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Losing Ground

Losing GroundWhen the Council Tax bills start dropping on doormats this week and next, there will be some people who are not very gruntled at all.

There is a new charge to be paid if you live in Lytham, St Anne's or Kirkham, and if you live in one of the other parished areas in Fylde, you will see a huge increase from your parish council.

This is because the administration at Fylde Council has thrown in the towel and decided to abandon the concept of Fylde as a local government entity for practical purposes - at least so far as parks and open spaces are concerned.

Residents in Lytham St Anne's and Kirkham will see a new charge that is either £63 or £66 as an extra line called Open Spaces Maintenance.

Outside these areas, residents will see their Parish Precept go from typically £5 or £10, to £30 or even £70.

So what's going on?

The answer, as we have been warning readers for a long time, is that Commissar John Coombes has found a way to by-pass the Government's capping limit, and this year, he has bribed many of the Parish Councils to help him do it.

Fylde's Deputy Chief Executive David Joy has previously said in public that the whole point of what was formerly called 'Equitable Taxation?' then renamed 'Differential Taxation' (and has now had something called 'Special Expenses' added into the mix), *is* the avoidance of Government capping limits.

Of course, the Commissar wouldn't dare tell us that's what he is up to, so he has hidden the increase as best he can, and spun a new reason.

He got Paul ("I know all about shit") Rigby to say this is a fairer way to charge for looking after parks and open spaces throughout Fylde.

We're fairly well up on these new taxes here at counterbalance. We have been complaining to Fylde's external auditors about the plans for more than three years as they have unfolded in various versions.

Together with Paul (the Mauler) Hayhurst who ploughs his own, separate, furrow on this matter, we have scotched various aspects of them, and they have not been implemented until now.

We have had visits from the Council's auditors who have even had to go to the national Audit Commission in London to find definitive answers. So we're quite confident of our position.

We provided Fylde Council's new temporary finance man with information that probably avoided the Council setting a technically unlawful budget for this year, (although we suspect he might deny that we helped).

We are currently preparing to make a further challenge to the basis of this con-trick charge, and we'll keep you in the picture as that unfolds.

But what everyone will want to know first is: what's it all about?

Well, it's like this.....

When Fylde was formed by merging Lytham St Anne's and Fylde Rural District councils in 1974, Government initially said open spaces that were in the ownership of parish councils would have to transfer into the ownership of the new Fylde Council.

Readers will easily imagine that throughout England, parish councils were up in arms at the idea of having to hand over the deeds of land they owned to these artificial new Councils.

Government relented under pressure at the last minute, and parishes were allowed to keep their own land.

A tricky situation then developed in Fylde. Most Parish Councils hung on to what they owned, but Kirkham decided to pass the land over to the new Council.

So Fylde inherited the deeds for land from the three urban areas, Lytham, St Anne's and Kirkham, but not the rest of its area.

For a while, things went along like this. Parishes such as Wrea Green raised their own tax (on their own residents) for looking after parks and open spaces in Wrea Green, and the charge for looking after say, the Promenade Gardens or Lytham Green, was levied by Fylde Council.

Fylde's charge was spread over all Fylde taxpayers, including the parished areas.

The 'problem' with this, is that parishes claimed they were paying twice. Once for 'their own' parks and open spaces, and again for the ones that Fylde Council was looking after.

In some ways (although we don't agree completely) you can see the logic of this claim.

Heated arguments developed between Fylde and the Parish Councils, not unlike the experience of civil (or even uncivil) war.

Eventually a compromise was reached, and it was agreed that Fylde would raise the money to look after all parks and open spaces in the whole of the borough, but it would 'subcontract' the maintenance of the parks and open spaces in parish areas 'back' to the respective parish council.

In practice, FBC would raise the tax, and then hand over a grant to each parish that would cover the cost of looking after the parks and open spaces in each parish area. This was known as the "Open Spaces Grant" and it worked well from 1975/76 for around 30 years.

The effect was that everyone in Fylde equally shared the cost of looking after all the parks and open spaces. Anyone in St Anne's could use a roundabout in Freckleton, just as anyone in Freckleton could use the swings in Ashton Gardens, all confident they were bearing an equal share of the cost.

