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Pools and Polls

Pools and Polls - Parish Meeting at St Annes Cricket ClubThe swimming pool story continues apace. Whilst moves are being made to see if Kirkham Baths might ultimately become a trust - perhaps involving a coalition of interested groups and parties - concern has been growing that the St Anne's Pool might not even stay open until the end of July this year - when the Council's budget for it will have drained away.

This is because - as with any enterprise with a short future - the staff who are under threat and able to do so, leave for work elsewhere - where their future is more secure. You sometimes find it necessary in such situations to pay a sort of 'loyalty bonus' to retain staff and keep services going.

Without the minimum number of lifeguards and attendants required under health and safety provisions, St Anne's Pool cannot open to the public, and it would have to close.

What is less widely known at the moment is that talks are still going on (and have been since before the budget meeting) between the Council and the management of the YMCA.

We understand that the most recent discussions took place earlier this week with a view to involving the YMCA as a sort of managing agent between now and the period for which the council has provided funding to run the pool.

If this can be agreed between the Council and the YM, it would provide more certainty of keeping St Anne's Pool open at least until the funding stream expires in July.

We also understand the Council has had approaches from some individuals and organisations expressing an interest of some sort in taking on the running of the St Anne's Pool after July. We believe these parties (and the YMCA) have been put in touch with each other by the Council, and the Council is asking for further details of their status and intentions.

Using our judgement rather than our knowledge here, we think it likely the Council will conclude an arrangement to keep the pool open via the YMCA - who have a track record and considerable experience in running leisure facilities and swimming pools - and that its future, to July at least, is very probable.

The future beyond July is less clear, but it does look as though the Borough Council has taken note of the concerns expressed and is, at least, prepared to look at options to keep the pool open beyond July. That represents a notable change on the previous line.

From the middle of last week, (notably Wednesday), we have detected a different tone emerging from parts of the Council.

Whilst the public face may remain remarkably similar for the moment, at the margins there are signs of directional change that are likely to impact on many of the unpopular schemes, and we think our readers might see change in the areas of the pools, the town hall schemes, and even the Heeley Road hostel plans.

We continue our watch with bated breath.

But there has been another event of moment this week. Something called a Parish Meeting was called; and from that, came a request for a parish poll.

This is only the third time in St Anne's history that a poll of ratepayers or taxpayers has been called.

The first was an Improvement Bill in 1896 which was mostly about building the promenade. On that occasion he question put was "Will the town be doomed if the Improvement Bill is carried?"

Despite the negative wording of the question, the poll vote was in favour of the bill by a narrow margin, and the promenade was built.

The second was in January 1914, when the Council was promoting another of its own Parliamentary Bills that would see: the acquisition of St Georges Gardens (forerunners of Ashton Gardens); further development of the North Esplanade and foreshore; the power to construct a bathing pool on the foreshore; powers to operate omnibus services; an extension of the Council's powers to run its own electricity undertaking to be able to operate showrooms and the wiring of houses for electricity, construction of sub-stations etc; to purchase by agreement the St Anne's on Sea Gas company so as to be able to manufacture and supply gas for its area, and miscellaneous other powers that included a penny rate to fund advertising of the town as a resort.

The key contentious issue in that mix was the acquisition of St George's Gardens. Many ratepayers did not want to have to fund the borrowing needed to acquire the gardens. The Council held a meeting in the cinema where a thousand ratepayers attended. A vote was taken on a show of hands and it was declared to be in favour of the bill but only by about 20 votes.

The decision was subsequently disputed by disgruntled electors who demanded a poll of ratepayers. On the day before that poll was held, Lord Ashton of Lancaster stepped in and paid for the gardens as a gift to the people of the town. It was too late to cancel the poll, but everyone in the (at that time, much smaller) town knew of the generous gift, and the poll result was 862 in favour of the bill and 25 against.

This year, Friday 28th March 2008 saw the start of what might be the third poll in St Anne's history. In a parished area like St Anne's, it is possible for six registered electors of the parish to call a Parish Meeting.

