Council Snapshot: March 2009
After last year's awful 3rd March Council meeting at the Rugby Club (see 'Travesty of Democracy'), Fylde's budget setting
meeting this year, (although it co-incidentally shared the same 3rd March date) was always going to be different.
But sadly, we think the difference has not been for the better. It has been for the worse
So what happened, and why was it different?
Well, an alliance of independent, and most (though not all) of the other non-conservative councillors has now been seduced into becoming a formal 'Opposition' complete with 'shadow' Portfolio Holders.
We think this has completed the emasculation of
the Council as the supreme body corporate. It has legitimised the detestable Cabinet system that is opposed by Town and Parish Councils representing more than half the population of Fylde, and it reduced the Council meeting to little more than a
Back in December 2007 in 'Shuffling the Pack' we first hinted that independents councillors seemed to be moving toward forming a 'Shadow Cabinet' with shadow Leader. We said at the time
that it risked the Shadow Leader and Shadow Cabinet being sucked in and used by the Commissar.
Sadly, we think that's what's happened.
The ultimate goal toward which the Commissar has directed every effort over the last five years (apart from his failed bid to become our next MP) has been to move off the 'Weak' grading of the Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA) see 'CPA
- Interim Results'
just about got his wish today when Fylde moved up from 'Weak' to 'Fair' (and, as he will no doubt claim, he's now only one point away from being 'Good')
One of the great successes that helped this improvement for the Commissar was - in the words of the Government's Audit Commission (they're the body that measure what Government wants measured in local councils) - "... The area where most progress has been made is in political
leadership, which is now a strength. [sic] This progress is emphasised by the willingness of independent councillors to form a united and increasingly effective opposition...."
We see this very differently. It's not the job of politicians to lead us - if we'd have wanted to be led, we'd have joined the army. Politicians should represent us.
But Government wants us led by the Council, so that's what they measure. The Commissar
was desperate not stay as 'Weak' so he pushed the idea of the Shadow Leader and Shadow Cabinet system very hard in order to improve his CPA rating by Government. The 'Opposition' has complied. We think this has been a bad mistake.
Why is it a mistake? Well, follow the snapshot story of this year's budget meeting and see if you think the 'Opposition' has been taken for a ride.
The meeting was at Lowther Pavilion this year which has more capacity than the Rugby Club, but just like that meeting, it started at 5pm. (The Commissar will no doubt argue this early start time was just for convenience, but we pretty much
think it was a poor attempt to justify his changing the time of last year's meeting so that fewer people were able to attend).
Also like last year, this year's meeting got off to a bad start.
This time it was because someone forgot to bring the Mayoral robes and the Mace (which is the symbol of the Mayor's authority).
More importantly, the meeting is not properly
constituted unless the Mace is present, and no business can take place, so we waited for twenty minutes whilst someone was sent up to St Anne's to bring the robes and Mace.
This delay produced one fortunate side-effect however. It meant that Saint Paul Hayhurst (whose recent beatification by counterbalance has not improved his timekeeping) actually arrived at the meeting before it started.
When it did start, Saint Paul was in some difficulty because there didn't seem to be a place set for him.
He collected a chair and brought it to the Councillors table. Then papers that had previously been handed round to all the other councillors had
not been given to him. He drew the Mayor's attention and asked for a set of papers to be given to him.
In doing so he displayed the wit and presence that puts him head and shoulders above most other Councillors.
Pointedly referring to last month's Standards Board case against him - following a claim of misconduct that had been instituted by the Chief Executive, and where, if found guilty of misconduct, he could have been suspended as a Councillor (but where
he was, in fact, judged to have conducted himself properly), he said - looking straight at the top table - that perhaps the absence of his chair and his papers was because some people had not expected he would be attending this meeting.
The Mace and robes duly arrived, and the meeting proper - if such it can be called - had begun with the Mayor referring to a paper that had been circulated to Councillors a day or two earlier, setting out an alternative procedure for running the
She then proposed the suspension of the Council's Standing Orders - ostensibly to allow the new procedure (which she appeared to say been recommended by County Councillors) to be used. (We think there was another motive for this change as you will
Suspending the Council's Standing Orders is always a serious matter.
Standing Orders are the absolute rules that govern the conduct of meetings. They are the guardians of fairness, right and propriety. When they are suspended it means the Council is stepping outside the tried and tested procedures they have imposed on
themselves for good governance.
