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Travesty of Democracy

Travesty of DemocracyThere was a Granada television van on the car park, and the entrance to Fylde Rugby Club had crash barriers stacked ready. One bore a hasty cardboard notice saying "Car Park Closed." It was clear this was going to be no ordinary Council meeting.

It had been switched to the Rugby Club's function room from the usual Lowther Pavilion (which would have held 300 in the public gallery). The new venue would only hold 100. The time had been moved from a normal 7pm start to a 5pm start.

At high noon we heard that FBC had decided to make it a ticket-only event, and were down at the Rugby Club handing out tickets on a first come first served basis. We shot down to find officers in a state of uncertainty. The idea to have it ticket only had seemed a good one, but Chief Executive Phillip Woodward had realised that people arriving with tickets, having to walk through a crown of several hundred to get in to the meeting, whilst the others outside were unable to do so, was a recipe for an even bigger disaster than his meeting was going to otherwise be. So the ticket idea was squashed and we were told the plan was to revert to doors open at 4pm and it would be the first 100 people to arrive before the meeting started at 5pm.

We were third in the access queue at 3.40pm.

Inside the room, the chairs were set out as usual. A public gallery of 100 chairs nearest the entrance door, Councillors in a rectangle of tables with the Mayor and chief officers on one of the long sides, and the other council officers at the end furthest from the public gallery.

The hundred seats were all taken by about 4:35pm and a crowd of a couple of hundred protestors assembled outside with placards, and with banners draped on cars (and even on dogs). Chants of "Save our pool" wafted into the building until someone ordered the windows on that side to be closed so it wouldn't disturb the meeting. They could still be heard though, as could the car horn honking in protest - until the honker was advised by the police (who appeared to have been asked to attend the event) that if he carried on he would be in trouble.

So began what was probably the worst ever meeting of Fylde Council.

The Cabinet's earlier recommended budget plan had been circulated to all the Councillors as the basis for next year's budget. It showed (as counterbalance readers already knew) that £1 million or so had been overspent in the financial year just ending, and £1.2 million had been taken from reserves that were held for other purposes, leaving these reserves almost empty and their purpose denied.

The General Purpose reserve (normally used to balance cashflow) was now down to almost the bare minimum set by external auditors. This reserve is essential for things like flooding and uninsured losses.

Most contentiously the accounts included the closure of Kirkham Baths and St Anne's Swimming Pool, together with a host of other service cuts and increased charges to cover the money the Commissar needs for other things, including paying for his plans to build a new Town Hall and Civic Suite.

The accounts also showed that the largest part of the overspend had been in the Streetscene department (which is predominantly the bin men). Here (though through no fault of the men emptying our bins), was £609,000 worth of extra spending over the original budget.

This had been spent on vehicle hire, overtime for mechanics, and spare parts to bring written-off bin lorries back into use for the Wyre bin emptying contract after a fire last January. (We'll be reporting more on this shortly)

The accounts also showed there had been an overall increase in the grants from Government. They showed the £600,000 cut in Government grant the Commissar had repeatedly quoted was either a deliberate attempt to mislead, or he cannot read the accounts properly.

The also showed the £300,000 concessionary travel costs he had also been using to justify the pools closure was untrue, because it was offset by an extra £275,000 grant from Government and savings elsewhere. Overall he expects to spend less on concessionary travel in the coming year than he has spent in the current year.

Clearly John Coombes had hoped this smokescreen would hide the financial incompetence that has become his hallmark.

It didn't.

The Mayor opened the meeting. Readers will remember the Mayor began his period of office saying he "intended to run a tight and fair ship, ensuring equal treatment for all councillors irrespective of party."

As we noted at the time (see The Dust Settles), he looked sternly at the Commissar and Dim Tim as he spoke. We wished him well, but noted that only time would tell.

Sadly he has not lived up to his promise. The meeting was neither tight nor fair, and his allowing the excessive use of (obviously pre-arranged) closure motions by the Conservative majority stifled debate and prevented people from legitimately raising important issues that merited consideration.

By his actions and decisions this night, he showed himself to be the first Fylde Mayor we know who has brought the office of Mayor into disrepute.

The meeting opened with the usual housekeeping items, (apologies and so on), then two new items were handed round.

The first was an updated sheet showing the final position with precepts charged by parish councils, and the second a draft resolution to approve a budget based on the Cabinet's recommendations.

