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Sink or Swim?

Sink or SwimIn Pools Protest, we reported the Commissar's plans to close Kirkham Baths and St Anne's Swimming Pool. We highlighted the public meeting at Kirkham and the Cabinet meeting at Lytham, where Wesham's Councillor Simon Renwick appeared to change his position in the Politburo Cabinet, and said he was in favour of saving Kirkham Baths and keeping them open.

Readers will remember that, based on what we saw and heard, and on what others told us immediately after the meeting, we were unsure whether Coun Renwick was being genuine, or whether the whole thing was part of a put-up job to make him appear the bath's saviour just before the County Council election where he is standing.

We still don't have a definitive answer, but after publication, we had a lot of contact from others, some of whom ought to know the real position.

Based on what has come to us, we are moving toward the idea that there is a hidden agenda operating here.

Ostensibly, the arguments for closing the pools are financial. In crude terms, everyone going in would need to pay and extra £5 or so to make them 'break even' and the Commissar says that to remove (yet another) £1m or so deficit he is on course for next year, they simply can't afford to subsidise the present number of users on this scale, so the pools have to close.

Councillor Renwick claims to have found alternative budget savings that mean the subsidies at Kirkham could be met for another year. But as he said, this is only a one year hit and, if approved by his Politburo Cabinet colleagues and voted through, it would only give Kirkham another year to 'sort itself out.'

He also said nothing could be done for St Anne's Pool, which is "too expensive".

However, at the Politburo Cabinet meeting to consider the budget, (and without declaring any sort of interest) Dim Tim was pushing very hard on the idea for St Anne's and Kirkham to close and for a new pool to be built on, or next to, the YMCA land on Mythop Road.

Regular readers of counterbalance will know that, as we reported in 'Home Grown' Cllr Ashton has recently submitted an outline planning application to build around nine houses on the site of his Mythop Road Nursery, which is just across the road from the YMCA. We can't help but wonder whether having a swimming pool across the road might help to increase the value of land you want to build houses on.

But apart from that, his logic here is way off beam anyway.

If the pools are losing money to the tune of £5 or more per user, and you can't afford to pay a subsidy on that scale, why on earth would you think it a good idea to close two pools, (one of which is less than 30 years old), and spend all that money to build another one that will have the same sort of need for subsidy?

Answer: you would be even dafter than the Commissar.

No. We think this argument has nothing to do with swimming pools, or providing public facilities.

We think this is all about asset stripping.

We accuse the Politburo of acting like Vulture Capitalists, taking facilities that generations of residents have paid the loan charges for so that their children could use and enjoy them, and callously selling them off to hide their own incompetence at managing our money.

We don't want to ignore Kirkham Baths here, it has a dedicated and hardworking team led by Queen Elizabeth Oades and Raymond Green who are working on their own plan to save the baths. And in some small measure we have helped Kirkham with some costing information we had. But we're going to focus on St Anne's Pool for a while, to show just how people are being conned by the Commissar.

From his press statements, the Commissar says the reason for his budget crisis next year is "external pressures caused by £600,000 cuts in Government funding and an expected £300,000 bill for free bust travel for the over 60's"

Now just look at these in a bit more detail.

First the £600k cut in government grant.

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).

The first is from our national taxes, and distributed to councils according to a complicated formula that takes account of need, deprivation and so on.

The second, NNDR, arises from what Fylde and other Councils collect from what used to be called Business Rates from commercial and industrial premises. Councils now have to collect these but pass them directly to Government, who re-allocate them (or at least some of them) back to Councils, again on the basis on need, deprivation and so on.

Now to be fair to the Commissar, if Fylde could keep what it pays over to Government in business rates it collects from Fylde's businesses, we could have gold plated litter bins on every street corner. We also think that the system of distribution based on deprivation is a stupid way to go about things. It rewards Councils that make their areas more deprived (see Top of the Pits). But that said, we're hearing porkies here.

At the last Politburo Cabinet meeting he was questioned on the level of Government grant provided to Fylde.

