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Failing to Impress

Failing to ImpressA week or so ago, the Express carried a letter that said.....

"In 2003, Fylde Borough Council was on the verge of being taken over by a Government Agency, because it was so weak."

We thought that assertion was inaccurate, and we wondered whether it should be corrected.

It isn't the first time we've heard that argument expressed. We seem to recall Cllr Paul Rigby saying something similar at one time, and we've heard Cllr Coombes say the same sort of thing more than once.

Then, in this week's Express, Cllr Coombes had the 'In My View' column where he again repeated the story. He said "....Fylde Council has been brought from the edge of collapse in 2003 to an organisation which is now recognised as a forward thinking council with some of the top performing, value for money services in the North West."

Yes really, that's what he said.

You might think such moans about an incompetent previous administration are all in the past and have nothing to do with today.

But you'd be wrong.

They have.

At it's root, this is not really about administrative competence: its about who sets the agenda for local government. - Should it be local people, or should it be Government?

Who should influence the proportion of Council resources that should be directed to housing? Who decides whether planning permissions should be granted? Should the Council listen more to what local people say  - or to what Government says?

This is crucial (and central) to much of what has upset people in Fylde in recent times.

We argue that the Coombes Administration - whilst it lasted - failed to pay sufficient regard to residents, but danced merrily to the tune of the New Labour Government in Westminster.

In his column, Cllr Coombes himself speaks about the "...difficulty of leading an organisation which has to dance to the tune of its political masters in Westminster, whilst at the same time endeavouring to deliver the wishes of the community it was elected to serve. With centrally imposed political structures, meagre funding, imposed targets and policies, I feel local town halls have become one of the most difficult areas of the public sector to work within."

Readers will note the order that these matters come into his mind. Westminster first. Residents second. Note also that he felt he *had* to dance to the tune of political masters in Westminster and only *endeavoured* to deliver the wishes of the community.

Those are his words and phrasing, not ours.

So why are these comments - going back as far as 2003 - relevant today? What's the point?  Haven't we all 'moved on'?

Well, back in 2003, Chief Executive Ken Lee had been in post for a couple of years or so. Regular readers will know we were not enamoured with his tenure of the post. We believe he approached Fylde as a place of too much privilege, and his inclination was to encourage policies that sought to create what he called a 'more balanced' community.

We also believe he sought to do this principally by changing the nature of housing in Fylde, and thus changing Fylde's social profile. This process is something counterbalance calls 'social engineering'.

There is an interesting parallel here with the New Labour Government. Eventually, they have been shown to have opened the immigration floodgates to the UK in order to change the culture of the country and, (as we believe was said by one of their backroom advisers) - to rub the Right's noses in diversity: in effect, to make the country multicultural by force majeure.

We think Fylde's Chief Executive had social engineering aims and, in 2003, he began the process that led - wrongly in our view - to the former administration being discredited as a 'failing council'.

2003 was a milestone year - because as the letter from the Express' correspondent, (and from Cllr John Coombes and others) implies (if not says directly) - before the Conservative administration took office in 2003, the previous administration (focussed around Cllr Hayhurst and Cllr Mrs Oades), was *such* a failing administration, ("On the verge of being taken over by a Government agency" and "Brought back from the edge of collapse") it had Government Inspectors or whatever sent in to take over the running of Fylde.

This is simply not correct.

The real position is that inspectors (or whatever they were called at the time) did come in to Fylde, but only to change the housing service; not to run the Council.

It was the housing service at Fylde that was judged to be failing.

And guess who it was who said it was failing?

Was it local people?

No it wasn't.....

It was the Government.

They decided that Fylde wasn't spending enough on housing - and in particular, not enough on improving private sector housing.

Compared with say, Burnley, or Tower Hamlets, or Oldham, Fylde was spending much less.

But of course, that was always going to be the case, because we've never had the huge housing problems of, say, East Lancashire. Fylde didn't need the declaration of General Improvement Areas or slum clearance schemes to bring rundown houses back into proper use.

So did the people of Fylde worry about improving housing? Was it one of the high priorities for residents?

No it wasn't.

The people of Fylde put housing as one of their *least* important priorities.

And there's no need to take our word for that.

