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countering the spin and providing the balance


Fylde's State 2007

A ShamblesWith the Commissar taking an increasingly authoritarian and controlling stance these days, it seems quite appropriate for him to use the word 'State' in his events.

We reported the last of these events in 2005 when we published 'State of the Borough.'

This 2007 event had a similar (but slightly less glitzy) format, and this time it was held at Ribby Hall, not Lowther Pavilion.

On the face of it, these events have much to commend them. A supposedly representative sample of Fylde's electorate is brought together to give its opinions on matters of import affecting the Borough, and to help the 'decision makers' in the Politburo gauge public feeling.

The principle in fine and dandy.

Sadly however, like everything else in this administration, the details let it down. We recall Queen Elizabeth Oades referring to a former Fylde budget-setting meeting and describing it as a "Fur Coat and No Knickers" budget - all show and no substance, all policy and no practice.

That's also what we saw in the State of the Borough event 2007.

The evening began with the same process as last time. An introduction from Ian Roberts of 'Greengage Consulting' who had the plum job of 'facilitating' the evening. He showed how to vote with the hand-held remote voting pads, where 1 was 'Yes' and 0 was 'No' and then asked some simple questions to get people in the mood. Had we finished our Christmas shopping yet, that sort of thing.

The results flashed up instantly as percentages on the screen once the vote closed.

Next, people were asked to decide if they were male of female (or as Ian put it "female or male"). It showed 67% were male and 33% were female.

There were quite a few empty seats at tables so maybe they were the 'missing ladies'

People were then asked to choose their 'ethnicity' from a selection of nine options.

We've always had a problem with this sort of question because they often mix up race and colour, and fail to allow, for example, Welsh or Scots people to register their true identity. We wondered if anyone would raise this as an issue, but no one did. They probably figured there would be bigger fish to fry later on.

The ethnicity results - which seemed to disappoint our facilitator - showed they had selected an audience that believed it was 100% white. "Not much diversity here then" he commented.

Next, where did everyone live? The results included Lytham 37% and St Anne's 17%, which shows the selection wasn't wholly representative, because St Anne's is the biggest population, with Lytham just a bit less. Maybe there too, the missing few folk would have made the numbers right.

Then just before the serious business started, participants were advised that questions should be left until the end unless they were essential. A team of twelve officers and various Councillors would be wheeled out for questioning at the conclusiion of the evening.

It seems they have learned from last time that if they want results to be close to their preference, they need to make us vote on just on what they tell us, not what we can find out from questions.

Then the serious questions started. Chief Executive Phillip Woodward gave an overview of where the Council gets its money from and what it spends it on.

The problem was that the Council now insists on treating Housing Benefit as being part of its own expenditure and income.

It isn't.

It's money the Government gives Fylde to pay out on behalf of the national taxpayers. It's (almost) nothing to do with local spending. Fylde acts as the Government's agent. There were other instances like this as well, and they only served to confuse.

So when it came time to press buttons to show we had understood what we had been told, the results showed more or less that we hadn't.

Next we were asked to rank various services against each other.

The list was:

  • Leisure
  • Parks & Open Spaces
  • Housing
  • Planning
  • Street Cleaning
  • Tax Collection and Benefits
  • Waste Collection
  • Environmental Health and Protection, and
  • Economic Regeneration.

First, people had to pick the three which were most important to them.

The results will come later, but we think Parks, Waste Collection and Leisure scored most highly. This is a bit inconvenient for the Commissar because he wants to close the swimming pools and get rid of all the parks to parish councils. So people obviously got that answer wrong.

Next was which three are the least important.

Planning figured highly in this result. But it turned out that this was because a preponderance of folk in the audience had endured a bad experience with getting plans approved, and some wanted to abandon the system altogether and have a free-for-all.

Next, more or less the same question was asked but this time it was if you had to cut spending on some services which would you cut? And if you had more to spend, which service would you spend it on?

Predictably, tax collection and planning were due for the chop, and parks and leisure and refuse were all candidates for higher spending.

Again, this is very inconvenient for the Commissar, who wants to abandon the delivery of services and spend his time leading the community and creating policy.

The point he was missing here is that, unlike him, people don't choose spending as a matter of policy, they evaluate particular parts of services. They use common sense. So they might not want to spend 15,000 asking consultants if it was safe to fly kites on the beach (as he did), but they would want the swimming pools kept open (which he likes to threaten with closure at every turn). Yet both of these are within the 'Leisure' heading.

Next there was some discussion after being asked to jot down what things we would spend less on, and what things we would spend more on.  The discussion showed the majority wanted less spent on planning (our planners do seem to have upset a lot of people), and more on recycling. In this vote, counterbalance would not have been in the majority.

Then out of the blue came the question "How much extra Council Tax would we be prepared to pay."

Like so much else during the evening, this had no context.

The question was not how much more we might be prepared to pay to have our bins emptied twice as often, or the streets swept every week, or the swimming pools opened for extra hours.

It was, in essence, when will your pips squeak?

