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A Shambles

A ShamblesA shambles.

That's the only way to describe the conduct of Monday night's meeting of Fylde Council.

When the present Mayor took office as the Commissar's nominee, he surprised many when he said he intended to run a tight and fair ship, ensuring equal treatment for all councillors irrespective of party. But last night, just like the MS Explorer in the Antarctic, his ship sank, in bitter circumstances.

As a person, the Mayor is a nice, gentle man. Wouldn't hurt a fly. Polite, exceptionally courteous and well intentioned. But the meeting he chaired last Monday night was simply an awful embarrassment. Procedural gaffes were rife. Movers of motions were called to propose them after their issues had already been dealt with. A member of the public who had submitted a written question was so disgusted with the procedure, they stood up, said so, and walked out. An inexperienced Councillor trying to second a motion was cut short, then re-invited to make their speech to wind up the debate. An amendment negating a motion was accepted, voted on and passed.

The atmosphere was one of complete administrative incompetence. Anyone at Fylde with an understanding of how things should be done must have come away with a heavy heart.

So what caused it, why is it like this?

Well, there are several causes. Not least is the polarised opposition that arises because the ruling group chooses to allow party politics to drive their direction and decisions. Previously, direction was set by the needs of the electorate (although no doubt those in power would argue the two are the same thing). Their conscious decision to avoid consensus generates Ya-Boo behaviour that credits neither side, and only makes for fractious meetings.

Then there is the spin and information management. The ruling party complies with the minimum legally necessary, but insults would-be non-party colleagues by failing to be open and transparent. 'Getting one over' on those outside your gang seems to be a prized by-product, if not the actual aim of much of what is done.

Fylde Council is become a war zone.

And in charge of this poisonous mix you put someone who is a nice man, but who is singly unable to manage the combatants or even to feel at home with the process he should be using to do so.

In former years, we have seen Mayors who have had strokes continue in office with the help, support and understanding of their colleagues (they would avoid placing the Mayor in a position of difficulty), but the atmosphere is now so poisoned it's difficult to ever imagine it happened. You get the feeling that anyone showing concern would be regarded as weak and verbally beaten up, just because they let their guard down.

But there is another reason, and it is to do with the change of the Council's operating system. The abandonment of the Committee and Full Council decision-making process, and the introduction of this detestable Politburo Cabinet system means there is hardly anywhere for new Councillors to learn the ropes. Most don't get a grasp of procedure or practice because decisions are concentrated into so few hands. They don't get the discipline and understanding of working within a formal committee structure. So when the Council meeting comes along, like a child without fixed bedtime, they know no structure, no parameters, and engage in warfare.

It really is a sorry sight.

So did anything get done last Monday night?......

Well yes. In "Questions from the public" one person had asked about the cost of the town hall project, saying he thought it would cost anywhere up to 10 million and there would be a shortfall from things they were going to sell, and wouldn't it be sensible to review the situation. That Nice Paul Rigsby answered, saying the cost should be met by the sale of surplus assets, but it depended on the buoyancy of the market when they were actually sold. This said nothing really.

Another person asked about the Central Lancashire and Blackpool Growth Point Bid, (see Plans to Expand ) asking when the Council first heard about it, why it hadn't been reported to the full Council, and how come the bid itself said it had been approved by Fylde even before they had discussed it. Roger Small answered saying they first heard on 15th October, and it went to cabinet because officers wanted an urgent in-principle decision. We didn't hear him explain how Fylde had approved it before they saw it, but perhaps there was no answer to that.

Then came the first of six "Notices of Motion" - this is where a Councillor can propose something, and the Mayor decides whether to allow it to be debated there and then, or not.

The first was from Cllr Simon Renwick and about post office closures. His proposition noted various appalling results of the closure programme and called on Government to do several things including allowing sub-postmasters to offer a wider range of businesses, pushing for post offices to become one-stop-shops with staff able to advise on tax returns, pension entitlements, and to open "Council Counters" amongst other things.

