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September 2010 Cabinet

Cabinet September 2010SEPTEMBER CABINET
The September meeting of Fylde's Cabinet was the first with the newly reshuffled members. Out was Roger Small, replaced as Deputy Leader by Susan Fazackerley. Princess Karen is now doing Finance, Albert Pounder is doing operational services - having moved from Environment - and that's gone (as we suspected and predicted) to newcomer Tommy Threlfall.

One of the September agenda items was called 'Regeneration Framework'. Sounds posh, and everyone wants a bucketful of it. St Annes has done very well out of it according to the pundits (too well according to folk from Kirkham). £21m of private investment for £1.2m of public sector money (this is the scheme that gave us the domes of course).

That said, there was a lot of confusion about the figures. Cllr Fiddler gave one set and Paul Drinnan from the department gave a completely different set.

Considering he was the one that had given them to Cllr Fiddler in the first place this was a bit of a poor show we thought. But as Mr Drinnan said, its not easy to keep track of them all, and it seems to depend who you're talking to which ones you used. (We've come across that before, haven't we readers). He went on to say that, for example, some included grants like the Ashton Gardens Lottery Money and it was debateable whether they were part of the Town Centre Improvements or not.

Ostensibly the report was about appearing to do something called 'Regeneration' more or less everywhere in Fylde, (Including, for heavens sake, Elswick). The principle is based on the old 1970's pub refurbishment schemes. You take a perfectly acceptable, honest and down to earth sort of place, and give it a 'makeover' so it appears to be something it isn't. You talk about piazzas and boulevards and public art and so on.

Surprisingly, this fools quite a few people for a short time - at least until the next pub (or area) is 'regenerated' and the 'in crowd' moves on to that.

It also works on the theory that if you can get bigger numbers of people into shopping centres (the so-called 'footfall increase'), more of them will spend - as long as they keep coming of course. So as with the pubs, you get onto and into a continuous cycle of 'Regeneration'

The whole thing is a sham. The pubs - which are now closing left, right and centre - were not saved by a dose of 'regen'; and just like them, a dose of 'regen' isn't going to save anywhere.

What will (or would) be the salvation, is what you find a lot in in Lytham and selected shops elsewhere in Fylde. Small family run and speciality shops that care about individual customers and understand their business. Lytham folk understand this. They provide the goods and services that bring people into the town week after week, not artificially via any 'Regeneration' scheme.

What you really see with this "Regerenation Framework" report is an attempt to justify the staff involved in regeneration in the face of looming cuts.

We'd make 'regeneration' an early casualty of them.

Well, well, well, after months of speculation the chickens are coming home to roost.

We confidently predict that the final costs of the Wyre refuse contract will show that, (as St Paul Hayhurst and Queen Elizabeth Oades have been saying for ages) everyone in Fylde has subsidised the Wyre refuse collection service.

And we think that's going to be the case even after the creative accounting used to transfer spending that was originally allocated to Wyre but was later moved into Fylde's charges, as well.

Readers will remember Dim Tim ranting at Council that the contract had made a profit since it started, and (after reporting the huge £700,000 loss which - in our opinion - necessitated the closure of St Annes Pool), readers will also recall his subsequent quote at the Faux Scrutiny Committee of "It was unfortunate it happened, I regret it...... that it happened..... but I don't think anybody acted in a way, deliberately, to act wrongly in what happened, and at the end of the day nobody died"

He really doesn't care about your money, does he?

Well now it looks as though the truth will out.

The Cabinet has just agreed an amendment to its future financial forecast regarding the Wyre refuse contract - to "exclude any assumed surplus forecasts and include an estimate for any potential exit/restructuring costs (including all residual contract lease costs) beyond March 2012."

It also noted that future reports would be made on, amongst other things, any costs associated with the "exit strategy or restructuring and redundancy as a result of service delivery changes."

So the Cabinet has now accepted there will be no profit from the Wyre contract, and there may be extra costs that have not been provided for in the budget.

