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countering the spin and providing the balance


Snapshot of Fylde Council

Snapshot of Fylde CouncilIt's a while since we looked at the dynamics and interaction of Fylde Council. Their decisions feature quite often, but what is the tone of their meetings? Who's in and who's out? Who's doing well and who isn't. counterbalance set out to have a look. We went to the meeting of the Full Council on 24 July 2006 held at the newly built facilities at Fylde Rugby Club on Woodlands Road, Ansdell. (They have to meet away from the Town Hall at present because since they sold off the seating in the Council Chamber after advertising it on Ebay, and filled the Chamber with office staff, they lost their home, and haven't sorted themselves out yet).

The new facilities at Woodlands Road are superficially quite impressive. Separate entrance to the function suite, modern building, disabled friendly - well, sort of, and new fixtures and fittings. Maybe a bit expensive with a hire charge of 250 for an evening in the main room, but first impressions were positive.

Sadly, they didn't last.

The meeting was held in an upstairs room and, because it was hot, the doors to the viewing balcony were open, and the sounds of children playing nearby drifted into the meeting. The room layout was less than perfect - a long rectangle of a room, with the meeting arranged across it in the middle, and a presentation setup at one end. Belatedly, some chairs put out at the opposite end for four (clearly unexpected) members of the public to watch the proceedings. Binoculars would have been useful.

However, the real problem was the sound system, which echoed around the cavernous room. (Actually calling it a 'system' could be dignifying the equipment with greater credibility than it deserves). The top table (with the Mayor and Chief Executive doing most of the speaking), shared a single tieclip microphone passed from one to the other and held close to the mouth, and the 50 odd other councillors shared two roving wireless hand-microphones between them, conveyed from speaker to speaker by the Mayor's attendant. Sadly, the arrangements were such that only one of these could be switched on at any one time, leading to quite some delays in proceedings as the mike moved from one side of the room to the other.

But worse was to come.

To our untrained ear, it sounded like a Public Address system such as you hear at agricultural shows and gymkhanas, with that familiar echo that comes from a delay in the sound arriving from distant speakers. The assembly clearly heard it this way too, and the attendant was twice dispatched out onto the balcony to make sure the words of wisdom were not echoing around the rugby ground to the houses beyond. It seems they were not, but it unsettled the whole proceedings.

In obvious embarrassment, the Mayor called for the amplification to be switched off, but then no-one could hear what was being said so it was put back on and everyone struggled with "Little Sir Echo".

Perhaps it was that the amplifier had been left set for what the room is obviously designed to cater for with its large central bar - either a boozy wedding 'night do' or maybe karaoke at a private party, where adding echo or reverberation to the sound can disguise the triumph of  alcohol-induced courage over singing ability. But for whatever reason it was irritating. Later, after the Commissar had spoken, we noted that the echo, when coupled with his strident tone, put us in mind of those pre-war rallies at Nurenburg. The effect of the sound system was so similar.

So Councillors struggled on as best they could.

One of the most noticeable points about modern Council meetings is that there is really nothing on the agenda for them to debate. The Politburo Cabinet now takes all the real decisions, and self-evidently, the council is left floundering around trying to find things to talk about.

In a process called "Re-inventing the Council" a while ago they recognised this, and created something called the 'Members Choice Debate' where (we guess) the intention was to allow a member to propose something close to their hearts and have it debated to occupy the time available before they go home. Tonight's offering was a seminar from "Re:Blackpool" more details of which can be found by following the link.

However, before that were some announcements. There were two defections to report. Saint Barbara Pagett's leap from the sinking Conservative ship (as we report elsewhere) was duly recorded. However, this was offset by the embracing of Freckleton's multi-faceted Paul Rigby as a new member of the Conservative group. He had previously been independent, but fell out with that, and became one of the new 'Truly Independent' (yes really!) gang of four or so - only to jump ship again and swim toward the Commissar's stricken vessel and climb aboard. The quality of his judgement goes without saying, especially since the Commissar offered him a place on his Politburo Cabinet and thus kept his political majority.

