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countering the spin and providing the balance


Snippets: September 2010

Snippets September 2010A LICK OF PAINT
Works wonders - as you'll see if you have a look at the Promenade Gardens fountain. We moaned about it being is a state of disrepair in Snippets: June 2010 not long after it had an £80,000 refurbishment. Now it's had a dose of tlc and a lick of paint and it looks a credit again. The work might have been done at this time just as a co-incidence of course.....

We don't know if any of our readers have puzzled over the choice of some of the 'In My View' topics attached to local councillors in the Express.

We have found ourselves reading them and wondering 'what's that all about' when we finished. The ones we have in mind were so bland and pointless, you wondered why they were there at all.

Well, it seems one of our readers was not happy with the recent one from Councillor Pounder who was arguing that a University ought not to be allowed to intimidate would be smokers standing on the public pavement outside its building by putting threatening notices up on its walls.

Being the libertarians that we are here at cb, we're inclined to agree with Cllr Pounder

I'm FumingBut the episode has got one of our readers thinking. They told us they suspected that the articles are not written by the people they are supposed to be written by, but by a professional writer on their behalf.

Either way they took exception to Cllr Pounder's (or his Ghost's) writing on the smoking issue and have sent us a cartoon that other readers might like to share. You can click the image for the full sized version.

Changes to the political make-up of the Council as a result of an election, (or as a result of the expiry of a period of suspension by a Councillor), bring about a requirement to review the 'political balance' of the Council.

This is something required by law so there's no getting round it. But that doesn't necessarily make it right of course.

It was established with the best of intentions of course, to prevent councils with a majority of one political party hogging all the seats on committees and freezing out those of a different persuasion. But it is more or less unworkable where - as at Fylde - there are lot of councillors who don't belong to a political party.

For the purposes of the legislation they have to group themselves into an administrative group called 'Independents'

But, of course, there are those who don't want to be associated with the 'Independents' and maybe some who the 'Independents' don't want as bedfellows anyway, so these folk are called 'Non Aligned' or sometimes 'Individually Non Aligned'

These artificial constructs are necessary to work out the political balance of each committee so that it reflects the overall makeup of the council.

So far so good.

But the trouble comes when you have a committee of say, nine which cannot equally be divided by say five groups (Conservatives; Lib Dem's; Ratepayers; Independents; and Non-Aligned).

After the latest changes, the political balance of the Council is:

Conservative 58.82%
Independent 23.53%
Ratepayer 5.88%
Liberal Democrat 5.88%
Non-aligned 5.88%

Now for the sums..... Three of the committees have sixteen members, one has eleven and one has nine. The rest you can work out for yourself if you like, or see below for more.

On the latest divvy-up of seats it was interesting to note that on the three committees that each have 16 members, the Conservatives (with the same percentage score for each) had Nine; Nine; and Ten members for the three committees. That seemed - at last mathematically - a bit odd to us.

If you're of a statistical disposition you might like to click here to see the numbers and try and work out why this was so.

But they don't really matter anyway. The Conservatives have a majority so within the rules set by the political balance legislation they can vote through the part-people numbers they like.

The battle for control of what is a rapidly declining responsibility for regeneration and re-development is hotting up.

But the thing that's mostly being missed in all the arguments, is that the new body will NOT do all the things that the Regional Development Agency did.

It won't do:
- Access to finance
- Inward investment (grants and loans etc)
- business support (money for businesses and business related stuff)

All of this is being withdrawn from the RDAs and will, in future, be done by Government itself (which probably means not at all)

The ONLY things left for the LEP's to deal with are
- Planning
- Transport
- Skills
- Startup (ie new) companies

So the 'grant' and 'finance' arguments are a real red herring in the battle for power - which is really what this is all about.

Earlier this month Government announced it had received 56 proposals from across the country. Saint Eric said: “The [soon to be abolished] bureaucracy of Regional Development Agencies gave local authorities little reason to engage creatively with economic issues. Local enterprise partnerships are a way of tying council and business interests together, and creating the conditions for business to thrive and prosper.”

