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countering the spin and providing the balance


State of the Borough

Pushing your buttonsFylde Council's recent focus group of 100 randomly selected, but statistically representative, residents was the first of their 'State of the Borough' events. (Fylde's leaders get more presidential every day). They seem to have forgotten the role of elected local councillors is to be in tune with, and to represent the views of the electorate, so now they by-pass them in favour of an information gathering environment over which the executive can have more control.

In a theatre set out to look like an awards ceremony, (but with water instead of wine, and keypads in stead of kiwi fruit starters), it was trumpeted as a "listening" event, and was their usual masterpiece of spin and manipulation.

In terms of talk-time, we guess the Council and their consultants took about 85%, leaving about 15% for comment and questions from the audience.

In reality, little oral feedback was intended; the 'event' was a carefully constructed series of prepared questions to which a limited number of preset answers could be made via an electronic keypad. 

In principle, it was not dissimilar to the old chestnut "Have you stopped beating your wife?" from which there is no escape but a damning response.

For the most part it felt as though the questions had been designed to weave a cloak of respectability around plans to introduce a second council tax (which the Council refers to as 'Equitable Taxation' or 'Special Expenses'), or to justify planned cuts in a selected range of services.

We were asked, "With which 3 Fylde Borough Council services are you MOST satisfied and with which are you LEAST satisfied?" The choice was: Leisure Services, Parks & Open Spaces, Housing Services, Planning, Street Cleansing, Waste Collection, Tax Collection and Benefits, Environmental Health & Protection, and Economic Development.

At this point a counterbalance contributor and focus group member asked how he could choose the service given by the Mayor as being the most satisfactory, and the decision-making process of the Council as the least satisfactory. Answer came there none.

Another participant asked which button he should press if he was satisfied with none of the services listed.

Moving into the financial presentation, the main explanation as to why the Council is short of money seemed to be that Government has not inflationproofed the proportion it provides from national taxation as Business Rate and Rate Support Grant contributions, so the local taxpayers have to find a greater proportion of the cost.

Whist this may be true, several residents asked why the council was not re-ordering its priorities and focusing on core activities instead of limiting its choice to cutting public services or increasing taxes. 

One made the telling point that he had looked on the Council's website before attending and found what he called a "non-job". He was sure he was wrong he said, because it was 24k per year salary, so it must be quite important given that the Chief Executive's introduction had said the average staff salary was 15k. He couldn't recall the exact title of the job being advertised, but it sounded something like "After Work Health and Fitness Promoter and Co-ordinator". (It seems to have vanished from the FBC website). 

People have difficulty appreciating the value of this sort of work compared with the closure of all the public toilets in the town. 

"Non-job" seemed like an appropriate description for a Council in such dire straits.

Needless to say, he should not have worried. The Chief Executive said that the average salary overall in the borough was 36k - so 24k wasn't a lot for such an important job like this anyway, and secondly, it was all OK as the Council was only "hosting" the job. The salary was being paid by the local Strategic Partnership. He omitted to mention who funds the LSP.

 Next we were asked which of the list of services was the most important (as opposed to how satisfied we were with them). 

Our earlier practise with the keypads had shown that, in common with our demographic profile as a retirement area (we are known affectionately in other parts of the County as "God's Waiting Room") many of those present were retired. 

It should thus not have been surprising to see "housing" toward the bottom of the "Important" list. 

This, of course is quite inconvenient for the Council who doggedly insist that "affordable" housing - (council housing in non-euphemistic language) is the highest thing on their priority list. Obviously we haven't been explained to enough yet.

Then it was time to say which of the services did NOT require further improvement / investment. Might as well have asked if we all approved of motherhood and apple pie.

Now came the obvious question - how much extra council tax would we be prepared to pay each year. 

Sadly, this was unrelated to service delivery. We might have been able to make a more informed value judgement if we had been told that 10 extra would be used to have our bins emptied every week instead of every fortnight, or 6.38 twould mean our street was swept every week, but we were asked to contribute this higher sum into a vacuum, a black hole - which these days is about par for the course.

The finale of the evening was the "Double Taxation" or "Equitable Taxation" presentation. 

Depending on your standpoint this is the best thing since sliced bread (the Council) or the biggest con trick to increase Council Tax in many a year (those that claim to see through the smoke and mirrors being presented by the Council). For details of this you need to see counterbalance's "Another Equitable Scandal" feature.

Suffice to say here that having explained how unfair it was for people in the rural part of the area to contribute to the facilities that attract visitors to the borough (and generate employment in the farms and smallholdings and ice cream suppliers based there), we were asked to answer "yes" or "no" to the question "Do you think that paying for local services is a fairer alternative to the current grant arrangements?"

Our Council leader evidently believes that only people who live in London should contribute to the costs of the British Museum, and the National Theatre, and the Science Museum and so on, His position is that it's unfair to ask people in Fylde to contribute to them because we don't live there, so we shouldn't have to contribute to their cost. 

Well at least he thinks it would be fairer if the civic facilities in the urban part of the borough (where most people live and where transport links are centred) should be charged only over the people residing there.

Sadly, his officers forgot to mention the cost implications of voting "yes" to this change. When challenged, officers said they were going to come onto the costings bit later (ie after the vote had been taken) so counterbalance's friend on the panel outlined some possible costs for the benefit of the audience. The result was a 77% vote against any change from the present system.

There were two other results to this situarion as well. counterbalance's friend was asked for his name - which doesn't bode well for his being asked back to any other focus groups, and in his closing remarks, leader of the Council John Coombes, referred to the 77% "No" vote saying it was an "interesting result, but the Council clearly had some challenging decisions ahead" which counterbalance has translated from Council doublespeak to plain English for you. We think it becomes: "We thought you'd fall for that one but you've got it wrong again. Never mind, we're going to do it anyway".

He also referred to the evening as having been a useful debate. Obviously where he comes from, 85% of the talking, and answers that are selected from amongst his preselected alternatives must be the way debates are conducted. (For more see The Death of Democracy)

Listening is easy;  the hard part is taking notice.

Dated:  26 October 2005


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