In this case, we expect most councillors will have looked at the proposed change and thought it was no big deal.
In essence, we also think most people in Fylde would probably have thought the same, and it's only civic anoraks like us that can see where
it might lead that worry about such things.
The Council's Standing orders governing its conduct say (in effect) that at a Council meeting, the minutes of a Committee are moved by its Chairman, or the recommendation of a report is proposed as on the order paper. One of those two alternatives is how
virtually all the business items start.
If a councillor wishes to speak to a matter that has been proposed and seconded, they must speak only to support or oppose that matter, or they must propose an amendment to it and speak to their amendment.
The aim here is to prevent the business being hijacked onto other topics, and to minimise speeches that are not germane to the proposition.
However, in this instance, the suspension of Standing Orders was specifically to do just that.
What followed was a set piece 'debate' that was nothing more than a charade (or even a pantomime).
The first 'item' in the revised agenda said: "The Leader will introduce the Cabinet Recommendations on the budget, capital programme and Council Tax"
John Coombes duly regaled those present.
He opened the batting with not a proposition, but with a 'presentation' - PowerPoint slides and all.
With the ethics of a tawdry salesman pitching for a sale, he spent the next twenty minutes telling the other members of the Council and the handful of public in the gallery what a wonderful job he had been doing since he took power. Of course, being a
set presentation, he steered well away from the catalogue of disasters we have chronicled as his legacy in these pages.
After he said his piece, the note setting out the new process helpfully explained that "The Leader of the Opposition (Cllr Liz Oades) [in case we didn't know who that was] will be invited to present the opposition Budget Proposals and give her
intention to move any later Amendment"
Which she duly did.
We'll return to what she actually said in a minute, but look for a moment at the wording here. First (so far as we can tell) we appear to have gained a formal 'opposition' when in truth we have, (and indeed should have), no such thing.
We have, (or at least should have), a collection of individual councillors elected by the people in various wards to represent them.
Those people, like us, expect their councillor to be able to speak up for them - in public - in a council meeting.
They do not expect to have their views horse-traded alongside others, to end up with a short list of agreed proposals put forward by the "Leader of the Opposition."
Councillors who subsume themselves into an "opposition" structure like this disenfranchise the electorate they represent, and they fail in their duty to act as individual advocates - simply because they give up that right to a "leader" of their own.
It makes independent councillors another political party in all but name.
This is yet another nail in the coffin of democracy in Fylde.
And look at that other word. "Invitation."
Note the subtle difference between John Coombes - who "introduced" the Cabinet budget, and Cllr Mrs Oades who was "invited to present the opposition budget..."
The wording here sounds as though she needed some sort of permission to do so. It was as though
whether she may do so or not was in the gift of the Commissar (or perhaps the Chief Executive).
As an elected Councillor she has a right to speak on behalf of her electorate. But she has no mandate to speak for the electorate of other Councillors save for those who have foolishly (and probably thoughtlessly) moved toward giving up their right to
speak in favour of their views being put by the 'Leader of the Opposition'.
Finally, any non-aligned councillors - we're not sure exactly how many of these there are today, but we think it's only Saint Paul Hayhurst (and three others who claim to be non-aligned but seem to vote with the Conservatives most of the time) - were
also 'invited' to make their budget proposals.
This folly continued with the 'Portfolio Holder for Finance' making his budget speech, and the opposition spokesman (Sorry, Opposition Finance Spokesperson) being invited to propose an amendment, followed by - you guessed, the non-aligned councillors
being invited to do the same.
Lowther Pavilion Theatre was most definitely the right place for this pantomime. At any minute we expected to hear the cry of "look out! he's behind you"
This was all backed up with three sets of papers handed round at the meeting
One on white paper with the Budget proposed by the Cabinet,
One on different coloured paper with amendments from the Conservatives (who either couldn't get it right at
Cabinet, or were trying to wrong-foot the 'opposition' by making last minute changes),
And one on different coloured paper again, as the 'Opposition' amendment.
This whole process was stage managed by the executive, and happily adopted as the
new meeting format by the 'opposition' - as though they hadn't a care in the world.
As we said in the opening, it reduced the Council meeting to the performance of a (not very good) piece of theatre. Like the highly structured Mayor-making ceremony, it turned the Council meeting into a spectacle or entertainment.
