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Pool Transport ?

Pool Transport?No, we don't mean picking up a car from the transport pool. We're looking at how the Commissar is using con tricks like the bus passes to justify his threat to close swimming pools in Fylde. This daft plan really has upset people. There were marches today in Kirkham and St Anne's to demonstrate public opposition to the Politburo Cabinet's plan to close the pools.

We were at both protests, and we've put some pictures online for our readers to see. Follow this link to Kirkham and St Anne's Photos.

But we've also started to wonder whether he is going to magic a rabbit out of the hat at the Council meeting on Monday, and 'save' the pools.

Certainly there are smoke signals emanating from Fylde that this is being looked at seriously. But why would he put everyone through all this pain if he intended to save them all along? Has it all been a put-up job. Has he smiled as he watched us all getting angry? And if so, why?

The answer might be that he thinks he can repeat the performance of previous years, and once again, at the eleventh hour, become 'Coombes the Wonderful' - the saviour of swimming, and an all round good egg - whilst, at the same time he will have successfully diverted attention from other service closures, like the tourism office near Woolworths which will go, the One Stop Shop (only opened a couple of years ago) at Kirkham, cutting out Christmas trees, reducing weeding in the parks by 30%, and increasing fees and charges to levels that will mean people can't actually afford to use them (you see hardly any motor boats hired at £5 for 20 mins on Fairhaven Lake this summer),

But most of all, we think he might be doing it to divert attention from his improper and unjustifiable 'Differential Taxation' scheme that will soak taxpayers in Lytham St Anne's and probably Kirkham as well.

So what's really been going on here?

In the Gazette and the Express in the last few weeks he has repeatedly used the excuse that he is closing the pools because of a reduction in Government Grants of £600,000 and the estimated cost of the new bus pass scheme which he says will cost £300,000. In the Gazette of 9th and 16th Feb his spokesman said "Council bosses have blamed the budget crisis on external pressures caused by £600,000 cuts in Government finding, combined with an expected £300,000 bill for free travel for the over 60s"

This is the classic spin, deception and doublespeak we have come to expect from this financially incompetent administration.

It is wrong. Look at it in a bit more detail.

As we showed in 'Sink or Swim', Government provides about 66% of Fylde Council's spending, and mostly this is made up of two sources, the Revenue Support Grant (RSG), and the National Non-Domestic Rates (NNDR).

As that Not So Nice Paul Rigsby said, the totals of both grants for the last three years were:

2006/07: £5.026 million,
2007/08: £5.456 million and
2008/09: £5.600 million.

So the Government's payments to Fylde have gone up by a small amount every year.

This year, it is right to say the RSG did go down, but the NNDR went up by more to compensate for the reduction. But we're only being told about the one that went down.

So what about the pensioners bus money then?

Well, we covered the background to the free pensioners bus pass issues, and Fylde Council's bad financial management of these schemes in the past. (See more in 'Bus or Busted' and We're in the Money, and Fares Fair and Budget Busting Bus Blues), but now the Commissar has hit a new low with his estimating.

As we showed in 'Budget Busting Bus Blues' the Commissar snaffled £205,000 of the first £486,000 that the Government gave him to pay for concessionary travel in Fylde, and spent it on other things. But eventually, it ended up costing him (and us) £899,407.

He was actually so lax with the checking the journeys, the bus companies in Lancashire made an EXTRA £1.8 million profit on top of what they would usually have made, and they had to refund £60,000 to Fylde out of their excess profits that for shame they couldn't keep.

This year, the Commissar planned to spend £832,751 on concessionary travel, but he now says he will end up spending £951,394, and he's already raided the piggy bank reserves to withdraw this and cover up his incompetent estimating.

But now he tells us he expects an extra £300,000 on concessionary travel next year. And that's why the pools have to close.

In fact, page 215 of his budget book (downloadable from here) shows this is another porkie he is telling. Next year his net budget for concessionary travel is actually LESS than he expects to spend this year. The estimate for 2008/09 is £908,452.

That's not £300,000 more that this year, its £42,942 LESS!

The deception comes in because the fare cost is expected to go up, but what he's not saying is that there is another a big new grant of £275,000 and other changes that - on his own estimating - will bring the costs to less than this year's expected cost.

So what have we seen here?

We've seen two deceptions practiced.

First that government grant has been cut by £600,000. It hasn't. Overall the Government payments to Fylde have gone up from £5.46 million to £5.6 million

Second, the budget for concessionary travel is up by £300,000. It isn't. Next year's budget is actually £43,000 less than he expects to spend this year.

These two were the justification he gave as the need to close two pools and save £1million.

On these figures - closing the pools clearly isn't justified.

So there must be another agenda in play here.

He did overspend this year by £1million altogether - including a £609,000 overspend in just one department. (But then, whichever path our Commissar treads is littered with expensive priorities that are not owned by this community, and the kerbs are flushed with mushrooming overheads and expensive, useless consultancies and aborted schemes). However, his piggy bank reserves have been smashed open - and more or less emptied - to cover that incompetence.