Once the proposition was duly seconded, the Mayor said he would allow debate at the meeting.

Some of these propositions are like motherhood and apple pie. No-one in their right mind would speak against them, and you begin to wonder why this is on the agenda when everyone is speaking in support of the principles underlying it. The cynic might say it is so that the Councillor (whose name is recorded as having championed it) gets lauded in the press for being such a good egg.

However, there was some dissent about the wording, and in the end, Queen Elizabeth Oades of Kirkham said like everyone else she fully supported the principle, but she thought the conditions set by the motion were unworkable and the proposition could be improved simply by changing them to something like "we abhor the idea of all post office closures in Fylde".

This was quite a cunning move, because it meant that she had stolen the initiative. Amendments are always voted on before the main proposition.

With the credit for the move slipping from his grasp, a valiant attempt was made to salvage his proposition was made by Cllr Renwick, and he said he was prepared to accept that modification to his proposal. And procedurally, that's probably what should have happened.

However as we have seen earlier, proper procedure was conspicuously absent, and the Mayor called for a vote on the amendment.

Of course, no-one (other than Cllr Renwick - and he more or less had to, as the proposer of the original motion) voted against the idea of abhorring the closure of all post offices in Fylde. So when the next election comes round you'll see the claim that Queen Elizabeth is the salvation of the postmasters, and Cllr Renwick voted against them.

"As ye live by the sword, so shall ye die".

Just as an aside here, we understand there is no point in the move anyway. Article 88 of the EU's Treaty of Amsterdam 1997 obliged the UK Government to get permission from the EU Commission in order to give what is called 'State Aid' to the post office. ('State Aid' is what sensible people would know better as funding public services). After a lot of argument, in 2003, we were allowed to continue to give 'state aid' up to a maximum of £150 million for 3 years. Then, because our Government agreed to axe 3,000 sub post offices to meet the EU competition rules, they were given leave to extend the 'state aid' from April 2006 to March 2008. So, just as Edward Heath was a traitor to this country and sold the birthright of our fishermen to have exclusive access to our own territorial waters, successive Governments have paid too high a price as they have given away more and more of our institutions - most recently the Post Office - to commerce.

Anyway, back to the plot. After the post office debate, we had a curious event. Before the two next motions (which were also from motherhood and apple pie motions from the Conservative camp), Police Inspector Darwen was invited to give what was to have been a talk on anti-social behaviour, but what turned into a general "Crime is 20% down and aren't we doing well" talk. We'll move on to what he covered in a moment, but by whizzing him up the agenda to here, the Mayor completely took the wind out of the sails of Cllr Pat Fieldhouse and Dawn Prestwich (the Mayor's wife) who had put down the motherhood and apple pie motions about needing more policemen in the town centres on Friday and Saturday evenings, and more action to curb under age sales of alcohol and tobacco.

So when Inspector Darwen had finished, there was nothing left to debate. He had covered all their points. Both movers of their motions said as much, and that there wasn't any point in moving them, yet the Mayor went through the charade of asking them to propose them, and took a vote on them, even though there was no point in doing so.

We couldn't figure out what this was about. It looked as though someone (whether officers or the Commissar is unclear) didn't want the police to have to answer awkward questions, so the Mayor was persuaded to let Inspector Darwen answer them in his own way before they were asked. It was all very confusing and no-one appeared to know what they were voting for.

Hearing what the Inspector said, we were saddened. We heard the good news that crime is down 20% on last year, but that St Anne's Town Centre accounts for 25% of all Fylde's crime. (You'd think it might be a good idea to keep the St Anne's Police Station open then wouldn't it?). We also head about the extra powers that were about to be given to (what Inspector Darwen described as) - the much maligned - Police Community Support Officers (aka "Blunkets Bobbies", aka "The Plastic Policemen")

Even the things they will be able to do in future were nowhere near what you would expect of a proper policeman, and hearing the list made you realise just how much less they had been able to do when they were appointed.

