www.counterbalance.org.uk

 

fylde counterbalance logo

search counterbalance

plain text / printout version of this article

countering the spin and providing the balance


 

What A Performance

What a PerformanceFylde's 'new' Council chamber saw its inaugural meeting on Monday 5th March 2018, when the budget for 2018/19 was considered by the full Council.

Overall, Fylde's Council Tax is going up 2.99% (which is the maximum Fylde is allowed to increase without having a referendum).

But Fylde taxpayers will pay more in total because Lancashire County Council has a 2.99% increase AND a further 2% specifically for adult care services

So with LCC having a 5% increase, and because most of the Council Tax we pay goes to LCC, Fylde residents, will sense a 5% increase, even thought Fylde's own increase is closer to 3%.

However, there were a few other matters at Fylde's Budget Meeting that we thought deserved a mention now, and that's what this article is about.


SYNOPSIS
We begin with a look at How the meeting was conducted, prefaced by some comments on the role that Fylde's current Mayor has performed.

Then we look at the Prelude to the budget. We first give credit to Cllr Mrs Buckley for her grasp of Fylde's finances, before taking a particular look at some of Cllr Fazackerley's statements about how well Fylde is doing under what she sees as her leadership.

Finally we contrast her view with what Fylde says its Resident's Survey told them regarding service delivery and quality of life issues in Fylde over the last year.

Finally we have some Notes for readers to consider before forming their own view on the Residents Survey charts we have prepared using Fylde's own figures.

 CONDUCTING THE MEETING

We'll have more to say about the physical changes in the Chamber in a week or two. They're still bedding in at present, and need time to settle. But we were struck by how the Mayor conducted the meeting.

Fylde's Mayor is responsible for the conduct of meetings and exerts a huge influence over the behaviour of councillors in meetings.

We've a lot of experience of seeing how different councillors shape up when it comes their turn to be Mayor. Sometimes we're shocked how badly they do it, and at other times we've been surprised how well some have (unexpectedly) done.

Any Mayor has two roles.

The first is a representational role. They are the Queen's Representative in the Borough and as such, when on ceremonial duty within Fylde, they take second place (literally) only to royalty.

So when the Mayor is invited to open something, or to have a role at some function in Fylde, there is a tightly defined set of protocols and requirements which the requesting organisation must sign up to.

As an example to illustrate the importance of the ceremonial Mayor, we recall a situation where the Mayor of the day (not the present Mayor), had been invited to speak briefly at an early evening function at a venue in the north of St Annes.

He arrived in the mayoral car at the requested time, and when the attendant went to find a receiving party he struggled. Eventually he was told that there would be wait of about 15 or 20 minutes until they were ready for the Mayor.

He got back into the car, told the driver to turn around and head back for the Town Hall.

When the Mayor asked 'What's happening' the (excellent, and very capable ex-military) attendant told him "We're going home Mr Mayor, then on to your next function later this evening, because you've just been insulted."

He was absolutely right to do this, and the following day, a very stiff letter will have gone to the organisation who had booked the Mayor for a set time, but were not ready to receive him at the appointed hour.

We tell that story mostly for two reasons.

Firstly to explain the importance of the ceremonial office of the Mayor, and secondly to illustrate how, after (usually) about six months of experience as being Mayor (typically round about Christmas time) it can go to the head of some Mayors - who believe they have actually become royalty themselves.

But we've another reason for relaying that little anecdote; and it is to show what a terrific job the present Mayor has done and is doing, in his civic role.

Cllr John Singleton is one of nature's gentlemen. He exemplifies manners of a mostly forgotten era in all his civic responsibilities, whether in the role of Mayor or not.

As a ceremonial Mayor he has excelled.

He has a particular - and enviable - ability to maintain dignity and status, whilst at the same time not being 'superior' in his manner.

We especially recall his humility and humour in choosing to outline his early experiences of the Mayoral office at a Council meeting.

He spoke of some visits he had undertaken to schools where, in a question and answer session with youngsters, he had been asked to explain to them whether he carried a gun; whether he knew a particular famous celebrity; and whether the man with him was his bodyguard.

His role as ceremonial Mayor, has shown him able to mix comfortably and even-handedly with all manner of people, securing the respect his office deserves. And having achieved that without it having gone to his head, puts him amongst the best Mayors Fylde has experienced.

Mayor 2018, Cllr John SingletonBut a Mayor has a second role, that of chairing the meetings of the Council.

Here, (within the law), the Mayor has the ultimate say in what happens and how councillors behave during the meeting.

In this, the Mayor has a difficult balancing act to achieve.

Often they are from a political party, (and this Mayor is of the Conservative Party), but to command the Council's respect, they must not be partisan, and they need to be scrupulously even-handed with all councillors, irrespective of party allegiance.

Now it may be that he has not been as seriously tested in this matter as some have been, but we have nothing but praise for the way he has conducted the Council meetings we have attended (and that's most of them)

He gave a bravura performance of that capability again last Monday night at the Budget Council meeting, where two Independent Councillors proposed amendments to the budget that the Conservatives had devised.

