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And There's More

And There's MoreAlthough the first part of this article may not hold your attention as easily as some we offer, it is worth reading through to the end. A fundamental question that will affect Fylde Council well into the future is about to arise.

Following our previous article (Asset Mis-Selling?), Councillor Mrs Karen Buckley contacted us to say she thought we had misrepresented her.

We had said our informants told us the vote to refer the hostel decision back to the Cabinet had been lost 7-0 and two people (Cllr Mrs Buckley included) had abstained in that vote. She told us this was wrong.

She said she had proposed the decision be called in, and the vote to do so was unanimous. She went on to say she didn't agree with a lot of what counterbalance says, but she recognised we are at liberty to promote our own opinions. We reciprocate, and would absolutely defend her right to her own opinions, (however misguided they might be).  But, she said, when it comes to what she saw as blatant misrepresentation of her actions, she had to take issue and  would welcome a correction to our article.

counterbalance takes such complaints seriously, and this is the second time Mrs Buckley has felt cause to complain about the same sort of problem to us.

We readily accept that the administration's (in our view) wholly unnecessary attempt to keep the land value a secret - even after the price has been agreed, and even after a grant of the same sum has been agreed - resulted in counterbalance (and the public generally) being excluded from hearing the debate first hand, so we were unable to comment with our usual cogency.

When the public are excluded, democracy is not well served, and we have to rely on others who were there to find out what went on. We made it clear we were reporting the views of others to whom we had spoken.

In this case, two sources provided information to us, and it is our accepted practice to rely on a story that has been independently corroborated.

Readers will know the opinions we express are personal and woven into the story, but factual accuracy is very important to us and we do our best to allow our readers to distinguish fact from our opinion. We take factual criticism very seriously and will always correct it where it is shown to be wrong.

So after Cllr Mrs Buckley's complaint we made further enquiries.

Including her, we have now spoken to, or heard from, seven people who were at the meeting that heard Councillor Hayhurst argue the Cabinet's decision to dispose of the Heeley Road land should be Called-In.

We asked each of them for their recollection of the votes and results. The most prevalent comment made to us about the process was it was all so confusing and there was so much going on at once, it was difficult to remember the exact detail leading up to the final decision to refer it to Council.

Two of the councillors we spoke to each believed they had proposed the motion to refer the Cabinet's decision to Council.

Most said they could not recall any details of the vote on the reference back to Cabinet (or even if there was such a vote) but one we spoke to did say they thought there had been a preliminary vote to call the matter in, and this measure had been proposed by Cllr Mrs Buckley and supported unanimously.

Even the Council's own minute of the matter is vague. The official minute says:


"The committee had before it a properly made request, in accordance with the constitution, to recover a decision which had originally been made by Cabinet.

The Cabinet decision related to a report regarding the proposed disposal of land at Heeley Road St, and was made as follows:

"RESOLVED: That the Cabinet agrees to the disposal of 0.177 hectares of land at Heeley Road St Annes (former CVMU site) shown for identification purposes on the plan attached to the report on the terms outlined at "full market consideration" and the Cabinet agrees to the same amount being released from retained section 106 monies to facilitate the purchase."

In reaching their conclusion whether to call-in the decision the committee considered and discussed the following contributions to the debate:

  • The arguments in favour of the call-in put by Cllr Paul Hayhurst which related to the Council obtaining best value from the sale of assets by means of competitive tendering.


  • The statement by Cllr Rigby, Portfolio Holder for Finance and Efficiency, that the Cabinet would be willing to reconsider the matter subsequent to officers of the council revisiting the details of the valuations.


  • The information provided by Cllr Fieldhouse, Portfolio Holder for Community and Social Wellbeing regarding the proposed financial investment in the scheme by Muir Housing.


  • Alternative proposals made by Cllrs Eastham and Nulty regarding the valuations and the use and amount of commuted sums.


  • Statements made by Paul Walker, Executive Manager for Strategic Planning and Development, and Clare Platt, Executive Manager for Consumer Wellbeing and Protection to clarify certain elements of the background to, and history of, the proposal.