The answer from that now Not So Nice Paul Rigsby was that the totals were:

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

As you will see, the grants have gone up by a small amount every year.

So how can the Commissar claim it to be less?

Well, probably when he says the Government Grant has gone down, he is doing his usual spin and deception act. When you look into the figures the RSG might have gone down, but that reduction in RSG has been more than compensated for by an even bigger increase in the NNDR grant.

It just goes to show, there are lies, damn lies, and statistics, and now there is the way the Commissar tells 'em.

Oh and yes, just before we finish, he also had an EXTRA £275,000 a year from Government toward the cost of the bus pass scheme.

Hopefully, this explanation will stop him pushing out the it's not our fault, honest guv story about the need to close the pools being Government imposed.

It isn't.

It's about the spending decisions the Commissar and his Politburo Cabinet, supported in private by the ruling Conservative councillors group. It's about what they consider to be the priority for limited resources, and at present they consider a number of things, (including something in the region of £400,000 of revenue having been spent so far on preparing plans for his beloved new town hall project) to be more important than keeping the pools open.

But there's another trick they are playing. We managed to get hold of some FBC spreadsheets that show the estimated income and expenditure at St Anne's Pool for last year and next year, and the actual spending up to January this year. There are some really quite interesting figures in them. We have had to assume these figures to be correct, but we offer the health warning that they may not be. They were sent out by FBC to someone who enquired about the costs, and they eventually found their way to us.

For example, taking the overall position at St Anne's where the financial year ends on 31 March

  • Last year's (07/08) estimated net operating cost was £731k
  • The actual net operating cost to January is expected to be £452k
  • Next year's (08/09) estimated net operating cost is £739k

So it looks as though they have based next years costs on what they thought this year's costs would be (which to January were about half the estimate!)

Then we looked at the income (already netted off in the above costs).

  • Last year, the pools income was estimated to be £218k
  • The actual income to January will be around £151k
  • But next year's (08/09) estimate for income is only marginally up on this year's at £154k

Different sort of story here, isn't it.

But using the figures that are favourable to closure doesn't stop there.

Within the accounts is something called "Capital Charges - Depreciation" and at St Anne's, this amounts to something like £119,000 a year.

This is absolutely not a cost on the pool.

It is a 'theoretical' accounting figure that is included in the pool accounts to reflect the value of the site if it didn't have a swimming pool on it.

Elsewhere in Fylde's accounts, this item will be written off with a contra-entry. So there is no real cost to Fylde at all.

But what it does do is inflate the apparent cost of the pool and make it harder for it to "break even" as the Commissar is wont to say.

This theoretical cost alone amounts to a quarter of the actual net cost of running the pool from last April to January this year.

Talk about it being a con!

And, (as Jimmy Cricket might say) There's More.......

There are some "Miscellaneous repairs" at the pool which this year were estimated to cost £66,000 and have actually cost £63,000 to January, but which next year are estimated to cost £166,000, that's another hundred thousand pounds more.

Even if it is valid expenditure, (rather than just a way of inflating the costs and making St Anne's seem too expensive to keep open), a sum of this scale could probably be paid from capital, giving a lower per year cost, and lower operating costs.

This increase, together with the theoretical capital charge, is about half the actual net cost of running the pool up to January this year.

And still there's more.......

There are £65,000 worth of Central Overhead charges, most of which would not be saved by closing the pool (you can't reduce the hours of a staff accountant, or the Mayor - or the Commissar's new £9,000 a year salary - by 0.003% or whatever), so again these are non-real cost savings.

One of the worst of these is the charge made on the pool for "Human Resources" 

We gave full details of this disastrous contract in 'Human Contract'. This arrangement is expected to cost St Anne's Pool £10,800 next year. This service is now provided on contract from Blackpool and has 60% (£120k) of fixed costs irrespective of the number of employees FBC has, and 40% (£79k) per capita costs, which takes it up to £199k overall.

Fylde signed this contract on 1 January this year and is locked in to an initial two year "no changes" clause and thereafter has to give 12 months notice of any change.