But what's happened - at least in this area - is a power struggle between warring factions typically led by local authorities with equally warring factions in the private sector sniping from the sidelines.

Those councils and businesses with a regional perspective want a LEP based on the North West. Those with a county-wide perspective generally want it based on 'Lancashire' And those with a local perspective want it based on Blackpool Fylde and Wyre,

The list that was eventually sent to Government for this area included: "Fylde Coast, Lancashire" and "Pennine Lancashire" and "Lancashire" the latter presumably being the bits left over when the others had been taken out of "Lancashire"

Here are a few quotes to give you a flavour of the positioning

Sir Digby Jones (former head of the CBI) said he was universally against the plan "because LEPs were confused in their objectives; too small to work properly; and already exhibiting a local government mentality"

Sir Roy McNulty - chairman of the 'Advantage West Midlands', the region's RDA - told MPs: "I can't imagine that a LEP would have significant clout if you had a population of below one million"

Shadow communities secretary John Denham said different councils were trying to grab responsibility for the same areas, adding: "The confused bids are scrabbling for less money than the RDAs had to spend"

Barbara Murphy (Chief Executive North & Western Lancashire Chamber of Commerce) said "A pan-Lancashire Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) is the only viable solution for this area. We are stronger when we work together. Dividing Lancashire would lead to competition within and would make it much harder for us to compete with the might of Manchester and Merseyside - all of which are well ahead of us on deciding how they will work together."

But local wannabes led by Howard Lewis, chairman of Blackpool's 'leadership' group, said a Fylde LEP would work in favour of the three neighbouring authorities. "Unlike other areas of the county we all have a common goal as there are too many issues in the rest of Lancashire which many businesses in our area are not concerned with". And at a meeting in Fleetwood lots of local businesses decided to agree.

And Eileen Ormand, Blackpool's town centre Business Improvement District manager, said they were "100 per cent behind the proposals for a Fylde LEP" and that the three authorities were focused on tourism and the economic benefits it will bring the councils."

(Apart from FBC of course, who want to close their Tourist Information service down.

We'll let our readers know how this work in progress works out.

We've just heard that the appeal by Metacre Ltd regarding Mowbreck Lane in Wesham has had its timetable established. More or less as we predicted the decision will be announced on or before 6 January 2011. If our prediction that it will be refused is also right, it will be a nice new year present for the folks in WAG and the wider  Wesham community.

Readers may find themselves surprised if their newspapers start to report that Councils are voting to have a "Leader and Cabinet" system of administration in the next few weeks - especially when counterbalance has been banging on about the awfulness of such measures for ages, and St Eric Pickles has said that councils that want to will be able to return to the traditional Council and Committee system in the near future.

What's happening is the tail end of a piece of former government legislation that narrowed the administrative options for Councils to two choices, either the Leader and Cabinet or a Directly Elected Mayor.

This law is on the statute book and by December all councils will have had to agree to opt for one of these choices.

But the situation will be short lived.

St Eric's 'Localism' bill will reverse the law and do away with the provisions that Labour has sought to impose on Councils.

Technically, as part of the legislation, Councils will have to consult the public on whether to have a Leader and Cabinet or a Directly Elected Mayor, but don't be too surprised if you don't see many adverts asking for your views. St Eric has suggested that Councils shouldn't waste a lot of money advertising and consulting on this matter, as it is likely to change again next year.

This is one of the few times we will support a lack of effective consultation.

Just ignore it and wait for St Eric's common sense to rain down on us.

Fylde has recently approved a merger (or takeover depending on your point of view) between New Fylde Housing and Progress Housing from Leyland.

Readers will remember that New Fylde Housing - originally formed out of the former FBC Housing Department - 'bought' the Council housing that generations of Fylde ratepayers had invested in, for a price of around £11,000 a property when it was actually worth around £60,000.

They became an ALMO (Arms Length Management Organisation) and started to manage the houses and estates. Fylde Council still had a significant input because NFH was directed by a board with several councillors as members. In this way the investment of the local community in their property remained with elected member control, and was (albeit minimally) protected.

