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WyldeFyre on the Cards Again?

WyldeFyre on the Cards Again?'WyldeFyre' is the rather ingenious name coined to describe a merging of Fylde and Wyre Councils. The present round of discussion is probably the third or fourth time it has been mooted, although previously it has been described variously as a takeover or  a merger,  in its most recent incarnation the buzzword is "Joint Working" 

The first thing to say is that according to both Fylde and Wyre Councils, they are not merging. But if you'd read the report and heard the debate at Fylde Council last week, you'd have been reminded of the saying, "It's got a muzzle like a dog, its got ears like a dog, it wags its tail like a dog, and it cocks its leg up like a dog, but it's a cat" 

They are talking about a merger in all but name, so what's driving it now and what will it mean?

Well, last November, there was a leaked Government report that said although almost no-one wanted Regional Government, and we would have voted against it in a referendum, the Government wants it to go ahead, This time, they're not planning to ask us, but will probably introduce a White Paper to get the process moving. The first phase is to merge small councils together.

The stated aim here will be to make them more 'efficient'. The real aim is to make them more remote from, and less popular with, the public they should serve. They will be harder to access, less responsive to local public opinion, and more reliant on professional officers to get things done. The stage after that will be to merge the new Councils again  until they become the regional Government tier that Europe wants us to have.

It is no co-incidence that police forces are being merged, as are ambulance services, fire services, NHS areas and other QUANGO's. Look at the boundary changes of each of these organisations in the last few decades, and it all becomes clear. We're being driven relentlessly like sheep toward a 12 region country governed from the continent.

So far, Government won't admit this is what's on the cards, but the  Government's David Miliband is coming to the metropolis of Preston at the end of March, and leaders and Chief Executives of all the Lancashire Councils have been asked to attend. He is to make a statement about reviewing or re-organising Local Government.

The Government will have two aims in this process. First they want to take the step we would not support - toward regional government. Second, with their gerrymandering hat on, they want to abolish or damage the "shire" counties that are the backbone of (small c) conservative self reliance and Englishness in this country. The metropolitan Notting Hill set plainly has no empathy with, or understanding of Borchester, and wants rid of it.

According to the leaks so far, the plan for the immediate future is to ask Local Councils to make proposals to merge with, or to take over adjoining local councils to make the new unit more efficient, and at the same time, the proposers will have to demonstrate how much they will "save" because of the merger.

A classic case of divide and rule.

Now, gentle reader, if you can ever remember a merger of Councils that resulted in a lower overall cost, counterbalance would love to hear from you. This is about as likely as us seeing a pig fly past our window.

The trick is to show on paper that it will make savings in the longer term, even if in the short term there is an increase to cover what will be called 'the one off costs of amalgamation'. This higher initial cost - just like Fylde's earlier staffing re-organisation costs -  never quite seems to get back to where it was, let alone generate long term savings. But by then of course, it's all too late, and the change has been made.

So the positioning has begun.

Most of the most senior positions in Councils are already in the know, and are already tearing along the road of preparation. They are also keeping many of the ordinary staff and Councillors in the dark so that - as in the kingdom of the blind - those with the most up to date knowledge are the most likely to survive and perhaps even prosper.

Temporary part-time acting Chief Executive and dedicated follower of fashion Bill Taylor spoke at Fylde's recent Council meeting of their plan to increase "joint working" with Wyre BC. He said "The Government Office for the North West says it (the joint working plan) is very radical, but it's not radical enough for me, I'd like to have seen one chief executive for both authorities" He alluded to a process that would cut away a swathe of middle management and give cost savings. 

Quite what mandate he has from the people of either area to pursue this objective that has not been approved by either group of elected members, let alone a referendum, is unclear, and counterbalance thinks we can only be grateful to those Councillors in Wyre who saw this coming and stamped on it, hard.

John (The Commissar) Coombes said they were embarking on a journey of exploration with joint working, and he urged Fylde Councillors to go along with it.

On closer inspection this statement shows the position in a somewhat brighter light. By asking the Council to "go along with it" he offers other Councillors an opportunity to follow him into territory in which he has already been wandering around, and where (God help us!) he is waymarking the path for them (and of course, us) to follow.

Following a question about staff redundancies Bill Taylor revealed he was an ex-head of personnel (which explains quite a lot), and that whilst there could be no guarantee of redundancies, there were lots of other ways of reducing staff - natural wastage, ill health retirement, voluntary retirement, voluntary redundancy and so on.

For the third time in one evening, Councillor John Bennett spoke in support of a Conservative proposal - this time to pursue closer joint working arrangements. Clearly there is something up here. He is not his usual self at all.

He said we had a mismatched (or possibly mish-mash) boundary with Wyre, and it was a good idea to use joint working. He hinted at the possible use of Wyre's "facilities" - by which we think he did not mean the loos, but probably sharing a Council Chamber. Whichever it was, Chief Executive Bill Taylor nodded his head vigorously as though in agreement.