It was ably demonstrated at Fylde's own official 'opinion survey' back in October 2005 where it registered as one of the lowest priorities from a large audience that had been specially selected to represent Fylde's population profile. See 'State of the Borough Event'

So, dear reader, what we have here with the housing service - is a microcosm of what's happened much more widely with the Coombes Administration.

Government says something is a high priority, but local people say it's a low priority and vicy vercy.

So what did the Council do?

Well, clearly, the previous administration (Hayhust / Oades) was listening to its electorate on this issue. (Although on several other issues we would argue they were well out of tune), But on this issue, they listened to the extent that they upset Government, who sent in the Housing Inspectors.

The previous administration had mostly followed the tested formula of what services Fylde people wanted: Clean streets, a good refuse collection service, tidy lawns, and lots of pretty flowers.

They didn't make good architectural decisions (too much destruction of heritage and character for local people's taste) and, as far as Government was concerned, they didn't do well on housing.

So the inspectors arrived in June 2003.

That's just after the election in the May when the Coombes Administration first came into office and power.

We can't help wondering if the whole 'housing situation' hadn't been engineered anyway. Remember that former Chief Executive?

If you believed that the way to change the nature of Fylde was to change the social profile by changing the mix of houses, you might think it would be a good idea to get the Whitehall Mandarins worked up about the terrible housing problems Fylde had, and the low spending of the Council on housing (which was a Government priority). If they got worked up enough they might send in Inspectors and increase the funding to Fylde.

One of the oldest tricks in the book in Local Government is to make things look bad in order to get a lot of resources thrown in your direction. The more deprived you are, the more Government grants you can get.

Now, dear reader, we're going to ask you to try to picture (what can only be) an imaginary scene. The election was a month ago and you're a brand new (and inexperienced) Leader just finding your feet. You've beaten the opposition, and you're keen to show how bad they've been, and how good you are.

Your Chief Executive tells you the housing service is in crisis. Government inspectors are on the way in, and they'll want to interview you to see what you're going to do about it. Maybe he suggests a few ideas to help - like blaming the previous lot, promising a big study into housing need in Fylde, looking at taking housing a lot more seriously, and increasing the resources and staffing in the Housing department and so on.

When the inspectors arrive, they don't want to talk to the previous administration. They're history. They talk to the new one. That's you. So what do you say?

Well, if you take the advice you've been given in the imaginary scenario above, you've just taken the first step along the path to paying more attention to Government and less to your electorate.

Stage set for subsequent electoral conflict, and quotes in the Express such as the one from Cllr Coombes about 'dancing to Westminster's tune'.

We believe his inexperience with the Council, and his desire to try and run it as a business (a direction that is always doomed to failure), failed to equip Cllr Coombes with breadth of view needed to see the wool being slowly pulled over his eyes from the side.

It resulted in the first Fordham housing study. This reputedly addressed housing need, but in fact addressed need *and demand* which meant the number of houses *desired* in Fylde was about ten times the actual need. (Think about it for a moment - if you are in private rented housing paying £100 a week rent and someone asks if you would like to go into a socially subsidised similar property at £70 a week, how many of those questioned in the survey were likely to say no?).

This fallacy went on to result in Fylde's Local Plan and subsequent policies being changed and updated. It gave Fylde a ridiculous set of housing figures for the local plan. The number of all types of houses needed for the local plan was 155 dwellings per annum and the number of affordable (socially supported) houses (that should have been a small part of the figure of 155) was a massive 420 dwellings per annum. This was more than double total number of houses defined in the local plan for ALL types of housing.

Then they had another survey from a company called DTZ.

This used the same basis and found roughly the same levels of 'need' (only DTZ were a bit more open - and if you read their report carefully you can see they have attempted to quantify the 'desire' element). But superficially, their findings 'reinforced' the Fordham findings. And with Emperor Coombes still sitting there naked, and no one (apart from us - and latterly Cllr Trevor Fiddler who has seen the light) willing to tell him he has no clothes on, he had Fordham Research do an update of their earlier survey.

Guess what the result of that was?

The numbers have increased.

So the present situation (as set out in Fylde's latest Strategic Housing Land Availability Assessment) shows that Fylde needs 305 units of all types of housing a year, and of these, there should be 600 socially subsidised houses. Yes really!    It's absolute madness.

(You can read the detail for all of this in "Affordable Housing" and 'SHLAA'

And we're still living with the consequences of those post-Fordham decisions.

