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Extra-ordinary Council

Extra-Ordinary CouncilThe Council Meeting held on 26 October was held outside the programmed meeting timetable.

In business terms it was a 'extraordinary meeting' but in Fylde's terms it was, sadly, very ordinary.

There was more disregard for the authority of the full council, more sleight of hand to change the rules when no one is looking, and more financial incompetence and waste of our money. It prompted the linked article in this publication where we float the idea that we should twin with Zimbabwe.

This is now a zombie council. Like Zimbabwe, it's a dead administration walking. Paralysed by lack of funds, lack of support from the electorate, and lack of consensus on almost all its decisions, it staggers from day to day toward its inevitable end.

The difficult bit is whether Commissar is doing this intentionally - to destroy FBC in order to make a merger with Blackpool easier, or whether it is just a by-product of his inept administration. We suspect it's a bit of both. He probably believes a merger with Blackpool and Wyre will give his party control of the coast when Fylde's blue votes are added to the total so he will support that aim, but his administration is undoubtedly the worst to grace the fine old building that he is once again getting ready to destroy.

The meeting agenda had three main items. Changes to the Constitution; a plan to reconsider a planning application; and "Council Accommodation."   We'll look at each.

CONSTITUTION
Readers will remember that Fylde recently borrowed £300,000 to make staff redundant.

Staff losses are now reaching the tipping point where hardly any of the staff that know how it should be run remain in post. First class experts in election management, local plans and IT are going to disappear over the next few months as the Commissar slashes his wage bill. Our loss here is someone else's gain. We might return to this topic in a future article.

But under the guise of changes in job titles caused by shuffling the work around between those that remain, the Constitution is being changed.  Again.

It was last changed on 27 July, which is barely three months ago.

Most people think of a Constitution as being the unchanging rules that are the solid framework of an organisation. In Fylde's case the rules change more often than we get visitors these days, and the framework is so fluid it is liquid.

On this occasion there were changes to rules on 'property transactions' on the 'six month rule' and on 'recorded votes'

Property Transactions
The property transaction changes are disgraceful and exceptionally dangerous.

Still stinging from being caught out doing things wrong when they tried to give away the Heeley Road site (which turned out to be worth at least £400,000), the rules have now been changed so they no longer have to sell land either by competitive tender or by making a formal suspension of their Standing Orders in order to sell it at an estimated valuation.

As Cllr Buckley told a public meeting recently, this change was necessary because they were having to suspend Standing Orders so often to sell land, and it looked suspicious.

Too right it did.

The whole point is that suspension of Standing Orders should be something used in extremis - in exceptional circumstances when the proper process of selling public land by tender cannot be met for some fundamentally unavoidable reason.

The requirement to sell on tender is there for a good reason. It's to minimise the risk of 'insider trading' and favouritism. It's there to reduce the potential for fraud and dodgy dealings. It's very much easier for that sort of thing to happen when the safeguards are not in place.

Those with longer memories than the Commissar will remember the huge Poulson and T Dan Smith scandals of the 1960s which brought Local Government to its knees just as the expenses scandal has done for parliament.

So when Fylde was 'caught out' by not selling on tender and not suspending their Standing Orders to sell the Heeley Road site, instead of solving it by reminding all concerned that all land disposals MUST be by competitive tender unless there was an exceptional reason, they have simply changed the rules so now the default position when selling land is no longer that it must be sold on tender.

The key change is that "All disposals of Council land and buildings will be referred to the Council's Principal Estates Surveyor, who will recommend a method of disposal and marketing strategy for the approval the Director of Strategic Development."

This is very dangerous for the officers concerned and for the good governance of the Council. It puts officers in the lead of how land is disposed of. Where this happens in a council that has a bullying, dogmatic Leader, it can subject staff to intolerable pressure to bend the rules under threat.

Just as bankers have been found wanting and have brought nations down by bending the rules on loans by allowing individuals to offer loans there was no real prospect of being repaid, so without the scrutiny and experience of the full council, sitting in open and transparent public session to approve both a disposal and the method of sale, there is the same risk of deals behind doors that few are aware of and we predict it will eventually lead to civic disaster, just as the excessive loans by bankers have done. This decision is bad for Fylde.

The Six Month Rule
This looks to have been an officer inspired change. The rule says that if a matter has been considered by the Council or a committee it can't reconsider it within six months unless at least eight members people from at least two parties support it. The point of it is to prevent a councillor holding up the business of meeting after meeting with the same item. The proposed change was to have authority for reconsideration of a matter lie with one of three officers. Sensibly we think, the Council rejected this plan.

