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St Anne's Town Council Budget: 2009 -10

St Annes Town Council Runners and RidersAs regulars will know we think Parish and Town Councils are the bedrock of our democracy. This is partly because they are usually small enough to operate on a human scale. Councillors know, or at least are known by, most of their constituents.

They also mostly operate on common sense and not party politics. They may not always have the cleverest, most sophisticated or most strategic of people running them, but they are usually much more sensible and human.

The underlying reason for all of this is that they are run by, and for, local people. They are 'people' councils, not 'policy' councils. They respond to, and represent, local people and local needs.

Borough Councils used to be like this as well, but are now mostly a lost cause, having sold their souls to Government or to party politics, or  occasionally to officers.

When the St Anne's on the Sea Town Council was formed we said we expected it would do good things, and it would do things we disagreed with. It would get things right and get others wrong. That has been the case. Mostly they have got things right with an odd slip here and there. So to date, their record has been good overall.

Just before the Town Council was formed, the Steering Group that brought it into existence held a public meeting were people were asked what the new town council should have as its priority. The answer was that people were reasonably happy with local facilities, but they wanted the Town Council to act as a collective voice for them, and especially to keep the Borough Council in check - at that time Fylde Borough Council was led by former chief executive Ken Lee, who was seen as hugely damaging to the town, We noted at the time if the Town Council followed the line people were calling for, it would not be a costly Town Council for local residents.

We reported a spectacular success for the Town Council only last month when they held their planning meeting on the Queensway application in public and allowed people to express their concerns and took note of them in their debating of the plan. Excellent. Just what a Town Council should do.

But, it looks as though one of the things they are going do badly is looming. And its quite a serious problem.

A budget has been produced for 2009/10. It was due to be approved at their last meeting in December, but it was held over in case something further was needed in connection with any plan to support St Anne's Swimming Pool. This means it has been circulating around, and a copy has landed with counterbalance.

It is a awful budget and, we understand, not universally supported by all the Town Councillors.

It is setting a trend and a direction that is not at all what a Town Council should be following. In just the same way that the Borough Council has turned its face away from what people want as priorities because it thinks it should be able to act like one of the bigger councils and work from policy and strategy, so the St Anne's Town Council, if it approves this budget, will be setting its face in entirely the wrong direction.

There are three things wrong with it.

First, the precept (the council tax they demand) is set to double. Whilst this is bad in principle, it isn't as bad as it first seems. The actual figure is due to go from around 4 to around 8 a year. In cash terms, that's not a lot and, as we have said before, the first precept was, in effect set way too low by the Borough Council who had tried to strangle the infant Town Council at birth. However at time when people are suffering savage cuts in savings income, unemployment is set to rise substantially, and some people are going to lose their homes, it is insensitive and likely to attract criticism.

Second, the new budget will spend less than half the tax raised on community items. The rest is all on administrative cost and overheads. The precept they propose is 89,250 and the 'Community' spending heading is just 34,230.

That is bad enough, but in the Community section, the main item (with no detail to explain it further) is called "projects" and weighs in at 20,000. The best description you get for this item is in the introductory note to the budget which says "community projects and engagement with the community"

The introduction to the budget note for 'Grants' (donations to qualifying community groups) which is also part of the community spending heading says they have increased marginally for next year because there has not been a major take up following recent publicity. The figures show a different story. We don't know the original figure for this year (because it is not given), but at some point it was revised to 5,000. The take up to the year end in March is now expected to be 4,000 (we understand the actual spending to the start of December was 1,861), and next year has a provision of 6,000.

To any logical person, if you don't need all your estimated budget in one year, you don't increase it the following year, you cut it back to what is needed. To do otherwise suggests you are trying to lead or influence the electorate, not respond to its needs.

Furthermore, there is a sum of 7,000 for 'Christmas lights', with the suggestion that including this in the budget will encourage the Borough Council to contribute another 7,000 to provide what is believed to be the full cost of 14,000.

Our view of that idea is - if you'll believe that, you'll believe anything.

But in any event the Town Council ought not to be helping to subsidise a Borough Council that is applying the wrong spending priorities.

