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Settling In  - Jan 08

Settling in - Jan 08Only a year ago, a bit less than half the people now on Fylde Council weren't Councillors. They had yet to be elected. For many, the transition has been not without pain. Idealistic hopes of changing the world have been dashed on the rocks bureaucracy and, in some cases, by group decisions made behind closed doors. They will also have experienced terrible frustration at not being able to find their way round 'The System' to achieve their desires. Some, no doubt, have thought of chucking in the towel and giving up. But none has. That is to their credit.

This is a process that all new Councillors experience. It's not unlike your first day at a new school. You are intimidated by the strange environment and by the big ones. You don't know where to put your coat, or where the loos are, and so on.

As well as that, you wait for what seems like an eternity for anything to happen after the election (long gap between the election an first Council meeting this year), and nothing does. The machine is gearing up for you.

Then it starts. You are deluged with emails containing more electrons than Blackpool Illuminations. 100, 200 and sometimes 300 page documents drop into your mailbox several times a week. Just finding the time to read them is difficult, and as for understanding them, well........

There are more acronyms to learn than you could ever imagine. The language is mostly third person passive, which is very difficult to pick up, and all the interesting bits are actually between the lines of what has been said in the reports.

Then there are training courses and brainwashing courses to make you think in the right way. The better ones recognise these for what they are, taking value from the worthwhile bits and ignoring the propaganda.

This *is* The System, and it's hard to get to grips with. But once new Councillors do, they settle in and start to enjoy their role. Typically, this starts (just like school) when something cyclical comes up again and it feels familiar.

We're approaching that time.

There's one last push though - next year's budget. Your first experience of setting a budget is pretty awful, even if you're used to business accounts. You try to understand it, and most often simply give up and go with the flow.

That's not wrong for your first year, and if it happens, new Councillors shouldn't be surprised. That too will change over time.

So, things are starting to settle down now. After April and into the summer it will start to become more enjoyable.  The newbies will have found their way around and be starting to make their mark.

There have been some early flashes of things to come amongst the new members, notably - as we have christened her - The Meteoric Karen Buckley, who has adapted probably more quickly than any of the intake.

Next would be the mercurial Elaine Silverwood from Kirkham who is still a bit uncertain of herself in this environment, but has started to have a go. She scored what should have been a direct hit on the inequity of funding for Christmas lights, but the machine closed ranks and fended off her attack by deferring it. Like the Terminator, she's going to be back, and once she has her footing she will be trouble for the establishment.

Some safe pairs of hands are also emerging. John Davies from St Anne's is showing solid, reliable, capability, and Kath Harper from Lytham has also been putting in the hours and taking it all in.

For the most part it's more difficult to tell in the Conservative group. They haven't been allowed to say a lot as individuals yet. One we noticed was Cheryl Little, who gave the impression of being overwhelmed by The Machine and seems to be one of the least happy at the moment.

Lyndsay Greening from Wrea Green appears very practical and workmanlike, getting through with solid, quiet efficiency.

The rest seem to have their heads down and are working hard to soak up the information that is deluging them.

So at this stage in the process, it's no surprise the Commissar is still getting away with things too lightly. That's going to change soon.....

So with that prelude, we move on to review what (except for the budget setting meeting) was actually the last Council meeting of a new Councillor's first year of office.

It was a fairly boring meeting.

There were a couple of important issues, but for the most part, the agenda wasn't worth the effort.

That's what was intended of course. If there was any chance of the full Council getting near a serious decision, the Commissar would be panicking. These days, the important reports are drafted with the minimum of information, few details, and bland generalised recommendations. The Commissar subsequently claims the meeting has given him authority for whatever he wants based on his interpretation of the resolution. Transferring 200 of their 350 staff onto Wyre's payroll is a classic example. He justified that on approval of a scheme to approve "closer joint working"

So what went on?

Well, we heard (as counterbalance reported a while back in 'Shuffling the Pack'), that Cllr Paul Hayhurst had left the "Independent Group", and had become "Independent Non-Aligned". This is an arcane situation brought about by the modern presumption that Councils are composed of (mostly party political) "groups". Government insists that Committees reflect the overall political balance of the full Council. So if you are "independent" you are typically counted as being a member of an "independent group" even though it may not be registered as a political party. Cllr Hayhurst has now voluntarily moved outside that group, and Kirkham's Queen Elizabeth Oades was confirmed as the new leader of the "Independent Group."

Questions
There was a question from a member of the public asking about the costs of the new Town Hall. The reply said the cost would be just under £6 million (plus VAT), but it would be funded by asset sales, and no mortgage was required. Quite how the Commissar managed to convince the local press into believing it was £5 million when it's going to be at least £7m is mystery. Maybe it was just an oral slip on his part. Certainly we can find no evidence of his claim that it will be £5 million, and we expect he can't. We do have a page of figures that adds up to more or less £7 million though.