Recorded Votes
This was a curious item. Mostly, councillors don't like recorded votes because they show how individuals have voted. But this proposal came from the Commissar.

We have at least one reader who will be very happy with this - he has been agitating for it for several years.

We're broadly in favour of it, by we're puzzled - as indeed were some of the non-Conservative councillors - as to why it's being introduced now.

Popular logic amongst the non-Conservatives is that an election giveaway war chest is being compiled with funds from asset disposals between now and the election in 2011, and the leading group want to be able to score electoral points in the future if 'opposition' councillors vote against some proposals.

The reason is not clear, but we will now have recorded votes at future Council (but not committee) meetings.

PLANNING APPLICATION
A rare outbreak of unanimity at Fylde saw a grant of planning decision referred back to Development Control Committee for its reconsideration. This is to do with a plan to extend the business area of Whitehills down toward Cropper Road. The plan was approved, but after the meeting, some councillors were publicly saying that as part of its permission the officers should require the developer to pay something toward the new road that is proposed across the moss. We remember the man from Kensington getting very hot under the collar about this in the Gazette.

Well it seems that the officers didn't ask him for any money, or if they did it wasn't forthcoming, and the councillors are not happy about that.

The vote to refer a decision to approve an application back to the DC committee is unprecedented in our memory. It is (apparently) justified because the formal decision notice had not been sent out, and it is that, rather than the decision of the Committee, which marks finality in the process.

Stand by for fireworks when that is communicated to the applicant.

COUNCIL ACCOMMODATION
A strong sense of de ja vu flowed over us as we watched this unfold. Again.

It is rapidly becoming the project that will overtake the much lamented Ashton Theatre for incompetent planning (the theatre burned down and all the insurance money was spent on constantly changing plans until there wasn't enough left to actually build it).

The Town Hall is going much the same way.

No one has officially said how much has been spent on plans and feasibility studies and proposals to date, but our own estimate is around £800,000 and not a brick laid. We understand that Queen Elizabeth Oades reckons it is around £850,000 but whatever it is, it's a huge waste of our money and would have provided a lot of services we no longer have.

Back in September 05, the seventh article published by counterbalance was about how the Cllr John Coombes, under the tutelage of former Chief Executive Ken Lee, said that Fylde has been "inward-looking" and "antiquated", and that his act of gross municipal vandalism in destroying the Town Hall in a blitz of 'modernisation' would be "a defining moment" in Fylde's history. We said at the time that Councils that become deluded of their own importance and prize policy, procedure, and what they call 'capacity-building' over actually providing the services we elect them to run are on the slippery path to oblivion.

This one has learned nothing - as we will soon show our readers.

On 6th October 2005, counterbalance reported Town Hall (Mk2) that the plan was to put a new building adjoining the old Public Offices on Clifton Drive. We had been told in confidence that the cost at that time was in the order of £2.5 million.

Then in March 2006, the scheme was shelved because the Commissar couldn't afford the grandiose scheme originally conceived between himself and Fylde's ill fated ex-Chief Executive. This was because of a Government change in planning laws that stopped Fylde building any houses for a time. The value of the Town hall site he was going to sell to fund the Ivory Tower had plummeted and there wasn't enough to pay for the new building.

Around 19th May, the Commissar - showing unbelievable nerve - and a skin thicker than a rhinoceros, sent out a newsletter with the headline "Conservatives have saved the Town Hall".

Yes really.

And it was they who had put it under threat.

Such is the spin and deception we suffer from this administration.

Then in February counterbalance broke news of The Great January Sale where he had rounded up a list of sites he could sell-off to pay for the Ivory Tower when the market picked up.

In fact, when you think about it, this Ivory Tower has been the root cause of all the main problems besetting Fylde. It was this plan that saw depots and CVMU closed in order that they could be sold to fund the scheme. These subsequently gave rise to the Heeley Road debacle and to the transfer of work to depots in Poulton and Thornton that saw fuel costs increase and the Streetscene disaster that closed the swimming pool, and the row about the North Beach Car Park.

Since then he has been plotting and scheming how he can make it work. Plans to extend Lowther Pavilion as the Council Chamber were firmly squashed when protestors invoked ancient covenants preventing political meetings being held there.