You might well ask why exit and termination costs were not included in the original tender (and thus the budget), of course. They were always going to arise, it was only a question of when.

But in the Brave New World that sees Councils like Fylde not focusing on delivering services for their own electorate, but on winning contracts throughout the North West (as the gardening staff are doing at the moment) in the hope of generating surplus income to offset spending elsewhere, termination costs are going to be something you don't want to think about until its absolutely necessary, and you won't want to build costs like that into your tender price or you'll lose the contract and not demonstrate your alpha-male ability in the world of (quasi) business.

The 'early warning' recommendation to Cabinet about potential budget problems was preceded by recommendations to "delegate the decision on whether to engage in the process to bid for the Waste Collection & Recycling Service to be tendered by Wyre Borough Council jointly to the Portfolio Holders for Finance and Resources and Environmental Wellbeing based on a project plan and business case presented by the Customer & Operational Services Director." and that "That the Cabinet support the proposal of a shared service arrangement being offered as a variant option (if possible) as part of the tendering process."

What this means is that FBC will now take the decision as to whether to bid for Wyre's next contract out of the public eye, and with minimal debate. And if they don't get the contract, they will try and seduce Wyre into what's called a "Shared Service Arrangement" where the two Councils work together to deliver the service.

We think both of those options are unlikely and, as a result, Fylde is going to be 'in trouble'.

They're unlikely because, in private, Wyre is very angry with what Fylde did. We've shown before how, in order to win the contract and beat Wyre's internal bid by its own staff, Fylde put in a low contract price and high charges for any extras - (so when new houses came on stream Fylde were coining it in). Wyre councillors thought they were being ripped off, and eventually they closed down some parts of the Fylde contract. So we'd be surprised if Wyre even let Fylde onto their list of tenderers, let alone chose them to undertake their next contract.

It is bad news for Fylde because they're currently spreading their overheads over a comparatively large number of employees. If (or more probably when) FBC has to lose some of its bin-men (assuming Wyre don't re-engage FBC), they'll also have to cut maybe 40% of an accountant, 30% of a secretary, and other support staff and indirect overhead costs and so on. And they can't easily do that, so the overheads on the remaining bin men will increase and they will be less competitive.

Some councillors had spotted the flaws in this report and had tabled questions and made requests for the matter to be determined by Full Council.

Portfolio Holder Albert Pounder dismissed all these as unimportant because he said he was only making arrangements about how to structure the future bids or partnerships for work in Wyre.

In this answer he silently stepped over the gaping chasm of potential losses on the Wyre refuse contract.

That's one of the problems with Cabinet Government, it's very difficult to get opposing points of view heard and debated when all you can do as an 'ordinary' councillor is to submit written questions.

We believe this unsatisfactory financial situation is probably an unavoidable hangover from the Commissar's era. We don't think it's the sort of report that David Eaves will want to have brought to the table, but we're giving him the benefit of the doubt that whilst it's happening 'on his watch' it is the result of a course that was set by the previous Captain.

FBC are not out of the woods yet. There will have to be further reports on the costs when they are known, but then they will be historic costs that can't be altered, and the report bringing them will be preceded by "We've reported this before and we said it would be a problem" and when someone complains back will come the call "Why didn't you make a fuss at the time if you were unhappy...." and so it goes.

Our hero - St Eric Pickles - has been at it again, dishing out the common sense which is so disliked in Town Halls where policy is the ingrained culture.

This time he's issued a consultation on future plans for Council Tax increases (See it here)

In it, he says he doesn't like the idea of capping council spending because it's an 'after the event' thing, and a council doesn't know whether it will be capped or not if it goes over by say a fraction of 1% or whatever. He also notes that some parish and Town Councils now have quite big precepts (over £100) and the public need protecting from excessive rises there as well.

Capping came in in the 'Derek Hatton' era, when Liverpool Council set an unlawful budget that planned to raise £30m less then they planned to spend.

In essence they were trying to blackmail Government into giving them more money. There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, but in the end Government made laws that said they could set a spending limit for local councils.