Against the weight of the overall Conservative majority, those amendments were never going to be passed, and we were saddened to see some members trying to ridicule the amendments that had been proposed.

Even Cllr Buckley, who is usually quite 'proper' in her conduct, couldn't resist a humorous jibe along the lines of 'Have you got any other amendments' after the second amendment was lost to an overwhelming Conservative vote.

Both amendments were relevant to the budget (despite claims from one councillor they were not).

One issue had been hotly debated at the budget meeting last year, and this amendment sought, once again, to have the Council collect and publish its actual costs for the green waste service - so that subscribers can see how much of their subscriptions were going to the green bin service they are subscribing to, and how much is being used for other services.

Equally, non-subscribers could have been assured that the Council Tax they pay is not subsidising the green bin service (which it would not be lawful to collect as part of the Council Tax bills).

But the majority party passed a specific resolution last year to PREVENT these actual costs from being collected and published.

This was what this year's amendment sought to overturn.

Without knowing the ACTUAL costs for green waste collection, no one will ever know for certain.

During the debate - and in the face of hostility from some councillors - the Mayor quite properly kept a scrupulously even-handed and respectful approach to those who had proposed the amendments.

He even gently admonished those who sought to claim the amendments should not be debated, when he twice reminded Council that any elected member had the right to propose an amendment.

Quite so.

We don't always agree with Cllr Singleton, and we can recall a couple of instances where, as Chairman of the Audit and Standards Committee we thought his judgement was lacking.

Furthermore - and as regular readers will know - we are not reticent to serve up robust criticism of the Conservative group (and in particular for the way they are delivering governance in Fylde).  

But neither are we blind to the qualities that Conservative Cllr Singleton has brought to the role of Mayor, and we are happy to salute him for the credit he has brought both to his office, to the meetings, and to the Borough.

 PRELUDE TO THE BUDGET

And we've got yet another credit due to the present Council.

After the former Commissar and the Finance Officer of the day almost bankrupted Fylde when they attempted to introduce the 'Civica' computer accounting system - our finances were rescued after the appointment of Bernard Hayes from Preston's Finance department.

He oversaw a complete rescue and recovery of Fylde's ailing finances.

And to-day, we're happy to report that Fylde's finances continue to be well managed by the present Finance Officer, who displays a very steady pair of hands.

And we're also happy to credit Cllr Karen Buckley for the skills she has brought to managing the financial policies of the Council.

Whilst we continue to have issues about some aspects of her style and about some of the individual budget items, so far as Fylde's finance overall is concerned, it is an undeniable fact that Princess Karen - as she is known to our readers, has developed a good grasp of local authority finance (which is a specialised and difficult topic), and she has an approach that doesn't leave stones unturned.

The Council's finances are now solid for the next couple of years, and in much better shape than many other local councils.

We're happy to credit that state of affairs to the work done on our behalf by Fylde's finance officers and Cllr Mrs Buckley.

However, regular readers will sense this is building up to a 'but' - and it is.

In the lead-up to the budget being proposed by Cllr Buckley, Fylde's Dear Leader (Cllr Susan Fazackerley) delivered the traditional 'party political' speech about what a magnificent job Fylde is doing.

We'd like to share a few of her quotes with our readers (who can follow this link to see the speech on Fylde's You Tube channel).

"...As Leader of the Council I would like to express how proud I am that this Council continues to go from strength to strength in probably the most challenging time in the history of Local Government, delivering high quality services with a diminishing resource, and to thank all those, both members and officers who have contributed to this success story.

These words are similar to what I have said for the past few years at this point, but they are still pertinent, and I am not ashamed of repeating myself. Quite the reverse.

Members and officers have worked together to deal with the austerity cuts year on year for the last seven years, taking this council to a robust financial position, one that many local authorities are finding it very difficult to achieve...."

".....While many authorities across the country are having to cut services, lose staff, and dip into their reserves, at Fylde we are maintaining and improving services, whilst at the same time bolstering our finances, so that we can continue to perform in the challenging circumstances that are set to continue for the life of out financial forecast."

".... Not only do we offer core services to a high standard, but we support facilities that many other district authorities have to forego including swimming pools, a theatre, and this summer will see the opening of the greatly anticipated water feature on the Promenade, on the site of the former paddling pool, unused for many years...."

And with thanks to the Finance Officer and Cllr Mrs Buckley she concluded her oration. (Note: the emboldening above is our own doing)

We were especially struck by the bit that said:

".....at Fylde we are maintaining and improving services, whilst at the same time bolstering our finances...."

Bolstering the finances is certainly going on.

The introduction of a charge for green waste collection - a year before Fylde stopped receiving grant funding from LCC that exceeded the actual cost, 'bolstered' their finances by at least a cool 763,000.

They charged residents for the green waste service whilst at the same time Lancashire County Council gave them the money for it.

So 'Double Time' payments aren't dead in Fylde.

They have also inflated their estimated spending for green waste - to make the income from subscribers appear to be less like a profit, and they are intentionally hiding how much the green waste service actually costs.

