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Snippets: February 2019

Snippets: February 2019We have  cornucopia of shorter items covering a wide range of topics this time.

Most notably we break some important news about the future of Lytham Institute.

We also have news of a 'first' for Fylde as a scheme to permit remote access to council and committee meetings takes a step forward.

We also have significant news about new financial penalties for 'Littering from vehicles' and the imposition of a double council tax penalty if your property has been empty for two years (even though you may be consuming no public services).

SYNOPSIS
First we break important news about the Lytham Institute building which looks set to receive charitable status that will prevent its sale by Fylde Council.

Next we look at some good news in Fylde's Financial Forecast - an extra £375,000 to be precise. Then we look at a Fylde first  as they introduce Remote Access to Meetings albeit after a struggle to get it agreed. That's followed by a short light hearted piece on Single Use Plastic.

Next we consider changes being made to the Standards in Public Life and learn with horror that a new National Standards Board is about to be created after St. Eric Pickles abolished the last one.

We then move to consider a new Fixed penalty offence Fylde is introducing with a penalty of up to £200 charged to the keeper of  a vehicle -even if they are not in the vehicle if someone throws even a cigarette end out.

Continuing Fylde's penalty theme, we next consider a move to charge Double Council Tax on property empty for two years or more, and then at Fylde's latest crude and Double-entendre  Bin Lorry Advert illustrating the growing chasm between this council and its electorate.

Next we look at plans for new charges for removing Bulky Waste Items, and at good news for many small retailers who will be getting a 30% Rate discount this year.

We also have a bit of news on the M55 Link Road and its funding, before concluding with a preliminary look at an Extension to Blackpool's Tramway to Lytham and beyond that has been proposed.

 LYTHAM INSTITUTE / LIBRARY BUILDING

In our article 'A Library Story. of July 2018, we gave the background to Lancashire County Council's library closures plan of 2016 and reported the Conservative's subsequent promise to reopen them. That promise was made just before the May 2017 election swept the Conservatives into office.

But Lytham folk saw treachery afoot when, instead of reopening the Library in Lytham Institute, the County Council decided to abandon its use of Lytham Institute, and put a much smaller version of a library in the Assembly Rooms.

There was seething anger in Lytham at what was increasingly being seen as a plot by both Fylde Council and Lancashire County Council to weaken the case for having the Institute as a public facility. Some of that anger was also directed toward Lytham Town Trust, who operate the Assembly Rooms.

They had submitted a bid of their own, (in competition with the one prepared by those working to retain the Library in the Institute building), and in the event, their bid to house 'Lytham Library' was the one that was accepted by the County Council.

We published some of the anger expressed by others in our earlier article. It included very strongly worded letters from members of the public.

But most of the anger was directed toward the two councils - who were suspected of being complicit in a plan that had used dubious costing information to justify LCC's exit from the Institute.

Fylde's silence in the matter of the library was deafening. The Committee charged with oversight of Fylde's libraries had not considered it at all.

Like Pontius Pilate, Fylde presented a facade of it not being anything to do with them, it was all down to the County Council.

Not untypical at the time was the statement of Conservative Group Leader Cllr Susan Fazackerley

'Fylde Council has enquired about the County's intention in respect of the user rights and we are still waiting to reach an agreement that would leave Fylde with sole ownership of the premises."

and

'The current tenants who use two rooms on the first floor, and the couple of groups that use the Hewitt Lecture Room are working with Fylde Council to maintain their operations whilst seeking alternative options.'

We said at the time that her statement implied a desire to assume sole ownership and vacant possession of the Institute by Fylde Conservative councillors.

That's often a prelude to the sale of a building.

The sense of betrayal so prevalent in Lytham had not been helped when it became more widely known that, at an early meeting of the (then) Library Working Group chaired by Cllr Tim Aston, what was described to us as a 'local property developer and an architect' had also attended, and where the potential to establish a business - in the form of a Community Interest Company - to run the Institute building had been outlined.

After the County Council's decision, in our October 2018 'Snippets' article, we reported a Public Meeting having been held at Lytham Institute in July, when leading lights of the Friend's Group had updated everyone on the (then) current situation.

That meeting (again) heard widespread criticism of LCC from the floor - despite attempts to stay positive by Chris Marshall who now chairs the Friends group.

There was also criticism of Fylde for not opposing the reduced library service LCC would provide.

In essence, as well as being updated on the latest position, this meeting tried to resolve whether to continue battling to try to change the decisions that had been taken, or whether to accept 'defeat' and try to be more positive to minimise the threat that existed to Lytham Institute's future existence.

The meeting itself was inconclusive because no vote was taken.

Our own impression was that most speakers wanted to continue the fight, although a few, like Cllr Tim Ashton, seemed to be arguing more for acceptance and dialogue with the Lytham Town Trust - who had offered to try to help find a new future for the Institute. (This despite their having been the architects of the threat to the Institute by submitting a competing - and in the event, successful - bid to house the Library!)

At the end of that article we reported the Chairman had promised to digest what had been said, and talk it through with the committee of the Friends group to try to find the best way forward.

