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Call-in For Lowther Parking Fees

Call in LowtherParking ChargesIn Lowther Car Park Carping we explained the background to the decision made by the Politburo's Councillor Simon Renwick, who decided to introduce charges for car parking there. His decision upset enough of the other Councillors for them to sign a motion to 'call-in' his decision for further scrutiny. We promised to let our readers know what happened at the meeting.

Under this awful Politburo System, the purpose of a 'call-in' is to see whether the decision has been 'properly' made, and if it hasn't, to ask the Councillor responsible to think again.

So with an unusually large public gallery of about 40, the Scrutiny Committee sat down in the Town Hall to consider the issue.

The committee sat with five Conservatives and two Independents. (For who's who, see the end of this article)

The Chairman reminded members that the call-in must be based on whether or not "the decision was made in the interests of the people of the Borough" (although at one point she changed this reminder to "residents of the Borough")

Proceedings opened with Cllr Ken Hopwood who gave a workmanlike 15 minute presentation as to why the decision was wrong. His main points were:

  • Displacement of parking;
  • congestion of adjacent roads;
  • minimal financial benefits;
  • reduction in facilities for disabled drivers;
  • damage to the capacity of the gardens to attract people;
  • damage to the Council's reputation;
  • decline in the number of users, and
  • the decision is contrary to the main aims and objectives under which the land was given to the Council.

Then Cllr Renwick put forward his defence, which centred around his assertion that the Gardens were now no longer controlled by the Council, but by a Charity, and as such, they had to stand on their own two feet financially. He said they were losing over 100,000 per year and action was needed.

The Chairman then invited a spokesmen from the assembled populace to have three minutes to speak for the proposal, and another to have three minutes against it.

Unsurprisingly, no one wanted to speak in favour of the idea, but one person spoke against, saying firstly that because the Gardens were a Charitable Trust, any decision should be made by its trustee, but Cllr Renwick took the decision as an Individual Portfolio Holder of the Cabinet (the documentation of the decision was Fylde Borough Council based). The speaker argued it should have been a decision of a meeting of the Trustees of Lowther Gardens, and recorded as such in a minute of their meeting.

He also challenged the fact that the Council's Committee had "called in" the decision at all.

He said that by doing so, they had called in the decision of a Cabinet Member within Fylde's administrative procedures, so it couldn't have been a decision made by a trustee, because there is no basis for a Council Committee to "call-in" the decision of a trustee!

His second objection was that Cllr Renwick's (nonsense) argument was principally that because the gardens are now a charity they no longer reflect the aims and objectives of the Council, so they must stand on their own two feet financially.

After noting the incongruity of using parking fees as a fund raising scheme, (whilst at the same time excluding charging for parking at evening performances at the theatre where there was literally a captive audience of up to 400 or so), he went on to say the gardens had been a charity since they were given, and successive Councils (including FBC) had maintained, even cherished, them over the last century. They would not have done so if the Gardens had not met the aims and objectives of those Councils. So unless the present Council had changed its aims and objectives for the gardens in the last couple of years, nothing had changed, and the argument about 'different objectives' had no basis in fact.

Finally he said he did not accept the argument that either one individual member, or the Cabinet, was the proper body to make decision about the Gardens unless the Full Council, acting as the corporate trustee, had so delegated responsibility. He therefore did not believe the decision had been properly made, and it should be referred to a meeting of the Full Council as the Trustee.

Then the Chairman led a question and answer session.

She suggested that the exhortation from the Government to consult with people showed how important consultation was, and asked with whom Cllr Renwick had consulted before arriving at his decision.

His answer was "No one"

He was later asked if he had consulted the Cafe proprietor who has a lease. "Not specifically" was the answer. At one point, perhaps feeling the inadequacy of his answers on consultation thus far, he did say he "had consulted his political colleagues, but had not consulted anyone else" before making the decision.

Questioned about the likely increase in congestion in adjacent roads, he said "Congestion is quite heavy already, I can't see it getting any worse" (Yes, he actually said that)

He also said at one point that he was also considering other income-raising schemes for Lowther Gardens, including charging more for the hire of the room in the Lowther Pavilion and putting games charges up.

There were quite a few questions about the legality of the decision (given the terms of the gift of the land which requires free access to be maintained). These were mostly fielded by the Council's Solicitor - Ian Curtis. Quoting from a Barrister's opinion he admitted there may be grounds for a challenge of the decision, but the Opinion suggested that, on balance, there were reasonable prospects of being able to introduce charges.

To us, this sounded very much like "We might be able to get away with it"

What a way for a supposedly responsible public body to behave.

Is there any wonder the Commissar's Council gets such appalling marks in the service league tables.

Queen Elizabeth Oades of Kirkham picked this legality point up quite nicely, and asked Mr. Curtis if, as a Councillor, she was a Trustee.

He replied that the Council was the trustee as a body corporate, to which she replied "Well if I am a member of that Council are you telling me I am a Trustee and yet I have no say in what decisions are made in my name?"

Curtis responded weakly by saying that the Council was the trustee, but the decision-making process for the Council as a Trustee is through the Cabinet, and they decided to delegate decisions to Cllr Renwick.

She came back and asked if the Council had formally consulted the Charity Commission on the introduction of charges. Curtis said not specifically, but they were applying to change the terms of the Trust at the moment, and this might specifically refer to car parking.

Queen Elizabeth concluded by saying she was very worried that the Council could find itself in legal trouble, and she would not be able to support the decision to charge until she had received the advice of the Charity Commission. She would thus vote to have the decision called-in.