This cost cannot be removed for at least two, and possibly three, years by closing the pools, and even then, the fixed costs will apply to August 2014..

There is absolutely no justification for counting this as a saving if the pool closes.

We can go on........ There is an extra £8,000 next year for painting and decorating, an increase in "Security services", and reductions in rents and other incomes forecast. We also understand some of the staffing costs from Kirkham have been 're-allocated' to St Anne's as they were 'charged to Kirkham Baths in error''

The effect of all of these is to inflate the apparent cost of running the pools (especially St Anne's), and make them seem impossibly expensive to keep open.

Now that's very handy if your plan all along was to sell off St Anne's Pool, and you have a developer friend who might want to buy the site, maybe for a hotel or a conference centre or some such thing. Then you build another pool in Lytham and when that is up and running, you say it's so near to Kirkham, that Kirkham Baths is no longer viable and it will now have to close.

You might also have the Lytham facility built by the private sector and run as a profitable leisure or health club facility, so there will be little or no real swimming, and unprofitable children's or school's swimming lessons might be sacrificed in favour of high value private hires, parties and poolside barbecues and the like that will generate revenue.

That way you also get the money from the Kirkham Baths site to spend on whatever you like..

We heard on this matter from a reader who had rung their local Conservative councillor. The person who rang is what most people might call a solid Conservative voter, but they rang to complain about closing the pool in a coastal resort where children needed to learn to swim.

The Conservative councillor admitted they had been inundated with calls about it, and when told how disgusted the caller was with all the political shenanigans of Simon Renwick re keeping Kirkham baths open, all because he was going to stand as a Lancashire councillor - the Councillor's reply had been - "how did you know about that"?

That's as the story came to us, but no doubt Councillor Renwick would say all he wants to do is to keep Kirkham Baths open..

Either way, based only on the financial justifications that have been used, if the real agenda is asset stripping the site of St Anne's Pool (and later on, Kirkham Baths) - and from everything we have seen so far this seems to be the real aim, then no amount of logic or savings will persuade the Commissar to change is mind. He might defer Kirkham for a year or two until the other pool is built, but it's fate is sealed unless there is a change of policy.

And the only people that can do that are the Conservative Councillors in his party.

If they feel enough public pressure by being inundated with phone calls and hassled everywhere they go by the public, who tell them what an appalling shower they are being, then they in turn will pressurise the Commissar (in those 'behind closed doors' Conservative policy and caucus meetings), to change his mind and find the savings from elsewhere (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).

So if you want your Swimming Pools to remain, ring or email your Conservative councillor (details here) and let them know how you feel about what they are doing, and join in the protest marches on Saturday 1 March at Kirkham at 10am from the Market Square, and St Anne's at 11am from the Pier.

Just as an afterthought........

There will be inescapable costs even if the building closes as long as it remains in FBC's ownership (rates, essential maintenance, an apportionment of heating, lighting and water, security, etc). These will still exist, and expenditure shown against them will not completely disappear, even if it reduces.

Furthermore, the cost of maintaining an empty building (which is actually likely to be higher because of vandalism), will need adding back into the mix to arrive at the 'real' cost of running the pools and what might practically be 'saved' by closing them.

Finally, and we don't want to be divisive here, because both Kirkham and St Anne's are equally important and need to remain open, but we recall a situation a while back, where the Commissar was closing public loos because they didn't comply with disability legislation.

Seemed that if you didn't have any loos at all, that was not discriminatory, but if you had one and it didn't comply, you were in trouble.

So that being the case, we wonder about the wisdom of closing a modern pool that meets the needs of all manner of people with disabilities, (as exemplified by the Fylde Otters Swimming Club who regularly use St Anne's because it is equipped with specially adapted changing facilities and poolside equipment like hoists), and choosing to keep open a facility that does not have the same facilities.

The final decision will be made at the budget Meeting of Fylde's full Council on Monday 3 March starting at 5:00pm in the Fylde Rugby Club.

We'd recommend being there early if you want to get in. We understand there are only 100 or so places available to the public.
 

Dated: 25 February 2008 


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