We later heard that the Chairman had held meetings with a representative of Lytham Town Trust. So it looked to us as though she had abandoned the idea of continuing to fight the decision to move the Library to the Assembly Rooms, and was heading along the more pragmatic route of reconciliation with Lytham Town Trust - probably in the hope of securing their support for the future of Lytham Institute.

But we concluded that article by saying:

'We're also aware of three separate initiatives - not connected with each other, or with the Friends Group - which are being pursued by interested individuals and groups regarding this matter, and if the Friend's Group, (or any of the other initiatives) produce matters of interest to our readers, we expect to report them here.'

We're now able to do that.

Because one of those initiatives has just borne fruit.

There were strongly worded calls at the Annual General Meeting of Lytham St Annes Civic Society last year - most notably from Lytham's local historians  Janet and Brian Turner - to pursue charitable status for the Lytham Institute building.

During the meeting, Mr & Mrs Turner personally volunteered significant funding toward the costs of a barrister's opinion, in demonstration of their concern for the Institute, and  to ease the financial burden on the Civic Society.

This week, we heard that the Civic Society had indeed sought  such advice.

The Civic Society had engaged David Coupe (of Coupe Bradbury Solicitors in Lytham) to instruct a barrister, and he undertook considerable work - on, we understand, a pro bono basis - with Mr & Mrs Turner to produce the case for charitable status to be awarded to Lytham Institute.

Mr Coupe is well known for his work to foster and support charitable trusts in the Fylde, from the regionally important Grand Theatre in Blackpool to something on as small a scale as Lytham Institute.

Preparing the case for the barrister's legal advice involved not only the information that can be found in Mr Turner's excellent and detailed book 'The Story of Lytham Institute and its Library' but also from investigating many original supporting documents.

That legal opinion sought by the Civic Society has just arrived, and it argues that Lytham Institute is not owned by Fylde Council, rather it is held by them on charitable trusts on behalf of the people of the area.

A copy of the legal opinion has been sent to Fylde Council and to the Charity Commission this week.

Fylde have the right to contest the claim, but if they do so and are not successful, we will probably have another Lowther Gardens situation on our hands.

Fylde will have to devise (and agree with the Charity Commission), a Scheme of Governance based on the trusts on which the Institute was founded, and will most likely have to appoint trustees to take control of the resulting Trust and manage the building.

But more crucially, what charitable status will also do, is prevent any sale of the Lytham Institute building that Fylde Council might have been contemplating.

We had thought that was what was in their mind since last summer, when we saw an unnamed spokesman for FBC say:

We are pleased that the County Councils Cabinet have made a decision to ensure the future of a library service in Lytham. The decision to locate the reinstated library service in the Assembly Rooms and to give notice on the user rights at Lytham Institute will mean that Fylde Council will have control of the Institute without any conditions.'

"Fylde members and officers have not pre-empted the County Council decision and as such have not considered any options for the use of Lytham Institute in the event that user rights are removed, to do so could have unduly influenced the decision.

There will be a period of time now to carry out the necessary process to remove the user rights and return control of the Institute back to Fylde council. This time will be used to consider all possible options for the use of the Institute which will include community engagement and consideration of the proposals that had been presented to the County Council as part of a detailed, costed options appraisal."

If the Civic Society's barrister's advice holds sway, Fylde has never had, and never will have had, 'control of the Institute without any conditions.'

So the question in everyone's mind at this point must now be - what is the quality and validity of the legal opinion obtained by the Civic Society, and what are Fylde's chances of contesting it if they decide to do so?

The barrister from whom the Civic Society sought advice is Francesca Quint, a member of both Gray’s Inn and Lincoln’s Inn.

We have personal knowledge of Mrs Quint from a previous situation with which we were involved.

She is undoubtedly one of, if not the, most eminent charity law barristers in the UK, having been called to the bar in 1970 and having spent some years as a lawyer at the Charity Commission itself.

She has been involved in writing and editing charity law texts, including Sweet & Maxwell’s tome ‘Charities: The Law and Practice’ and the charities volumes of Butterworth’s Encyclopaedia of Forms and Precedents.

She is also a long-standing member of the Charity Law Association on whose executive committee she served for a number of years, and for whom she has drafted model governing documents.

What we can say, is that, in our experience, her advice is very widely respected and she is well known to the Charity Commission.

We can also say - although for this we're relying on what is an increasingly unwilling memory bank - that to our recollection, when the same claim was made for Lowther Gardens being held on charitable trusts, Fylde did seek its own independent legal advice; they sought a barrister's opinion of their own.

Unhappily for Fylde, that opinion concluded that Lowther Gardens was held on charitable trusts and was thus not the property of Fylde Council to do with as it wished.

What may or may not have been known to Fylde at the time was that the opinion they had sought was from a barrister in the same chambers as Mrs Quint, but - as it was told to us at the time - someone who was not actually as senior or experienced as Mrs Quint.

So up to this week, Fylde had argued that the purchase of the freehold of the Institute in 1937 (for £6) extinguished all the restrictions on what they could do with the it.

Mrs Quint disagrees, and sets out why she believes that is not the case.

So if Fylde is thinking of challenging Mrs Quint, and doing the same as they did with Lowther Gardens, we would advise them not to spend our money getting legal opinions; just get on with setting up the charity for Lytham Institute.

