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Lowther Car Park Carping

Lowthger Car Park CarpingWell, what a to-do. Only two years after deciding not to introduce them, the dreaded parking charges are back on the agenda for Lowther Gardens. Well, sort of. The sequence of events began with a meeting of the Commissar's Cabinet calling for a report on the matter. Paul Norris, who seems variously to be called either the "Culture and Tourism Executive Manager", or  the "Exec Manager - Community and Cultural Services" (or both), produced the report. It sets out, in mostly balanced arguments, the case for and against charging for car parking. 

In many ways it was a good, and reasonably balanced report. You can see it here (pdf file).

But for reasons we have yet to fully understand, the matter was taken up by Wesham Councillor Simon Renwick who holds the Portfolio for Culture & Tourism. 

After due process, he took the decision to implement charges. The date of his decision was Friday 13th. "Not" as the Oracle might say, "very auspicious"

Right on cue there was, once again, a public outcry.

In a separate move, the required number of Councillors who oppose to the idea signed the documentation to have the decision 'Called In.' This means the decision will be reviewed by another set of Councillors and, if they so decide, Councillor Renwick may be asked to think again.

Having read his arguments for charging, it is clear Coun. Renwick is a man on a mission. Confident of his view, his decision and his position, together with the support of his Cabinet colleagues he is showing the sort of decisive action that is exactly what the Commissar and the new Cabinet System expects of him. He's going to cut out all that inefficient discussion and time-wasting debating of the matter. Just do it. That's much better. 

When we describe those around the Commissar as 'aspirational' this is just the sort of thing we mean. And this is not just a case of sucking-up to gain favour, you genuinely couldn't get anyone more trying than Coun. Renwick.

Clearly he has a bright future, and the Commissar might have to watch his back one day. Here we have 'decisions on legs'. Clear thinking and good judgment displayed at speed...... Or is it?

We'll get to the rights and wrongs of whether charges should be made or not in a moment, but our story raises several issues that people new to counterbalance might not understand. So we need to explain a bit.

Chief amongst these confusing issues is how one individual Councillor acting on his own can make a decision like this? 

The answer is set out in a whole series of our previous articles including Last Rites for Democracy, and The Cabinet is Formed amongst others, but basically there is a new, undemocratic system operating at the Town Hall. The Council has been stripped of its day to day decision making powers. Their job now is to consider only matters of policy and things like the appointment of the 'Leader'. 

Once the Leader (who we call the Commissar because of his Stalinist autocratic, dogmatic rule) has been selected, he hand picks seven other Councillors to be his Cabinet. 

Each has a specific area of responsibility. Acting either as a committee, or individually, these people now take all the day to day decisions in the name of the Council. 

Legal it is. Preferred by the Commissar it is. Democratic it is not. But that's life under the Commissar's rule. 

Is there any wonder so many people are appalled by the loss of democracy that John Coombes was responsible for when he introduced the Cabinet System here?

Secondly, readers might wonder why the issue has come up again when it was dropped such a short time ago.

 Well there could be a few reasons for this. Only last week we said how the new administration was likely to take all the unpalatable decisions in the first year of the new Council, so that could be the reason. 

Or it could be that the Commissar is doing his "Wolf Cry" again. Only last week he was threatening a budget shortfall of around 1 million (Yes, again! Last time he did this he predicted a shortfall of 700,000 and actually produced a surplus of 339,000) so he might be asking colleagues to use his latest expected deficit as an opportunity to start charging for things, but we think the most likely reason is that fresh from winning the election, the first signs of walking on the water are starting to appear.

Third, you might ask why Simon Renwick got the job of making the decision in the first place, when car parking (including Lowther Gardens) is the responsibility of the "Streetscene" Portfolio Holder, and not him. 

This had us puzzled for a while as well, because in all the previous instances, decisions and comments on car parking issues have always been made either by the Commissar, (or his deputy), or the 'Streetscene' portfolio holder Councillor 'Dim' Tim Ashton. 

Then it dawned on us. A possible reason is that Cllr Ashton represents a ward in Lytham, not far from Lowther Gardens, and if he had made the unpopular decision to charge (as previous practice suggests he should have done), then the folk in Lytham might have become so angry with him they wouldn't vote for him the next time he asked them to. 

So it's just possible that Cllr Renwick was put up as an 'Aunt Sally', (because the good people of Wesham are unlikely to be that bothered about whatever he does in Lytham). If our suspicion here is right, it really does show the depth to which the Commissar's deceptive administration will sink.

Fourthly, and this is a sort of complicated issue, Lowther Gardens is a charitable trust. This status was clarified back in 2005 ( See Lowther is Charity Case). In fact the gardens have always been a Charitable Trust (because the terms under which it was given to the people made it so), it's just that the Council had forgotten that it was. 

When they were reminded by the LSA Civic Society there was much childish stamping of petulant feet in the Council Chamber, but the tantrum was to no avail. The law is the law, and the Council (as the trustees for the time being) are bound by it.

According to the Charity Commission, the status of Local Authorities as trustees is often unsatisfactory, chiefly because they have difficulty in distinguishing their role as Trustees (where the sole focus must be the good of the charity) and their role as Councillors where they regard land like this as their corporate property to do with as they will. (Looks like the Charity Commission know about Fylde then, doesn't it?)

From the report he wrote, you can see that Mr Norris understands the position. His report speaks from the perspective of the Trust.  If that is right (and we believe it is) the what on earth is Cllr Renwick doing making an individual Member decision? What indeed is the Cabinet doing considering the matter at all? 

Unless the full Council has formally resolved to make Mr Renwick (or the Cabinet) the Trustee(s) of Lowther Gardens, then the Trustees are the Full Council, and a meeting of the full Council, (acting as trustees, not as Councillors), must take the decisions affecting the trust, such as whether to charge for parking. If this is the case. Mr Renwick or the Cabinet should have no locus in the matter.