The policing picture that came over to us was the same misguided direction highlighted in the Peter Hitchens' book - that of the modern police as paramilitary social workers, dealing with nuisance and behaviour rather than crime. Focusing on politically correct and social issues. Bemoaning the lack of 'distraction activity' for disconnected young people and praising PCSOs for getting involved in helping to provide positive activity for young people. Feeling sorry for the victims of society and blaming society for not providing enough help and encouragement.

But the real corker came with the bicycles.

He said Bicycles were "a major issue" in the police. He said "The cost is prohibitive for the Police to provide bicycles, and we look to our partners to provide things like that"

Yes, he really did say that.

He went on to explain that it wasn't just the cost of the bicycles themselves, but the equipment they had to obtain and wear in order to comply with health and safety regulations and....... wait for it........... the need to pass a cycling proficiency test before policemen are allowed out on a bicycle.

It was difficult no to collapse in fits of laughter. Here we have policemen or PCSO's who can go into schools to tell children about road safety and bicycles, but they're not allowed to ride one themselves until they've passed a proficiency test.

It was utterly unbelievable.

Topped only by someone who told us afterwards that St Anne's Town Council was buying six bicycles for Fylde police to use (and presumably the health and safety kit and the training) to equip the officers with bikes.

As one Councillor put it to Inspector Darwen, you seem to have enough to buy and run a helicopter, but not enough to get a bike.........

Now don't get us wrong here, there are excellent individual officers up and down the country who know and remember how to do a proper job. There are officers higher up the tree that also know both the difference between right and wrong, and more importantly, where their focus should be. You've heard us praise Deputy Chief Constable Mike Cunningham before in these columns as being a proper policeman. Sadly, like Local Government, there is too much Government control of the police these days. They are set targets and given the priorities of Government, not the local community. They are Churchill's "Lions led by donkeys" As the presentation by Inspector Darwen so ably illustrated.

After this fiasco, we moved on to the more meaty and controversial notices of motion, and first Councillor Eastham's notice about concern at the plans and costs for the new Town Hall (we'll have more to say on this in the near future).

Having had the motion proposed and seconded by Cllr John Davies (who spoke well and in measured, sensible tones), the Mayor announced that his view that this would be best not debated tonight, but would be referred to another meeting. This decision was accompanied by loud groans from everywhere except the Conservative seats.

Next was Cllr Elaine Silverwood's motion that the Council should consider the apparent inequalities in funding the Christmas illuminations in all parts of the Borough. This too got batted into the long grass of another meeting by the Mayor and was met with equally loud groans of displeasure.  We'll cover this in the future.

You sort-of felt he had been told what so say before arriving at the meeting.

The came Queen Elizabeth's motion which was about the Commissar's latest wheeze to transfer 200 of his 350 staff onto Wyre's payroll (see Wylde Fyreworks? ).

She said that Fylde BC should not transfer responsibility for the delivery of any service to any joint arrangements etc without it being considered and discussed by the full Council, with clear and comprehensive details about costs being provided. She also addressed the issue of loss of sovereignty that would arise. (We think this was more from the Council's perspective that her own regal progression :-)).

Fully expecting this also to be batted into the Mayors long grass we were once again surprised (though the Conservatives didn't seem so surprised) to hear him say he would allow debate on it there and then.

Queen Elizabeth put a measured but strong case; principally she was concerned that so much progress was being made that was hidden from councillors like her to whom copies of agendas and notices of the meetings had not been sent. She was supported by Cllr Linda Nulty.

The debate opened, and Paul (The Mauler) Hayhurst was on his feet straight away, waving a copy of the Gazette quoting the Commissar saying in effect amalgamation with Blackpool was the only way forward. Hayhust said the people of Fylde would never agree to such a merger, and it was a disgrace that one man could advocate a Unitary Authority for Fylde which would sacrifice towns and villages to Blackpool - "the sick man of Lancashire." as he called it.