This was a positive decision taken by Fylde's Conservatives - who as we have previously reported - refused point blank to account for the actual spending incurred openly and transparently.

Fylde has also generated an overall surplus from parking charges last year which, on first sight to us, looks to be about 360,000.

Most folk would say that was a profit from running the car parks, and we expect to have a better look at it shortly.

So Fylde's finances are certainly being bolstered.

But what about "... maintaining and improving services..."

Clearly the Dear Leader thinks everything in the garden is rosy.

We're less sure.

Perhaps she hadn't seen the results of the Fylde Residents Survey - which were reported to the Operational Management Committee the following night.....

 AFTER THE BUDGET

The evening after the budget meeting saw Fylde's Operational Management Committee meeting take place.

That meeting had several items that will be of interest to our readers (which we'll get into articles as soon as we can) but the one that caught our eye on the night was 'THE RESIDENTS SURVEY 2017'

This is a report about what residents think of various Fylde Council services.

But it was buried at the back of the agenda as an Information Item (which means the officers don't think it needs a recommendation from them to do anything about it).

Even the report itself didn't have much to say - that is, unless you can master the adoption of a cynical disposition to read between the printed lines. Here's an example.....

"The outcome of the Resident Survey is reported to the Operational Management Committee which has the remit for customer services. The information is relevant to almost all council services."

What this is innocuous sentence is really saying is that instead of providing this information to all the service committees, (which is the de-facto standard for the generality of such reports), this report is only being provided to the Operational Management Committee, - because they deliver the 'customer service' service.

Hmmmmm.

So someone doesn't think, for example, that the Panning Committee needs to know about, or discuss, what the Council's customers (their word, not ours) think of the service being delivered by Fylde's planning department. Only the Operational Management Committee needs this information, (even though they have no responsibility whatsoever for Planning).

We find that a rather odd approach, and when we see it, we almost always become suspicious that stuff is being, well, shall we say, obscured.

The body of the report describes the background to the survey, and how people can provide their views, before going on to say:

"The objective is to obtain an overview of satisfaction with services and the Council that can be used to identify areas for improvement and allow comparison over time."

But then, without providing the 'comparison over time' the body of the report simply lists the percentage satisfaction for a range of Council services for 2017/18.

('percentage satisfaction' is defined by Fylde as being where people rated their experience of the service as being either 'satisfied' or 'good' or 'excellent')

We're less than sure about this process, and we suspect proper opinion researchers wouldn't be too impressed either.

For example, we'd argue that the percentages ought to be separately reported for each of the categories a respondent could choose (thus %satisfied, %good, %excellent etc).

Toward its end, the report confidently notes that

'.....Overall the levels of satisfaction from the Residents Survey are exceptional with many in excess of 80%......"

This is followed by two appendices. The first of these is three pages holding the questions that were used in the survey, (mostly with the option of choosing Excellent, Good, Satisfactory, Poor, or Very Poor for each)

The second has some useful data, but by this time,  even the intrepid have almost lost the will to live, when the very last page of appendix two has the cumulative percentage survey figures since 2012.

We thought some of these gave grounds for concern, and we couldn't help feeling we were seeing an attempt to 'bury the bad news'

To his great credit, one of the Independent Councillors had spotted this as well.

Cllr Alan Clayton is a very polite and mild mannered, but tenacious chap when it comes to this sort of thing and, at the Operational Committee (of which he is a member), he made several challenges and comments to express his concern at what appears to be a falling trajectory of customer perception in several areas of the Council's work.  He wanted to have these results looked at in more detail.

The (acting) Chairman, Cllr Sandra Pitman did her best to downplay what he was saying, suggesting that some of the results were a very small sample and they were probably so small as to be unreliable.

But, of course, some of her argument was self defeating - because the report had used percentages to express the results which (mostly) translated the results to be comparable, irrespective of sample size.

And as usual, Cllr Clayton was at his most practical when he came back and asked the entirely predictable question - Well if that was the case, and the results the Committee were being given were not reliable, then why were they bothering doing it each year, and why was the Committee being troubled with them?

Quite so.

So, in support Cllr Clayton's attempt to raise this important matter to a wider audience, and particularly in order to help Cllr Fazackerley understand the need to temper her hyperbolic exuberance with more reality when making statements such as: ".....at Fylde we are maintaining and improving services, whilst at the same time bolstering our finances...." we've shown Fylde's own resident survey figures graphically below.

 

 NOTES ON THE CHARTS

We should point out

  1. The figures for 'Customers Services' and 'Planning' are only taken from respondents that have used these services
  2. The scaling is not the same on all charts. In trying to make the results easier to understand, we have begun each chart at the 'whole number' percentage below the lowest result reported for that service, and because the low points vary, so do the scales.
  3. There responses per year were:
2012 1583 responses
2013 829 responses
2014 608 responses
2015 461 responses
2016 136 responses
2017 610 responses

Readers should bear this in mind when considering the charts.

Dated:  9 March 2018


info@counterbalance.org.uk

To be notified when a new article is published, please email 
notify@counterbalance.org.uk