Capping is not a good way of doing things.

Local people should have the responsibility to eject profligate or overspending councils, and St Eric wants to change it.

But he risks being disregarded by those few councils (like Liverpool) that would 'take government on' in a fight, so he's looking for a sort of compromise or halfway house between capping, and a free-for-all.

What he's opting for is a system by which he will decide each year - with reference to a council's previous expenditure - what level of increase would be deemed 'excessive' and any council proposing an 'excessive' increase would also have to prepare a 'shadow budget' that is more aligned with its 'normal' expenditure.

Where a council plans to implement an 'excessive' increase, they will be required to hold a referendum of all registered local electors on the proposal (and they'll have to bear the cost of holding the referendum themselves). They would be required to provide factual information on each budget, but prevented from 'promoting' one budget or the other.

In effect what this is saying is: 'if you want to have a big increase you must demonstrate to me that it enjoys the support of a majority of your electorate'.

To our mind that's a fair enough compromise.

It's not the best of options. We can see a few 'in principle' issues, but it's better than the capping one, and it seems a fair compromise.

You'd think Councils would be keen on it wouldn't you. If they're confident of public support in what they want to do, they'll be happy to test it in the court of public opinion.

Sadly a lot of them still haven't grasped the full meaning and extent of 'Localism' which is exactly this sort of thing.

It means councillors reflecting the views of local people, not their own ideas, or those of their political party. Many are still wedded to the "We know what's best for you" mantra and have yet to 'get'  localism.

In Fylde, the Chief Exec managed to leave it until it was too late for the matter to be considered by Cabinet, so he sent his own views in, and hoped the Cabinet would support them (which they did). We're not sure if they actually read them or not.

An early paragraph in his report said "The opening comments in the paper suggest that the new government is keen to abolish what it regards as a remote and draconian capping regime managed overtly by the Secretary of State. This element of the proposal is to be welcomed. However, the proposals for the Secretary of State and Parliament to determine a set of principles to govern council tax increases appears to convert the currently overt capping powers into a covert and coercive power on the part of the government."

In local government speak, that's 'fightin talk' and the rest was in similar vein.

We understand that similar comments of dissatisfaction are being made by other town and parish councils in Fylde and, indeed other councils across the country.

We've just one comment.

Keep on pushing St Eric- but do it harder, faster, and deeper. Don't be put off your localism reforms.

Another item on the Cabinet report was to adopt a "Shoreline Management" plan. In some places this is causing uproar, chiefly because in some parts of the country, spurred on by (we argue myopic) environmental organisations, vast areas of farmland are being given back to the sea. And in a few areas, housing too will be within what's become known as Managed Retreat of the coastline. In these places it's considered too expensive to protect the housing with sea defences, so the line is to be redrawn behind them.

Applied on a broader scale, much of Holland's productive farmland which has been reclaimed from the sea for agriculture would be lost. We can't see Holland voting for that idea (not to mention the situation in New Orleans), but in the UK a combination of the RSPB and others has actively promoted Managed Retreat as a policy, and some areas are being sacrificed.

Before we look at what's happening in Fylde, we want to make a comment about the report itself.

It's one of the best reports we've seen coming out of FBC. It's concise, clear, logical, balanced and without bias. We don't know the author ("Steve Ball, Chief Engineer") and we suspect he's not a Fylde employee, but wherever he's from, he has done a good job on the report.

So what does in mean for Fylde?

Well, for the most part, it means no change to existing sea defence lines. There's an acceptance of some change (Managed Realignment) between Freckleton Marsh and Naze Point, and that will affect farmers and other landholders in that area, and no doubt they will be aware of more details than we are at present.

But the one thing that most people have missed is the prospect of a new sea wall being built at the BACK of the sand dunes in St Annes - more or less from Blackpool to (probably) Todmorden Road or nearby.

Someone had raised the issue of the existing breaches in the dunes for the sandwinning operation and the access to the former Sand Yacht Club premises, and there is talk of closable floodgates being installed, but the main concern is an equinox high tide coupled with a north west storm surge in the tide causing a breach of existing dunes and flooding reaching Clifton Drive and beyond.