The scheme changed and the former 'Chaseley' building next to the Town Hall was mooted for demolition and rebuilding as a new office block, with the Council chamber being on the ground floor of the present town hall, and a flats development above. The cost of this went up to £7.5 million (although the Commissar keeps quoting it without the VAT and professional fees at just over £5 million)

As an aside at this point, the plans for the new office block on the Chaseley site included an open balcony-type feature more or less overlooking the Admiral pub. You might wonder what this was about. We mused whether the Commissar really does seem to think he is a sovereign. If he hadn't made them all redundant or contracted their jobs out to Blackpool, we can just imagine him taking the salute on the balcony as parades of loyal troops with shouldered brushes and spades gave an "Eyes Right" as they marched to their duties.

But this was not to be either, and it now looks as though Chaseley scheme has bitten the dust.

Then came the great credit and housing depression and even the sale of all the land he had earmarked wasn't going to raise the £7 million he needed.

Undaunted, he had the plans changed yet again, after the Council was asked to approve the former brief with - what appeared to be - a few minor amendments, but which, crucially, allowed leased property to be considered as well as built property.

A scheme to put the offices and council chamber above ALDI (which is yet to be built on the site of the former Conservative Club and was to have had flats above) was hatched. We know this because we'd seen the plans from the architectural practice that drew them, and because the Commissar admitted as much to the Express after counterbalance asked our readers if they could think of anywhere that could change from being say, a town centre leased residential use, to a civic use? And we gave you the clue that it could be a building that suits a bargain basement council that would sell off its heritage for a mess of pottage.

Now it looks as though that scheme might have ground to a halt too, because last Monday's agenda was asking for authority to spend another £25,000 to get some more plans done for the 'original' scheme that attached a new building to the back of the old Public Offices opposite the end of Wood Street and wraps it around the rear car park and returns to where the former Tourism and Leisure offices now stand empty.

The estimated costs for this are now £3.5 million (up from £2.5 million in 2005) and even the £3.5m is "Excluding fees, disbursements and external works" (so you can bet its going to be £5m by the time it's finished).

Apparently, this latest version of the scheme and the rough cost was dreamed up by Councillor Kevin Eastham on a train journey back to St Annes, and it seems to involve selling the whole of the Town Hall site to fund this plan as well as the other sites.

So what happened at the Council meeting last Monday that heard the report? Was everyone in favour?

You can bet they weren't.

The Chief Finance Officer had commented "A significant amount has been allocated from the approved capital programme for the existing approved project the value of which would be lost if an alternative were now to be pursued."  Quite rightly, this officer's role is not to make policy, or to decide what money should be spent on. He can only to point out when they are about to do something that is financially stupid.

The Commissar opened the agenda item. He said "It's time that residents, councillors, and staff as well had closure on this particular issue," adding "The one thing we have agreed on is that we can not do nothing,"  but he said they needed more realistic options in the present financial climate. He said the North Beach Car Park had been removed from the assets for sale list because "there were some interesting options that had come forward for it" North beachers need to be very afraid at this statement.

Then, in a display of civic arrogance that is anathema to residents of Fylde, he said "we must rise above rise above party politics,  pressure from local groups, pressure from traditionalists within our own staff, and council groups, to ensure that we deliver value for money for our residents, and as a result secure frontline services to their current high standard for years to come" The man is clearly deluded.

His proposition was seconded by Cllr Kevin Eastham who said both South Ribble and Wyre had better office complexes and they were much more attractive to staff (He doesn't seem to realise the reason Fylde's good staff are - and have for a long time - been jumping ship, is that they can't cope with the management deficit of this administration and with the ever present threat of there not being enough to pay their salaries because of its financial incompetence. It's nothing to do with the office they work in).

Then Saint Paul Hayhurst took the floor.

We anticipated the onslaught and were not let down. He began by proposing they take no further action on the project now. He said these were the worst economic conditions since the 30's, the Council was almost bankrupt, they were laying staff off and making them redundant and it was wrong to be embarking on this project when they couldn't even provide basic services. He said they'd already spent a fortune - he thought more than half a million - on plans that had been wasted.

We anticipated the onslaught and were not let down. He began by proposing they take no further action on the project now. He said these were the worst economic conditions since the 30's, the Council was almost bankrupt, they were laying staff off and making them redundant and it was wrong to be embarking on this project when they couldn't even provide basic services. He said they'd already spent a fortune - he thought more than half a million - on plans that had been wasted.
doesn't seem realise reason Fylde's good are have for long time jumping ship, is can't cope with management deficit of administration ever present threat there being enough pay their salaries because its financial incompetence. It's nothing do office work in). He stressed that both main political parties were now talking about two tier government (That's the City of the Fylde to you and me), but they don't want that to be publicised because they know the public doesn't want it, but he thought it would come.