So he doesn't need money from the pools for that.

(for example the money he is spending speculatively with consultants, or by abandoning the town hall project which has so far cost around £400,000 in revenue spending on planning and architects fees and the like). Fylde's accounts, this item will be written off a contra-entry. there no real to Fylde at all.

One thing he does have as a problem, and he says is going to cost him an extra £500,000 every year for the next three years (which is a bit more than the savings he wants to make on the swimming pools), is the ongoing 'Street Scene' deficit that is predicted for the contract he signed to empty Wyre Council's bins.

We're going to cover this again in more detail in another article, but if he spends this as he says he is going to, then in effect, our swimming pools could be closed so Fylde residents can subsidise Wyre's bin emptying service! (See 'Where's the Money Gone?')

But that depends whether he is actually going to spend this money on the bins as he says he is, or whether this is going to be the magic 'slush fund' in which he has been hiding money to save the pools all along.

From the estimating we have done ourselves, we can't see a proper justification for this £500,000 a year.

We also spotted some other unusual future-spending on staff costs in his accounts, and that may be another source of 'magic money'.

But there's another hidden agenda in play as well - a scheme is being plotted to re-develop St Anne's Pool site for something like a hotel or conference centre, then build a new commercial pool (which, you can bet, won't be anything like a public swimming pool) on Mythop Road near where Cabinet Member Councillor Tim Ashton has just applied for planning permission to change the Ashtons Nursery Gardens into residential housing (see Home Grown).

Whether any of this will come off or not is not clear at this stage.

At a meeting last week, Fylde's rural parish councils all expressed support for keeping both swimming pools open, and opposed the idea of having a new one built at Lytham. We hear the meeting (called by that Not So Nice Paul Rigsby to ask the parishes to each contribute to the costs of Kirkham baths) was a bit stormy. It seems that one Parish Councillor asked which way Cllr Rigby had voted on the matter in Cabinet, forcing him to admit to seconding the motion to close Kirkham baths, yet here he was trying to 'save' them by getting other councils to fund them.

What a nerve.

It seems he also admitted to being "thick" at one point, and let slip that they [the Politburo Cabinet we presume] had plans to build a new pool at Mythop Road, and that Kirkham Baths would only be saved for one year, not two.

Just whilst we're on that meeting, star of the show was tiny Little Eccleston With Larbreck Parish Council.

They represent a micro-population of just 207 Band D houses, (Fylde Council covers around 30,000). But clearly, they manage their money better, because they said if Fylde was so short of money, they could help out with a small loan to tide Fylde over if things were really that bad.

On that basis, counterbalance says step forward Parish Clerk Mrs Victoria Elvy. She is the one who looks after the money for Little Eccleston with Larbreck Parish Council. counterbalance says we need a campaign to have Mrs Elvy put in charge of Fylde's finances. Success is assured with her existing track record, and she certainly couldn't make a worse job than the Commissar is doing.

But getting back to the swimming pools, the real situation is that no-one can tell what's going on.

Only a handful of the Commissar's most trusted Councillors know the real picture, and only Monday's meeting will show what he is really up to. We'll bring you more after that.

But meanwhile, we can see some remarkable parallels with Fylde's present position and a situation in Blackpool around 40 years ago.

Readers with grey hair will remember the furore when Blackpool's Conservatives closed, and then demolished, the Derby Baths and put a hotel on the site. This act of gross municipal vandalism was followed by the "Karneval" fiasco which lost a great deal of money.

These twin disasters - closing a much loved pool, and a demonstration of rampant financial incompetence - saw Blackpool's Conservatives thrown out at the first available opportunity. And kept out of office for more than 30 years.

Fylde's Conservatives now seem to be blindly treading the same path.

But there may be dissent in the ranks. One quote that ended up with us was that the Commissar "has made a monumental cock up with the whole issue of the budget and he's goose stepping is right into the Government's trap". And that was from one of his own footsoldiers.

There are some decent, hardworking Conservatives on Fylde Council. We simply can't understand why they are allowing themselves to be led up a whole series of blind alleys with no way out.

We'll see what Monday brings and let you know.

Just as an aside, we heard one Councillor quip that with just a bit of effort, he could get tickets for Centre Court at Wimbledon this summer. Tickets for the European Cup Final were harder, and getting tickets for our own FA Cup were harder still, but none of these where anything like as hard as getting tickets for Fylde Council's Budget Meeting on Monday!

Actually, you won't need tickets to get in, but you will need to be there early. It's almost certain to be over-subscribed, and the doors will close after 100 or so because of room capacity. We'd advise being there not later than 4:15. The meeting itself is at the Fylde Rugby Club on Woodlands Road, and actually starts at 5:00pm. It promises to be one of the more memorable of Fylde Council's meetings.

Dated: 1 March 2008 

Update
An online petition has been started to draw the pool closures to the attention of Government. If you'd like to sign it you can do so by following this link to the Downing Street Swimming Pools Petition

info@counterbalance.org.uk

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