It also means that the Commissar has, at a stroke, reduced the number of people who will speak against him on the budget. Can't you just hear him in a year or two's time saying that individual councillors must go through their own 'Opposition Leader'
if they want something raised in a Council budget meeting.
Like lambs to the slaughter, many good, independent councillors are now standing, blinking and doe-eyed, in the holding-pen of the civic abattoir.
We deplore the idea of political parties at Borough level. We deplore the appalling, unnecessary and dangerously undemocratic Cabinet system. We deplore the principle of having independent Councillors corralled into an 'opposition' structure, and we also
deplore the idea of legitimising the Cabinet by having 'Shadow Portfolio Holders'.
And we are very sad that independent councillors appear to have agreed to this construction of their role.
But for the moment that's enough of the process. What about the actual debate?
Well, the financial detail from the Cabinet proposals is quite longwinded, so we'll bring you an analysis of that in a future article.
The 'opposition' budget proposal was a real curate's egg.
Practically, it showed they could add up well enough to produce a viable alternative (which truthfully anyone should be able to do).
Politically, we think it was a disaster.
As we have seen, the Commissar's own budget proposal had made some last minute 'changes' to the Cabinet's recommendation.
Curiously, the paper setting these changes out was headed "Cabinet Recommendations 19.2.09 as amended."
This is actually impossible, (although with the confusion caused by the suspension of Standing Orders moved by the Mayor at the start of the meeting, it might be legitimate).
We say it is impossible because there had not been a Cabinet meeting between 19 February and the date of the Council meeting on 3 March, so it was not possible for an amendment of the Cabinet minutes of the 19th to have been agreed and voted on by the
We suspect this claim to be an amendment, coupled with the suspension of Standing Orders, was just a device to avoid the Commissar having to make the change to the Cabinet's recommendation as it should have been made - that is, to have had a
Conservative colleague who was also at the Council
meeting propose the change as an amendment to the Cabinet's recommendation of 19th February.
This would have been embarrassing for the Commissar. To support such an amendment he would have had to vote against the minutes of his own 'committee' (the Politburo Cabinet) that he had just proposed. But if he had proposed the Cabinet minutes he
would have had to vote against the amendment he
wanted to have as the Conservative resolution.
So it looks to us as though this sleight of hand (that quite possibly only civic anoraks like us would detect) was employed, and the order-paper describing it as a 'Cabinet amendment' was an entirely false description. Such is the disregard for proper
protocol at Fylde these days.
Such is the way the 'opposition' members were sucked into the scam.
We believe it should have been incumbent on the Commissar to move the minutes of his Politburo Cabinet meeting for approval (or amendment) by the Council meeting (thus he would have been expected to vote against any amendment of them).
However the 'Magic
Minutes' that appeared in the confusion allowed him to present them as the Cabinet's own resolution. So he had his cake and he ate it. And no-one stopped him.
We will return to this aspect in a moment.
The 'amendment' contained arrangements to further support Kirkham Baths (so it was the Commissar, not the YMCA who blinked first).
He added a further £10,000 a year to the annual revenue support - to part fund the transfer to the YMCA, and a further one off £60,000 to be funded from borrowed capital which will attract loan repayments that are chargeable to revenue spending in
Unable to identify palatable budget savings himself, the Commissar also charged the Officer's Management Team to reduce overall expenditure by another £10,000 a year so the revenue budget would not alter. This is actually the worst sort of muddled
financial meddling - it means no one feels properly responsible for managing the budget, neither officers nor members.
But the (changed) budget that the Conservative majority voted through, looked as though there would now be enough cash to keep the YMCA happy as they make staffing changes to lower the operating costs, and, as the newspapers have
already reported, Kirkham Baths has been 'saved'
Don't hold your breath though.
We remain of the view (as set out toward the end of the ''Medium Term Financial Strategy Nov 08') that it will close inside three or four years, and a new Joint-use pool will
be built at Carr Hill School.
If you read the recent press report carefully, you will see the Rt Hon Michael Jack MP suggesting as much as well. This was always the Commissar's eventual plan.
But what of the Opposition's alternative way of funding the Baths rescue?
Well, as the details of their plans were revealed by the 'Opposition Finance Spokesperson' we found ourselves at first enthusiastic, but sadly, that quickly evaporated.
Planning to cut out £35,000 of money wasted on 'media management' was an excellent idea. We couldn't think of a better thing to do.