What was not said was that the scheme is expected to halve the number of Councillors in each authority.

Now initially, this might sound like a 'good thing' and there are many that would not mind seeing a reduction in sums paid as discretionary allowances to councillors, but they are a bit like doctors - when there are less of them, they are harder to get to see, and you have less choice. 

For instance, most Fylde wards have three councillors representing the 3000 people living in that ward. Thus you will always have someone to see, even if the one you would normally use is away. Furthermore, you can choose to approach the one of the three that might be the most able, or the most sympathetic, to deal with your concerns. You also potentially have three voices speaking for you in Council if your concern is widely shared across the ward.

Cutting the number of Councillors does not save that much actual cash, but it does put your local councillors much more distant from you, in all sorts of ways.

Notwithstanding this, the decision to set up a joint working arrangements was approved by Fylde Council. 

So what are the implications?

The first is thing to consider is the area to be covered by any amalgamation. Fylde (and perhaps Wyre) think they can get away with just the two of them, but Government's description of this being "radical" is quite interesting. We think it contains a note of surprise, or perhaps even disapproval, and  Government is looking for a bigger unit for its Unitary Council.

If this is so, it would bring all sorts of factors into play, raising once more the 'City of the Fylde' option with Blackpool at its heart, or the 'Unitary Lancashire' option, with LCC at its heart. or the 'Lancashire North West' option, probably with Preston at its heart. And of course, on the outside rails could be 'Ruritania' with Fylde, Wyre and Ribble Valley in one geographic agricultural based unitary, or the one no-one speaks seriously about  which is the 'Lancashire North' (or Cumbria South), with Lancaster at its heart, and echoing at least some of the new Lancashire/Cumbria Police area.

First, we'll consider the political context.. For Fylde's Conservatives, a merger with Wyre would be very popular. It will almost certainly spell the end of the Labour Party's chances of holding power in Wyre, and will probably also reduce the influence of the Ratepayers and the Independents forming the  non-urban lobby in Fylde.

They will also think the 'Blackpool Fylde & Wyre' option (variously called City of the Fylde, Greater Fylde, and Greater Blackpool) will give an overall Conservative majority. For those reasons, whilst Fylde and Wyre (which are both Conservative controlled) will probably push for it, Government quite possibly won't be that impressed. 

Politically, the unitary Lancashire option would swamp the Conservatives, so they won't be keen on that, but neither will the Government, who have their own agenda to fragment the shires.

So from the present Government's point of view, and in a political sense, the Lancashire North West option based around Preston has a lot going for it.  It will be labour dominated, but not many of the local councils involved are likely to support it.

'Ruritania' as we have called it will be politically Conservative. It's just possible that this would be supported by a local majority, and Labour might think that by putting all the opposition into one 'sacrifice' area, it could do better in the remainder.

Politically speaking, Lancashire North based around Lancaster is a relatively unknown quantity, but would probably be Conservative on balance.

Looking at things from an economic perspective, WyldeFyre would be not much different for either area, but the Blackpool based 'City of the Fylde' would be a disaster for Fylde and Wyre who would end up neutralising Blackpool's deprivation with cash from their relatively wealthy pockets. 

Surprisingly, Blackpool too will be very wary of this option because the affluent areas of Fylde and Wyre would ruin the high deprivation indices from which it draws much of its priority funding from Government and elsewhere. So locally, no-one wins financially under this option.

Unitary Lancashire would balance funding much as it is now, but the Lancashire North West and Lancashire North (and probably to an even greater extent the Ruritania option with Ribble Valley) would generate significant Council Tax savings for the affected areas, because the highly deprived areas of East Lancashire drop out of the funding pot. (In the eyes of some, the affluent west of the County exists to be a net contributor to alleviate deprivation and poverty in the east of the County.)

Finally, we look at the cultural view. This is the one that has all the  irreconcilable problems. Most of the genteel folk of Fylde and probably much of Wyre's hinterland would dread being associated with the get rich quick merchants of Blackpool.

Blackpool however is in desperate need of developable land (having used up all of its own) so it will be very keen to acquire some, and might try to poach parts of North Wyre. It is also after Fylde's airport on Squires Gate Lane.

The Unitary Lancashire would be culturally little different than it is now, but Lancashire North West - based on Preston - would be a cultural curiosity, with no clear identity. 

Lancashire North based around Lancaster would perhaps be a bit less so, but the urban/rural divide that splits Fylde would be writ large, with its consequence for disharmony.

From the cultural perspective, the Ruritania option is a winner. It is clear cut agriculture with a bit of tourism on the coast. It would have a clear identity but (assuming Blackpool stays as a separate Unitary authority), the tourism industry in Fylde and Wyre might as well pack up and go home.

So there we have it and, as Vernon's Pools used to say, it's quite possible to perm any combination of these as well.

One thing of which you can be sure, most other authorities won't be that keen to take on Fylde if it means they too inherit the spotlight of counterbalance.

Dated:  5 March 2006

See also: Steps toward a City of the Fylde


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