According to Mrs Quint, Fylde Borough hold the Institute on trust and cannot dispose of it.

If they are not prepared to run it themselves, they must hand it over to a new charitable trust.

Readers who would like the full SP can follow this link to download a full copy of Mrs Quint's opinion.

This issue is going to run for a while longer, and we expect to bring our readers more news as it arrives.

Whether this revelation of charitable status for the Institute might affect LCC's decision to re-establish the Library in the Assembly Rooms (for example, if Fylde became more amenable and financially supportive of it remaining in the Institute as one of the earlier purposes of the Institute) we're not at all sure.

Given that LCC's decision to move the library to the Assembly Rooms was based on economic arguments, one might imagine a re-think should be considered, especially if Fylde are no longer going to be able to sell the Institute off. They might be glad to have LCC back as a reliable paying tenant giving a public use for a public building that Fylde will have to keep in public use in the future.

But either way, for those who have been battling to secure the future existence of Lytham Institute as a public facility, this is really excellent news.

And great credit for that news is due to Mr & Mrs Turner, Mr Coupe, and the Lytham St Annes Civic Society. We're very happy to put that on the record.

 FYLDE'S FINANCIAL FORECAST : RETAINED BUSINESS RATES

For once, there was good news for Fylde at their Finance and Democracy meeting of 29th January 2019.

The Chief Financial Officer reported the Local Government Finance Settlement from the Government's Treasury. 

The money from the Government (in one form or another) makes up the majority of what Fylde spend, although it has been changing and reducing overall over time.

Part of the changes involve the removal of a very large Rate Support Grant and its (sort of) replacement with a scheme that allows County and Borough councils to keep business rates from their area.

When this proposal for local business rate retention was first announced by Government, it was heralded as good news for Lancashire, but as time has gone by, the local use seems increasingly to have been usurped for the Government's own use, leaving less to be locally retained.

We understand that as far as Fylde and Lancashire was concerned, it had reached the point where only 40% or so of what was collected would be eligible to be retained locally.

But Fylde, along with most of the other Lancashire Authorities (except Lancaster and Morecambe - who have particular issues connected with costs associated with the nuclear facilities in their area) banded together with the County Council to produce a joint bid to Government to voluntarily share the proceeds of the Lancashire business rates that were collected in an innovative new scheme.

It's a long and convoluted story about how it would be divided up within Lancashire, and there were some risks and benefits to getting involved in what the Government announced would be a 'Pilot Scheme' in which councils could bid to take part.

The announcement on this matter comes as part of the 'Local Government Finance Settlement' which traditionally takes place just before Christmas (we'll avoid the obvious Santa Claus analogy), and this year's announcement said that Lancashire (including Fylde) was only one of 15 Councils across the UK that had been selected for 'Pilot' status.

The really good news was that this would increase what Fylde could retain by way of the Business Rates it collects from 40% to 56% and, after some more jiggery pokery, Fylde would get an extra £375,000 to spend next year.

There had also been concern that the amount councils would receive by way of New Homes Bonus (a bribe for councils that build lots of houses) would reduce. But the concerns had come to nought for this year, and there was to be no reduction.

The only fly in the ointment was another 'initiative' that the Government was planning called a 'Fair Funding Review.' It's not going to be finalised until next year's announcement (around Christmas 2019), but it's heralded to be a fundamental shake-up of how Local Government will be funded for the future.

We're always nervous of these initiatives. They often seem to have a political undertone and rarely benefit Fylde.

From what we've heard leaking out, there is talk about taking from Districts to help to meet County Council shortfalls in Adult Care and Children's Services.

However, that's for next year.

The good news is that Fylde has an unexpected £375,000 to spend over the coming year.

 REMOTE ACCESS TO MEETINGS

Readers will recall there has been an unsavoury interlude regarding Cllr Mark Bamforth in recent years which we've chronicled in several articles.

On 1 December 2016 we published 'Lytham: St John's Ward By-Election?' and said a by-election would probably take place in St John's Ward after Cllr Mark Bamforth was 'fired' as a councillor for an illness that prevented him attending meetings.

Then, on 24th December - without much in the way of Christmas goodwill, we reported Cllr Susan Fazackerley's move to trigger a by-election after Cllr Mark Bamforth had been 'fired'

But of course, in the by-election, the amazingly and ever-popular mark Bamforth romped home to win. And on 17 February 2017 we reported the 'St Johns By-election Result and Analysis', and we looked at the implications for the future.

This all came about because (although technically within their rights to do so), Fylde Conservatives uncharitably failed to work with Cllr Bamforth to help him overcome his disability in attending meetings.

Party politics can at times be really unpleasant as well as electorally unsatisfactory when carried to extremes such as has been seen at Fylde in recent years.

In order to improve things for the future, Cllr Bamforth sought agreement to be able to attend the meetings remotely - by videolink.

A few Councils have already experimented with this but Fylde seemed not to want to do it.

After some argy-bargy and the relevant national bodies concerned with local government, technology, and disability had applied enough pressure to bring about a change of heart, Fylde did begin to work with Cllr Bamforth on a system that might allow this to happen.