Now that link has been severed.

The 'merger' has resulted in a shakeup of the boardroom and representation. After considerable heart searching, FBC has agreed to reduce its representation on the board to just one councillor, and at the Council meeting this week, Cllr Paul Rigby was appointed.

Cllr Maxine Chew asked that Cllr Rigby be requested to report to the Full Council on what was happening, as there had been few if any reports made in recent years. She also suggested the council draw up a brief or some guidelines for him so he could be sure he was putting the Councils views forward at Board Meetings.

We saw the stunned look on the face of several councillors when she was told that by all means a Scrutiny Committee could discuss her suggestion, but they would have to realise that Cllr Rigby's nomination to the board by the Council was not to represent the Council. The articles of the company required all board members to act only in the interests of the company.

And that, dear readers is how public assets are subverted into the private sector for knockdown prices. It completes the circle that began ten years ago when tenants were asked to vote for the idea.

No doubt some will say that life under NFH has been better for tenants. More refurbishment and so on, and that is undoubtedly true, but that was because ideologically driven former governments refused to allow councils to spend on refurbishment of council houses unless they were subjected to "Large Scale Voluntary Transfer" to Housing Associations like NFH, and that effectively started the process to take them out of local authority control.

In the end, it comes down to the question of whether there should be, and if so, who should provide socially subsidised housing.

And that - at the end of the line is an ideological / political, decision.

The last Item on the Council agenda this week was an item to exclude the press and public whilst a secret report about the land occupied by travellers at Hardhorn was discussed by Councillors.

Secret reports are usually of interest (if only because they're secret - apart from anything else), With the agenda being 'secret' we can only make guesses what was discussed - based on our experiences of watching local government at work.

We set out the legislative and planning background in 'Tinkering With Policy.' Broadly, the site was occupied by caravans in November 2009 for which no planning permission existed.

In January, the Council got an injunction to limit what could happen on the land pending a retrospective application for planning permission which was eventually submitted.

Fylde's Development Control Committee refused the application in June, and an enforcement notice was served. The site owner has appealed against the refusal of planning permission and also against the enforcement notice.

This means that an Inquiry in Public will be held, probably in February next, and it will probably last for a week or so.

The Council will want to put a strong case forward so they will need to hire a barrister and have planning experts there, and advice from 'Human Rights' experts and so on.

We wouldn't be surprised to find that the Council was going to hire in expertise to produce the Proofs of Expert Evidence that will be presented at the Inquiry, and according to Cllr Fiddler's statement after the meeting, they will be using the same legal representation that local residents have appointed. That sound a good idea to us.

These days, Inquiries in Public for planning matters all seem to need something called a Landscape Character Assessment and generally experts are hired in to do this. Metacre had their own, rather unforgettable chap,  at the recent Wesham Inquiry. We guess this will probably cost up to £15,000 or something like that.

The barristers and hire of a hall and so on is likely to add to this cost and give a total of maybe £75,000 overall.

Fylde hasn't got enough money in it's Planning Appeals budget (From memory they only had around £20,000 and the Wesham Inquiry will have taken all of that if not more), so the probability is that the secret item was to get approval for extra spending up to something in the order of £75,000.

But the bigger cost will come if they win, because it is a condition of the Enforcement Notice that the land has top be re-instated, and it might be that the people responsible don't do that, leaving Fylde taxpayers to pick up the costs of reinstating the land. So in the first instance, there will be a need for FBC to include a (big) budget item in next year's estimates to be able to do the remedial work in default.

It may be that FBC could put a charge on the land to recover their costs for reinstatement, but that's going to depend on how much the land is worth, and what the cost of removing and replacing all the hardcore and tarmac with topsoil works out at.

Fylde is in an unfortunate position here in having to incur very significant costs to implement its decision not to grant planning permission. This happens because there is a right of appeal to the Planning Inspectorate against Fylde's decision.

That is, until St Eric gets round to abolishing the Planning Inspectorate, and leaving local council decisions with primacy.

This is another work in progress, and we'll keep readers informed.

Dated:   29 September 2010


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