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countering the spin and providing the balance


Income Generation?

Income Generation?For a while now, we have been wondering whether to comment on a fundamental change that is taking place in local governance, not just in Fylde, but across the country. Then, by accident, two situations fell into our lap, one in Wyre and one in Fylde. Together, they tipped the balance in favour of comment.

At the root of both are the many and varied ways that our public services are vanishing into Council moneymaking schemes, whilst the tax-take remains either unchanged or - as in Fylde - it increases by the maximum the Government will allow each year.

The change is happening so slowly it is barely perceptible. But when complete, it will create a generation that will have to pay twice - once within their Council tax, and again when they want to use a service provided by their Council.

In some cases the Government is actually 'behind' these measures. Certainly they have introduced the legislation to enable the changes. But at the end of the day, it is the decisions and actions of local councils that determine whether, and to what extent, they are implemented on their electorates.

So what are the two items that sparked this article off?

Well, as with the straw that broke the camel's back, the first was a small thing really. It was Wyre Council's Tourist Information Service which is undergoing a metamorphosis.

We picked the story up from the 'Garstang Courier' and thought it merited a deeper look.

The Tourist Information Service has been one of the great success stories for local Councils.

A QUANGO (The English Tourist Board) dealt with international tourism, and it  also oversaw regional Tourist Boards. In this area the Northwest Tourist Board was the main one.

Unusually for QUANGO's, those Tourist Boards were mostly focussed, fit, and effective. Their overall direction, and part of their funding came from Government, but their main income was from Local Authorities who chose whether to subscribe to them or not.

The advantage of membership was that, provided you met the universal criteria for operating a Tourist Information Centres (TIC), you became part of a nationally branded 'franchise' that was universally recognised as the de-facto, helpful and authoritative source of cogent information on accommodation and attractions in any part of the UK.

Local councils employed the staff and paid the operating costs of the TIC, who in turn provided customer service to a nationally recognised standard. The Tourist Board provided excellent training and promoted a culture and ethos that produced dedicated, 'above and beyond the call of duty' staff who knew their areas backward.

Both Fylde and Wyre Councils were part of the national scheme, and Wyre has TIC's in Fleetwood, Cleveleys and Garstang. They open on either a full-time or part-time basis. They are good TIC's, with both Fleetwood and Cleveleys winning the 'best in region' awards in the last two years.

But we understand that today, the staff from all three locations in Wyre are working out redundancy notices over Christmas.

We wondered how the staff running such a successful service could be so abused.

From what we could establish, they were told that they were all being made redundant because the former TIC service was being radically changed and re-organised, and because of that, their former jobs were finishing.

This was an unpalatable, and some might say, inappropriate, way to treat highly motivated loyal staff, but to be fair to Wyre, the pressure may not be emanating wholly from Wyre itself.

The pain was no doubt eased a little, when the staff were told they could all apply for jobs in the new service - which was being re-designed around a new computer system.

This could all have been dealt with through an internal re-structuring and some re-training of course, But it wasn't, and for those able to read such things, the writing was on the wall for the present staff when they had to apply for 'their own' jobs.

We understand that, having now gone through the formal application and interview process, Wyre decided that none of the staff (even the ones that won it the awards) was suitable for any of the newly created vacancies.

This is a quite shocking state of affairs, and we wanted to understand more. Had it been a macho management move we wondered?

Having spoken to some of the staff concerned, they didn't think that was the case. They thought it was not so much a management originated matter, but external pressure being applied to the Council to change the nature of the service from being a public service to an income generating one.

If they are right,  you can expect to see TIC's in Wyre (and probably across the country) being turned into shops and commission-driven booking agencies staffed by computer-literate, sales-orientated people who won't want to waste too much time on those who aren't likely to increase their profitability.

So we can envisage a future with something following the banking model, where experienced counter staff were replaced by sales-driven parrots who saw you as a cross-selling opportunity, not a banking customer (or even a human being in some cases).

And we all know where that sort of approach has led us, don't we.

So, we can also envisage a future where something that used to be a public tourist information service, is now likely to become a council-run business.

But as far as we are aware, the Council Tax isn't being reduced, even though a service which, up to now, has been paid for our of our Rates and Council Tax, will, in future, become a cash-generating business for the Council.

This new model for 'public services' might be partially linked to legislation making its way through the corridors of power in Parliament at the moment. It's the snappily named The Local Government (Best Value Authorities) (Power to Trade) (Amendment) (England) 2006 (S.I. No. 3102/2006).

