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Snippets - July 2010

Snippets July 2010We have  a serendipity of news snippets for you this time.

The really big  things are happening at Government level at the moment.  - We hope to bring you more in depth shortly, but in the meantime here is the latest local news.

The by election caused by the death of former Councillor John Prestwich will take place on Thursday 9th September.

Anyone who fancies standing for election as  Borough Councillor in Kilnhouse Ward needs to contact Fylde's Electoral Registration Officer to get the forms and submit them before noon on Thursday 12 August.

It isn't that complicated to stand for election, and the electoral registration officer will help explain the forms you need to fill in.

We're picking up gossip that there will soon be an announcement of plans to put a homeless hostel in St Alban's Road. The site of a former school is being talked about we hear.

There are no more details yet, but we did think this was the site connected to a planning application for residential development in Ballam Road that was going to provide a Hostel if it was approved.

We understand that plan fell through, and we heard either Muir Group or the YMCA were potentially involved in running it at the time. Whether this is a return of those or similar plans, or something completely different, is not clear at this stage.

We've argued before that the way to meet a fluctuating demand is not with a fixed provision.

The flexibility of capacity afforded by using B&B's and the consequential lack of stigmatisation as being 'hostel residents', coupled with the success FBC has had in reducing the number of homeless presentations (we're talking in the region of 11 a year now) lead us to the conclusion that a hostel is the wrong approach. We'll keep readers posted as we get more news.

St Annes Swimming Pool is due to open with the YM in charge in the next few weeks. The learner pool isn't going to open though, and the hours will be less than when the Council ran it. But on the positive side, some of the old fitness kit from the existing YMCA is being installed.

FBC says the cuts won't affect the pool. We agree as far as this year is concerned. After the election next year, we're much less convinced.

This whole sorry saga has been an episode in how not to run a local authority, and despite claims to the contrary, it was all down to a gaping financial black hole that neither the former Leader John Coombes, nor (apparently) the Chief Executive Philip Woodward could see developing.

It's also worth remembering that John Coombes couldn't have done what he did without the support  (for far too long) of the rest of his Conservative party on Fylde Council.

Well, according to Fylde's Chief Executive, its the week when you don't get a letter from counterbalance's best mate Saint Eric Pickles MP. At the Council meeting last Monday, he used the standing 'Chief Executive's Communications' item to advise councillors this was the first week he had not had a letter from Saint Eric telling him to change of abolish something.

That probably just means his post has been delayed :-))))))

There has been talk in other media of a £5.5m budget reduction in Fylde's spending. Given that its total budget is around £11m that would be staggering if it were true, but it isn't.

The most likely reduction is around £1.25m  That in itself represent a  very serious scale of reductions, and there is undoubtedly pain coming at a very uncomfortable time as we head toward the next local elections in May.

Fylde has recently buffered itself with reserves (as we reported in Cabinet: June 2010) so it may be able to cope, but residents can expect trouble.

We'd like to think the cuts were is the areas of stupidity like consultancy payments and politically correct policies - and with the Commissar gone, we have reason to hope.

At the last Cabinet Meeting the Chief Executive was pushing a new policy document called 'Destination Plan & Scenario Planning' (Yes really. Talk about fiddling whilst Rome burns).

However Princess Karen Buckley is waking up. She commented that she found it difficult to understand how they were going to be able to afford things like that when they'd no money left.  Couldn't agree more, Princess.

The savings axe is already falling higher up the tree though. Hidden in the small print of an announcement by the (soon to be defunct) North West Development Agency was an announcement that the 'St Annes Public Realm Scheme' (the so called 'Masterplan' for St Annes Promenade) is now defunct and won't now get the £1m 'sort of' promised by the NWDA for ten projects leading up the Open Golf competition in 2012.

This was another of those massive wastes of time bringing in consultants and spending oodles of officer time chasing 'external funding' that is only money taken from a different pocket of taxation.

Mind you, our loss of a million pales into insignificance compared with the loss of £20m to create a Fleetwood Fish Park (that's an industrial complex, rather than somewhere to go angling), and £25m for Blackpool's 'regeneration'

The axe is also falling on The Fylde Coast Economic Development Company (or the Blackpool Fylde and Wyre Economic Development Company depending on where you read it). This was the Commissar's final straw. He alone signed up to it as his last act of folly.

It seems that staff in the monolith are 'under review'

We heard a few weeks ago that everyone in a similar organisation in another county had received a redundancy notice, and suspect that might be on the cards for here. And the Commissar has only just joined.

We did hear some suggest that he hoped to land himself a plum job with them after he signed Fylde up.

Judgement up to the usual standard then eh.

We hear that Blackpool is now being told in no uncertain terms to keep its fingers out of Fylde. FBC is prepared to work with Blackpool where each other's mutual benefit coincides, but lying back and thinking of England whilst Fylde's lands and schemes are raped by Blackpool is now, very firmly, off the cards.

