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countering the spin and providing the balance


Snippets - August 2010

Snippets August 2010Readers might be pleased to hear that the changed circumstances at Fylde Council - chiefly the approach of the new Leader Cllr David Eaves - is leaving us with less to write about.

The holiday season is playing its part of course, but there seems to be a more open and collegiate style in place, and this, together with evidence of common sense and pragmatism about what is achievable, is a very welcome change.

counterbalance arose largely as a result of what we thought were foolish decisions led by the former leader. It follows that if the foolishness stops, the need for counterbalance is diminished. That's not to say we're going to disappear anytime soon, but there has been less to report, so our missives might get less frequent - or perhaps shorter. (Was that cheering we heard in the distance?)

However, there *is* interesting news emanating from Saint Eric Pickles' office in Westminster on a weekly basis, so we'll continue to bring our readers a summary of that to keep in touch, together with bits of local news.

Civic Awareness SeminarsThe first piece of local news likely to be of interest to our readers is that the Fylde Civic Awareness Group - a well respected voluntary group with a sort of part educational, and part local 'United Nations' role for community groups, is staging a series of seminars about local government over this winter at the Glendower Hotel, St Annes.

We heard that details are being sent out at the moment and we've managed to get a copy of the programme. If readers are interested in learning more about how local government works from serious and informed speakers it's worth a look.

Click this link to download a copy (pdf file)

The seminars are also a first-class grounding for anyone who thinks that being a councillor can't be that difficult a job and fancies having a go themselves.

The 'Statement of Persons Nominated' has been published for Kilnhouse ward by-election. This will be a good test for the Conservatives who will want to see how much the change of leadership news has percolated through to the grassroots voters.

Those standing for election are:

Karen Henshaw
Seasoned and experienced Liberal Democrat campaigner who is well known in the north of St Annes. Very narrowly defeated by Conservative Fabian Craig-Wilson in the County Council election. Lives in Kilnhouse ward. Must be a good bet to win here.

Matthew Lardner
Conservative who is unknown to us but lives in Mayfield Road which is almost local. He'll be hoping that the party label will help him through - and it might if the Commissar's handling of the Council is fading from people's minds. That said, the Commissar is one of the people who has signed his nomination form. We'd have wanted someone with more common sense.

Ian Roberts
Standing for the Green Party, and from the Hope Street area, this is another candidate with no form as far as counterbalance is concerned. Greens can do well in some wards in Lytham and St Annes. Roger Lloyd of Lytham was elected as Fylde's first Green at the same time that Dim Tim and Mark Bamforth joined the Council. Whether Kilnhouse is the right ward to win as a Green we shall see. Our prediction is: unlikely.

Peter Stephenson
From Napier Close which is close to Kilnhouse ward. This chap is the Labour Party candidate. Labour doesn't usually do that well in Lytham St Annes, but in the wards (like St John's in Lytham) where the demographics show a much younger profile (and in St Annes that would be Kilnhouse, St Leonard's or Central wards) they tend to do better. We guess he will come third or fourth.

The interesting point about these candidates is that they are all party nominees. There are no Independent people standing on their own account, and no-one from the (local) Ratepayer party standing. We find it difficult to believe that such candidates could not be found and we can't help wondering if there is a stitch-up going on where the Liberal Democrats - as the hardworking, pavement politics group who are 'most likely' to attract an anti-conservative vote - are being left a clear field to reduce the Conservative majority on the Council.

Whilst, (if that *is* what's going on) it's a legitimate electoral tactic if you are a political party looking for a party advantage, it's not one we approve of. 

Local elections should be about choosing individuals who will represent you, not the parties that will manage them in a competition for power and control rather than representation. Either way, we'll bring readers the result soon after polling day on 9th September.

Saint Eric's abolition of the QUANGOs continues. Last week it was the turn of the Audit Commission, whose days are now numbered. These folk used to have the job of checking the figures from bean counters in town halls up and down the country, to see they hadn't... ahem... made any mistakes. Fine.

But then along came Mrs Thatcher who wanted to turn them into her Local Authority Gestapo. They started talking about 'value for money' as well as sums. Then they got seduced into 'Performance Monitoring' of Councils and a favoured trick was to say you have to be in the 'top quartile' (best 25%) or you're a rubbish council. Then they started setting the targets themselves and, in our view, this really overstepped the mark. We recall writing to them after a particularly unsatisfactory report about something at Fylde to ask what right they thought they had to set the priority for Fylde Council when they didn't ether pay the taxes here or elect the councillors? We didn't get a satisfactory reply - but then we didn't expect to.

