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Tax Con on Hold?

Tax Con on Hold?Now, this is getting interesting.

In our last article we showed how FBC was planning to con 300,000 in extra Council Tax by using Kirkham and St Annes Town Councils as money-laundering agencies.

We also showed how they were planning implement a smokescreen with the former 'Equitable Taxation?' scheme to declare the bigger parks and open spaces in Lytham and St Annes to be "General Expenses" (That's a technical term which means everyone in Fylde pays their upkeep).

At present they are classed as 'Special Expenses' (which means only the people in the area in which these bigger parks are located - in this case Lytham St Annes - pay for their upkeep).

By designating these areas back to being General Expenses (as they always used to be), it would lower the Council Tax in Lytham and St Annes; (residents here would only pay about 2/3 of what they are paying in Special Expenses now), and it would increase the Council Tax in the rural part of Fylde - (because folk there would have to share the costs of the bigger parks and gardens located in LSA).

Fylde's plan was that this reduction payable in St Annes and Lytham would offset the 200,000 extra tax that St Annes Town Council would have to raise if they took over the management and funding of the smaller 'community' open spaces themselves. But this would have been at the expense of taxpayers in rural Fylde, and there would have been an overall tax increase.

On Tuesday night, St Annes Town Council met to decide what to do about the plan.

They'd had the facts (or spin, depending on your perspective), from FBC's consultant Jennifer Cross of 'X Associates LLP' (which to us sounds like one of those "Toys-R-Us" names). She had attended several meetings with them. They'd had figures from Fylde Council that their Town Clerk decided were 'confidential' and would not release to the press or public. They'd had meetings about it where the press and public were excluded. They'd even classed themselves as a 'Working Party' instead of a Council so they could have meetings without telling anyone else, or having to publish an agenda for, and minutes of, such meetings.

In case some find this hard to believe, the decision of their meeting of 16 November said: "346/10 TRANSFER OF PUBLIC OPEN SPACE ASSETS. Following the last meeting there was a discussion as to how to take this forward. RESOLVED To agree to the creation of a Working Party consisting of all Members of the Council."

Why would you have a 'working party' consisting of 'all members of the council' if not to circumvent the requirement to have open and transparent local government?

This sort of secrecy is almost unheard of in a small Town or Parish Council.

It is an appalling way to behave.

We're very sad that St Annes Town Council seems keen to embrace the ethos of a small Borough Council instead of being a large Parish Council.

The frustration this approach produces in those who rely on common sense to guide them caused one of their founding members to explode on Tuesday night when he said: "We didn't set up the Town Council to rip off the people of St Annes"

So what happened? What did St Annes Town Council decide? And what are the implications of the decision that was made on this cold frosty night just before Christmas when most people are preoccupied with other matters?

Well, the snow and ice had made driving treacherous, but there were still ten or so folk in the public gallery to listen to the proceedings, and all the Town Councillors had made it to the meeting. A good start.

Even better, the Chairman handed round fresh-baked home-made mince pies to everyone there.

Nice gesture.

Exactly the sort of thing a Parish or Town Councillor would think to do where a more distant borough council would not.

Then the meeting opened with the usual 'Declaration of interests' section.

This is where councillors declare if they 'have an interest' in an item on the agenda. Something that an ordinary person might think would sway their vote because of the 'interest' they have.

Typically, it applies if they're debating, say, a planning application involving a relative, or maybe a grant to an organisation that will use the money buy services from your son or partner, or something like that. The idea is that you have to declare an interest and it's then up to the other councillors present whether you're allowed to stay the meeting and in some cases also whether you can vote or not.

Under the declaration of interests, Cllr Arnold Sumner did his usual "I declare an interest in anything to do with St Annes." (He argues that anything the Town Council does to benefit St Annes will also indirectly benefit him, and members of his family as residents of the town. So he declares an interest at the start of every meeting).

We suspect he also uses it tongue-in-cheek to illustrate the stupidity of the paper-chase that the application of this ill-judged legislation and lack of common sense has wrought on councils up and down the land.