Then, that Not So Nice Paul Rigsby handed round an amendment on pink paper agreed by the Conservative group, showing funding alterations to save Kirkham Baths for one year.

Clearly if they could do this now, they could have done it at the Cabinet meeting a month ago, but the Politburo Cabinet no doubt thought this would be the 'dramatic gesture' that would solve all the problems.

They got that disastrously wrong too.

The period for debate on this amendment began with the Mayor reminding everyone this was a business meeting and he didn't want any "window dressing" (playing to the gallery). He went on to say he wanted to have no individual replies to questions, but the Portfolio Holders should answer all the questions asked in one go, in their summing up speech.

Clearly, this was something that had been pre-planned. It has the effect of not allowing debate or supplementary questions because the closing speeches are just that. They close the item before the vote.

The meeting progressed with the non-Conservative councillors putting a series of impassioned amendments to the budget that would keep both swimming pools and other facilities open.

In the early part of the meeting, each of these was dealt with by the Conservative group in the same way. They let the proposer move the amendment, and the seconder spoke if they wished. Other non-Conservative councillors spoke in support of the amendment.

But no Conservative councillor asked to speak to the amendments. They just sat dumb and waited.

When one of the unholy alliance of so-called 'Conservative'  oligarchs (who in practice conserve nothing and destroy much) that now run Fylde felt they had heard enough, they attracted the Mayor's attention and moved "That the question now be put." This is a device for bringing the debate to a close, and according to Fylde's present 'Constitution' - when invoked and seconded, it interrupts the debate for an immediate vote on whether to allow the debate to continue or not. It is the so-called 'Closure motion.'

On each occasion it was used (and it was used on every amendment proposed by non Conservative Councillors), the Conservative majority simply closed off the debate with a vote something like 28 votes to 20.

After this, a non Conservative Councillor would ask for something called a "recorded vote". This is where the name of each Councillor is called out, and they have to indicate whether they are: for; against, or abstain, and that decision is recorded in the minutes.

Again Fylde's 'Constitution' provides for an immediate vote on this proposition when this is moved. And again, every time, the Conservatives voting en-bloc (28:20 or thereabouts) defeated the motion to have everybody's vote recorded for and against.

Then the actual amendment was put to the vote and, needless to say, all were lost with votes similar to 28:20 against them.

Seeing the use of such tactics by the Conservatives, the public gallery became angry and started to become unruly, heckling and criticising the Conservatives for voting like sheep. One wag said "Baaa" as the forest of Conservative hands went up, and this quickly became adopted across the floor of the public gallery each time the Commissar pulled the string and the Conservative group hands went up.

Paul Hayhurst explained that it was the Cabinet that had got us into this mess and not the Government, and he called on John Coombes, Tim Ashton, Paul Rigby and the Chief Executive Philip Woodward, to consider their positions, and for the Conservative group to get rid of the people leading them.

Howard Henshaw went further. He rose to question several of the figures that had been quoted in the press (the £600,000 we refer to above and the others). He showed they were incorrect. He said we should save £322,000 which was the amount wasted in consultancy fees on the new town hall (much applause), then he proposed a vote of no confidence in John Coombes, Tim Ashton and Paul Rigby for their gross incompetence in the financial mismanagement of the Council's funds.

He demanded their immediate dismissal from the Cabinet and their replacement with more competent councillors. There were loud cheers from the public gallery, and other non Conservative councillors spoke in support.

That amendment did provoke a response from the Conservative side. Tim Ashton said if they hadn't spent the £609,000 we wouldn't have had the bins emptied in Fylde (Technically that was not correct, it was the Wyre part of Fylde's contract to empty their bins that was affected)

Needless to say, the vote of no confidence was lost - in what had now become the standard manner. Closure motion approved, request for recorded vote lost, amendment lost. (In this case 28 to 18).

By now the meeting was getting ill tempered, and when Dawn Prestwich (wife of the Mayor and a Conservative Councillor) got up to speak, things went from bad to worse.

She is a naturally inoffensive person, but under pressure she becomes irrationally combative, and turned to the public gallery, addressing them as "You people over there" and "Shut up and wait a minute" She referred to the issue as being a political battlefield, adding that it was only the cost that was forcing their hand.

