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Cabinet Reshuffle - April 2009

Cabinet Reshuffle April 2009

The Commissar has announced a reshuffle of his Politburo Cabinet. Readers will remember the Cabinet are the councillors he hand-picks to take on individual 'portfolios' on some particular topic, and who collectively make virtually all the decisions on what happens in Fylde Borough.

We've said before the Politburo Cabinet is an awful creation - It focuses power into too few hands and is not sufficiently democratic. It is a system that lacks the capacity to ensure the breadth and depth of vision and experience available from the 50 or so councillors at Fylde is utilised.

It fosters an aspirational culture based on patronage from the Leader (in whose gift the 'portfolio holders' rise and fall) and, unlike the former committee and Council system, it singularly fails to create a seedbed and nursery in which new councillors can gradually cut their teeth and develop the talents and experience necessary to become effective and experienced councillors.

But for the moment we are stuck with it as a system.

So how does it work and who makes the changes?

Well, the Conservative party has an overall majority on the Council. So around this time of year, they choose their own leader for the next year. Some months ago, (around the time of the parliamentary candidacy selection) we heard credible reports from senior councillors that the Commissar planned to step down as the Council Leader about now, but evidently he has changed his mind if that was the case, because he now looks set to continue.

Given the financial incompetence that closed facilities, wiped out all the cash reserves, and is now running on credit again when Fylde used to be debt free; given the bad press he has sailed headlong into, and given the bad judgement he has displayed, we find the logic of his being allowed to continue as group leader difficult to follow.

Whilst he is undoubtedly at the front, he is probably already over the edge of the electoral cliff, with the pack of political lemmings - who can only see his tail disappearing in the distance - scurrying full-tilt after him.

Without doubt, this is probably the worst administration ever to grace the town hall. It is the 'George Bush' of local councils, and we have no doubt history will remember it as such.

However, once the Conservative party has chosen its own leader, they hold enough of the votes in the Council to ensure he is voted in as Council Leader at the Annual Meeting of the Council in May.

After that, he chooses which councillors to have as his Portfolio Holders and Cabinet.

We know some of our readers think we are sometimes unduly harsh on Cllr Coombes, blaming him for all the things that go wrong, but the truth of the matter is that he IS responsible for almost everything.

He either makes the decisions personally, or he personally chooses the Portfolio Holders who make individual decisions on matters, and he chairs the Politburo Cabinet meetings that endorse the 'Blue Peter' (Here's one I made earlier) decisions they made in private session at a meeting before the actual Cabinet.

So it's rare these days to find anyone disagreeing at the 'public' cabinet meeting, and a vote against the wishes of the Leader at Cabinet is almost unheard of. It's not really the Council that makes decisions any more, it IS the Commissar - which is why he gets the stick.

So, knowing he is going to be re-elected as Leader of the Council at the Annual Meeting, now is a safe time to reshuffle his Cabinet.

There are lots of reasons to do this. The ones spoken of publicly would include:

  • refreshing the blood supply with new thought and new ideas from new people
  • letting people who want more gardening or family time have more time to themselves
  • changing the mix on cabinet to strengthen some particular areas of expertise
  • allowing people to be mayor (where they cannot also serve as a cabinet member)

But there can be other - unspoken - reasons for reshuffling. These might include:

  • removal because the performance has been incompetent
  • settling a score with cabinet members that have failed to toe the line sufficiently
  • including people of known views who are likely to vote in a particular way
  • bringing in people who are easily led and managed in order to claim patronal support in difficult votes
  • removing 'difficult' influences from within the group.

And trying to work which of these - or other - reasons applies to those who are coming and going gives civic watchers like us a clue as to where the Cabinet is heading, and how healthy it is.

So who's in and who's out in the latest reshuffle?

Well, lets dispose of the easiest first. Who is not moving in or out?

Well first off has to be Cllr Roger Small, the deputy leader. He delivers an extremely convincing performance whenever he speaks. He speaks with authority, confidence and humour, and is entirely convincing. Sadly he is just as convincing when he is wrong or misinformed, and we have seen that at least twice in the last year. But he retains his place in Cabinet.

So does Freckleton's Cllr Trevor Fiddler. We find him an unusual inclusion in the Cabinet. He is probably one of the more able councillors, and can argue a case well.

When moved to do so, he can be enthralling to hear.

He has firm views - many of which we find ourselves in agreement with. Ability aside, we suspect he may be in the Cabinet partly because of his strong views and partly because it is safer to have him on the inside than roaming free on the outside.

The third non-mover is Staining's Cllr Albert Pounder. Like Cllr Fiddler, he also has strong views, though in his case the force and insistency with which he delivers them often makes up for any lack of solid intellectual grounding they might have. He is the strong-arm bruiser of the Cabinet - if it was a nightclub he would be the bouncer.

With the exception of the Commissar himself, that completes the non-movers in the reshuffle

So who's out?

Well first is Cllr Patricia Fieldhouse. A nice, old-style conservative lady. We believe she only stood in the last election because she was pressured into it. We heard at the time that she wanted to retire and spend more time in the garden. * (See update at end)

She also led the case for the building of the Hostel on Heeley Road which eventually did not succeed (report to follow). However, we heard about the reshuffle just before that matter was concluded so it's unlikely she was axed because of that.