So we're not going to shed any tears for the demise of the Audit Commission, or the oodles of paperwork and their planned new 'Comprehensive Area Assessment' system that they were about to launch. This would have allowed you to compare one council area of the country with another (As if anyone other than anally retentive audit commission people would need to be able to do that.)  

It's enough that those who choose the council should set its priorities by electing the right councillors. And when Councillors get it wrong - as the Commissar did here - it's up to the electorate to get rid of them by public pressure.

As they did here.

There are some interesting side-effects coming out of the QUANGO abolitions. When St Eric signalled the abolition of the North West Development Agency, Business Secretary Vince Cable visited the North West and said he expected to have something else in its place in fairly short order, and he suggested it might be something like a 'Local Enterprise Partnership' (LEP) as there was still a need for "sub-national economic development" (Oh dear Vince, just when we'd started to trust you)

We suspected we might have seen a crack appearing between the Ministers on this issue, (and others might have thought the same) But to demonstrate unity, the two Ministers sent a joint letter to Council Chief Executives. The purpose of the letter was "to invite local groups of councils and business leaders to come together to consider how you wish to form local enterprise partnerships."

They went on to suggest some guidelines for the new bodies. There was talk of "strategic leadership, clear vision, and rebalancing the economy towards the private sector". They also suggested there should be "equal representation on the boards of these partnerships and that a prominent business leader should chair the board"

In terms of size, they suggest that boundaries should reflect functional economic areas and "natural economic geography" such as "travel to work areas." However, they suggested that in order to be strategic, if "a functional economic area matches existing regional boundaries, we will not object."

Cue the script for a row that is now beginning to rage between what some people (with the old regional agenda still not erased from their minds) refer to as sub-regions: (Central Lancashire, Pennine Lancashire and so on); the Lancashire County Council area; and the dyed-in-the-wool regionalists.

The argument of the latter is that to be able to attract European money, the LEPs need to be the size that Brussels wants to recognise throughout Europe (ie regional sized rather than nation states). They argue that this area needs a single LEP of a size equal to Liverpool or Manchester.

But that would give something the size of, well, a QUANGO with a different name. Maybe one that was the same size of the now abolished Regional Development Agency.   Hmmmm.

The County Council (obviously) wants the Local Enterprise Partnership to be based on "Lancashire" but the opted-out Unitary Councils of Blackpool and Blackburn were having none of that.

And so the row is raging behind the scenes.

The North & Western Lancashire Chamber of Commerce (who see the job of councils as supporting them, when we see it as representing the people that elected the councils) expect the LEP structure to be what business wants (well, at least what the Chamber of Commerce wants - which isn't necessarily exactly the same thing)

But it doesn't look to be going that way.

What we see emerging are three LEPs. One based around Blackpool and the Fylde Coast (we're not ecstatic about that but in terms of economic development it's less bad than it could be in other matters). Another based around Blackburn and the hilly bits called 'Pennine Lancashire' and one with the rest of (mid) Lancashire in it - probably based around the County Council.

As readers can imagine, there is a big power struggle going on. (There's a lot of power, ego, money and prestige tied up with whoever gets to run these sort of thing, so everyone who fancies their chances will be knifing and elbowing unceremoniously behind the scenes)

Bids to form LEPs have to be in to Government by 6th September, so we'll keep an eye on this for our readers and let you know who wins the war.

Mind you, it might all be academic. Government is to bring out a white paper to spell out the details it hopes to see with LEP's, and that might set the future pattern from 2012 when the change will take effect.

We hear tales that the new cafe in Ashton Gardens is raising a few heckles. Several people known to counterbalance who have tried it said they have not been that impressed. We hear tell of black-jacketed waiters ushering you to tables (whether you are ready to take a table or not) and where the cost of a coffee obviously includes the cost of the waiters as an overhead.

We haven't tried it yet - and on the word coming back to us we're unlikely to rush to do so. But we did hear of one firm instance that seems amiss.

A young lady known to us was in the Gardens with some friends. It was her first week from work and her first pay packet was burning a hole in her handbag. She headed into the cafe with said friends to buy coffee and cake but was refused entry to the cafe because - she was told - she was under the age to be allowed in  (unless she was accompanied by someone who was over 18) because of the alcohol laws.

Fortunately, one of the party was 18. But he did not have his 'proof of age' card with him, and the cafe staff would not accept his age, so the group were turned away empty handed and, it has to be said embarrassed, and not altogether happy with their treatment. We tended to agree.