After Cllr Sumner, the three members of the Town Council who are also Fylde Borough Councillors (Cllrs Akeroyd, Ford and Jacques) said they were also on the Borough Council and that some matters under discussion concerned the Town Council's relationship with that body and they thought they should "Point out that connection"

We weren't sure if this was a declaration of interest or not.

If it was, there was no discussion or vote as to what manner of interest it was, or whether they should be allowed to remain in the meeting and take part in the discussion and vote on the items affected. So we will probably have to wait for the minutes to find out whether it was a declaration of interest or not, what sort of interest it was, and what they decided to do about it.

But no-one seemed to challenge it, (at least not then) and we moved to the next item.

There's always a public speaking section at the start of Town Council meetings where any parishioner can simply turn up and get something off their chest. It's a really good innovation, and much better then FBC's 'Public Platform' where you more or less have to apply the same day their agenda is published (and submit a note from your mother explaining what you're going to say in advance).

Today there were three who wanted to speak. One about a planning application, one about pigeons, and a third chap who usually speaks about railways. 'Anorak' might be too strong a term, but he's very committed to them.

So when he started we expected something about trains. But he wanted to speak about the 'Asset Transfer' on their agenda. He said he was a bit concerned about the cost. He thought taking on these areas of land might increase the precept the Town Council charged, and he was a bit worried. He said - if it was someting like half a percent increase it's probably OK, but they look like a lot of work, and if it was going to increase the precept by, say, 25% he would be unhappy. He also wondered why they were considering it now. He thought that after the election when they had a much increased number of councillors would be a better time, and he didn't think they should make the decision today.

Then he went on in some detail to explain about changes to the rail franchise on the West Coast Main Line.

We thought: if he's unhappy with a 25% increase just wait until he realises that a 300% increase in the precept is what's on the table.

Eventually we got to the 'Asset Transfer' item and the Chairman (Cllr Tony Ford) said they'd had a lot of meetings about it. They'd had a clutch of papers, asked questions, and had some answers, and heard from FBC's consultant, but now it was time for them to make a decision. Did they want to accept the open spaces on the terms they were being offered?

Sadly, because all this has been discussed behind closed doors, none of the information he referred to had been available to the public over the months it was being discussed. So apart from having papers that night, almost no-one in the public gallery (nor indeed in the whole town) knew what they were talking about. There had been no publicity, and no press explanations on this item, and no opportunity for public debate. Not even the Town Council newsletter or the newsletters put out by the political groups in the town had explained what was going on - and it was the biggest item of revenue expenditure the Town Council had ever considered in its entire history.

Even at the meeting, the public was treated with discourtesy because the item was not introduced with the proposals, facts and figures, no explanation was given at all. The public was simply given the papers and allowed to listen to what Councillors had to say. So mostly, those present at the meeting had to pick up from the debate what the issues, and a few of the details were.

Poor show.

Very poor show.

Comes of discussing things in private sessions.

Even the Town Council's website - (where the Agenda and Minutes of meetings are published) had no mention of it.

Worse, the website failed to publish the papers before the meeting and thus kept them from public view. There is a legal requirement for formal Council meetings to publish details of items to be discussed, yet on the day of the meeting the website still said "Papers for this have been circulated separately The Council are requested to consider taking a decision of whether to accept the transfer of open space assets being offered by Fylde Borough Council".

Maybe the papers had been 'circulated separately', but not to the public, and it was a public agenda item.

Another poor show.

counterbalance readers knew better of course, we'd put out much of the information ourselves, but even we didn't have all the papers until the meeting.

We hope St Annes TC will change for the future and that it will stop doing things in secret.

Exclusion of the press and public is about protecting truly private information, not about keeping the public in the dark to avoid them having a say on the conduct of business in their own town.

However - having ranted about the lack of openness and transparency that is developing at St Annes TC, it's time we got back to the main plot.