Once that decision had been taken, a large part of the credit is due to  Conservative Cllrs Ed Nash and Cllr John Singleton whose respective Member Development and Audit and Standards Committees have steered a straight a path to try to resolve what they saw as a problem, and they worked with Cllr Bamforth to bring this facility about. They set up and implemented a trial period to test the equipment and so on.

So it was that on 7 July 2017, Cllr Mark Bamforth was able to say

"Today at 2.15 pm Fylde Council made history , I attended a meeting remotely .

I attended the Members Development Steering Group , chaired by Ed Nash, it was very good of Ed to let me take part in the debates, the quality was excellent, my fellow Councillors could ask me questions about my condition and the technology we were using . The meeting lasted just over 2 hours .

This technology is excellent for me as I can now take part in meetings, as I have usually some comments to make . It's an excellent move for people with disabilities like mine, agoraphobia or anxiety etc.

More importantly I can now fully represent my loyal constituents that voted me back on the council back in February, I thank them for the support they have shown and given me over the years .

When I did get re elected, I was asked if I would see a independent Doctor regarding my illness, which I did, so the council now know fully my health condition, and the Council asked the Doctor, what could they put in place to help me as an individual and to assist me carrying out my council duties .

A special thank you should go to one of our Directors Tracy Morrison and Simon Stott Head of IT, as we have been carrying out video conference trials, before going live today. Simon has been researching into what kit would be the better one to serve our needs. Then to set everything up, like he said today , we can finely tune it now.

As I stated to the meeting, this is ground breaking news for Fylde Council.

Thank you everyone that was present today, I look forward to the future and our new council chamber!"

At present UK law does not allow anyone to vote remotely, but we think it's only a matter of time before that is changed as well.

We've been to several Committee meetings where Cllr Bamforth has been able to watch and participate in meetings as the testing phase went on for some months.

But then, at the Finance and Democracy Committee last November, a problem seemed to arise.

Cllr Karen Buckley who chairs the meeting seemed to be of the opinion that Cllr Bamforth only wanted to be able to attend meetings of the Full Council remotely, and this was not the case.

We're not sure where that idea came from, whether it was a genuine misunderstanding on her part, or whether she was trying to limit the cost (because an officer is needed to be able to supervise the equipment when remote access is taking place) we're not sure.

But in her committee, the recommended wording from Cllr Singleton's Audit and Standards Committee was changed from 'to participate in a meeting remotely' to 'to participate in a meeting *of the Council* remotely'

To be honest, we thought Cllr Buckley had strayed outside the terms of reference of her committee by getting into this level of detail.

Her Finance and Democracy Committee should only be concerned with Fylde's macro budgeting, not how individual committees spend their approved budget, and certainly not about changing the detail of their decisions.

Had she and her committee wanted not to fund this matter, she should have sent it back to Audit and Standards with a request that they look again and reconsider the costs involved.

Either way, at the full Council meeting of 10th December (which had both the Audit and Standards, and Finance and Democracy's differing and competing recommendations on its agenda), Cllr Singleton drew attention to the situation.

He proposed simply that the Council note the progress made to date and, after consideration of Finance and Democracy's proposed change by his Audit and Standards Committee, he would bring his Committee's recommendation back to the next full Council meeting.

But Independent Councillor Alan Clayton wanted to sort it out there and then. He proposed an amendment to allow Cllr Bamforth to be able to remotely attend Committees on which Cllr Bamforth served, as well as Council meetings.

Cllr Mrs Buckley seemed to want to cut out Cllr Clayton's amendment and have the matter come back to Council after further consideration at Audit and Standards.

There was confusion and much muttering between the Mayor and the Chief Executive as to what to do about the three (now conflicting) proposals.

Our view was clear. They should have disposed - one way or another - of the amendment that had been proposed by Cllr Clayton, then considered the substantive motion, either as amended or otherwise.

But Cllr Silverwood suggested a compromise. It was that Cllr Clayton should withdraw his amendment and table it at the ensuing Audit and Standards meeting.

With an assurance that would happen, Cllr Clayton withdrew his amendment.

It was indeed considered at the next Audit and Standards Committee where that committee in effect 'overrode' Cllr Buckley's Committee's recommendation to limit remote attendance only to full Council meetings, and they reinstated the sense of their original recommendation.

That recommendation from Audit and Standards was considered approved at Fylde's Council meeting this last Monday evening.

Cllr Bamforth has had a long, rough, and unnecessary ride to get this matter through the Council against what appears to be latent intransigence on the part of some Conservative councillors.

But conversely, and hearteningly, he has been supported by the strength of character of other Conservative members who see the matter in abstract principle and a problem to be resolved - not in terms of politics or personalities.

We see something else as well.

We see a Finance and Democracy overstepping what we think was its remit.

As a result of stepping outside its remit and trying to change the detail of what Audit and Standards had decided, Cllr Singleton, very properly, showed he was having none of it, and he said so - in his usual, unfailingly polite, but nonetheless firm, manner.

We've never known a (Policy & Resources or) Finance and Democracy Committee at Fylde to have its recommendation overturned at Full Council. They usually reign supreme as the 'senior' committee of all.

But of course, that's only when they're acting within their terms of reference.

We're happy to report that at Full Council on Monday this week, Cllr Bamforth was given the full approval he needed for remote access to the meetings.