Notice of Motion
The Commissar proposed abandonment of the "Members Choice" debate. A ridiculous concept hung over from the days of, (and introduced by), former Chief Executive, Ken Lee as part of his "Re-inventing the Council" scheme when he introduced this appalling Politburo Cabinet system. It was an attempt to find something for the Council to appear to do when Councillors were stripped of their decision making and review powers. Its removal from this and future agendas was common sense, and agreed with no opposing votes.

Mayoralty
Councillor Susan Fazackerley was chosen without dissent as the Mayor for the next municipal year.

Multi Area Agreement
This should have been the main meat of the meeting but, reading the report, you could see it was deliberately intended to give a flavour, whilst not being specific about anything. Generally this means - be very afraid.

In essence (as on almost every agenda these days) it is a plan to work more closely with Blackpool and Wyre being promoted by the regionalisation zealots.  Some (including us) see it as the back door to the City of the Fylde.

In answer to a question from Cllr Peter Hardy we learned the cost of work to date was "a few days" of officer time, and £70,000 payment to the consultants, but the payment to them had come from general, not local taxes (so that's OK then)

The Commissar stonewalled most questions with the, .....well its all a bit airy-fairy yet, and only preliminary decisions are being made.... story. We suspect what he actually meant was if I told you what we were up to you'd be having none of it, so I'm not going to.

Queen Elizabeth Oades asked about shared staff costs, and said she had heard there was a Strategic Housing Officer whose costs were additional to the £70,000. This was confirmed. She went on to ask who would actually set policy. The answer caused her to remark, "So we're going to be a rubber stamp then?"

Paul (The Mauler) Hayhurst, unaffected by his changed status, loosed off a broadside against the plan. He said Blackpool had a plan to turn Fylde and Wyre into suburbs of Blackpool and more than six years ago they said Whyndyke Farm would become a housing estate. He said we were planning to join with the sick man of Lancashire, and he wanted nothing to do with it. He wanted to retain our separate identity. He asked for an assurance that Blackpool's 'Housing Estate' plan for Whyndyke Farm had changed.

The Commissar said he was sure things would be better now the Conservatives were in charge in Blackpool, and any plans for Whyndyke Farm would come to Fylde for approval. (We're not so sure about the last bit).

Cllr Oades summed it up saying "What this boils down to is a City of the Fylde. It refers to a Fylde coast identity, and that simply doesn't exist."

The vote, not unexpectedly saw the Commissar's plan approved by his party majority.

Parish Charter
We covered this when it was approved at Cabinet. Although it's not our call to make, we're not in favour. A Charter is granted. It involves giving and receiving.

Town and Parish Councils are sovereign, autonomous, and independent legislatures in their own right. They need no grant of right or privilege to function, and most especially they need no advice, grant or indeed, lesson, from the present incarnation of Fylde Council's Politburo.

Chief Executive Phillip Woodward clarified the issue, saying Fylde's Cabinet had already approved the Charter, the Council was simply being asked to endorse it.

Most of the debate centred on whether Fylde should bear the cost of Parish by-elections which, for a small Parish, could be anything up to six times their annual budget. This is why most would co-opt new members in between term elections. However, this practice is frowned on these days.

First clue to direction came from Kiran Mulholland, an 'Individual Non-Aligned' councillor who in recent years has seemed to share an awful lot of the Conservative thinking, and been rewarded with the Chairmanship of the Community Outlook Scrutiny Committee for his good judgement. He said that because Parishes could co-opt there was no great need to help them financially, and he thought they could cope without having the cost paid by Fylde.

Some Conservatives joined in with this argument, and the position became clear. The parishes weren't going to get the money.

Wrea Green's Lyndsay Greening (who piloted this from the Parish perspective) tried a rearguard action to have the matter of funding referred to a scrutiny committee, but to no avail. The vote was to endorse the Charter but not pay the Parish by-election costs, although they might be deferred for a year. It was won by 23 votes to 14.

Schedule of Meetings
This should have been something to go through on the nod. It was the proposed calendar of meetings for next year. But the plan was to switch the Cabinet meetings to a 9am start, instead of the 7pm that normally are.

This generated some debate. There was anger that people who worked (including Councillors) wouldn't be able to get to daytime meetings. (We wondered if maybe that's exactly what the Commissar had in mind).

First opponent was Kiran Mulholland who said he would be voting against it, others agreed. Even the Meteoric Karen Buckley spoke against daytime Cabinets. The Commissar seemed to know he was in trouble on this one. Having put Susan Fazackerley up to propose the embarrassing recommendation, he took control himself and proposed a retreating amendment to have every other meeting start in the evening.

Then Queen Elizabeth slid in an amendment to keep the Cabinet meetings start at 7pm.

When the vote came, it was 22 for her amendment and 14 against. So the Cabinet will not change to daytime meetings. We couldn't see who failed to vote, but a lot of Conservatives must have broken ranks and at least abstained. Cllr Buckley voted against the line proposed by her colleagues and leader (i.e. for the amendment). If she stays around this area, we predict she will be a force to be reckoned with in the future - not because she broke ranks here, that's mostly inconsequential on an issue like this, but because she is articulate, she listens, and can marshal clever, cogent arguments from what she hears, and she is independent-minded enough to let common sense override dogma. She is still short on experience, and that sometimes shows, but already she is making a better fist of it than more than half the Cabinet (in our opinion).