Fifth, given that it would appear that the most the 'Call In' procedure can do is to ask for the matter to be reconsidered by the relevant Cabinet Member, what kind of a stupid system have our Councillors allowed to be introduced which means that Councillors are no longer in overall control of the Council on which they sit. You may well ask dear reader. The answer is we don't know.

Sixth, even if you disregard the weakness of the remedial action available from the calling in procedure, what kind of an even more stupid system says that Councillors who have signed the paper to challenge (Call In) the decision, are not even allowed into the Committee meeting to discuss the matter, and are thus prevented from representing the views of their electors by speaking at it. 

That, dear reader, is one of the best pieces of magnificently politically correct lunacy that Fylde has quietly incorporated into its 'Constitution' (which is now so thick that most people would lose the will to live before they managed to complete reading it). Words fail.

Then we come to the rights and wrongs of charging itself.

The LSA Express has started a campaign to get the charges dropped, so they think its wrong. Their campaign is responding to public opinion. 

In their rough and dirty straw poll, 94% of people opposed the idea. Co-incidentally, that is the same percentage who opposed the sale of part of Ashton Gardens to Newfield Jones (but then, that made no difference to the Council's decision either)

The Express also started a petition that has already produced 1,000 signatures. Admittedly this is not the 8,000 or so that opposed the sale of part of Ashton Gardens (Which were disregarded by Councillors) but it is a significant number, and it is growing daily. So clearly a large number of people thing it is wrong.

So who thinks it is right? Well, at least Councillor Renwick does.

He sets out his arguments in a number of places, (you can see the full text on his online blog, his response to the Express' petition, and in his reply to 'a harworking student nurse' who opposed the decision - do have a look, they are all worth reading).

In summary, he is using the same tantrum argument from two years ago. There are quotes like:

"....I felt an immediate way was to introduce a charging scheme in the car park. This would bring in annually 10,000 to 15,000 and in conjunction with other measures in the pipe line will help reduce that cost to us all. With the charges, the first hour is free and after 6pm it's free. However, some people seem to think it is wrong. However, I feel the general principal that the Gardens should stand on it's own two feet is right and I made the decision to do so."

and

"It is not a council asset any longer and the same justifications for paying it's 134,000 a year loss through the general tax, is no longer there."

and

"The reason we're doing this is not mainly to do with freeing up parking spaces. It's to do with making Lowther stand on it's own two feet, to stop draining 134,000 from the council tax payers cash that has to pay for so much more else. "

and

"Lowther is a stand alone charity which basically has to pay its own way in life, or some part there to."

and

"The council simply cannot solely continue to pay for them at the present condition in the current climate."

Whilst out of context, these quotes will give you the flavour of the arguments in favour of charging.

We think differently. 

As we have said before, Councils provide for the recreational needs of their community through local taxation, and Fylde's responsibility in this matter has not suddenly changed.

Fylde has itself argued that, whether the recreational needs of the community are met via services provided directly by Council staff, or through a contractor they employ, or by a trust, or by volunteers, is largely immaterial. The Council says its role is to secure provision of the services deemed necessary.

Clearly, successive councils have deemed both Lowther Gardens and the Pavilion to be necessary for decades, and they are no less necessary or important today simply because the present Council will be delivering them via a charitable trust in future. - In short, the need for the service has not diminished one iota because the method of delivering it has.

So Fylde's responsibility to meet the cost is as it has always been, nothing has changed.

What was that we said about about clear thinking and good judgment?

But there is another aspect that is yet to play out, and that is a possible legal challenge which a friend of counterbalance has advised objectors about. It may come to nothing of course, legal matters often rest on interpretation of fine technical legal points, but at the present time it looks as though it could prevent the decision being implemented. We hope it will succeed.

Another thing that is yet to be made public is whether, and to what extent, the Highway Authority (Lancashire County Council) has been asked to look into providing yellow lines all around the Lowther Gardens. Like the Clifton Hospital yellow line debacle earlier this year, yellow lines around Lowther gardens will greatly inconvenience local property owners.

In some ways, even more worrying than all of this, is the third part of Cllr Renwick's decision that was slipped in almost unnoticed. "That the appropriate Business Manager/Managers be requested to prepare a Business Plan for Lowther Gardens in the context of its trust status at the earliest opportunity"

What you see here is the start of a plan to effectively stop meeting the cost of Lowther Gardens from your Council Tax. 

The Commissar is making such a mess of the money, that now, he and his supporters claim they can't afford to look after the gardens. When he can't even be trusted to cut the grass, what can you trust him with? 

You can hear more about the issue if you attend the Reception Room at the Town Hall on Tuesday 31st July, at 6:30pm where the call-in debate will be held. counterbalance will be there amongst the throng to see the New Democracy in action, and we'll bring you another report after the meeting. We think it will be worth checking the Council's website as the location date or time could well move from the Town Hall at the last minute. We think they have grossly underestimated the number of folk that are going to turn up to listen.

Finally, for the moment at least, the comments from Cllr (Aunt Sally) Renwick, seem to have been diminishing in confidence as time has passed. (Note the case of the changing personal pronoun here). What began firmly as "a decision I have made", developed into "the reason we are doing this" which then became "The Council simply cannot afford"

Pretty soon we think you can expect to see something like "They made this decision" appearing in print. 

Not that we accuse Cllr Renwick of consciously making these changes, its just that as your confidence diminishes, distancing yourself from responsibility for the decision is almost completely subconscious and very natural. He will almost certainly experience a growing sense of unease as the opposition mounts, hence changes to the language used.

Keep watching, there is more to come.

Dated: 27 July 2007


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