This legislation will provide the legal basis for all councils (and fire authorities) - even the hopeless councils like Fylde - to engage in commercial trade. So we might see bin men offering commercial rubbish removal, vehicle repair shops offering MOT's and, of course, TIC's making commission bookings at local hotels for you.

Whether that will mean they book you into the hotel that gives them the biggest kickback toward their bottom line (as opposed to the one that best meets your requirement - which is what happens at present), is difficult to say, but we would not be surprised to find that happening.

So that's the TIC side of things.

The other thread to this counterbalance story will seem to be wholly unrelated at first, but we ask you to bear with it.

It concerns an unpopular planning application in Lytham. The noteworthy part of it for this article is the money that the potential developer is paying to the Council in exchange for the planning permission.

Planning applications have the potential to make huge sums of money. Agricultural land is worth about £7,000 or £10,000 an acre. But the granting of planning permission for residential use will change its value to more than £1,000,000 an acre and, in recent years, Government has been exhorting councils to adopt a new system of 'charging' that makes developers pay toward community benefits when they get planning permission.

In the case in question, a developer wants to build about 40 houses on land just off Ballam Road. In order to do so, he needs planning permission. And these days, before the Council will consider his application, he has to promise to make payments to both Fylde and Lancashire County Councils  (and indeed to others such as utilities services) via a legally binding agreement to provide some community benefits that the Councils want, and that are (at least supposed to be) related to the application itself.

In the Ballam Road proposal, the County Council has asked for:

  • 70m visibility splays on either side of the entrance to the development from Ballam Road.
  • The costs of extending the 30mph limit along Ballam Road to the end of the development and to pay for extended street lighting on Ballam Road as far as the end of the development.
  • A footway along the Ballam Road frontage of the development.
  • Additional cycle and pedestrian access to the development.
  • Traffic calming measures for Ballam Road (typically roadway marking and signs).
  • £174,150 for 'transport matters'.
  • £42,240 to help relocate the InfoCentre for young people in St Annes from St David's Road South to new premises in 11/12 Back St Annes Road, which is in need of refurbishment.
  • £30,720 toward waste disposal costs.

Fylde Council seems to have asked for the developer to provide some public open space within the housing development, and a new, eleven-unit homeless hostel in St Annes in lieu of providing any 'affordable housing' on the site, but no cash figure is specified in the agreement.

Now, you might think it's only fair that developers should make contributions of this sort toward social or civic infrastructure.

We wouldn't necessarily disagree.

But this is happening with almost every planning application for more than an extension or a couple of houses. Some sites - such as the Queensway scheme - are expected to pay up to £16 million for a new road.

Roads used to be built from the taxes we pay, as did making 30mph speed limits, and street lighting, and traffic calming, and footways and cycleways, and bus services, and other transport matters, and youth facilities, and waste disposal, and housing, and homelessness. They all used to come out of taxation - until recently.

So even if you support the idea of payments like these, or indeed, even if you like the idea of a change from 'public service' to 'business income' that is now in place or being planned by: Tourist Information Centres, and special waste collections, and pest control services, and pre-application advice on planning, and public loos, and a whole range of other things, all of which used to be provided 'free' as a public service as part of the tax you paid,  you might like to wonder when you are going to see a reduction in your council tax because the funding for these services is now being raised from you in other ways.

You might also wonder how much the price of new houses has increased to cover the cost of paying these sums to Councils, who haven't reduced their taxes and who now charge for the services they provide.

This is a 'triple whammy' for those Fylde says are desperately short of 'affordable housing.'

You might also like to ponder the new and wider range of 'income generation services' that are also being implemented by councils.

Car parks were once a public facility to help attract people to the area and to minimise road parking, and parking was 'free.'   Now they're a cash cow milked to the tune of half a million a year for Fylde.

And as we know, there are new street-trading and dog control orders to generate licence fee receipts and income from fixed penalty notices on the cards.

These are nothing short of moneymaking scams wrapped up as pretend 'public services'.

Oh! and of course, in St Annes, there is another public service we used to have. One that previous generations of Councillors managed to provide for us from the taxes we paid. It was called a public swimming pool.

According to the Commissar, this was going to be re-opened "before the snow starts to fall."  Well, the snow has been two inches thick in our part of St Annes this morning Commissar!

As if by stealth, our public services are being privatised or changed into income generation machines in the name of 'modernisation'. Very few people realise the extent to which this is going on. And all the while, the Council Tax we pay is being subverted to other things.

As we said at the start, some of these double - or treble - taxation measures are inspired by Government. But at the end of the day, it is the Councillors we elect that choose whether or not, and to what extent, to implement them.

Dated:  21 December 2009


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