This meeting timetable was a small, and mostly inconsequential, item, but it illustrates the growing confidence of new councillors, and that marks a milestone along the civic way.

Delegations to the Finance Manager
Our new Mr Finance who is seconded from Preston Council wants not to have to bother Councillors with simple decisions about money, so Fylde's solicitor drafted a report with a list of things they should leave to Mr Finance.

It was sold to Councillors on the basis that this was how they did things at Preston, so it would be a good idea if we did the same here.

That may be what Preston does, but what Preston does certainly isn't an appropriate basis to decide what should happen in Fylde. They wanted to dam the Ribble, remember, and probably more importantly they're a young city now, so they have civic testosterone coursing, and bigger budgets.

Heaven knows, Fylde Council has little enough to make decisions on itself, so you'd think they'd be ill advised to rush headlong into giving even more decisions away. But that's what happened. So what did they give up?

Well, one of them was: "Determining and administering of mandatory rate relief, council tax benefit, council tax discounts and exemptions, housing benefit, and council tax relief for disabled people". Clearly mandatory relief is straightforward, there is no discretion, but the others appear to be discretionary. Do we really want to remove the voice of elected representatives here? The purpose of elected representatives in these sort of situations should be to add humanity to the cold mechanistic decisions of professionals and technocrats.

Another was: "Approving a supplementary estimate of up to £10,000 as part of a "pay back scheme", provided that the scheme is in accordance with the council's overall policy framework and has a pay back period of 5 years or less." Now were not wholly sure what this is, and we claim to know more about Fylde's finances than some Councillors, so there's a bit of a doubt whether anyone else did either. It looks to be the ability to approve spending of up to £10,000 over and above the approved estimates.

This just shows how far things have moved. Time was that a supplementary estimate of £250 would be reported to the Council for approval except in "acute emergencies" (and even then it was reported retrospectively to keep members informed) and the spending line was held tight.

These days an overspend of £600,000 is slid through on the QT (apart from counterbalance readers that is), and now it looks as though we're giving authority for an unspecified number of blocks of £10k as long as it looks like each will cover its cost in 5 years. We wonder who will be keeping tabs on whether they do or not?

Another was: "Writing-off of debts up to £5,000." Even when Chief Exec Phillip Woodward explained they wanted to add the word "uncollectable" before "debts" no-one rose to it. There's no indication whether this is a total of £5,000 a year (unlikely), or £5,000 per debtor (possibly), or £5,000 per debt (most likely). This was a dangerous authority to give away. Yes, we understand that not every uncollectable debt should have to go to the Council to be written off, but there should be a political check on the process.

We're making a strong point next. We're not suggesting our new Mr Finance has or would do anything wrong. As we've said before, he seems to have a grip on the disaster that Fylde's accounts had become. But he may not always be here, and someone else will get the delegation, and the accounts were a disaster when he came......

Another item for delegation was: "Approving applications for mandatory and discretionary rate relief in accordance with any policy approved by the executive member for finance and efficiency." This was undoubtedly a mistake.

As earlier, the mandatory relief has no discretion, so there's no problem there. But the decisions on which local sports and similar clubs and organisations should receive what percentage of relief on their rates bill is something the Council should approve the policy for, not a single member, and we would argue it should be a sub committee of people who know the sports clubs in their area and whether they contribute to the social benefits of the community that look at, and determine each application for relief. That's what local politicians are for.

Discretionary rate relief for sports clubs (cricket clubs, bowling clubs etc) was established when Government added their buildings to the category of properties that were rated. Government subsequently exhorted councils to approve discretionary relief where appropriate. That process should have councillor involvement based on the benefits to local recreation and leisure, not based on accounting. This one was a bad move Councillors.

Finally, there was: "Approving applications for rate relief on the grounds of hardship." Again, we don't know the details here, but out instinct is to say decisions on the basis of hardship is something that absolutely should be subject to the collective moderation and decision of people who are elected to contribute their human skills, not just at the decision of officers.

Sadly, all the financial delegation items were approved en-bloc without any questioning.

Some Councillors would be tired at the end of another long meeting, some are still nervous of speaking out in public. Some would be following a party line, some won't even have read their agendas enough, and of those that did, few will have been able to read between the lines of this report to draw the conclusions above.

Yet

......But that is going to change shortly.

And there you have it dear reader, the meeting ended.

A curates egg of a meeting. Not earth shattering, mostly quite timid in fact. Good in parts, bad in others. The most important thing was the Multi Agency Agreement (although the real impact of that is being hidden from everyone at present). But we have a feeling the meeting timetable has scent-marked a place we will come back to.

Dated: 2 February 2008 


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