But there was another good reason to do it this way.

As you will see from the Council Tax leaflet when it arrives with your Tax Demand, (well, you will if you get a calculator out), Fylde's net spending for 2008/09 is £10.626 million.

Of this, Fylde will raise £5.026 million in Council tax. This is 47.2% of its spending

The remainder (which adds up to £5.600 million) comes from Government, partly as 'Revenue Support Grant', and partly as 'National Non-Domestic Rates'. This government grant money is 52.8% of what Fylde spends.

Parish Councils are not eligible for these Government grants. They have to raise all their spending from taxing their residents.

Our readers (who are no fools) will see straight away, that if Fylde Council spends £1.00 it only costs resident taxpayers 47p, but if a parish spends £1.00 it costs parish residents £1.00 (which is just over twice as much).

To us, that was a pretty good reason to keep things as they were.

But that was before the Government imposed a cap on what Fylde could spend.

All the signs are that if he was allowed, the Commisar and his acolytes would probably be even worse than the infamous Degsy Hatton of Liverpool, who simply kept increasing the Council tax to cover his profligacy and bad spending decisions.

Our Commissar would dearly like to increase Council tax steeply. He keeps testing the water to see if we would wear it, but Government keeps slapping him down.

They know as well as we do how the Commissar's legendary financial incompetence would be a disaster if it was let loose on the area, so they keep the cap on tight and say "nothing more than 5% overall."

But, the Commissar has had hours of staff time spent trying to find a way round the cap - and this year, he's trying it on.

He knows that the Open Spaces Grant paid to Parishes for the last 30 years counts as spending by the Borough Council, so it's within his capping limit. (He knows this because we had it clarified by the Audit Commission for him)

So he's been trying to find a way to persuade Parish Councils to go back to the old way of doing things, and charge locally for the parks and open spaces in their areas.

He knows that if he could do this, THEIR spending won't be included in his capping limit, and it would leave him able to spend more himself before he hits the Government's capping ceiling.

So how has he managed to con them into it this year?

Well, he had to make it worth their while, so somewhere outside the published financial information, he has come up with a figure that he can reduce the Borough Council's charge to them if they play ball with him. This equates to a reduction of £43.90 per Band D property across Fylde.

For the most part, this is less than the 'average' the Parish Councils think they will need to charge if they raised the money themselves, so most (though not all) of them will appear to see an overall saving from implementing the scheme.

It's not true of course, because what they have forgotten is that they have to tax £1.00 to spend £1.00 whereas FBC only needs to tax 47p to spend £1.00.

The other thing they have forgotten is that seceding from the former scheme, and going it alone, will probably mean they will be expected to find all their own money for replacement equipment. These days, even a small piece of playground equipment with safety surfacing installed to the relevant European standard might cost around £10,000 or £12,000. For the last 30 years, the Borough Council has been prepared to pay this cost, (or at least to provide an interest-free loan). But in future, it's likely parishes could be asked to find this themselves. If you're in Treales Roseacre or Wharles, and you only raise £1,200 a year for ALL your parish activities, it will take literally years to save up for a new set of swings.

But that's likely to be part of the price that Parish Councils have to pay for 'open-space independence' from FBC.

So OK, the overall tax in many parishes is dropping, because FBC is cutting its charge this year by £43.90.

Right. So we're all going to be better off then.

Wrong.

In Lytham and St Anne's and Kirkham, the Commissar is separating out the parks and open spaces there, and charging separately for the cost of them - using something called 'Special Expenses'

These will appear on your Council Tax demand as 'Open Spaces Maintenance' and in Lytham and St Anne's this charge will be around £63.88 whilst in Kirkham it will be £66.57.

Once again, our financially astute readers will have worked out that a charge of £66.38 less the FBC's reduction of £43.90 gives a difference of £19.98 - say twenty quid in round figures.

They will also see that something in the order of two thirds of Fylde's population is paying this extra £20 for absolutely no improvement in service.

In fact, in St Anne's, we're losing a swimming pool, we will lose the Tourist Information Centre, parking and other charges are going up, and "con artist Coombes" is nicking £20 from each of us with a band D house, so he can bribe parishes to levy their own charge.