Fylde believes it need at least 30% Affordable (social rented) housing on every development site. The Coombes Administration spent money (that was allocated for a new local plan) to plug its financial black hole after the Streetscene debacle, leaving it vulnerable to developers who are now running it ragged at Queensway and Wesham and Ballam and Wrea Green and elsewhere.

The Coombes Administration has now had to borrow up to £400,000 to fund the local plan it should already be much further on with.

So we say, with a record like this, it ill behoves the Commissar to say "...Fylde Council has been brought from the edge of collapse in 2003"

In our view, there are many things the former administration did wrong, but listening to Government in preference to their electorate on housing wasn't one of them, nor did they bring the council to the edge of collapse.

Their priority for resource allocations was practical service delivery such as street cleaning, efficient refuse collection, and parks (which are what residents do want), but funding from such services was diverted by the Coombes Administration into an improved housing service and into other areas that local residents don't consider a priority.

You can see the change in housing focus being demonstrated by the changes in homelessness figures. The FBC Homelessness Strategy gives the following data for number of people presenting themselves as homeless in earlier years:

01 April 2002 to 31 March 2003 there were 24 

01 April 2003 to 31 March 2004 there were 57

But in 2003, the housing service at Fylde was expanded, and in 2004 the Homelessness service was brought back in-house. In its first year, the number of homeless presentations increased dramatically from 57 (which itself was double the previous year) to an amazing 223.

The FBC Homelessness Strategy of March 2006 concluded that this was because "... the true scale of the problem was never fully recognised."

But the Executive Summary of the (later) FBC Housing Strategy 2004-07 (prepared with the benefit of longer hindsight) said... "Homelessness presentations have increased, probably due to the increased profile of the new service..." It showed Fylde had "Arranged....homelessness training..." and that this, together with other promotional measures, meant that "....awareness has increased and many people advertise our services by displaying posters/leaflets which in turn helps more people access our services."

They were promoting the social housing service. No wonder the waiting lists increased.

Government was happy as Larry.

Residents aren't.

"End of" - as they say.

Speaking of which, the end of Cllr Coombs' "In My View" piece in the Express concludes with a couple of interesting statements.

We've given readers our take and interpretation of them as well. Readers will no doubt form their own opinions.

"Councillors will have to work even closer with our neighbouring authorities through the Fylde Coast MAA to both protect local jobs and encourage new industry to the region. The issue of a Fylde Coast Unitary Authority may again raise its head, with Westminster struggling to meet its debt repayments and looking towards Local Government to make massive savings. Do we really need four town halls looking after just 330,000 people? "

For which you can read (as counterbalance has said before) the Multi Area Agreement is the first step to a 'Fylde Coast Authority' or 'City of the Fylde' - and the Commissar has wanted want it to happen all along.

He also said:  "Providing homes for our children and grandchildren in the coming decade is a priority and will require some unselfish, long term planning decisions, that I'm sure will encourage much debate".

For which you can read "These moaning anti-development ninnys simply can't see that we need to get developers going to build houses in as many places as possible"

We think he's been Leader for so long that he now believes he is immortal, and doesn't expect to have to vacate the house he (and the rest of us here in God's waiting room) will leave for the future generations. He forgets that in Fylde, the local birth rate is falling faster than the national average and is outstripped by the death rate anyway - (Source: Parks And Open Spaces Strategy For The Borough Of Fylde 2003-2007).

And so the Coombes Administration - (like all administrations before it) is rapidly drawing to a close. This week saw the last Cabinet meeting he will chair as Leader, and we understand the Conservative Group will choose a new leader shortly.

Names in the frame seem to be: Princess Karen if she doesn't get to be MP at Hyndburn;  David Eaves - who is fairly new to the Cabinet and apart from his previous form with Blackpool Transport we don't know a lot about him; and Richard Fulford-Brown who is a self proclaimed 'moderate' - which might turn out to be a cleverer strategy than it may first appear.

Princess Karen as Leader is likely to bring us 'more of the same' but perhaps be less belligerent about the way it is delivered. Cllr Eaves we're unsure of at present, and Cllr Fulford-Brown is likely to be an outside chance of being selected as the Conservative leader so far we can see.

The 'hand of history' is alighting from Cllr Coombes' shoulder and getting ready to settle elsewhere.  He is about to become history.

Dated:  3 May 2010


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