Using a logic that was typical of all the Conservative councillors who spoke, she said "You can keep it open if you use it"

This, of course, is the root of the problem.

Even more than the disastrous Politburo Cabinet system, and arguably as bad as the overt party politicisation that is the defining trait of this administration, it betrays a complete lack of commitment to, or a sense of ownership of, the public services we rely on the Council to provide.

(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.

The ruling Conservative group see it as OUR fault that WE haven't been using OUR pool often enough, so now THEY have to close it for our own good.

The reality of course is different. The pool is the property of the Council. It is managed by the Politburo Cabinet on our behalf. It is a public service facility. And yes, they are managing it as, or more, cost effectively as anyone else could, but what they do not have is the commitment to make it work, to promote it, to invest in it, to appreciate its importance educationally and socially. They see it as they see everything else, as a business whose costs can't be reduced any further and it still can't be made to pay its way - so it has to go.

It is quite clear the Commissar leading this so-called Conservative administration does not appreciate and cannot be trusted to run any public services at all.

Worse, he is causing tremendous damage to Fylde's finances though his ignorance of them, (either that or he is deliberately lying about them), and because he refuses to use the experience available from the full council - who collectively have a much broader and more detailed perception to offer than any seven you individuals from within their number. His narrow, blinkered view misses a great deal before it is too late.

But as if that wasn't bad enough, he is setting up such antagonism to the coast (and to the Conservatives) from Councillors who are non-conservatives that once he loses power (and sure as eggs the Conservatives will lose power based on their present trajectory) the damage that will descend on the coast from what may well be unintended and subconscious, but will nevertheless be seen as rural retribution for being denied proper consideration over the years, will perpetuate the pain.

Worse still, as we saw this evening, he has bought such draconian changes to the Constitution and in procedure that in opposition, the Conservatives will be treated as badly (or perhaps even worse) than he is treating others at the moment.

He is also causing political damage to a very capable and competent constituency MP in Michael Jack. He works tirelessly for the benefit of his constituents in Parliament, but through no fault of his own other than by association, he is now starting to be tarred locally with the same brush as the Commissar. There were calls from the public gallery to suggest as such.

This whole process led by John Coombes, is creating a cycle of anger, distrust and retribution that can do nothing but harm the very area he is supposed to be working for the good of.

There are no doubt some Conservatives who are so innocent they won't even see this, and there are probably one or two that wouldn't care anyway. But there are some good people being led very badly astray here. They should feel ashamed at letting themselves be used in this way, and for putting blind loyalty to a party before loyalty to the people that elected them.

This was no more evident that when John Coombes and Tim Ashton tried to speak, and they were howled down by an angry public gallery that wanted to hear no more of them.

Amid completely unprecedented scenes, the Mayor adjourned the meeting for tempers to cool.

When it resumed, there were five police officers at the back of the public gallery, and a team of council officers had been placed every two or three rows around the room to act as spotters and identify anyone who spoke out.

We're not old enough to remember, but isn't that process how the early meetings in Nazi Germany were policed during Hitler's rise to power?

The Council officers were very polite, and they first warned any individuals who shouted out that they should be quiet. But the threat of removal, Walter Wolfgang style, was ever present.

Several people, when faced with this situation, realised they would not be listened to by the present Conservative administration, and left to go home ready to re-group for another day. One a swimming teacher of more than 30 years experience was so incensed she orally laid into John Coombes when he was speaking and he was forced to sit down as she vented the anger many people were feeling. The Mayor asked her to leave the meeting, but she was already on her feet, and in the process of leaving in disgust at the procedure being adopted as he spoke.

That was the third member of the public to have complained about the way a Fylde Council meeting was being run before storming out of it in the last six months.

Dim Tim, recognising that both counterbalance and Howard Henshaw had blown his cover on the supposed £600,000 reduction in Government grant said "We are in this position because of cuts in Government grant, we've had a below inflation increase in the grant"  - So at last the truth about the Government grant had come out and the public gallery again erupted. There had not been a £600,000 cut at all, it was just that the INCREASE Fylde had been given was less than inflation.

Through all this John Coombes sat loving it. His contented, smug, countenance showed childish relish at the exercise of naked power. He knew he would win all the votes and get his own way. And he did.

He is in power, there is no mistake.

But what he has lost, is the respect that should go with it. He has also lost the consent of the people to be governed.