These changes will impact on the political balance of their future meetings, (on the other committees, seats are allocated pro-rata to representation) and there will be further changes as these ripple through.

The Commissar's new system allows councillors to ask a question at Council meetings if they have supplied it in writing with appropriate notice, and Singleon's Maxine Chew had submitted one. She asked the Commissars 'Heavy' (Albert Pounder) if, as the Cabinet member in charge of communications, he was satisfied with the standard of communications offered by the Council. (She actually meant responding to phone calls from the public and other enquiries, but it seemed an eerily appropriate question, given that the echo on the sound made it all but impossible to hear).

Reading from a prepared script, he said he was happy, but not complacent, and he was going to ask "Performance review" to do an in-depth study of the matter, then form  a task and finish group to recommend changes.

Clearly this would be unnecessary if he really was happy with the service, so we suspect porkies are in the air. The delivery of his prepared speech was so wooden that even the Commissar was rolling his eyes - or maybe he just felt unwell.

Sensing his contradiction, Councillor Chew said she believed the Constitution allowed her to ask a supplementary question (cute move). The Mayor - probably caught off guard on his knowledge of the constitution, and hesitant about where this might leave his Conservative colleague - thought for a moment, then said he would allow her to  continue. She quite rightly noted it was her right to do so, and said according to all the people in her ward, the service was awful, so if it needed such improvement how could he be happy with it now? She said she simply didn't believe him.

No prepared script, and no satisfactory answer.

What this means of course is something in the order of 30k to 50k is likley to be wasted on a series of meetings, reports, and quite possibly, consultants, to assess what anyone who tries to ring an officer at the Town Hall will already know is an appalling arrangement. It will result in hours of officer and councillor time being spent collecting data, evaluating it, considering options and making recommendations for change. Hours that could - and indeed should - be spent on more productive issues, leaving the Chief Executive to bear the responsibility he alone should carry for the internal administrative and communication  arrangements he implements.

There were clear divisions on voting. The Commissar's voting fodder stuck to the party line and prevented other views from being adopted. Classic amongst these was the vote on Members Allowances. Clearly most of the non-Conservatives on the Council were generally opposed to the idea of increased discretionary payments to Councillors. Paul (The Mauler) Hayhurst proposed there should be a recorded vote on the matter. (This would have required how each of the Councillors voted to be recorded in the minutes of the meeting). When a call for a recorded vote is made, it has to be seconded and voted on before the issue itself. It was, and a forest of Conservative hands went up to oppose the publication of who voted which way.

But worse was to come. In the innocuously sounding 'Appointments to Outside Bodies' report, trouble lurked. The Council has representatives on all sorts of other quasi public bodies (Such as School Governors etc). The report recommended continuing all the appointments that were ongoing, and to fill two new 'vacancies'.

Introducing the item Albert  (The Heavy) Pounder said he wanted to propose it with just one change, that the Commissar's First Lieutenant Roger Small should replace John Longstaff as the Council's representative to Blackpool Airport. He said the Airport was growing in importance and it needed someone from the Cabinet to represent Fylde. This proposal was seconded by the newly appointed multi-faceted Conservative, Councillor Paul Rigby.

This might be a legitimate argument. But knowing as we do, that; Councillor Longstaff  worked for almost all his career in the aircraft industry; and that the Airport is within his ward; and he has been Fylde's representative to the Airport for many years; and his present term of office has (or rather had) two more years to run, it was somewhat crude  and unnecessary to attempt a public ejection of him in this manner. Clearly upset, he left the meeting. counterbalance was told by a disgusted colleague of Councillor Longstaff that the decision to eject him was taken by the Conservative group in the late afternoon before the meeting, and he was given no advance warning of the plot.

So this is the Brave New World of Fylde. Like Huxley's, it depends on mindless, passive obedience, but here it is the Iron Fisted Commissar who cracks the whip and denies consensus. 

Dated:  25 July 2006


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