That's not a meeting of the St Anne's on the Sea Town Council, but a meeting of the electors of St Anne's (civil) Parish. Given the right sort of notice and provided some other conditions are met, the meeting is held.

Confusingly though, if the Chairman of the St Anne's on the Sea Town Council attends the meeting, they must, by law, chair it.

The notice calling the meeting can be seen here

There were a few issues about the location and whether the meeting had been called properly. For example the notice was not entirely proper in its description, but Councillor Mrs Mackenzie who presently chairs the Town Council decided it was within her prerogative to accept the wording, and the meeting was duly called.

So on Friday evening at 7.30pm about 100 people assembled for the Parish Meeting in the upstairs function room of St Anne's Cricket Club.

Mrs Mackenzie opened the batting explaining that the meeting had been called to discuss the closure of St Anne's swimming pool, and asked if anyone wished to speak on the matter.

As might have been expected, a few took to the field.

As you might also have expected Dear Reader, the Borough Council (who plan to close the pool) were on rather a sticky wicket. One chap wanted to know whether a legal challenge and an injunction could be sought to stop the closure.

Another bowled the suggestion that there were 70,000 households in Fylde, and if everyone paid £10 into a kitty it would give £700,000 a year income which would be enough for both pools to stay open, and everyone could then have a free pass to swim whenever they liked.

(Although no-one at the meeting corrected him, this is factually incorrect; there are almost 80,000 residents and just short of 30,000 band D equivalent households in Fylde so it would have to be £20 per household or £10 per man woman and child)

He also tried a googly, suggesting the Council could collect it- which brought some cries of anguish and "that's what our present Council tax is for"

(In fact it would probably not be possible because the Borough Council is at its capping limit, and government would not allow it to charge any more anyway, and the £700,000 he's using probably doesn't include the loss of income that presently helps offset the coucil tax subsidy, so the cost would be higher).

It could probably be collected via the Town Council if only residents in St Anne's were involved. There are about 10,500 Band D equivalent homes in St Anne's which will equate to around 25,000 people, so that would give a cost of well, its difficult to say, because his £700,000 is for both pools but let's say £500,000 a year for St Anne's. That means about £48 per household or £20 a head for every man woman and child.

To make it work, the Saint Anne's on the Sea Town Council would have to levy a precept of around £52 a year, rather than its present £4 a year. But it should mean everyone in St Anne's gets free swimming. (Until there is some big capital cost - like a replacement Air Handling Unit or something - which might mean an extra half a million has to be raised every 15 years or so).

And so the evening's innings progressed, mostly as a mixture of complaints being bowled at the Borough Council, and suggestions as to how something might be done.

Then a chap asked if the meeting was likely to call for a Parish Poll.

Councillor Mrs Mackenzie said she understood it was likely, and went on to outline the procedure for a parish poll.

If sufficient electors at a parish meeting made the call for a poll, it had to be held. It would be a bit like an election, with polling stations opened throughout St Anne's, and ballot papers printed. Any registered elector in St Anne's could go and vote on a question that the parish meeting determined to go on the ballot paper. There would be no polling cards to remind people to go and vote, and the polling stations would only be open between 4pm and 9pm on the one day selected.

She went on to explain that the costs of manning the polling stations and printing the ballot papers etc would be just short of £7,000, and if enough people at this parish meeting called for a parish poll it would have to be held. She noted that because the Town Council had not budgeted for it, they would have to add the cost of the poll to their precept for the year after the poll. (We make it that £7,000 over 10,500 band D equivalent households which would add around 70p to the council tax bill in the following year).

The chap who has asked about the poll said he would like to speak against that idea.

Coming from the offside, he said he didn't disagree with the sentiment of the proposition, and had taken part in both Kirkham and St Anne's Save the Pool marches, but he didn't agree that a parish poll on this single issue was the right thing to do.

