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Council Agenda - June 2009

Fylde Council June 2009On Monday evening, Fylde Council is being asked to make decisions on two quite major issues. Both will affect residents of Fylde for the next 20 years or more.

And both decisions are being proposed by an administration in dire straits - economically and politically.  In the fading half of this administration's term, we think it is now almost too late for those in power to salvage the support they need to win the next election.

Unless they effect a significant structural change - both in personnel and in the way they do things, and unless they reverse many of the policies that are so unpopular with local people - they are destined for the electoral wilderness.

Curiously, this situation exactly reflects the situation in Government where the same things: public displeasure with decisions taken without the support of the electorate - such as the Iraq war (whilst at Fylde it was closing the swimming pools); and a disastrous panoply of financial decisions - amounting to incompetence that has resulted in the need for huge borrowing to cover day-to-day costs (at Fylde it is exactly the same but the scale is probably even worse pro rata).

When facing political oblivion of this sort, one of two things usually happens.

Either the reform necessary to regain public trust is implemented - usually with some painful blood-letting, or there develops a 'devil may care' attitude that disregards public opinion for party-political advantage in the knowledge that doom approaches anyway.

We believe the latter course is starting to appear at Fylde.

So what are the two issues that lead to this view?

Well, they don't sound earth shattering. The reports for Monday are headed "Fylde Coast Multi Area Agreement" and "2008/09 Budget Capitalization" (that's capitalisation with the 'z')


1. MULTI-AREA AGREEMENT
The report on the Multi Area Agreement describes the administrative and contractual glue that will bind together the presently independent policy-forming councils of Blackpool, Fylde and Wyre.

The same issue is being considered by all three councils at more or less the same time.

The summary of the agreement includes measures that will, in our view:

1). ACCEPT THE PRE-EMINENT POSITION OF BLACKPOOL IN THE 'PARTNERSHIP'
Example: "To continue current discussions, in order to reach a mutually acceptable way forward on the form and terms of an additional commitment to Blackpool"

2). PLANNING: UNIFY THE LOCAL PLANNING SYSTEM ACROSS THE COAST
Example: "To align the timescales for the implementation of Local Development Frameworks across the Fylde Coast and to bring together a combined core strategy for the Fylde Coast." and "Develop a memorandum of understanding on the alignment of core strategies."

3). HOUSING: UNIFY THE TREATMENT AND PROVISION OF HOUSING ACROSS THE COAST
Example: "Commit to the Fylde Coast being among the first areas in the North West to undertake a 'single conversation' with the Homes and Communities Agency, leading to the development of an agreed programme of funding from the HCA for the Fylde Coast."

4). GROWTH POINT: ACCEPT THE GROWTH POINT SCHEME
Example: "Review the evidence base and progress in delivering the Central Lancashire and Blackpool Growth Point, particularly to support the accelerated delivery of new homes through regeneration in inner Blackpool" and "Develop a memorandum of understanding on the alignment of core strategies."

5). LEISURE AND CULTURE: UNIFY THE TREATMENT OF LEISURE AND CULTURAL SERVICES ACROSS THE FYLDE COAST
Example: "Develop a Fylde Coast Cultural strategy which aims to improve the profile and performance of the leisure services and the cultural economy"

6). TOURISM: TO UNIFY TOURISM ACROSS THE FYLDE COAST
Example: "Within a context of a new Fylde Coast Visitor Economy framework, to prioritise the Fylde Coast as a NW cultural brand" and "Harmonise approaches to the provision of visitor information in accordance with both the regional visitor information framework" and "Develop the Fylde Coast as a vibrant and 'happening' by introducing a world class 365 events programme that is effectively marketed"

There are other unification measures as well, including considerable unification of economic development.

In effect, this report is the starting gun for the drive to unify the governance of the whole of the Fylde Coast area in all but name. (And we confidently predict that *will* be the name for the new authority when it is eventually revealed by the way).

But none of this Multi Area Agreement proposal has had, or is planned to have, the benefit of public consultation. The emerging 'duty to involve'  (i.e. the responsibility Councils have to involve the public) is being given scant attention.

Just like the Iraq war, the plan will therefore be denied the democratic legitimacy of public approval and, again just like the Iraq war, this will come back to haunt those who make the decision to support it.

It can be argued that, in a unification of the three coastal authorities, just as in the UK's membership of a unified Europe, there are membership benefits that are worth the cost of giving up the sovereignty of decision-making, and the individuality of our distinct cultural identity.

In Europe's case the benefit is chiefly the avoidance of inter-nation wars.