Cllr Collins made a point about the effect on the cafe, and said it would adversely affect the proprietor's trade. He asked Cllr Renwick: if this were to happen, would the lessee be allowed to hand back his lease.

Before Cllr Renwick could answer, there was a loud chorus of "Yes" from the back of the room, where Commissar John Coombes and Cllr Kiran Mulholland were sitting. Their involuntarily enthusiasm exposing what some believe to the be real agenda here.

Having the Commissar at the meeting was interesting. He doesn't generally appear at this sort of thing, so we wondered why he was there. The consensus amongst the public afterwards was that there had been a decision by the Conservatives to uphold the charging decision and reject the call-in, but not all the troops were happy about it, and he was there to make sure none of them stepped out of line in the vote.

Councillor Karen Buckley appeared to be motivated by cost. She said: "It's about money, It's costing taxpayers money to prop these things up."

Oh Dear! If she really believes that, we have another who looks ready to join Oscar Wild's "accountants" who knew the cost of everything, and the value of nothing.

Just before the final vote, solicitor Ian Curtis unleashed the rocket he had been saving - by saying he had a note of a meeting with the Charity Commission attended by himself and former Chief Executive Ken Lee, where the Charity Commission had said that charging for parking was lawful.

He was right of course. There will undoubtedly be some charitable bodies that do charge for car parking.

But the real question here is whether charging would be lawful in the specific circumstances of this gift and the terms under which it was given, and in this case, whether Fylde's process to arrive at the decision to implement charges was proper.

But by introducing this ambiguous comment just before the vote, Mr Curtis gave succour to any who might otherwise have doubted the legality of the decision to charge.

We can't say that he did it on purpose of course.

The vote went (unsurprisingly for many observers) along party lines (3:2) to support the decision to charge.

Perhaps it was just co-incidence that the Conservatives on the Committee who voted all came to the same conclusion.

The Vice Chairman abstained. He said his position was quite simple.

We understand this was because he is also the Mayor .

The Chairman also abstained.

So  according to the Council's rules, the decision will not be reconsidered.

There was a bit of a ruckus outside the meeting, when Cllr Renwick was challenged over a comment made on his blog that those opposing his decision were "barking mad".

It was alleged he had responded by repeating the "barking mad" criticism accompanied - and emphasized - by a more Anglo-Saxon expletive.

Saint Barbara Pagett who was nearby seemed to hear this and at one point she looked as though she was going to "chin him" as they say, but she regained composure and made a complaint to the Commissar about the language allegedly used (we say "allegedly" because we were not close enough to hear it ourselves). We since gather that this complaint may be going elsewhere as well.

On his blog the day afterwards, Councillor Renwick referred to the meeting. He said he was pleased the decision of his Conservative colleagues had been supported by the Call-in Committee. (This is quite unremarkable given that we all know the committee also has a majority of his Conservative colleagues, and the Commissar himself was there to stiffen the resolve of waverers as well)

This is yet another example to support the argument that the decision was made on a political basis, and it helps to explain why the Charity Commission is so unhappy with using Councils as Trustees.

So what happens now?

Well, the decision will stand for the moment, and charges will be implemented unless something else happens to stop them. We understand there are some moves afoot by a variety of groups and individuals to make challenges, and it will be interesting to see where this goes.

It will also be interesting to see whether Commissar's compatriot from Wesham remains as pleased as he is now, if a challenge were to be successful and he faced a personal charge for costs. It's just possible this could arise if it were to be held that he made a deliberately improper decision as a trustee.

We don't know whether the Council's normal insurance that protects Councillors from individual liability will apply to a Trustee, but even if it does, we have heard it said that someone who knowingly or recklessly steps outside their responsibility as a Trustee, becomes personally liable anyway under the normal rules of the Charity Commission.

Mr Curtis seems to be suggesting that Cllr Renwick made the decision not as a Trustee, but as a Councillor acting for the Council (who itself is actually the Trustee).

However if that were the case, we're puzzled why the decision about parking charges in a park was not taken by the "proper" (according the Council's own literature) portfolio holder. This would have been either Dim Tim who is responsible for parks development and grounds maintenance, or that Nice Cllr Paul Rigby who looks after Finance and Efficiency, or even the Commissar - because he has previously set the parking charges everywhere in Fylde himself.

Cllr Renwick's claim to fame is "Culture and Tourism" not parks, or parking, or finance.

But from much of what he has written, It's clear he did think he was the Trustee of Lowther Gardens..............

Mr Curtis the Solicitor clearly doesn't agree.

There is more to come on this we think.

Who's Who at the Call In

There were seven of the normal Councillors on the call-in committee: Cllr Karen Buckley (C) (St Anne's); Cllr Peter Collins (I) (Newton & Treales); Cllr Elizabeth Oades (I) (Kirkham) (known to our readers as Queen Elizabeth); Cllr John Prestwich (C) (St Anne's) (Vice-Chairman and Present Mayor); Cllr William Thompson (C) (Lytham); Cllr Fabian Wilson (C) (St Anne's) (Chairman)

Three Councillors who would usually have been present were not there, probably because of holidays or sickness. They were: Cllr Tony Ford (LD) (St Anne's); Cllr Cheryl Little (C) (Fairhaven), and Cllr Thomas Threlfall (C) (Freckleton)

However, one absent member had been substituted. We assume it was Cllr Threlfall or Cllr Little, because the substitute was a Conservative, Cllr Ben Aitken (C) (Lytham).


Dated:  30 September 2007


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