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Chief Exec Departs

Former Chief Executive Ken LeeIn a move that surprised many, the sudden retirement of Fylde's Chief Executive Ken Lee has been announced. The local evening paper (The Gazette) broke the story, and later confirmed that Tory Leader John Coombes had asked the Chief Executive to take early retirement. 

There are some who think this event is not before time, and attribute much of the damage to St Annes to the period of Mr Lee's tenure of the post. The Gazette reported Liberal Democrat  Councillor Howard Henshaw as not being sorry to see him go.

counterbalance is inclined to this view, undoubtedly Mr Lee executed the brief he was given by previous Council Leader Paul Hayhurst to shake up and modernise the Council, and to that extent his tenure should not be faulted. 

However, the process also introduced big authority delusions of grandeur to a small time council like Fylde, and common sense seemed to go out of the window. So the focus shifted from practical service delivery to social engineering and community building - neither of which are instinctive to St Anne's residents. 

In fact the opposite is the case, tradition and conservatism are ingrained attributes here, so it is not surprising that many conflicts arose. It also resulted in a major shift of expenditure toward supporting posts that do not effect basic service delivery (cutting the grass, having decent toilets, repairing public buildings and so on) This was seen by some as mushrooming non-productive costs. 

It also goes some way to explain the current budget shortfall when at the same time, services are being cut. counterbalance thinks it will take several years to restore common sense (if indeed that is the direction in which we will now head).

The interesting question is how the situation developed and erupted so quickly. Apart from health possibilities, there seem to be three main theories. 

First, the inside view is that a recent outburst by the Chief Planning Officer (who is also leaving), telling elected Councillors they had effectively made the wrong decision to refuse a planning application concerning a new Health Centre in Lytham. In this, the officer was supported by leader John Coombes who also criticised his fellow councillors. The argument here runs that the Chief Executive was not seen as being sufficiently in control of his own staff when this sort of outburst arises, so he had to go.

The second and possibly most obvious probability is that the financial management is a complete shambles (which counterbalance has been saying for some time). Two seriously critical reports from external auditors and another deficit reported at £700k could well have had something to do with his going, especially given that he is from an accounting, rather than a legal, background.

The third, and in counterbalance's view, the most likely is, indirectly, Councillor Barbara Pagett. 

She had the courage of her convictions to stand up and vote against John Coombes' version of the party line on the creation of the Cabinet/Politburo system of governance, and the demolition of St Anne's Town Hall. The result was that she was suspended from the Conservative group for two months, and stripped of her vice-chairmanship of the development control committee and other positions, by John (the Commissar) Coombes.

As a result of this she was lionised by the public. Conservatives remaining in the fold saw how her praises were being sung, and they were being vilified. Now, what may have escaped most folk is that the political classes are deeply engaged at the moment in planning the 2007 election. It is 18 months away, but they are presently deciding who will stand as a candidate, which wards are to be contested, what the electoral themes are to be and so on. They are very attuned to electoral prospects. 

Into the middle of this wanders Saint Barbara Pagett to remind them of their electoral mortality and the penny drops. We are not happy.

The truly intriguing question is whether the Conservative group pressured Commissar Coombes into hanging the Admiral - in which case Coombes might have saved his own skin, or whether the group itself hung the Admiral, in which case it is only a matter of time and decency before Coombes goes as well.

counterbalance suspects it is the latter, and those with their colours nailed to the Admiral's mast will follow suit. Opposition leader Paul Hayhurst seems to have realised this, and is prominent in calling for Coombes' head on a pike. Whilst a popular political ploy (calling for what you know will happen makes it look as though you caused it), this could actually delay Coombes' departure if conservatives close ranks on the opposition - at least for a time.

All of this is probably necessary, but the timing is horrendous for Fylde residents. Coombes should have lanced the boil on taking office three and a half years ago. As it is, huge sums of our money have been wasted since that time, and now a power vacuum has been created at the top of the officer side of things - and probably will be on the member side of things as well. It will take years not months to undo the harm that has been done, and in the meantime the brighter of Ken Lee's protégés will have moved on, taking with them what remains of the civic knowledge bequeathed when Lee brought about the mass exodus of knowledgeable and capable officers shortly after taking power. Those that remain will know their style is no longer suited to the new environment, and be keeping their heads down and their teflon coating shiny. 

Hesitation, and the low morale that always comes with the restructuring that will surely happen, will hamper efforts to deal with the substantial budget deficit, and leave Fylde extremely vulnerable and lacking in confidence to deal with the threat posed by another re-organisation of local government boundaries to do away with shire counties and create unitary councils across the land that Government is talking about.

But then, things can only get better.

Dated:  23 November 2005


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