Political power exercised without the respect and consent of the people, is tyranny, and that is what Fylde Council has been reduced to.

A tyrannical regime headed by a tinpot dictator, with officers seemingly incapable of telling this particular Emperor he is naked, and acquiescing in the destruction of a once charming Borough.

And thus the meeting continued, with the closure motion being deployed ever more rapidly, until at the end, with a 26:20 vote, it was brought in to prevent Councillor David Chedd (who seconded an amendment) from speaking in support of it as its seconder, and to prevent any further amendments from being proposed. This was despite properly submitted amendments by Councillors Oades, Hayhurst and Pagett that were sitting on the Mayor's desk waiting their time to be called.

So perfectly legitimate amendments on Special Expenses and Equitable Taxation - and other matters - all of which have great importance to urban residents, were denied an airing at all.

This quite disgraceful and indiscriminate use of the closure motion as a bulldozer should not have been allowed by the Mayor, and the Chief Executive should have advised him better.

Using the logic deployed that evening, the meeting could have opened with the budget being proposed by John Coombes and seconded by Paul Rigby. Then Tim Ashton could have proposed "That the question now be put" and had that seconded by Simon Renwick. There would then have been an immediate vote on the closure of debate which the Conservative majority could have carried 28:20, and the whole meeting could have been over in less than two minutes.

Clearly, everyone who respects democracy will recognise that scenario as a nonsense.

But, using the rulings applied by the Mayor, and the interpretation of the Council's Constitution applied by the Chief Executive and the Councils Legal Officer, it would have been both acceptable, and lawful had it been employed.

This is even more of a nonsense of course and, given the weakness or at least the inability of the Executive to keep its use in check, it highlights a need for a change in the Council's Constitution to require more than a simple majority to approve a closure motion.

But there was another nonsense that evening:

Not one Saint Anne's Conservative Councillor voted to keep the Swimming Pool open.

That is a disgrace, and for once, we are at a loss for words to describe this betrayal of, and insult to, Councillors who are no longer alive, but who gave their all to build that swimming pool.

The best we can do for the moment is to close this item with some quotes from the meeting:

Cllr John Davies:
"I think Cllr Coombes plan to reduce the bus money cost is to close all the facilities so no one will to come here."

Cllr Paul Hayhurst:
"Because Simon Renwick is standing for LCC he has found some money for Kirkham. But we all know there is more behind this. This is about a shady deal being done behind closed doors to get rid of St Anne's Pool. This group of Conservatives won't get re-elected for another 20 years at this rate"

Wag in the gallery: (in reference to Cllr Albert Pounder's eulogy about the growth and benefits of the FBC website).
"You can't swim in a website!"

Cllr Tim Ashton:
"We're giving Kirkham Baths a stay of execution"

Cllr Liz Oades:
"The closure motion is being abused, and shame on you Mr Woodward for allowing it"

Cllr Paul Rigby: (on re-developing the Town Hall)
"We will be sending the right message to our neighbours"

Cllr Paul Rigby: (Commenting on Cllr Hayhurst's proposed amendment)
"He's thrown a lot of shit, and I'm the farmer here, and I know all about shit"

Chief Executive Philip Woodward: (opening the meeting after the adjournment)
"This is a council meeting held in public and we do have the police at the back of the room"

Cllr Tim Ashton:
"We looked at closing Lowther Pavilion, but that would have cost us an extra £140,000"

Cllr Keith Becket:
"If we close the baths and one child dies through drowning, it's on your head if you vote to close the baths"

Mayor: (addressing the public gallery)
"This Council will not be intimidated." Response: "Neither will we!"

Cllr John Coombes:
"I shall keep proposing that the vote be put until we get to the end of this meeting. This is the best way to go forward"

Cllr Elaine Silverwood: (embarrassing Cllr Paul Rigby by re-stating his quotation from a previous meeting)
"It is our intention to build a baths alongside the YMCA in Lytham"

counterbalance:
"Given the anger voiced by residents at the Council meeting, and the six thousand people who marched in protest last Saturday, what on earth makes the Council think that a respected organisation like the YMCA would want to destroy its reputation locally and become as unpopular as the present Conservative administration has become by joining with the Council in a scheme to kill off St Anne's Swimming pool?"

Dated:  8 March 2008 

If you'd like to see a video of (more or less) the whole meeting, vist Fylde's website


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