What could turn out to be the best piece of news in Fylde since we reported the 'Death of Democracy' in October 2005 was aired at the Council meeting last Monday.

Cllr Maxine Chew proposed, and Cllr David Chedd seconded a resolution that will see a working party set up to consider the options for moving back to the Committee and Council system of administration for Fylde.

This is another of St Eric's measures. Legislation later this year is expected to give councils the option of abandoning the awful, useless Cabinet system and returning to a properly democratic one 'councillor one vote' arrangement.

Introducing the item, Cllr Chew said "The Leader and Cabinet system excludes many councillors and isolates those at the top" Absolutely! That's why Commissar Coombes didn't spot the danger from the ides of March in Fylde in 2010. Cllr Chew went on to propose a cross-party working group be set up to consider what they could do about returning to the Council and Committee system as soon as possible.

But the most positive contribution was Cllr David Eaves said that he too was pleased to read the coalition government's statement, and whilst the devil was always in the detail, and it would probably be spring before the legislation became enacted, he thought a group to consider it was a good idea and that the Conservatives should support it.

Cllr John Bennett said that democracy was, and should be, the responsibility of all members, not just seven of them. In one of his more amusing comments, he reflected on the various incarnations into which they had been forced from their original Committee and Council system - the Streamlined Committee; the Executive Committee; the Leader and Cabinet; the Executive Cabinet; and said of those he thought the 'Streamlined Committee' system was the worst, it was "like a bulldog with false teeth, and Ken Lee hid the teeth away"

Cllr Elaine Silverwood supported the move, she thought it the best way for councillors to acquire experience.

The vote to set up the Working Group was unanimous.

Three things in this debate gave us cause for hope. Firstly, Cllr Eaves support for the principle. Secondly a unanimous vote, but mostly, that Cllr Eaves 'allowed' an opposition group member to propose an idea which he and his group then supported.

That sort of working together hasn't been seen at Fylde since before the Commissar took control. His going is a real blessing to Fylde.

There was one fly in the ointment at last Monday's Council, and it was the 'Corporate Governance Review' item. This was a plan to alter various things about Town and Parish  Councils as we reported in 'Parishes in Peril?' back in January.

It had been expected that the item would be approved with ease, but it turned into a really niggly little debate. The recommendation was: to approve an increase to 18 members for St Annes Town Council; to set up parish councils for Ansdell and Fairhaven, and another for Lytham;  and to re-align the boundaries of some of the more rural parishes.

But Princess Karen upped and proposed an amendment. She said she had heard that there were problems with the parish boundary changes; that the idea of a parish council for Lytham and Ansdell / Fairhaven had not been well enough consulted on, and, consequently, the Council didn't have the proper information to make the decision, so she wanted to postpone the idea until all those involved had been properly consulted. Cllr Susan Fazackerley seconded her move.

Cllr David Chedd disagreed, and proposed a further amendment that they should let St Annes have its 18 (which is what brought the matter up in the first place), they should re-consult on the idea of a Parish Council for Lytham / Ansdell / Fairhaven, and they should abandon the idea of changing the rural parish boundaries. This was seconded by Cllr Maxine Chew.

Cllr Roger Small disagreed. He said it would put things out of sync if the three things were split. (we couldn't see why exactly but there we are). He also said, tellingly, he thought there might be some problems with St Annes. Cllr David Eaves agreed that St Annes might need more consideration. We think there's something fishy going on here. Up to now everyone has been happy with St Annes TC getting the 18 members it said it needed and which is the obvious number when you consider representation levels.

Cllr Fulford Brown from Lytham fulminated that the idea of a Town Council for Lytham was pointless and unnecessary. He said it would cost extra, and that St Annes had already spent £17,000 on a planning officer when the Borough Council had perfectly good planning officers. He said "What an unnecessary duplication and waste of money" (we can reassure readers he was confused on this matter, but when the fulmination is in full flood, logic doesn't always come into it, does it?)

Cllr Silverwood (and others from the area that have parish councils already) tried to explain the benefits, but it only made matters worse, because up jumped Cllr Brenda Ackers from Lytham.

She was really angry (well, at least petulant). We've never even heard her speak before. She said "I wish all this had never happened, Lytham is fine. Contented. Ansdell has no great pressure for a new council. We shouldn't be spending any more money on this sort of thing. Lytham and Ansdell haven't had their say. Another layer is time consuming. I don't know anyone who has asked for a Town Council and I don't want to see Lytham change"

This sort of petulant reaction is typical of a Borough Councillor's reaction when a new town or parish council is proposed. It happens everywhere they are created, and is essentially a lack of self confidence from someone who feels so insecure they are threatened.

The Mayor and others tried to dispel her fears but it was not to be. Cllr Chedd's amendment was lost, and Cllr Buckley's carried the day - so there will be more consultation on the proposals. That throws up a problem unless it is very quick, because in order to get things in place for next May's election the decision needs to be made soon, and we could hear St Annes Town Council's clerk in the public gallery behind us making very exasperated noises at how long this had already taken.