We hope she enjoys a lower level of pressure out of the Cabinet and on the back benches, and that her garden flourishes.

Next is Cllr Paul Rigby. The obvious logic at play here is that he is due to be next year's Mayor and can't serve on Cabinet as well. That said, he was in charge of 'Finance and Efficiency' when a loss of £1.2 million was reported last year (including the £609,000 Streetscene loss) so the interesting question is whether he would still be out of the Politburo if he wasn't being Mayor next year. We will only know the answer to that if he finishes his mayoral term this time next year and doesn't get back in.

Next out is Dim Tim, but the logic of his going is not at all clear.

Superficially he was in charge of the Streetscene department when it reported the huge losses. He is also in charge of the contract that is turning a first year surplus into an industrial strength millstone around the necks of Fylde taxpayers as they subsidise ever-increasing losses on the Wyre refuse contract. That itself is reason enough for his going.

But he is also standing again for the County Council and if the residents in Lytham agree he should continue, he might feel he wants to spend more time there and less at Fylde.

That said, he has been an absolute and solid supporter for the Commissar, and the speed with which he can say 'Yes' or 'I agree' is something the Commissar seems to welcome. He is also a political fundamentalist, perhaps even extremist, in his views - and that again chimes with the Commissar, so we find his leaving the Cabinet quite a surprise.

But the biggest surprise of all though is Wesham Cllr Simon Renwick's departure. Like Dim Tim he is also hoping to become a County Councillor, so maybe that is the reasoning behind this surprising move of the youngest, perhaps most energetic, Cabinet member.

Presentational skills are not his strongest point, but unlike some of the others, he will at least listen, and he has enough strategic and tactical capability to work out what's going on fairly quickly. Once you understand and accept that he is solidly pure Conservative Party through and through, you know exactly what you are getting. We find this approach relatively easy to cope with.

If you cut him in half (and many opposition Councillors would queue for days for the honour of doing just that) he would be blue all the way through, with the letters C O N S E R V A T I V E in even darker blue running round his torso like stick of Blackpool rock. He is the embodiment of living , walking, breathing Conservative party politics, and it is strange to see such commitment go unused.

That said, he is not at all popular with many of Fylde's opposition councillors. He is also not one to worry too much about causing offence, and does, on occasions, sail very close to the wind of acceptability in many people's eyes. We know of at least two instances where there have been formal complaints made about him by members of the public, and we suspect several other Councillors have complained too, so maybe he wants a lower profile for a while (or the Commissar wants him out of the way).

We do know he is in the middle of a change of lifestyle. Having given up one job, he is planning a move even deeper into politics, so there could be all sorts of reasons if it is his choice to leave. But if his leaving the Cabinet is not entirely of his own volition, or if, like Geoffrey Howe, he felt there was no other choice available than to go, we wonder what that might mean for the future.

So who's coming into the cabinet

Well first is Cllr Susan Fazackerley. She is about to end her Mayoral year and is once again free to join the Cabinet. She is experienced, and though we haven't always agreed with her in the past, and we would like her to listen less to the needs of her party and more to the needs of her electorate, she is at least competent and understands the particular characteristics of the coastal area. So on the whole this is a welcome move.

Next in is Cllr David Eaves. We don't know him at all well, so we can't usefully comment here. He is one of the newer intake of Councillors and already chairs one of the lesser committees (Licensing and public protection) - so he clearly has something about him. From what we can establish, he seems to be quite well regarded amongst (at least some of) the non-conservative councillors.

We will bring you more as his style unfurls at the Politburo Cabinet meetings.

The big surprise newcomer is Fairhaven's Cllr Cheryl Little. Most people we know on the civic-watching circuit reacted with visible shock when they heard this news. It is a most unexpected move, like a 100:1 outsider winning the Grand National.

Another of the new intake, she has limited previous form in running a committee or portfolio (Vice-chairman of the Performance Improvement Scrutiny Committee), but we do know she enjoyed being "Tourism Champion" - a subject that has been considerably devalued and run-down since the Commissar took power, and one she could hardly make any worse than it is at present if that is to be her portfolio.

She is not in the mould of a traditional Councillor, and not one to stand on ceremony. She's more a free-spirit - like gardening's Charlie Dimmock - but with an effusive, maternal, and populist approach.

Whilst she is likely to feel her way in slowly, and we've yet to see what her judgement is like, she could brighten up some of the Politburo meetings.

That of course is four out, and three in, which means either the Politburo Cabinet is being reduced by one, or a place is being kept open for someone who doesn't make the County Council, or there is another appointment yet to be announced.

We understand the preference is for reduction of one which will give the Commissar a six member Cabinet - a format that is suitable to make any out-of-sight 3:3 contentious votes easier to manage for the Commissar.

As yet, we understand the portfolios that each member will hold have not been published, so that delight awaits us. We'll bring you more when we have it.

Dated:  29 April 2009

UPDATE 4 May 2009
Cllr Mrs Fieldhouse has asked us to point out she was NOT axed from the Cabinet (although we didn't actually say she had been. We said we thought it was unlikely she was axed because of the hostel debacle). She tells us she resigned in order to be Deputy Mayor to Paul Rigby and thus had no choice but leave the Cabinet as is required by the Constitution. We hadn't picked that aspect up, and are happy to add her explanation to give the more accurate picture. We wish her well in her deputy mayoralty.


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