Locally, Cllr Liz Oades said

"I am very happy that this resolution has finally been agreed, it moves the Council into the 21st century and opens up council representation to people from all walks of life, people with disabilities should be feeding into council decision making as they have the expertise and knowledge to influence policy to ensure its fit for all. Let's hope that the Government come into line by putting legislation in place to enable councillors and MP's to vote remotely."

Cllr Marianne Overton MBE, from Lincolnshire, who leads the Independent Councillors Group on the National Local Government Association said:

"This is a landmark moment.

Fylde Councillor Mark Bamforth is making history, opening the door to ensure that no-one is prevented from serving their community because of a disability.

Mark has shown great tenacity and determination to serve his residents and gained support from colleagues.

Mark can now take part properly in Council meetings, using an internet link, using his skill and talent to make sure that his residents are fully represented."

Cllr Alan Seldon from Herefordshire, the Local Government Association's Independent Group Regional Lead Peer for the West Midlands and North West said:

"Well done Mark!

After years of battling to get Council to recognise the condition, you finally have the decision that allows you to continue to engage as an elected member. You will be able to represent your electorate without hindrance.

Well done and this should be a message to all councils that disability should not be a bar."

We subsequently heard from a delighted Cllr Bamforth who took to Facebook to thank his electorate for all their support; the IT and council staff that had made it happen; and special thanks to his colleague Cllr Roger Lloyd. 

Addressing the matter of costs, he said

"I wanted to know how much this had cost the council, so I sent in a FOI request , and no cost to the electorate , all done within the IT department."

Were happy to add our congratulations to all involved in bringing this about, and hope that in time, Fylde - which has put its 'Digital First' drive at the top of the Chief Executive's priority list.

At present it seems to be Digital First in reverse though, because whilst the Council is insisting we make contact with them digitally, they seem less keen to be digitally first when it comes to webcasting their meetings.

Fylde's new Council Chamber bristles with almost as much video and audio technology as you might see in a BBC Studio - and we hope it will extend its use so that ALL its meetings (not just Council meetings) are *publicly* available online, allowing all Fylde taxpayers to view Committee proceedings as well as Cllr Bamforth.

 SINGLE USE PLASTIC

It's probably a bit unfair of us to single this out, but it gave us an ironic smile - and we thought readers might like to share in that.

At a recent Operational Management Committee, there was an agenda item to discuss a plan to establish of a cross party member working group:

‘To investigate and consider the options to minimise the reliance on single use plastic items across the borough to become a ‘plastics conscious’ borough.'

All very laudable we're sure, but as we looked around the desks at which the councillors sat as they debated (and supported) this plan to become conscious, we had to smile at the number of single use water-cooler cups of water that were in use that evening.

To be fair, it seems to have improved a bit since they agreed the plan, so maybe the scheme is working better now (or maybe it's just that more folk are having cups of tea in the colder weather instead!).

 STANDARDS IN PUBLIC LIFE

There was a small regulatory change proposed at a recent Audit and Standards Committee. They were considering how Fylde deals with complaints against councillors from the public, and from other councillors.

The report on this matter also mentioned that at a national level, the 'Committee on Standards in Public Life' has been reviewing local government ethical standards, and there was civic gossip about a new, uniform, National Code of Conduct for Councillors being re-introduced, together with more robust sanctions.

So (not unreasonably) the report to Fylde's Audit and Standards Committee suggested not making any major amendments to Fylde's scheme until the national picture becomes more clear.

Fylde's current policy on this will already seem pretty awful if you complain about a councillor and expect some form of sanction to be applied.

Mostly the best you will get is an undertaking it won't happen again.

That's because Fylde's own 'Member Code of Conduct' was considered by its Standards Committee on 8 October 2014. In this Code, a senior employee of the Council has responsibility for deciding what to do about complaints that have been made. Paras 2 and 3 of the Code set this out.....

"(2) That the Monitoring Officer be given delegated powers to determine whether a complaint merits formal investigation or otherwise and to arrange such investigation where one is considered appropriate in consultation with one of the Council's independent persons.

(3) That the Monitoring Officer should seek resolution of complaints *without formal investigation wherever practicable* and that s/he be given discretion to refer recommendations on investigation to the Standards Committee where s/he feel that it is inappropriate for him/her to take the decision and to report periodically on the discharge of this function;"

It is clear that Fylde's adopted procedure here is actually to *avoid* conducting a formal investigation wherever practicable.

Like we said, we think it's pretty awful.

But a new 'uniform national scheme' would be even worse.

It would only repeat the absolute disaster that was (thankfully) abandoned and abolished as one of the first acts of Saint and The Right Honourable (Now Lord) Eric Pickles when he ran the Communities and Local Government Department in Westminster with more common sense than we have seen in generations.

One of his first acts after being appointed Secretary of State was to abolish the wholly useless 'National Standards Board'

For more details of this see our 2010 article 'It's Friday'

When we heard about the prospect of it being re-introduced, we simply couldn't believe the ridiculous idea to restore a national standards board would ever happen.

But, believe it or not, it has.

As yet, it's early days to know how it's going to work in the future. But, as usual, we'll bring readers the story as soon as we have it.