So we looked into the licensing law, and have been advised by those that should know, that the law changed a couple of years ago, and it now stands that unless the terms of the individual licence preclude on age, the matter is one for the proprietor.

This raises a couple of interesting issues.

Firstly, it would seem that the cafe staff either don't know the licensing laws well enough, or they are hiding behind them in order to refuse to serve young people.

And secondly, whilst it used to be the case that business owners could choose who they served, that situation has been modified by the discrimination laws which preclude some matters (called protected characteristics) from being taken into account ( eg race, sexual orientation or disability).

Age is not (yet at least) on that list so far as we are aware, but if an age discrimination policy is being practiced by the cafe, it stands in sharp contrast to the purpose for which the (originally St Annes, and later) Ashton Institute was conceived.

That was to get young people who had time on their hands off street corners and into an environment where there were positive role models, activities such as snooker to keep their interest, and temperance.

Those that decided to grant an alcohol licence for this building ought to ponder whether they were right to do so.

How times change.

This is another measure emanating from St Eric's box of ideas on how to run the country.

For the present year he has said he will retain the cap on local council spending at the 5% increase it has been for some time.

He has also hinted that he would like Councils to maintain that cap on a voluntary basis the year after.

But following the concept of 'Localism' - which is the driving force underpinning all his moves (and thank God for that),  - in the longer term, there is no place for Government to be telling local people what the Councils they elect can spend.

That should be down to the judgement of local people - and rightly so.

Mind you, in this regard, it would be a lot easier if, at a local election, any political party seeking power had to produce its four year budget as well as its promises for the electoral term. That would make decisions a whole lot easier, and allow everyone a better informed choice.

But even without that, when you think about it, Pickles is right.

If there is an overriding desire to spend more than 5% in some areas - for example to help cure the problems in Blackpool, local people might want to pay a bit more to improve their quality of life - then Government shouldn't stand in their way.

The trouble comes when - as Thatcher found with 'Degsy' Hatton at Liverpool - local councils set an unlawful or excessive budget, knowing that they have enough years left of an electoral mandate to do so. In Liverpool's case, (where they set a budget that was 30m below what they could expect to receive in tax), it was a direct challenge to Government for more cash.

So St Eric needs a way to stop the loonies running away with tax increases when the cap comes off in two years time.

Where does he look? - why, even more localism of course!

Cue the idea of referenda on council tax levels that has just been floated, and on which Government is currently consulting until 10th September. You can follow this link to download a copy of the consultation and respond to it.

The idea is that if a council sets a budget that involves an 'excessive' increase - and 'excessive' is not yet defined, then that authority will be required to hold a referendum as to whether local people support the increase.

And that's a full referendum - with proper polling cards and a proper vote, not one of the old Commissar's favourite 'well we held the referendum on the website so that's alright then' efforts

Councils will also have to publish a 'Shadow Budget' showing what the increase would be without the 'excessive' part.

As you might expect, this idea has not gone down terribly well in local authority circles. We detect a growing view that says: what's the point of being a councillor if we don't get to decide things and we have to consult the electorate all the time?

Critics also point out the cost of holding the referendum might be more than the increase would generate (in which case it might deter some of the stupid increases we could point out over recent years even with the cap in place). We've heard the cost of the Parish Poll called on the closure of the swimming pool quoted. This was said to have cost around 8,000. We think it could have been done for less, but if you want to discourage something in the future, maybe it's a good idea to ramp up the cost.

Our answer to such critics is: Consulting your electorate is exactly what you should be doing as the electorate's representative anyway. It was only the last Government (and the Commissar) who said your job was to 'lead' the community rather than represent it.

And it's not only going to be the Borough Council that will be subject to a referendum if its increase is 'excessive'. It looks set to apply to any "precepting authority" so that includes the police, the fire service and most interestingly, Town and Parish Councils look like being brought into the net - although there is a proposed de-minimus level likely to be applied - probably in cash terms. That would allow a larger percentage increase if it didn't involve much actual cash payable.

Whilst they would be expected to publish enough information to allow voters to make an informed choice, there will be laws to prevent precepting authorities from 'campaigning' for an increase. Nice.

That'll scotch any ideas of pushing parks and open spaces maintenance onto Town and Parish Councils with a resulting whooping up of Council Tax overall.

St Eric wants to know what you think of his idea, and in particular whether the Town and parish Council bit should be included, and some issues about timing and practicality.

So if you have a view on this, don't forget to download the consultation and have your say.

Dated:  20 August 2010


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