He demanded to know why Fylde's taxpayers should have to meet the cost of fixing Blackpool.

The Commissar spoke next, launching into a Thatcher/Blairite tirade of references to previous resolutions which - like Blair and the weapons of mass destruction - he claimed gave justification for what he had done and said. "These members opposite have been sleepwalking for the last four years" he said. "Loss of sovereignty is a red herring; each Council will hold the purse strings"

He went on to say (and this will be a familiar story to our readers by now, having heard it year after year), "we will have a budget deficit of £780,000 this year and £1.2 million next year. We're faced with unrealistic capping levels of 5%, (for which read "we really want a dramatic increase in the council Tax we levy") and if we don't do this we will probably end up with a Lancashire Unitary Authority.

Cllr John Davies said "Something as important as our future should not be delegated to a Cabinet"

Cllr Trevor Fiddler said "Fylde residents want things as they were, but life has changed and Councils are being suffocated by bureaucracy. We cannot save Fylde and Wyre, over 80% of their cost goes on salaries and pensions and Fylde and Wyre are bankrupt. The only way forward is a merger, but Council is sovereign and we must be allowed to debate these issues"

Cllr Maxine Chew said she didn't have so much of a problem with Wyre, many of her electorate lived on or about the border with Wyre, so it wouldn't make that much difference to her electorate, but she was very concerned about Blackpool, and asked the Commissar for an assurance that he was not contemplating, and did not support, a merger with Blackpool to form the City of the Fylde.

Clearly rattled by now, and accusing Paul Hayhurst of setting him up to be ambushed by the Gazette, the Commissar responded with "If you're asking would I support a City of the Fylde, You're darn right I would so as to avoid getting a Unitary Lancashire". He went on: "Do you want a Unitary Lancashire or the City of the Fylde, that's the real question. That's what this is all about. Several Lancashire authorities are trying to get a unitary Lancashire and it has to be stopped."

So there you have it gentle reader.

The Commissar's logic for supporting the City of the Fylde is that East Lancashire is a deprived area, and wealthy Boroughs like Fylde tend to contribute more into Lancashire than we get out. The Commissar's view is that it would be cheaper for us to help pay for the regeneration of Blackpool by throwing our lot in with them, and leaving East Lancs. to sort itself out.

He never could see any further than his wallet.

He has no understanding of the beliefs, attitudes and values that separate the culture of the two towns.

Like a Barbarian's whore, he's only interested in the money, and even then he makes a spectacular mess of running our money anyway. The sooner he is gone, the better for Fylde.

At this point, he moved an amendment to Queen Elizabeth's motion. It was seconded by someone who should have more sense, Cllr Roger Small, and said: "That the Council re-affirms its commitment to a) joint working with neighbouring councils as set out in the Council minutes of 26th March 2007 and b) the existing 'decision making framework' adopted by the council in 2006, which allocates decision making responsibility at the most appropriate level whilst leaving the full Council to operate at the higher strategic policy level"

In crude terms, this fine wording means a) we're going to carry on regardless with the Wyre and Blackpool schemes and b) We have no intention whatsoever of bringing this for the full Council to debate until its far too late to make any changes.

In very crude terms it simply says "Stuff you!"

The Mayor asked for the amendment to be written down, and we thought that for the first time he had a handle on what was going on.

We fully expected him to read it then say, I'm sorry I can't accept this amendment, it does not amend the motion, it negates it and is in fact a counter motion which is not allowed. If you want to oppose Cllr Oades' motion you must vote against it.

But he didn't, and he began to call a vote on the amendment, at which point another member of the public stood up, apologised for disrupting the meeting, and pointed out the procedural irregularity of the Mayor accepting a counter-motion as an amendment, before he too walked out of the meeting.