In the meantime, one thing Fylde did decide to do now, was not to consider any complaints against councillors if they were made anonymously.

 LITTERING FROM VEHICLES FIXED PENALTY

The Environment Health and Housing Committee considered a new ability that exists for them to charge a fixed penalty to the registered keeper of a vehicle when occupants of that vehicle are believed to have been seen throwing litter from the windows.

At the outset we'll say we don't condone this practice at all, but equally, we think the use of Fixed Penalty Charges is an abhorrence in English law and we would never vote to support their use for any misdemeanour.

We have a perfectly good, tried and tested legal system in this country. It relies on either civil or criminal prosecutions, where the burden of proof required - quite rightly - is usually more than one person's word against that of another.

That's just as it should be.

We're even more unhappy in this situation, because the penalty can be applied to someone who was not in the vehicle at the time an occupant threw litter out of the window.

That's an affront to natural justice.

The principle of 'Holding children responsible for the actions of their parents' has no place in English law

But the summary of the report to councillors said:

"On 1st April 2018, new legislation came into force concerning littering from vehicles. The Littering From Vehicles Outside London (Keepers: Civil Penalties) Regulations 2018 grant new powers to litter authorities go issue civil penalty notices to the keeper of a vehicle in respect of which there has been a littering offence."

The body of the report includes

"The Littering From Vehicles Outside London (Keepers: Civil Penalties) Regulations 2018 came into force in April 2018

They allow the council to issue a penalty notice to the owner of a vehicle when there is reason to believe that a littering offence has been committed in respect of that vehicle.

This will usually be that litter was thrown from that vehicle.

The penalty notice is issued to and payable by the keeper of the vehicle.

It is immaterial whether the litter was thrown by the keeper of the vehicle, or even whether the keeper of the vehicle was present in the vehicle at the time."

In his introduction of the item at Committee the officer reporting it said

".....Previously, you had to write to the keeper to inquire who was driving at the time someone saw a cigarette end or something being thrown from a window. You had to write to the keeper asking who was driving at the time. Sometimes they replied, sometimes they didn't, and then we were, sort of stuck, really.

This legislation now allows us to fine the keeper, irrespective of who was driving or who was responsible. As long as there is a witness that's seen litter or anything being thrown from the car, from the vehicle, then we can use this legislation.

It's a civil offence so we can't ask for points on the license or anything like that, and it is for littering, not fly tipping. There's already an offence of allowing a vehicle to be used for the offence of fly tipping, so it's simply just small amounts of litter thrown from the vehicle."

Questioned about enforcement he went on to say that if members of the public saw and reported it they would need a witness statement from them, and that can sometimes be a stumbling block, but if they were prepared to give a statement they would then take a registration number. The witness statement was important because if the person did not pay then, it would have to go to court where the statement would be used as 'proof'.

Councillors were recommended to agree a fixed penalty charge of £100, increasing to £200 if the penalty has not been paid in 28 days, but decreasing to £50 if the that sum is paid within 14 days of the date of issue of the fixed penalty notice. The report also said:

".... the income received from civil penalties for littering from a motor vehicle can only be spent on functions relating to litter and refuse (including keeping land & highways clear of litter and refuse, and enforcement against littering from motor vehicles), graffiti and fly-posting, controlling and enforcing against the unauthorised distribution of free literature. It is not to be used a means of generating income for other uses."

Quite apart from the appalling idea that penalties should be used to fund public services at all, has anyone else spotted the awful threat to civil liberty within that paragraph.

It's the bit that says the proceeds of Fixed Penalty Fines can be spent on

"controlling and enforcing against the unauthorised distribution of free literature"

This means that in order to hand out literature in a public place (whether that's the pavement or a park or the beach) - as we have often seen from a protest group lobbying the public to, say, argue against an unwanted housing development, or even by people providing information about themselves as candidates in an election, or a community group promoting some festival, or appealing for support, or funds - will have to receive prior authorisation from Fylde Council to be permitted to distribute literature to passers by.

Which officer in Fylde is going to sit in judgement of the merits of such literature?

Alternatively, if it is all going to be authorised without discrimination, why should there be a need to refer to it as 'unauthorised distribution' at all?

Fylde's councillors must be asleep at the wheel letting stuff like this slip through.

There's another paragraph in this awful Fixed Penalty Report that we simply had to reproduce.

It is appalling. It illustrates our fundamental objection to the cash generating, inhuman mindset that has been allowed to pervade the officer class at the Council who fail to remember they are first and last, public servants, not the 'The Enforcer' from Masters of the Universe.

Speaking of the scale of the penalty charges they see fit to say.....

"The amounts have been set in line with the other FPN [Fixed Penalty Notice] amounts as approved in line with the Council’s zero tolerance policy with regards to incidents of environmental crime"

Littering - whilst unpleasant and anti social, is not a crime. By Fylde's own description is a 'civil offence'

We think whoever wrote that statement needs to be fully supported in finding a job in a council where their particular talent might be appreciated. One or two in Russia, China or North Korea immediately spring to mind.

 COUNCIL TAX PREMIUM

Continuing its transition from being a popular and respected deliverer of public services into cash-generating civil enforcement agency, Fylde has just decided to increase the Council Tax Penalty it levies on property in which no-one is living.