It was a recorded vote and we kept a record of it  (The Council's video of the meeting hasn't worked so its not available). If anyone wants to know how their councillor voted just get in touch.

The real problem is that the review should only have been about St Annes Town Council in the first place, but in a move to be able to dump the costs of open spaces maintenance onto St Annes and Lytham, the Commissar widened it to include Lytham and Ansdell, and (we suspect) the Council's officers saw the need to 'tidy up' some of the parish boundaries and added them in as well. In doing so it might cost St Annes the extra councillors the desperately need.

The very capable - but secretive - head of Finance Fylde that hired on a part time basis from Preston Council, Bernard Hayes, is stepping down. Well actually he's stepping up, having been made deputy Chief Executive of Preston Council, but he won't have as much time to spare for Fylde in his new role, so he's stepping down and his protege Joanna Scott (who Fylde also shares with Preston) is stepping up to take on the senior finance role at Fylde.

He has done a first class job to pull Fylde's finances out of the fire in which the Commissar left them burning, and we pay tribute to him for that. We didn't take to his secretive style of operation, and we got the impression he was not that enamoured of the idea that the public interest was paramount. But Fylde is now, at least,  financially stable, and it's mostly thanks to him.

We don't know much about Mrs Scott. We noted on blot on her copybook in the subordinate role, but it wasn't a serious one, and time will tell.

There were also changes to Fylde's Constitution at this meeting last Monday. These changes are always wrapped up in the "Well, some job titles have changed and we need to update all the references..." sort of language. And its true that does happen, but what that masks is often a series of other changes that councillors are too lazy to read through in detail and that get passed on their blind side, as they nod the changes through.

This time however there was one substantial change - the need to incorporate the new petitions legislation into the Council's working. We'll have a look at this in more detail when the final version of the constitution is published, but in essence people are now able to effect a petition and if they get enough signatures it can force a meeting of a Scrutiny Committee to bring forward an officer to explain something, or in another instance, to force a debate of a matter at the Council meeting.

We were surprised by the reaction of some councillors to this. Many appeared not to like the idea at all and some who spoke privately to us after the meeting admitted as much.

In the event, the decisions they made appeared to be at the more obscure end of transparency - mostly doing the minimum that the law now requires, even though Government is exhorting them to treat its guidance as the minimum, and to be more open and make it easier for members of the public to bring forward petitions.

We think they're going to have to get used to the idea. Government is bearing down on public involvement, localism and transparency like an overheated steam train.

In this regard, the next thing to hit Fylde could well be the 'Local Referendums Act'

Amid a raft of new bills presented before the end of the parliamentary term on 26 July was the 'Local Referendums Bill' which had its first reading. This is a Bill presented by Zac Goldsmith to make provision about binding local referendums.

This Bill will be on the Parliamentary Order Paper for a Second Reading debate on 3 December 2010. We'll be watching its progress.

But as usual, Fylde's 'routine' constitution changes this time also had some hidden nuggets that no one appeared to spot. We're listing just a  few here, there are loads more.

For example: the Chief Finance Officer now has the power to write off uncollectible debts between £5,000 and £25,000. It doesn't say how often they can do this either. Nor does it set a limit for a week. month or year. We have a strong view that any uncollectable debt should only be written off by the head of the Council's financial service only after consultation with, at the very least, the leader of the Council and the Leader of the opposition. We'd prefer that written off debts were put before the full council to approve.

The finance officer also now has power to approve 'funded budget increases' of up to £50,000 as part of a "pay back scheme", provided that the scheme is in accordance with the council's overall policy framework and has a pay back period of 5 years or less.  This appears to means he can use money from the capital reserve of up to £50,000 so support a scheme which no councillor has ever seen.

They can also agree virements (changes from one budget to another) of between £25,000 and £50,000 - again with no councillor or the public being aware that such a change has taken place.

They can also approve "funded budget increases up to £50,000 from additional expenditure which is fully funded from additional external resources and does not place any residual liability on the council, in consultation with the executive member for finance and resources". So the officer only has to check with the relevant portfolio holder to approve spending of up to £50,000 if the money was not in the original budget approved by council. So all the unexpected government grants that Fylde has reported receipt of in the last few years , like business improvement grants and area based grants and income from developers and similar "other sources"  can now be spent without most councillors even knowing it has arrived so long as it is less than £50k and doesn't give the Council an ongoing liability.

We said this post holder has a predisposition to secrecy. This is exactly the sort of thing we mean, and unless councillors wrest control of items like these back into their and the public domain, they will only have themselves to blame.

The Council has also agreed to letting the Head of Shared Service (Revenues and Benefits) - and we're not clear whether that's a post in Blackpool Council or Fylde Council - write off of debts up to £5,000 (Council Tax) and £10,000 (Business Rates) including cumulative debts for individual debtors, and to write off of debts up to £5,000 (Housing Benefits), including cumulative debts for individual debtors.

No wonder the debts are mounting.

Dated:  29 July 2010


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