He said we needed to see the recession out and then see if Fylde has a future at all, and is still here.

He was amazed that a Conservative Council was going down this road when nationally the Conservatives were saying you can't spend your way out of a recession. He said the country was nearly as bankrupt as FBC, and thundered "This is absolute madness. This administration is in cloud cuckoo land and we can only hope that in eighteen months time the election brings us a change"

He was seconded by Cllr Keith Beckett and a recorded vote was taken on his amendment to take no further action on the "Accommodation project" now.

It was lost of course, because the Conservatives and their sympathisers voted his amendment down en-bloc.

Those voting against Cllr Hayhurst, and thus in support of the plan to spend the £25,000 on more feasibility plans were: Cllrs Ackers; Akeroyd; Ashton; Bennett; Buckley; Coombes; Cornah; Wilson; Douglas; Eastham; Eaves; Fazackerley; Fieldhouse; Fiddler; Hyde; Jacques; Little; Mulholland; Pounder; J Prestwich; D Prestwich; P Rigby; Singleton; Threlfall.

Those voting for the amendment were Cllrs: Beckett; Chedd; Chew; Davies; Greening; Hardy; Hayhurst; Hopwood; Oades; L Rigby; Silverwood; Speak.

Abstentions were Cllrs Owen and Caldwell. Those not attending the meeting were Cllrs Aitken; Clarkson; Collins; Ford; Fulford Brown; Halewood; Harper; Henshaw; Nulty; Pagett; Renwick and Small. The Council has one vacancy at present.

Then Queen Elizabeth of Kirkham tried a different amendment. She said the offices at Wesham were the most up to date, fully DDA compliant and geographically central to the borough. She proposed that the ground floor of the Town Hall be retained and improved as a Council chamber etc, but that as well as looking at the Public Offices in St Annes, they should look at the costs of using Wesham instead. She thought it would be a less costly scheme.

The vote on this went exactly the same way as Cllr Hayhurst's amendment except that Cllr Owen voted in support of Wesham rather than abstaining, and Cllr Threlfall had left the meeting by the time this vote was taken. But this amendment too was heavily defeated by the Conservatives voting en-bloc.

This left the original proposition by Cllr John Coombes that the Council supports the plan to spend up to £25,000 to progress the plans; that they conclude the planning applications prior to the disposal of the development sites and that they should investigate the possibility of borrowing the money to build the new offices in the hope that it will be matched, at least in part, by the sale income from the asset disposals.

Put to the vote this (not unexpectedly) produced a reversal of the previous voting, with chiefly the Conservative group voting for it and others voting against. The only differences were Cllr Owen - who this time voted for the resolution, and Cllr Threlfall who had left the meeting. Cllr Caldwell abstained on all three votes.

We understand abstention on conscience is the most any Conservative Councillor can do to show opposition to a proposal of his own group because a vote against the agreed party line risks the withdrawal of the whip and expulsion from the party - as Saint Barbara Pagett found out.

The possible use of a loan to build the Town Hall until the market picks up is an interesting approach. It will no doubt be promoted on the basis that it will potentially offer better value to sell when land values are higher.

However, as our readers know, nothing from this administration's lips can be taken at face value, and we know that one of the biggest sites, the St David's Road Depot site, has previously been offered to a developer for the princely sum of £1 to take it off the Council's hands because the ground contamination is so great it was believed that it would cost more to clean up than the site is worth.

But

However, as our readers know, nothing from this administration's lips can be taken at face value, and we know that one of the biggest sites, the St David's Road Depot site, has previously been offered to a developer for the princely sum of £1 to take it off the Council's hands because the ground contamination is so great it was believed that it would cost more to clean up than the site is worth.
we're are waiting to hear the land value for St David's Road North. We suspect it will be a surprise. The Commissar should actually remember it (from back in 2006), because he was chairing meetings when it was discussed.

Just as he knew in 2006 that a developer had offered £300,000 for the Heeley Road site but he still decided to give it away to Muir for a homeless hostel for no income, he will know all about the extensive and serious ground contamination on St David's Road Depot site.

Of course that *might* be why they are looking at borrowing the money first. It might be that he knows he's going to lose the next election and he privately *knows* they can't raise the dosh for a new Ivory Tower with asset sales anyway, and he's getting ready to max out Fylde's credit limit so an incoming administration is up to its eyeballs in hock and has no cash to do anything.

That would make it easier for him and his supporters to attack a new administration.

And it would make us all the poorer.

Dated:  30 October 2009


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