Now that they had finally 'gone public' because it was time to decide, the Chairman asked each of the Town Councillors in turn for their views and comments. First off was

Cllr Angela Jacques
Cllr Jacques is also a Borough Councillor and she represents St. Leonard's Ward on both.

She said they "hadn't got any cherries" (this turned out she meant the Promenade Gardens and Ashton Gardens and Blackpool Road North Playing Fields, that FBC want to hang onto), but she still thought they should go ahead. She was "fairly happy to accept the closed cemetery" (Closed cemeteries have a high maintenance cost and a lot of legislation to contend with) and she said "Maybe we will have the cherries in the future"

Cllr Christine Akeroyd
Cllr Akeroyd is also a Borough Councillor and she represents Kilnhouse Ward on both councils

She is a lady of few words - we've not been to that many meetings, but this was one of the few times we'd actually heard her say something. She said she had nothing to add to what Cllr Jacques had said except to say they do have the opportunity fro tendering after being tied into the Borough Council's contract for three years. Like we said, a lady of few words.

Cllr Bob Fielding
Represents the northern parts of Fairhaven Ward that is in St Annes.

Cllr Fielding said he started being against the idea of Asset Transfer. Then he was for it. But now he was against it again. He said even if FBC used the savings to spend on something else, as long as it was a good thing for St Annes residents, he didn't too much mind the extra tax they would be raising, because overall he thought St Annes taxpayers would be better off and pay less. But he couldn't go along with the idea of the people in the rural area being asked to pay more to let that happen. He said "We would be seen as robbing rural Fylde - and I'm not happy with the figures as presented"

He went on to say that during one of the meetings he had queried what he thought was "an astronomical cost for water supply" at one site, only to be presented with a new document at the next meeting that showed "it had gone down from something like 14,000 to about 400." He said if he had to make the decision tonight he would vote against it.

Later in the meeting he returned to the theme of inadequate and conflicting information when, referring to the papers provided by Fylde in support of the transfer, he said he had been "very disappointed with the documentation" and had "never seen such an amateur document".

Cllr Arnold Sumner
Represents the part of Park Ward that is in St Annes.

Cllr Sumner was one of the founding members of the Town Council and he was the star of the show at this meeting. He thundered "This is an awful proposition. There are no assets here. Fylde Borough Council want to dump their non-commercial open spaces onto us. It will mean a 300% increase in our precept and we didn't form the Town Council to rip off the people of St Annes" He added that FBC were hanging onto the sites that produced a revenue and there was no assurance that FBC would reduce its charge overall. He said he would definitely vote against it.

(At this point we wanted to cheer. No spin, no deception, no political sleight of hand, this was honest-to-goodness common sense from the heart. That's what Town and Parish Councillors are elected for, and it's what makes Town and Parish Councils great. It's what separates them from the policy driven, unresponsive, administratively and procedure orientated, bloated, councils further up the chain).

Cllr Jill Sumner
Represents Heyhouses Ward

This Cllr Sumner is married to Cllr Arnold Sumner, but was elected by, and represents, a different area of St Annes. She said she wanted to endorse what he had said. She'd looked into the figures and it would mean their Council Tax precept would rise from 9 to 32, and this rise would come just before an election.

She said they couldn't be sure the 70 will be taken off Special Expenses by the Borough Council, and the open space they were being offered gave no scope to raise funds to help pay for them. She said they would have to take on the FBC staff and their contract for at least three years - and in addition they would be charged the overheads from the town hall.

She also wanted to know why the hurry? Why was it trying to be rushed through? She thought the May elections had some bearing on that. (Again, we were very pleased that someone had done their homework and studied the details around the costs and what we heard was common-sense speaking above policy and spin).

Cllr Barbara Mackenzie
Represents Central Ward

Cllr Mackenzie was also one of the founding members of the Town Council.
She said she agreed with Cllr Jill Sumner about being bamboozled to hurry and decide. She also said she wasn't sure there would be overall reductions as far as Fylde Borough Council were concerned. However she thought this was really a case of "damned if you do and damned if you don't"   She thought residents wanted the Town Council to provide more services but she was worried about doing it with these conditions and at this time. She also said she was not happy with discrepancies in the figures provided by the Borough Council.