The committee questioned all parties to the debate before reaching their decision. Councillor Buckley then proposed that the matter should be called in, which proposal was seconded and the issues moved to a vote to provide resolutions as follows:

RESOLVED

1 That the decision should be called-in.

2 That it should be referred to full Council for consideration.

3 That Council should give consideration to referring the matter back to Cabinet with a recommendation that the asset should be disposed of by competitive tender."


We want to get the position as clear as possible for our readers (and for Mrs Buckley's reputation), but it is proving impossible. The minute recording the decision is one of the sloppiest pieces of public administration we have ever seen from a professional officer. It stands apart from the much better narrative, and this makes us wonder if the wording of the decision was actually the wording of choice for the officer concerned. (And before we get another complaint, we're not suggesting here that Councillor Mrs Buckley unduly influenced the minute)

You'll see that according to the official minute, we are told Mrs Buckley proposed the decision be called-in. (so far so good, but now it goes downhill)

The seconder of this proposition remains unidentified.

There is no record of who moved which, (or all?) of the propositions that became the resolution. We are told merely that "the issues moved to a vote to provide resolutions as follows"

This statement is incompetent balderdash on the part of the author.

'Issues' cannot move to a vote! Votes to record a decision follow a specific set of words that have been proposed and seconded by people, and it is important for democracy that we have that information in the public domain so we can hold those who represent us to account for their decisions at elections.

Whether intentionally or otherwise, the tone and the content of the minute invite the reader to draw the inference that Councillor Mrs Buckley proposed: 1). the call in; 2). the reference to the full Council, and 3). the recommendation to dispose by competitive tender.

But in the vote to refer it to Council at least, we know Councillor Buckley voted against, so she is hardly likely to have made such a proposition. (Voting for the reference to full Council were Cllrs: Barbara Pagett; Maxine Chew; Howard Henshaw; Bill Thompson, and Thomas Threlfall. Those voting against reference to Council were Cllrs: Karen Buckley; Dawn Prestwich; John Prestwich, and Fabian Craig Wilson).

Even Cllr Mrs Buckley's blog is unclear about the detail of the process. She says she supported a referral straight to Cabinet, but this resulted in the matter being referred to full Council.

So what can we make of this situation?

Well, you can see what Cllr Mrs Buckley makes of it here on her blog.

We think the Scrutiny Committee had three options available: 1). do nothing; 2). refer the matter back to Cabinet, or 3). refer the matter on to full Council.

As the profile of this matter has become raised, it seems to us that Politburo Cabinet members have realised they risked censure for poor valuations, improper implementation of their own contracting rules and contravention of EU legislation. So we believe the machine went into damage limitation mode.

Cllr Paul Rigby (who was defending the Politburo Cabinet's decision at Scrutiny Committee) began the damage limitation exercise when he accepted something was wrong and said he thought it should be referred back to the Cabinet for another look at the valuations. (Note he does not seem to have been speaking about selling the site on competitive tender here, and this is the primary issue, because there is no need for valuations if the land is sold by tender)

At some point in the meeting, perhaps after Cllr Rigby had spoken, Councillor Mrs Buckley proposed the decision should be called in (which means that they would not let it stand as it was). A vote on this was taken and carried unanimously. The effect of this was that the 'do nothing' option fell off the table at that point.

To the extent that this vote was not reported in our previous article - and our report was thus incomplete - we apologise to Cllr Mrs Buckley

What is still not clear is whether there was then a vote to refer the matter back to Cabinet, and if so who voted which way on it. Clearly there was debate about the matter, and Councillor Mrs Buckley tells us she supported referring it back to the Cabinet.

But we have received completely conflicting views that cannot be reconciled, so whether there was a conclusive vote to refer it to the Cabinet must remain as unclear as the recollections of the majority of those we spoke to about it and as ambiguous as the official minute.

What is clear, is that the final vote to refer it to Council was as we reported, and this was the decision of the Scrutiny Committee.

So what can we draw from this?

Well, mostly this is all inconsequential stuff. Who said what, and when, is the stuff of the civic playground. The real issues here are the big ones.

