.

He said what he would like, and what he proposed to the Scrutiny Committee, was that he would take the matter back to the Cabinet himself. He went on to set out a seductive timetable for Cabinet to review the matter with the aim of getting a decision about the transfer of open spaces to Kirkham by May or June this year, not in 2012.

This smacked of desperation we thought. And quite clearly, he was on the back foot.

The Vice Chairman of the Scrutiny Committee (Cllr Kiran Mulholland) said he was a  bit confused, and asked Cllr Small whether he wanted the Scrutiny Committee to Call-In and stop the existing Cabinet Decision from being implemented, or not.

Cllr Small said there was no need to call it in and stop it, he would voluntarily take it to Cabinet anyway.

Now, gentle reader, when you see that sort of thing happening with this administration, it leaves but one impression, the distinct smell of rat.

We don't know if Cllr Mulholland noted the same smell, but he next asked: if they *didn't* call in the decision, the existing Cabinet decision would stand wouldn't it? And that included a requirement to do nothing before 2012 didn't it? So it was only if they called in the previous decision that the Cabinet could review it as Cllr Small had suggested wasn't it?.

We think Cllr Mulholland was genuine in his concern in this matter, but if he wasn't, it was close to game, set and match to him, as an open-mouthed Cllr Small spluttered that he didn't think it was necessary to call-in the decision.

The rat smell got very much stronger.

Members of the Scrutiny Committee fired questions to Cllr Small in an attempt to get at the whole truth, but again and again, just like Michael Howard being interviewed by Paxman, Cllr Small dodged, weaved and twisted amongst the questions bowled at him. It was clear some members of the Committee were becoming irritated by his evasive answers.

He said he had no intention to introduce double taxation.

But we suspect what he meant by that was a literal "No we won't charge you twice or the same service."  This, of course, left open the door for the same money to be spent on something else, without him having to call that practice 'Double Taxation'

In effect, we think he was playing with words.

Such is the lack of integrity in the statements of our politicians these days. No wonder people feel they can't trust them.

This was all too much for up-and-coming Councillor David Chedd who is getting the hang of how things work. He asked the specific question everyone wanted the answer to, but he was smart enough to ask it 'in reverse'.

He asked for a yes or no answer to the question "If the £154k worth of work was transferred to Kirkham, would the Borough Council's spending be £154k a year less from that point on?"

Cllr Small sat open mouthed and unable to answer for what seemed like an age, but it was probably only a few seconds, before spluttering that as he had already said, he did not plan to introduce double taxation.....

Cllr Chedd said he would ask once again for a yes no answer. Once again Cllr Small was unable to provide it.

At that point, anyone on the Scrutiny Committee who had half a brain cell, would have realised that they were not hearing the whole truth.

The smell of rat became unbearable.

There were groans from the public gallery as they too saw the deception that was being thrust toward them.

This was bad enough, but then something happened that really disappointed us.

A senior finance officer indicated a wish to speak and said that when the rural parishes had taken £300k worth of work off Fylde Council's hands last year, the Council had shown that as a saving in its budget.

We regarded this comment as entirely misleading.

It might indeed have been *shown* as a saving, but spending elsewhere had been increased by just as much, so there was no *overall* saving (as many would think there should have been, and as Cllr Chedd clearly thinks they ought to have been).

We do not doubt the officer concerned was aware of the full picture, but in our view, they chose to explain it in a selective way, and we regard such comments as a very dangerous abuse of position.

An officer's responsibility is primarily to the public interest, and secondly the full Council. If they let party-political (or the Cabinet's) preference influence what they say, especially to a Scrutiny Committee (who exist to act as a check on Cabinet and its members), it is a betrayal of their professional impartiality. Perhaps this one simply forgot to mention the 'increase elsewhere' on this occasion. We certainly hope that was the case.

The silver-tongued Cllr Small continued to advance his plausible arguments and to enclose his deception in sweet-wrappers full of fine words that were crafted so carefully they meant one thing to one set of ears and something quite different to another.

In this way, we believe he hoped he would have sown just enough seeds of doubt to have people give him the benefit.

Make no mistake here, he is VERY plausible. An excellent presenter of his argument. His tone is measured, his approach is reasonable and without passion. The natural reaction is to believe him.

As it was with Tony Blair and the weapons of mass destruction.

And as with Tony Blair, it's just possible that Cllr Small has allowed himself to believe what he wants to believe, and thus convinced himself that what he believes is truth and fact. - If so this is yet another illustration of the incestuous danger of concentrating power into too few hands in a Cabinet system where 'fact' does not have to stand up to robust contra arguments put by those who disagree.

Cllr Small could have told the whole truth in his evidence to the Committee. He chose not to do so, and by not doing so, he has invited distrust in whatever he says in the future. Certainly, we will be using big doses of salt when we listen to him again as, we suspect, will several members of the Scrutiny Committee.

When the questions ended, he withdrew from the meeting whilst they came to a decision.

There was not a lot of debate. A couple of Conservative stooges tried to mount a rearguard action to not have the decision called in, but Cllr Mrs Oades ran through her story of the visit to the Finance Officer (as we reported above) and Cllr Mulholland reiterated his concern that if they did not call it in, the Cabinet resolution would stand, and nothing could happen until 2012 at the earliest.

The vote to call in the decision and refer it back to Cabinet for further consideration was without dissent.

So what happens now?

Well, the decision of Cabinet remains un-made, and they will reconsider it.

We can see three possible outcomes

1). If there is to be change, it's quite likely there will be a Cabinet Meeting called to reconsider this decision before 1st March because that's the date by which the budget has to be drafted, and if the Great Tax Con is to go ahead, they need to get this matter bottomed before then. We've just noticed it's on the agenda for a Cabinet Meeting next Wednesday on 17th February 2010, with a report "To Follow"  This means that we won't get to see what is planned till the last minute - when it is too late to do anything about it.

Their choices are limited, but they could try a partial scheme and just change Kirkham's Special Expenses back into Council tax then apply the promise Cllr Small made of a review by Summer and a transfer of parks and leisure for April 2011. We think that is probably a weak option as it's the election year, but on the other hand it would look as though Kirkham Town Council was making the extra charge in an election year, so it might be attractive from a party political view.

2). Another way would be to buy Kirkham off. To let them raise the tax and cut Fylde's spending in Kirkham by the same amount this time, and thus 'show' they were always going to do it this way.

This will not be what they want to do of course, but Kirkham is a minnow in comparison with the million pound plus gains to be made from Lytham and St Annes. So, if its not extending the fishy metaphor too far, they might see Kirkham as a sprat to catch a mackerel here. And by not using the con trick on Kirkham this year, the 'sting' on St Annes and Lytham will be even more plausible and easier next year.

3). They might just say "Sod it" and go ahead with what they were going to do anyway. They probably have just about enough votes to carry it through, but doing so will make them more or less unelectable in the rural area and Kirkham, therefore it's not an easy decision from a party political viewpoint.

So at present - to quote someone that no-one trusts any more - "The kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us re-order this world around us."

It remains to be seen which direction will be followed. We will be watching and reporting on it for our readers.

Dated:  12 February 2010


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