He referred to the cost, and to another meeting to be held on 16 April at the YMCA where a collection of local groups - including people representing the swimming pool protest - were working in concert to bring about change, with the support of the St Anne's on the Sea Town Council

He said the idea of a parish poll on a single issue was selfish and not well thought through, and it would jeopardise the work that others were doing.

He thought the pool closure was a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself. Until there was a change in the process by which the Borough Council arrived at these decisions that disregarded public opinion, the present arrangements would continue to blight people's lives.

Aiming for six, he said a poll would not make any difference, pointing out that it is not binding on the Borough Council, and a single pool closure, whilst important to us here, matters not a jot to government.

He went on to say this plan didn't have the support of the Town Council (who themselves oppose the closure of the swimming pool), because they had not even been consulted about the parish meeting. It had been called over their heads.

He also said that Government would take no notice, asking "what view would be taken of the poll by Government when they know the Town Council who oppose the pool closure hasn't even been given the opportunity to back the scheme, and the leader of the Borough Council told them he is going to provide a new replacement pool with a lower carbon footprint and no revenue cost to taxpayers."

He claimed a poll would achieve nothing, but it would damage the credibility of the parish poll process that others might want to use, and it would damage the St Anne's on the Sea Town Council.

He urged the meeting to vote against any proposal seeking a parish poll on such weak grounds.

He concluded by saying the promoter of the poll should join with others to present a stronger case, and not consume money on a parish poll that might deny the hope of more concerted and broader action for those whose lives are about to be blighted by other decisions the Borough Council had made.

Then the promoter of the poll came to the crease. He said he understood the concerns and shared many of them, but he was only interested in the pool, so a process that assembled groups of people together and had meetings, and meetings about meetings and so on would take far too long, and action was needed now to stop the pool closing.

He said this was a legal poll and the Borough Council would have to take notice of it, and if they didn't he would go over their heads to the Secretary of State, and he wanted people to support his way of doing it.

One chap asked whether a referendum wouldn't be a better idea, saying it would only cost £700 or £800 to leaflet all the homes in St Anne's rather than £7,000, and it would take place over a longer time than just five hours, but most especially, a referendum could be held over the whole of Fylde, generating more support, where a parish poll in St Anne's would mean only St Anne's could take part, and the pool was intended to serve a much wider catchment than just St Anne's.

The promoter replied to say he didn't think anyone would take any notice of a referendum, but a Parish Poll was a legal instrument, and it would carry more weight.

As Mrs Mackenzie said it was time to up stumps, he announced the question for the poll which was 'Do You Demand Fylde Borough Council Keep The St. Anne's Swimming Pool Open and Operational'

Put to the vote this was carried by an overwhelming majority of those present, with only a handful voting against. Mrs Mackenzie said the poll would now take place.

counterbalance admires the promoter's enthusiasm, and the effort he has put in. He had brought many members of his family to the Parish Meeting to see, and take part in democracy in action, including the young lady who made the robbydoo website we linked from another article, an another young lady who spoke at the meeting to oppose the pool closure. We think that augurs well for the future of democracy in Fylde.

We also think it is worth reflecting that six years ago, some concerned individuals met as group round a table. They got together with other St Anne's groups and called a public meeting. That meeting called for a St Anne's Town Council Steering Group to be formed. That Steering Group campaigned for, and succeeded in establishing - first, the civil parish of St Anne's, then the Saint Anne's on the Sea Town Council, whose existence enabled the meeting at the Cricket Club to be held on Friday night, and without which the call for the parish poll could not have been made. Working together with others does produce results.

So, to conclude. If marks out of ten were being awarded for effort and enthusiasm, our friend the poll promoter would get 11 from us.

Sadly, we're quite certain he is heading for disappointment. As his daughter's website very properly says, "Remember It Ai'nt Over Till the Fat Lady Sings"

She's right. Without the different groups of musicians working together, we probably won't even get to hear the orchestra tuning up.

Dated:  29 March 2008


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