The Cabinet system - as we have said repeatedly - concentrates power into too few hands. It fails to draw on the depth and breadth of knowledge available in the fifty-one members of the full Council.

It is making bad decisions either because of inexperience, or because they are borne of the arrogance that comes from power without proper accountability.

It is inconceivable that the full Council would have allowed their own Standing Orders (which require land to be sold by tender) to be disregarded or by-passed

The Council used to be the body that held the administration to account, but that job is now the responsibility of the Scrutiny Committees - and Mrs Buckley's Committee is the one charged with scrutinising the work of the Cabinet. As the chair of that Committee she takes responsibility for its proceedings.

If she was concerned about the decision the Cabinet had made, why did she not institute the call-in process herself as Chairman of the Committee charged with holding the Cabinet to account?

Why did she not previously challenge the Cabinet on its failure to comply with the Council's own contract procedures when its Standing Orders require the Council's land to be sold by tender following public advertisement.

When the secret report admitted there had been no competition involved in the disposal process why did this watchdog not bark, loudly?

When the officer's advice in the same report says of the EU subsidy and competition rules "...The subsidy that would be given to the Muir Housing Group by disposing the land appears to fall outside the definition, so the rules would not appear to be infringed." Does she not recognise that a professional officer giving such weak advice is obviously unsure of their ground. Either EU rules have been infringed or they have not. "Appearing" to do so is simply not good enough and this position should have been challenged.

Although superficially this may seem like a personal attack on Cllr Mrs Buckley it is not intended to be that at all. It is an attack on a system in which she is merely a compliant, if slightly larger than average, cog. A system that does not ensure those in charge of day to day activity and direction have the experience to understand what to look for and how to read between the lines of an officer's report.

It is the same situation that got us into the terrible financial mess last year, when a finance report spoke of borrowing staff from other Councils to implement the new Civica computer system, then taking on "agency accountants" as an emergency measure when the borrowed staff were withdrawn. To an experienced eye, this is the equivalent of a big red button marked 'PANIC' sitting in the middle of a report to the Cabinet. Nothing was done about that and we ended up with no bank reconciliations between April and December 2007, and no proper budget monitoring for the same period. That year produced what is probably Fylde's biggest ever deficit of £1.12 million that mostly drained the special reserves and quite possibly was the inspiration for the plan to drain the swimming pool as well.

But even these matters pale beside an issue that is looming for Monday.

We understand (and the early sign of it is in the wording of the minute) that the meeting of the full Council will be told on Monday that they will not be allowed to determine the matter themselves.

We expect Council to be told they can only make a recommendation and pass the matter back to the Cabinet who will take the final decision.

This is a simply appalling state of affairs.

We elect our Councillors to represent us. But now, what should be their collective voice, the full assembly, the supreme decision making body, is about to be told it is toothless, and it may not override the decision of the Cabinet.

Someone recently posed the following question to counterbalance

"When did Fylde borough change from being the people's representative and enabler to, in most people's opinion, the enemy? The people stopping things happening, the people damaging the very town we want them to represent? Is this right? Is this what a council should be? "

We have sympathy with that view.

The answer is that it started when Fylde changed from the Council and Committee system to the 'Streamlined Committee' system before adopting the 'Executive Committee' system and most recently moving to the 'Cabinet' system.

It got worse when former Chief Executive Ken Lee brainwashed inexperienced new councillors into delusions of grandeur that they were a 'big time' function-follows-policy council when in fact they had been (and were still expected to be by most residents) an oversized Parish Council working from common sense exercising the will of the people rather than party political policy and dogma. It was a good, respected council where policy was constrained by affordability and practicality.

The decline was compounded when Fylde - for all its pretence at 'listening' to the local community - stopped taking notice of its electorate and started to focus more on doing Central Government's bidding in order to get a better score under their ridiculous 'one size fits every local authority in the country Comprehensive Performance Assessment' scheme

And it will be made complete if the Council suffers the final indignity and allows its own emasculation on Monday.

We hope it will not, and that it will stand firm as THE ultimate decision making body governing Fylde.

Dated:  25 July 2008 


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