You got the feeling it was about providing a justification for decisions that were almost made, and if we gave the 'right' answers they would be used as part of the argument, and if we didn't, well, they would quietly fade away.

We can't remember all the choices, but they included 1 a year, 5 a year, 15 a year, and more, maybe up to 100 a year.

One chap asked which figure related to about 5%. The answer eventually came that it equated to about 7.50.

So by choosing 5 and 15 as the set points, we guess they were hoping to avoid anyone choosing 5%. However, the best laid plans of mice and men sometimes go awry, and when the vote was taken, most people had opted for 5 (This is just below 5%, and around where inflation is currently sitting).

This would be classed as another wrong answer no doubt, but we think people were maybe a bit cross at being asked such a stupid, out of context question, and one that some people evidently thought to be one of the more blatant attempts at manipulation. It also wouldn't help that the Commissar's reputation for financial incompetence is becoming more widely known.

One interesting thing that did come out was that the Commissar announced from next year, he would be issuing a "till receipt" with the Council Tax bills that will show service costs broken down, so we will all be able to see exactly what our money is being spent on.

Don't believe a word of this.

What it won't show is the mountain of wasted time, the mushroomed overheads, and the appalling waste of aborted spending he has presided over. If he did that, he would be out on his ear.

You can bet those costs will be re-classified as central costs, or overheads, and they will be added proportionately to each of the things he chooses to define as services before you get to see the figures.

We'll keep an eye out for this next spring and give you the inside track, as usual.

Next came the Housing Officer for Fylde, explaining how much we need 'Affordable Housing' because people can't afford to live here. The votes on this issue surprised us and, based on the information that was given, Affordable Housing was both widely and strongly supported. We were quite concerned that not enough had been explained about this, and we would have liked to see the information here (as in other issues) presented as a debate, with articulate pro and con arguments being advanced, so people saw a full picture rather than just hearing one side of the story then voting, but with that caveat, the vote was clear.

We will do a future article about 'Affordable Housing' that probably won't be popular (given the result here), but it might make people stop and think.

That said, it looked very much as though we were seeing what we call the 'grandchild effect.' in housing. The people there didn't want their grandchildren to have to move away from the area to be able to afford housing. We accept this is a well intentioned desire, but we fundamentally disagree. As our Polish cousins are readily showing us at the moment, in the brave new European world, mobility of labour is THE key to future success, and no one ought to expect to grow up and live in the *country* - let alone the town they were born in.

So, on this one, the information presented did the trick. The vote in favour of Affordable Housing was overwhelming, and the new housing policy that Fylde is formulating will no doubt use these results to justify its importance.

One or two folk were waking up a bit toward the end of this item, and asking who paid for the subsidies that are given to make some houses more 'affordable'

Initially the officer tried to say no-one really, they just made it a condition of the planning permission that the developer had to provide so many percent of them as affordable, but Mr Woodward stepped in to make it more clear. He said the subsidy either came from taxes, or from people paying over the odds for the market value houses to cross subsidise losses on the cheaper, (and thus) more affordable, ones.

When the housing section came to an end, (or at least it had appeared to have come to an end), a slide flashed up with the statement "The road across the Moss between Lytham and Whitehills should be developed as a priority" and voters were given the option of agreeing strongly, agreeing, neither agreeing nor disagreeing....... and so on.

At this point one chap popped up and said this was like motherhood and apple pie. Everyone was going to agree it needed to be done because it does. But he said what was being hidden behind the question was the fact that to get the road, Kensington would have to be granted planning permission for 350 houses off Queensway which Fylde Council had refused, and the Government inspector had also refused on appeal.

Alerted by this confidence trick question, some in the audience took up the issue saying it was green belt and good farming land, and it shouldn't be developed.

The Commissar took the floor to explain that this was the way things had to be done now. Government wouldn't fund roads like this, and we had to have development like this to fund infrastructure like roads.

He conveniently omitted to mention that two thirds of the road should already have been built in proportion to the permissions already granted to Kensington on Cypress Point.

But then he forgot himself and after noting there was some greenbelt which couldn't be touched (This despite FBC recently approving outline permission on some designated Green Belt land at the Airport), he added there was some land on either side that could be developed and it would be looked at as part of the Growth Point Bid that Fylde had just supported.

We introduced this Growth Point topic in 'Plans to Expand.'

Do read it.

If this bid is approved by Government it will have fundamental and far reaching implications for this area, and it is being plotted out of sight of the public gaze, because if people in Fylde and Wyre knew and understood what was being proposed, they would be incensed. In crude terms, it is looking to use land in Fylde just outside the Blackpool boundary to be developed so as to generate money to pay for the run-down areas of Blackpool to be regenerated.

The result of the vote, predictably, was mostly agreement that the road was a priority - and no one can say it isn't.

But the phrasing of that question and, on reflection, the evening in general, left you with a bad taste in your mouth.

We'll bring you the detailed results when they are announced.

Dated:  5 December 2007


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