This brought about some hesitation in the proceedings, whilst the Mayor, Deputy Chief Executive and Solicitor conferred whether the amendment was acceptable.

They decided it was, and business proceeded to the vote which (following a solid display of Conservative arms) was for the amendment.

This means it became the new motion (technically the Substantive motion), and was thus itself, open to amendment. None was made, so it was voted on, and again the forest of Conservative arms ensured it was passed.

So as far as the Commissar and his friends are concerned, it's a done deal. Everyone can go home happy.

Except.

Somewhere around half of Fylde Council is very uneasy about the arrangements being entering into with Wyre, and know almost nothing of them.

If you were Wyre, and about to commit yourself to a payroll increase of 200 staff - whose overall cost you expect to be paid into your Wyre bank account by Fylde - and you knew that half of Fylde were not happy about the plan and could withdraw from it at a year or so's notice, leaving you as Wyre with the legal responsibility to pay the costs of those staff or their redundancy, how happy would you be to sign on the dotted line to take them on in the first place?

Secondly, and perhaps a bit more interestingly, the fat lady hasn't sung on the issue of the validity of the amendment that was "passed"

We understand that if a Council passes a resolution which it is outside its powers (the technical name for this is acting Ultra Vires), then a Court has the power to set aside that resolution as though the decision had not been made. We understand this is being looked into at present. We also understand that a call-in procedure on the resolution is being initiated by Queen Elizabeth Oades of Kirkham.

We will keep our readers in the picture as the story unfolds.

There was one other interesting - and we thought, telling - little set-piece in the remaining part of the meeting. Councillor Fabian Craig-Wilson was removed as Chair of the Policy and Service Review Scrutiny Committee, and Councillor Karen Buckley was installed in her place.

Councillor Buckley is a rising star, and we will need to keep an eye on her progress. One of our readers at the meeting told us that before she prepared to speak she had paid particular attention to pulling a close fitting sweater down tightly, and he found such personal care in her presentation eminently commendable. We have to say in all honesty that we hadn't noticed this, but she obviously made a big impression on our reader.

If you remember, Cllr Wilson chaired the call-in meeting for the implementation of charges for parking at Lowther Gardens (see Call-in For Lowther Parking Fees) and the withdrawal of the swimming bus. Both she and the Mayor abstained in the vote, so the Conservative majority to oppose the 'call-in' was two votes less than it might otherwise have been.

And the Commissar was at the meeting, watching.

Readers will remember we noted at the time that he was there to make sure none of them stepped out of line in the vote.

We understand (not from Cllr Wilson, who would not have told us, but from a friend she did tell) that it had not been her desire to relinquish the chairmanship.

In other words the Commissar's iron fist has been out of the velvet glove, and she has been sacked as Chairman for failing to toe the party line.

The Commissar brooks no dissent from his voting fodder.

If Cllr Mrs Wilson had been a bit more demonstrative in her reaction, she too might have been elevated to Sainthood - just like Saint Barbara Pagett was when she was also got rid of for not following orders.

One other item of note on this agenda was "Members Allowances" - that's how much the should Councillors 'pay' themselves. We'll cover this in a future piece. Suffice to say at the present that the Commissar plans to increase his own pay by 50% (yes, that was fifty, not five).

Mind you, at £9,000 a year, his pay is hardly a fleabite when he's happy to waste £200,000 on aborted studies for the Town Hall project, £5 million and probably more on the new office block and all the rest of the mountain of wasted money that trails in his wake (Including the sort of staff time-wasting that was reported to this meeting by a Councillor who was told that an officer couldn't attend to his enquiry because he was busy undertaking a risk assessment on the wearing the mayoral chain of office).

Even Adam Applegarth of Northern Rock had the decency to go when he turned in a big loss. With the Commissar projecting a loss for this year of £780,000 and £1.2 million for next year, you'd really expect him to go rather than double his pay.

Dated: 29 November 2007 


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