In our case, the benefit is the eventual political unification of the Fylde coast, thought by many to ensure that votes from the Fylde Borough electorate, plus the mostly Conservative votes from Wyre Borough, will retain a basically labour-supporting Blackpool in Conservative control for the foreseeable future. (Just as we predicted in City Sickers in March 2007)

So what were the similarities and dichotomies, the benefits and disadvantages for unification when we looked at that time?

Well, one disadvantage was cost.

It will arguably cost Fylde residents more than it costs them now if they also have to shell out to subsidise the deprivation and social problems that successive Blackpool councils allowed (or perhaps even encouraged) to develop. (Note here that deprivation gets you big government grant settlements, so it is a lifestyle choice for some Councils.)

Some say that Blackpool is the main commercial and economic centre for the Fylde, implying that its neighbours should be ready to pay a bit more for the benefits we get.

What benefits, you may well ask?

We're not altogether sure, so we looked up some of the statistics.

The percentage of the population officially classed as "deprived" was  24%in Blackpool, whilst in Fylde it was one third of this figure at 8.6%

Employment deprivation in Blackpool was 18.4% whilst in Fylde it was half this at 9.3%

The average household income in Blackpool was £27,000 but in Fylde it was £33,000

What about the socio-economic groupings then? Well....

CategoryFylde    Blackpool
Large employers & higher managerial 4.3%1.7%
Higher professional occupations 6.8% 2.4%
Lower managerial & professional 19.3%14.0%
Intermediate occupations 10.2%9.7%
Small employers & own account workers8.2%10.0%
Lower supervisory & technical6.7%7.7%
Semi-routine occupations9.6%13.4%
Routine occupations  5.9%10.4%
Never worked 1.3%2.5%
Long-term unemployed0.5%1.2%
Full-time students4.8%4.5%

If Blackpool is the main commercial and economic centre for the Fylde, then it pretty much doesn't provide the sort of jobs that will keep Fylde residents in the manner to which they have become accustomed, with its high preponderance of low skilled or unskilled routine occupations and its low proportion of professional and managerial jobs.

The inescapable conclusion is that Blackpool's economic engine is a third-world model powered by cheap labour, whilst Fylde's is knowledge-based.

No wonder Blackpool is keen to focus less on the problems, and more on the benefits - those benefits of unification are all for Blackpool, and our role is simply to subsidise and help pay for those in greater 'need'.

However, maybe deprivation and economics aren't the 'be all and end all' of this. What about quality of life, what about - say, the crime rate?

Here again we have the same story. Blackpool had more of a malaise than Fylde. Measured by recorded crime per 1000 population, violence against the person in Blackpool was 37.8 per thousand, whilst in Fylde it was about a third of this level at 11.5

Robbery was 1.1 per thousand in Blackpool, but in Fylde it was only a quarter of this at 0.3 per thousand. Burglary was 5.9 per thousand in Blackpool and half this at 3.3 per thousand in Fylde.

So that doesn't get Blackpool off the hook either.

But maybe previous references to Blackpool being 'the sick man of Lancashire' - were literal. Maybe they referred to talking about health and longevity.

There are dozens of statistics here, and to be honest, we couldn't find a single one where Blackpool was better than Fylde. In fact, the opening sentence of the NHS health profiles for Blackpool and for Fylde sum it up perfectly:

Blackpool
"For Blackpool, 22 out of 25 indicators are worse than the regional and national average."

Fylde
"For Fylde, 17 of the 25 indicators are better than the national average and 20 better than the regional average."

Case closed. Diagnosis complete.

We hope that Fylde, even at this late hour, will see sense and step away from this foolish path that leads to ever closer unity with Blackpool

The people of this area will electorally punish, and not forgive, any party that sets this particular train in motion.

 

2. CAPITALIZED SPENDING
(With hints of a possible pool re-opening)

The second main item on Monday's agenda is to agree to take up an offer to capitalise some revenue spending.

What this means in simple terms is a plan to borrow money to pay for routine running costs.

This practice breaks the 'golden rule' of government accounting that you don't do this sort of thing (you only borrow money for one-off big projects such as land acquisition, buildings or plant and equipment that will have a lifespan of many years).

As we reported in 'Capital, Dear Commissar, Capital' the Council has had to get special permission from Government to do this borrowing, and that permission has chiefly been granted because this near insolvent Council would not have been able to maintain its balances at the minimum level it needed for safety.

With classic accounting sleight of hand, it now plans to inject this borrowing of £705,000 into *last* year's accounts (that's the 2008/09 accounts which ought to have been closed around now).

Doing so will put cash into the accounts for 08/09 and thus shore up the minimum reserve they need, and hide the fact that they were so financially incompetent.

It will also enable the Council to carry forward the remaining part of the borrowed money for spending this year (2009/10).

The Cabinet agreed to do this on 6th May, but because this decision is part of the 'budget framework' it is one of the few that must be taken by the full Council alone.