Cllr Tony Ford
Cllr Ford is also a Borough Councillor and he represents Ashton Ward on both Councils. He is also currently the St Annes Town Mayor and chairs the Town Council meetings.

He said he welcomed the opportunity to take on responsibility for the assets, but he was concerned that the figures they had been given were only estimates, and he had some concerns remaining. He was not disposed to rush in, when the devil was in the detail. He noted the Town Council had only received advice from the Borough Council, and he said they should defer consideration of the matter until after May 2011, not least because he wanted time to seek independent professional advice on the proposals.

Cllr Barbara Mackenzie was quick to second this proposition.

At this point, Cllr Arnold Sumner said he wanted to propose that all the Borough Council members should not vote, because Fylde Borough Council stands to gain. He said "We should vote on it with the Borough Councillors excluded and I propose we should not defer it, we should throw it out now."

Cllr Jill Sumner quickly seconded the proposition.

Tricky situation.

Bit of an issue about whether this was an amendment. We think not, and this would probably have ruled it out, but by raising it as - in effect - a point of order (procedural matter - in this case questioning the situation regarding the declaration of interests at the start of the meeting) it was something that needed to be deal with straight away.

The Clerk intervened and said he disagreed with Cllr Sumner about the declaration of interests - implying, if not actually saying, that it was OK for the Borough Councillors to remain and take part in the debate and vote. So again, we'll have to wait for the minutes to see what was actually decided on Cllr Sumner's proposition to exclude them.

On the night, the Clerk's word appeared to be law and, apparently thus denied a vote on the exclusion of Borough Councillors from the voting process, Cllr Sumner was left with that part of his resolution that sought to "throw it out now"

Put to the vote, that part was lost 2 votes to 5.

Cllr Ford's proposition to defer a decision was then put to the vote and carried with five of the seven votes in favour. Cllrs Akeroyd and Jacques either voted against deferment or abstained.

It was clear they didn't vote for the deferment, but it was not clear from the minimalist hand movements whether either or both abstained or voted against.

The matter now stands deferred until after May - unless something strange happens in the meantime.

So the next question is: what does this decision mean?

Well, apart from the obvious deferment, this decision might have scuppered the Borough Council's plans to change the Special Expenses into General Expenses (and thus re-spreading the costs of Strategic Open Spaces over all Fylde taxpayers) this year.

If Fylde make that change now, it won't still be in their armoury to use if, or when, the Town Council decides to take on the assets and increase their precept from 9 (which raised them 95,000) to 32 (which raises them 300,000).

Without the benefit of the Special Expenses smokescreen, that will be much harder for taxpayers to swallow.

But on the other hand, if the Borough Council doesn't do it now, it will look as though the only reason they planned to do it at all was - as we have claimed - just as a smokescreen to hide the Council Tax con that the Cllrs Sumner at least have seen to be what it is, and refused to be party to.

Which is why Fylde now has an interesting dilemma in choosing whether to classify its 'Strategic Assets' as Special Expenses or General Expenses in its budget this year.

The first consideration of this was due at it's next Cabinet meeting that was scheduled for January 19 January 2011, but which seems to have at least temporarily disappeared from the FBC website (We couldn't help wondering if the events were connected).

We understand there are more Town Council meetings taking place in January, (and a meeting of the Local Association of Town and Parish Councils), so we must presume there is yet scope for changed minds even if that does appear an unlikely prospect at this stage.

However, according to the papers with the Town Council's agenda, the contract with the Consultant that FBC employed ends on 31 December, so either FBC will have to spend (in our view waste) some more money and extend that contract (or get someone else in to promote their asset transfer scheme), or they'll have to give it up as yet another aborted project that has lost taxpayers a few thousand pounds.

Like the Curse of the Mummy, this is probably set to return, again.

Dated:  23 December 2010


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