Admittedly, there are a few exceptions: property owned by a charity, or where the property is to be occupied by a minister of religion are permanently exempt, as are properties where the owner is in prison or has moved into a care home or hospital.

However, after becoming empty because someone has died and probate has been granted, empty properties are only exempted for a period of 6 months - and it can take a lot longer than that to realise the sale of a property of course. (And if a will is contested it could take much longer)

After the time-limited exemption period, the full amount of Council tax becomes payable on the property (even though it is empty, and will consume almost no public services).

Given that we regard Council Tax as a payment taken from us to provide public services, it will be no surprise that we see this as a financial penalty being applied on property owners.

But then, in 2013 the Government of the day allowed local authorities to charge 50% *extra* council tax on the owners of properties left empty for over two years.

Fylde adopted this option from 1st April 2014 and decided that properties which have remained empty and unfurnished for more than 2 years would be charged 150% of the normal Council Tax charge for that property.

Then last November, the Government changed the law again to allow councils to increase the premium to 100% from April this year (2019).

This would mean paying twice the normal rate of Council Tax for that property.

A report to the Environment health and Housing Committee at that time said

'.....This additional charge is discretionary and the Council could determine that the premium should remain at 150% of the normal Council Tax.

However, the premium provides a strong incentive to owners to bring the property back into use and an increase in the premium to 200% of the normal Council Tax charge may encourage those owners that have not already done so to take action to ensure their property is brought back into use.'

and

'A further consideration in support of continuing to apply the premium charge links to Fylde Council Local Plan to 2032 which comments that the Council will identify and bring back into use empty housing and building in line with local housing and empty homes strategies and, where appropriate, acquire properties under compulsory purchase powers.'

The Committee was widely supportive of charging double council tax on property that had been empty for two years.

It surprises us that a Conservative council who - traditionally - believed in personal freedom and private ownership, should so enthusiastically embrace the opportunity to increase the punishment of private property owners who have gone over an arbitrary and discretionary exemption period - as though it was the Council's right, and their place, to require full occupation of private property.

It also surprises us that support exists for the underlying political philosophy - that it is conceptually appropriate to use a Council Tax Demand to change public behaviour, rather than for its originally intended purpose - to fund public services needed by all.

The sort of logic that considers all (empty) property to be a form of theft, and that punitive taxation of property owners is a good thing, is traditionally more usually associated with the beliefs of Marx, rather than May.

But readers be warned, property that is not permanently exempt, and has been empty for two years or more will be subject to double its normal Council Tax payment from April this year.

Fylde's Council meeting of 11 February just rubber stamped the plan, so it's going to happen.

 'DON'T BE A TOSSER'

Readers might already have spotted the new and rather crude double-entendre advertising strapline (associated with an image of a discarded crumpled drinks can) that the unfortunate and hard working Fylde bin men are having to put up with on the side of their lorries.

Sign of the times we suppose, in more ways than one perhaps, but not one that's inkeeping with the ethics and style that we're sure most Fylde residents would support.

It sounded like at least one Councillor might have taken issue with it already - because just before the start of the January Operational Management Committee, we heard Chairman Roger Small wish everyone a happy New Year before saying:

"I would just like to add a special happy New Year to Councillor Brickles who exchanged emails with me over the Christmas holiday. At one point I thought she was referring to me personally, and then I realised she was referring to the slogans on the side of the bin wagons. So a special happy New Year to Cllr Brickles"

He didn't say whether the slogan would be staying or not, but the sooner it is removed the better as far as we're concerned.

 NEW CHARGES FOR BULKY WASTE ITEMS

At the same Operational Management Committee of 15 January, the matter of charges for the removal of 'Bulky Waste Items' generated some debate.

These are the charges made by Fylde Council if you ask them to take away things like a fridge or a mattress or sofa or whatever - items that don't fit into the grey bin.

The Chairman said when recommending such charges, officers considered performance over the previous year, market conditions, the rate of inflation, and the impact on customers.

We're not impressed with this approach. The point of a council is to fund from taxation those services needed by residents from time to time in their lives, and to do by equally sharing the cost of the service amongst all taxpayers.

For us, market forces have no place in determining the charge to be made to residents, excepting perhaps for their ability to maintain downward pressure on charges levied by commercial waste removal companies.

Our disagreement with this won't change anything of course.

The present administration has its cap set at pretending to be a business rather than a council, and all we can do is irritate them by reminding people what they're missing out on.

Anyway, what was happening here was that the Committee was being asked to make recommendations about fees and charges within their terms of reference to the Budget Council meeting in March to finally decide.

Cllr Tommy Threlfall commented on concerns about fly tipping.

The Chief Executive said it was to reflect additional costs, adding that officers

"...had also done work with Wyre and Blackpool, comparison work, in the charges that are applicable to local authorities. Now the same company do the bulky waste for Blackpool Fylde and Wyre and so that company's got increased charge as well. So Blackpool Fylde and Wyre'll all be slightly increasing that to reflect that.

I can't ... the company's called 'Recycle Waste' or something. It has a van going across the borough that has got all three council's logos on it.