So where is the money coming from exactly?

Well first, the Council are being allowed use income from the sale of assets worth £150,000 (which would normally only be available for spending on other capital schemes) for revenue spending. (That means day to day expenses such as staffing costs or whatever).

Second, they are planning to borrow £555,000 that will also be used to support day-to-day expenses.

The repayment of this loan (with it's current very low level of interest payable) will cost Fylde taxpayers £40,000 a year  for each of the next 20 years.

When interest rates go up in the future, it will cost us even more.

This is truly a 'live today, and pay tomorrow' scheme.

So, apart from shoring up the inadequate reserve, what important things is this money going to be spent on?

Well as we showed in 'Capital, Dear Commissar, Capital', of the £705,000 that will become available, just about £300,000 is to be spent on "contributions to the Authority's pension fund" and on "redundancy payments." (Yes really, they are borrowing to make staff redundant because they can't even afford the cost of the redundancy pay!)

The other £405,000 is to be spent "developing the Core Strategy" which is central to the new planning system to replace the local plan, and on "investment in the council's assets and infrastructure".

The core strategy is something that (so long as the present government remains in office) is badly needed, and will last for perhaps 20 or more years, so that's probably a sensible use.

However, what we don't know, is how much of the £405k is going to be spent on that and how much is going to be spent on "investment in the council's assets and infrastructure".

The report to Council on Monday evening doesn't make this any more clear either.

Nor does it say exactly what "assets and infrastructure" are going to have money spent on them.

At the Cabinet meeting in May, Dim Tim, (who proposed the closure of St Anne's and Kirkham pools) said now they could borrow this money, he wanted to look into opening the St Anne's Swimming Pool, and an expectation has now developed.

We understand there have been visitations to the pool and more meetings with the YMCA, but this is all being kept under wraps at the moment.

We heard unconfirmed gossip that the YM had walked out of one of the meetings when threatened that if they didn't play ball and accept a lower subsidy for running the pool, their place would be taken by someone else that was interested. We understand the YM reps said, in effect, they don't negotiate with a gun to their heads and withdrew from the meeting.

The Commissar clearly doesn't understand that sort of integrity.

But the speculation is interesting. We think the other company might have been the same one that was interested around the time of the closure, and had been introduced to FBC by the St Anne's Town Council.

We understand their plan was to put an income-generating fitness suite on the upper floor (or an additional floor) of the St Anne's Pool that would help to cross-subsidise the losses on swimming. At the time we understand that FBC's officers came to the view that their plan was not sufficiently financially robust and declined to get involved.

So given that belief, if they were the ones in the Council's mind whilst negotiating with the YM, then it was probably a bluff that didn't work.

But we also heard that within the last week or so there were sightings of people going into St Anne's Pool and they had been looking at the pool infrastructure.

We understand (as we predicted would happen in earlier articles) that tiles have fallen off the side of the pool (because the water and the pressure they partly relied on to keep them in place disappeared when the pool was emptied). So there is probably £50,000 or so worth of repairs needed to make the pool structure useable again. Arguably, that could be a capital cost, but with £400,000 from the sale of the Heeley Road site at a proper market value, there should be a few bob available for that anyway.

We also understand the pool equipment was inspected.

At first, there were rumours that it was people from Blackpool who were looking to buy some of the St Anne's equipment for their own use, but we can't help wondering, given the Commissar's new found enthusiasm to make Fylde part of a "Greater Blackpool" whether they are looking to see if Blackpool's leisure department could run the St Anne's pool instead of the YMCA.

We understand there is to be a report made to Fylde at the end of June - probably to the Cabinet meeting, and it will set out matters relating to the Swimming Pool.

This could, of course, propose anything from 'We've found a way of re-opening it, at least until the next Borough Council election in 2011' to 'Well, when we looked in detail there is so much that now needs spending that we ought to sell it, or include it for another use in a re-vamp of the promenade'

So the crucial issue for this Monday's Council is whether Councillors should agree to the borrowing without really knowing what their £405,000 loan will be used for.

In essence the report for Monday says "Give us authority to borrow the money, then we can decide what we will spend it on" We regard that as an insult to the Council, but we also suspect it is intentional. Re-opening of the pool will no doubt be hinted at, but whether the subsequent report will say that's what should happen, and how much it will cost, is entirely unknown.

The sensible thing would be for the Council to decide to defer the decision until further information on the spending proposals is presented to them and they can make a properly informed decision.

But that's not going to happen. The majority-party machinery and block-voting practice is almost certain to ensure the embarrassing overspend and inadequate reserves are hidden from view by what will become 'backdated borrowing', and it will also commit future taxpayers to funding the present administration's financial incompetence for the next 20 years.

Dated:  6 June 2009


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