The total tax charge by Fylde Council stays virtually the same at £5.062 million whether they implement Differential Taxation and Special Expenses or not (illustrating that they aren't reducing their charge to anyone now they have conned parishes into making their own charge).

But parish tax is going up from its £152,805 (if parishes had not implemented Differential Taxation), to £453,399 now that they are.

Overall, that's an increase of just over £300,000 extra tax being paid by residents of Fylde Borough.

You can see all of the calculations in 'glorious technicolour' on the spreadsheet extract we have prepared to expose the Commissar's 'smoke and mirrors' version of events. It is available as a pdf file here.

And the increase we're paying is for nothing.

This is classic financial incompetence (unless you're the Commissar of course, who thinks its a clever trick to get extra cash out of each of us to spend on his wrong-headed pet projects).

But in reality it's even worse.

In order to justify the Special Expenses charge that appears on your Council Tax bill as 'Open Spaces Maintenance' he has had to overturn a resolution from a proper Council meeting going back to january 2001.

That resolution was based on survey work done as part of the Tourism Action Plan (in the days when Fylde actually did something to support tourism). The surveys showed, over probably five years of study, that approximately 75% of people in Ashton Gardens, Lowther Gardens, Fairhaven Lake Gardens and St Anne's Promenade Gardens, classed themselves as visitors to the area. It may be they had come from Freckleton, or Elswick, as well as from Birmingham or Scotland, but it showed that these facilities were provided for, and used primarily by, visitors.

As such, they were not regarded as being the same as community parks and open spaces like King George V playing field on Heeley Road. So the cost of maintaining them was held to be chargeable over the whole of Fylde.

We can do no better than quote from the Policy and resources resolution at that time

"Facilities such as Lowther Gardens and Fairhaven Lake Gardens attract not only local residents but also residents from throughout the Borough and beyond because of the high standard of the gardens and the facilities provided there. Further, these facilities are undoubtedly attractions to visitors to the area and contribute to the local economy

13. RESOLVED: That expenditure on items in this category be declared General because:

- The facilities are provided for the benefit of all residents in the Borough

- The facilities are an attraction to visitors and as a consequence bring benefits for the borough as a whole not just the locality in which they are situated"

But the Conservative group's amendment at the disastrous Council Meeting on Monday 3rd March overturned this resolution.

Specifically It said: "That the resolutions of the former Policy and Resources Committee of 15 January 2001 relating to special expense (Minute 13) be rescinded in relation to categories (a) and (b) as set out in the minute so that items falling within those categories (parks gardens open spaces and games sites) will become the council's special expenses under section 35(2)(d) of the Local Government Finance Act 1992 and that the items of Special Expenses as listed in Paragraph 9.4 be approved"

and

"That the principle of differential taxation be agreed and the impact is set out in Table A of Appendix E"

This means that FBC now think of these facilities listed in (a) an (b) of the 2001 resolution are only for, and are therefore only chargeable over, residents, (not visitors from elsewhere in Fylde or further abroad).

This marks another milestone in the abandonment of tourism promotion by this administration.

The only other explanation is that they are dumping the idea of tourism promotion in 'the Fylde Countryside' and saying that only residents in Lytham and St Anne's benefit from tourism, so only they should pay for their upkeep.

There was no evidence provided to support either of these views of course.

In fact no evidence at all was offered to justify the Commissar's complete reversal in policy.

There could not be any justification of course.

It is arrant nonsense, as our readers will plainly see.

It is nothing more than a financial con-trick employed by a morally and intellectually (as well as near financially) bankrupt administration that would sell its granny to the devil if it could get a sixpence for her.

So it won't be any surprise for our readers to learn that before any amendments and questions on Differential Taxation and Special Expenses could be put by non-conservative councillors, the Commissar's so-called 'Conservative group' decided they had spent long enough in Council, and voted to end the meeting - even before these important matters could be discussed.

Steamrollered through with the 'closure motion' -  that was that.

For the second time in two articles, we find ourselves having to say the St Anne's Conservative Councillors should hang their heads in shame.

We, nevertheless, have some ongoing issues about the way this has been done and we do expect to take up the matter with external agencies.

We'll keep our readers posted.

Dated:  17 March 2008 


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