The solution to this (as will be investigated) is to provide a sea wall at the back of the sand dunes, probably along the back edge of the footpath on Clifton Drive North past the Sand Yacht Club entrance.

There's nothing definite yet, but we've now seen that sea wall mentioned in two separate sets of proposals, so you can say that opinion around that option is probably hardening, and it's likely at some point in the future.

The final item on the Cabinet was called "St Annes Pool - Post Project Monitoring Report" and this was an update on the selection of the YMCA as the operator for a 12 year period as per the Management Agreement which was still being drafted. (There are some really odd clauses in the draft of that which we have seen, which allow people to walk away more or less if they don't feel like doing it any more).

The report seems to have added another getout for the YM which is that if they assemble cumulative losses of £100,000 they can walk away

The report noted previous approval for the full £148,785 to operate the pool in 2010/11. This was to be met from the £119,000 they budgeted for, and another £30,000 of a special grant called the "Area Based Grant" which could have been used for more or less anything.

So until the full legal agreement is prepared, a 'memorandum for occupation and use' has been signed and is being used as the basis under which the YM are operating the pool. The report also suggests that running as a partnership with the YMCA might be a way forward in the future, and it notes the YM have installed a Gym which will generate more income for them.

The YM has managed to get Fylde to agree to limiting its maintenance costs to around £15,000 a year (which is very small for a building of that size), so FBC will have to pick up the cost of anything more than this.

That's probably why it says "There are ongoing financial risks in continuing to subsidise the operation of the facility including the need to finance major capital repairs and maintenance. The agreement allows the Council to end its obligations should the financial burden be unaffordable. Similarly the agreement permits the YMCA to end its obligations should its continued losses exceed £100,000."

Readers will remember that in 'Various Updates'  we mentioned that the other tenderer was dissatisfied with the way the tenders had been evaluated and awarded. We have some sympathy with his view. Looking from the outside and without being involved in the discussions, it seemed to us that since he came on the scene, the Council first tried to use him as a lever to get the YM to lower its price, then they constructed an elaborate tendering process in order to justify his exclusion.

We understand he has taken preliminary steps with possible legal action against the Council, but has also been speaking in depth with the Council's Auditors about the process, and they're currently trying to decide whether to make a formal investigation.

We hear Council officers are trying to get this put off on the basis that there might be legal action pending, but it would be interesting to see what the Auditors make of the process if they do decide to undertake a special investigation.

Meanwhile, we've had readers note what they consider to be health and safety breaches at the pool. One reader told us it opened without the required safety equipment (but that arrived the day afterwards so no action was taken).

Another tells us that although the pool is scheduled for school use in the morning, if the reserved time has no children booked in (and that seems to be quite frequently according to our reader), the pool remains closed to the public.

That's probably because of the staffing arrangements. Schools bring teachers and supervisors with them, so the staffing input from the YM is likely to be significantly less when school use is in progress. But if the pool were to be opened to the public (even though it's being heated and so on), they would have to put on extra poolside staff for which there's probably no budget. So even when it's empty and available, it may not be publicly useable.

Another reader mentioned what she thought was an anomaly. She had taken her youngster to the pool and found the main body of the pool set into lanes, leaving half the pool available for fun/casual swimming. But the short leg of the "L" was also roped off and not available for use.

She noted that whilst there was adequate room in the free swimming area, said child couldn't access either set of steps at the deep end without going under the lane ropes or into the roped off area that said child was supposed to keep out of.

She didn't think this was a very good thing, and we understand it has been drawn to the pool management's attention.

Again this is probably a cost saving measure. It's likely that having the short leg of the "L" in use would mean additional staffing because attendants and lifeguards can't see round corners.

So it sounds as though they're cutting corners by cutting off the short leg of the "L", and in doing so they're cutting off easy access to the steps to get out at the deep end.

We'll bring you more pool news as it arrives.

Dated:  30 September 2010


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