Better still was the populist idea to remove Dim Tim's plan to charge for replacement wheelie bins at a cost of £25,000 a year.
They also wanted to reduce the cost of the gloriously inappropriately named scheme of "Member Development" (This is actually about training for Councillors) by £6,000 and to remove £41,000 from the "Modernisation of Local Government" budget.
Ok so far.
However, we were less enthused about a plan to halve the cost of the Mayoralty and save £40,000 a year (we accept most people probably won't agree with us on this one, but Fylde's is a proper, old fashioned Mayoralty, and we don't believe tradition
and history - not to mention probably the best PR that Fylde could get - should be sacrificed on the altar of the Commissar's financial incompetence).
We began to wince when we heard the idea of trying to make the Lytham Windmill and Lifeboat house financially self sustaining or, failing that, trying to charge it as a special expense just on the residents of Lytham. That idea is probably not lawful,
and would butter no parsnips with the two-thirds of Fylde's population that live on the coastal strip.
But we positively bristled at the suggestion that the Council start immediate discussions with Wyre Borough Council with a view to establishing a single workforce providing ALL services to both Councils.
We quite appreciate this is a singularly personal take on the 'opposition' proposals, and each person will have their own view but, if you take ours as just one vote, you can deduce that after listening to this proposal, counterbalance now sees a vote for any independent
councillor as a vote to abandon the control and flexibility of action that comes with having our own staff employed by Fylde Council.
This statement neatly illustrates the electoral folly of having an 'opposition' that feels duty bound to advance proposals that will, in the telling, alienate at least some of the people that might otherwise have voted for them.
We certainly wouldn't vote for anyone who proposed any extension of joint working or merging with another local authority. We believe there are no true 'economies of scale' - as the great banking mergers have recently shown us all too clearly.
Small and simple remains beautiful.
We suspect several independent councillors would actually agree with this sentiment but, by aligning themselves within the collective policies of a formal 'opposition' and 'Opposition Leader' they will have damaged their own electoral chances for no good reason - at
least in our eyes (and we expect the principle extends to folk other than ourselves).
That's why it is a bad thing.
The meeting also saw Cllr Roger Small use his conciliatory - if a little patronising - skills as he complemented Cllr Mrs Oades on coming up with some viable budget alternatives (as though it was quite a surprise that anyone else had been able to do so)
suggesting that whilst the Conservatives couldn't go along with the changes proposed by the opposition at this time, they would have a look at them during the year and (we thought) pinch a few of the ideas.
So did the move to having a formal 'Opposition' and Shadow Portfolio Holders and revised procedures make any real difference?
No it didn't.
Up went the Conservative's arms right on cue - just like last year - to vote against the 'Opposition's' budget, and institute the Commissar's budget preference.
So endeth the first lesson.
One thing the meeting did see was an interesting statement made by Cllr Karen Buckley.
We understand the Heeley Road Hostel Group had made several complaints to the Council's Standards Committee about her conduct as the Chairman of the Scrutiny Committee (which considers decisions by the Politburo Cabinet). We believe this move resulted in
the Council's Standards Review Sub-Committee requiring Mrs Buckley to making a "Statement of Regret" to the Council (which is about as close as it gets to an apology for misconduct as Chairman) in respect of one of those complaints. She had failed to
move the minutes of her committee at the Council meeting as is required by the Councils Standing Orders. We understand the Council actually took external legal advice on whether she was required to do this before deciding she was wrong. Her statement
of regret was eloquent and measured, and no doubt she hoped that would be an end of it. But we think there is more to come on this matter before it is over.
But her statement neatly brings us to exactly the same situation at this meeting, where John Coombes did the same thing - he failed to move the recommendation of his (Budget Cabinet) committee at Council, and under normal circumstances his
conduct should be reviewed by the Council's Standards Committee as
Cllr Mrs Buckley has been.
But this time he will no doubt argue - probably with some success - he has covered his tracks by having Standing Orders suspended first - and that without a single vote against by the 'Opposition'.
So he's probably in the clear.
As we said in 2007, the institution of formal 'Opposition' status, and the implementation of a Shadow 'Leader' and 'Shadow Cabinet/Portfolio' system would enable the Commissar to claim the credit for co-operative working [sic].
It has helped
justify him moving up a grade on the CPA report.
We also said they risked being sucked in and used by the Commissar.
They have been.
And we can't see how they are an ounce better off for it.
Dated: 17 March 2009