In terms of the bulky waste, again we've done comparison with Biffa and the other private sector companies. We are required to stay... cover our costs on that. To stay competitive in that market. We are not allowed to undercut the market so that people like Biffa and that are put out of business through public sector subsidy.

So those increases reflect the cost of providing the service. There is very little margin, if any, in terms of surplus."

If he was thinking about the EU's 'State Aid' rules, we suspect there is a difference between public sector subsidy and sharing the cost amongst residents- which the CE was failing to distinguish.

In answer to a question from the Chairman about the other authorities Mr Oldfield said

"Wyre no longer have a bulky collection service. They decided to price themselves out of the market, cos you can do that. You can then recommend a private sector supplier. Blackpool and Fylde still operate one. We operate one with similar charges. Those charges reflect the market rate as well."

There was quite a debate about fly tipping and the Chairman said he would like to look into the matter more generally during the ensuing year, but for now the new charges were approved, and for this year, they are:

  • Up to 3 items £21.60 (up from £19.65)
  • 4 to 10 items £43.25 (up from £39.30)
  • Over 10 items (hourly rate) £89.95 (up from £73.60)
  • Single fridge/freezer or combo £43.25 (up from £39.30)
  • 6'x6' garden shed £49.50  (up from £45)

 BUSINESS RATES DISCRETIONARY DISCOUNTS.

There's good news from Fylde for some of our smaller retail businesses.

It's a discount scheme that will reduce the business rates they have to pay next year.

Announced in the 2018 Budget it will provide discounts for certain retail properties (chiefly shops, restaurants, cafes and drinking establishments) with a rateable value of less than £51,000.

The value of discount applied to such property is expected to be about one third of their rates bill after any other reliefs etc have already been applied.

Something approaching the full SP in this matter - in reasonably easy-reading language - was published as part of the agenda of the Finance and Democracy Meeting of 28 January 2019.

Readers with an interest can follow this link to download a copy for themselves.

It is believed that overall, qualifying businesses in Fylde will benefit to the tune of £560,000 for the next financial year.

Even better was the expectation that the rating staff had already identified the businesses they thought would eligible for the discount, and it would be applied to their bills automatically.

That said, there is a form to apply if anyone wishes to do so, and if that's the case, we'd advise making contact with your local councillor or officials at the Town Hall

 M55 LINK ROAD

We thought the officer report from the Audit Committee of 19th January would be of interest to our readers - and we've reproduced it in full

"The project is to accelerate construction of the M55 link road as a single contract ahead of that required to be constructed by the housing developer Kensington Developments Ltd as part of their planning agreement.

A project board made of relevant officers from FBC, LCC, Kensington Developments Ltd, members from FBC and LCC, and the MP meets approximately every 6 weeks to oversee progress with the project.

A consultant has been appointed by KDL to design the road (funded through the repayment of s.106 monies) with LCC overseeing and checking this work.

The latest scheme estimate is £27.5m with funding of £25.27 confirmed (current £2.23m shortfall in funding).

The design of the road is completed with procurement underway.

Subject to final approvals from each of the funders and tendered costs coming within budget it is currently estimated that construction will start on site in July 2019.

A contract to divert utilities affected by the new road has been let and work is due to start in January 2019."

We thought it was interesting that there still seems to be a funding shortfall of more than £2m - which is around 10% of the latest estimated cost.

And for comparison purposes, the estimated cost of the road when planning permission was being debated was £19m. It's now £27.5m

 TRAMWAY EXTENSION?

There's been a flurry of press coverage about proposals to change the tramway and railway configuration around the Fylde.

It seemed to be 'launched' (if you can 'launch' a tram or a train) by Blackpool North and Cleveleys MP Paul Maynard.

That said we've also heard the idea might have originated within Blackpool Transport. They are a limited liability company - whose 2,7889,000 shares are all held by Blackpool Council (and many of the Company Directors share names with members of Blackpool Council as well).

Blackpool Transport/Council also run the tram service as well as the buses, and in North Fylde, the plan being put forward would see the tram track extended at Fleetwood down Dock Street and through to Poulton using more or less the old Fleetwood to Poulton railway line.

At the southern end, the plan is to extend the tram track from Squires Gate Lane on to the existing South Shore station line where they would use the route of the existing railway to Kirkham.

There was a scheme a couple of years ago to use European money to try to get trams onto the South Shore line, but it didn't seem to get anywhere, and we were not clear whether there is a difference in wheelwidths (we expect there would be) so we doubt the two modes of transport could share a single track.

However, we note in this week's LSA Express, the 'Mark Menzies' column seems to suggest that trams and trains could run 'in tandem' - but as yet we don't know how that might work.

Our first reaction to the plan was negative - the loss of a 'proper' railway link from St Annes to Preston would be seen as a retrograde step for those in Fylde Borough. Losing a railway line is perceived to make the area less well served.

But on reflection, we noted the ability for a much greater number of people to access the railway at Kirkham would be an advantage for many, and if the Kirkham 'interchange' could be upgraded in status and accommodate through trains to London and elsewhere on the West Coast Main Line, it might not be so bad as we first thought.

We're hoping to do a full article on this in the near future and if any of our readers have views or comments on the proposals, we'd be interested to hear them.

Dated:  15 February 2019

 

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