It will get much better support from local people if it does what it was elected to do and hold the Borough Council to account for its failure to spend on the things local people want, or to put some icing on the cake by topping up the Borough Council's work with something that will give a better effect, not something that helps to replace what the Borough Council has decided it no longer feels is important. That route just leads to double taxation as the Borough wastes what it used to spend on its own choice of priorities that people don't want, and we pay again to the Town Council for the same service.

Worst of all far as spending goes, in the section called 'Publicity' there is something called a Town Plan at 5,000. Now, we broadly support the idea of a Town Plan, the best of which invite all residents to contribute to what direction the Town Council should follow for the future. Wesham has just completed one, Freckleton did the first in this area (we think) and Elswick have one as well. There may be others but those are the ones we know. But the one proposed here speaks of inviting "representatives of the community" as well as various public bodies, and creating Focus Groups to address the concerns of the town.

This is awful.

It demonstrates what we think is exactly the wrong approach. If the job is going to be done, they should not invite "representatives" of the community, they should invite the whole community.

Focus groups and their like were the favoured method of former Chief Executive Ken Lee whose appalling manipulation of events and information insulated councillors from constituents views, and provided opportunity for a personal agenda to be substituted for that of the whole community. This is what caused the Town Council to come into existence in the first place.

The third thing wrong with it is that it is not the Town Council's budget at all, it is, in effect, the Town Clerk's budget.

He has prepared the budget himself, and in doing so has been guided by what he interprets the wishes of the Town Council to be.

This is not how small Town Councils ought to work. It's the approach used by bigger Borough Councils, where officer staff prepare budgets and councillors approve them. This, of course is part of the process that begins the distancing of councillors from their electorate, and results in us having - for example - many Borough Councillors that feel no ownership of, responsibility for, and who do not even have a grasp of, the budgets they are approving.

What should happen is that Town Councillors who believe changes are needed should be considering what to do, and the cost implications of doing so, during the year and resolving to include those defined and debated sums within the next year's budget to do them. As a second best measure, in the lead up to the budget, the Town Council should have a series of meetings where each proposed budget item is scrutinised in detail before being put into the draft budget. This way at least the Councillors have a full understanding of what all the budget items are for, and have ownership of them, and take responsibility for them.

This budget looks very much like one that councillors saw for the first time when they were being asked to approve it in its entirety, without time to have the detailed debate that gives them understanding of all the items.

The way it was presented doesn't help Councillors to understand it either. The layout fails to show the original estimate for the year, (only the revised budget as at the date of the most recent update of the accounts), and that also fails to show the accrued "spending to date" (it only shows the estimated outturn for the year, not what the actual to date spending is). Without access to these figures it's impossible to see the whole picture.

But worse than that, it has the feel of a budget that has decided how much money it wants to take from the electorate and will decide what to do with it later.

That sort of decision is the hallmark of FBC, and not something to be emulated by a local council.

The big increase is in staff and premises costs.

STAFFING
So far as staffing is concerned, the Town Council currently has one part-time clerk, whose salary costs us around 7,500 a year (the figure is set by a national rate for the job of something like 28k a year, so we can deduce the current workload is around a quarter of a week). There is another 1,000 or so for the clerk's overheads (expenses, training etc) so the current cost is around 8,500 a year.

Next year, his estimate for salaries and wages is 18,850  - and the direct overheads take it up to 21,865

From the figures in the draft budget you can't deduce much more than this, but the introduction talks about an (unspecified) increase in hours for the clerk, and the appointment of an additional part time officer to provide a secretarial service to the town mayor, community development, and to cover for the clerk (presumably in his absence).

We're not at all impressed with this. It shows a direction that is introverted, self aggrandizing, and inappropriate. A Town Council should not be attempting "Community Development" it should be responding and reacting to the needs of its community. Its role is not to develop or engineer the electorate it serves, (that is the route the Borough Council has taken and look where that approach has got them), its job is not to lead us, or engage with us, or to develop us, its primary job is to speak up for us, as it represents - literally re presents - what it believes to be the views of this community to the Borough Council and other agencies of government.

There is possibly another reason for some of the additional cost though.

In the part of the budget introduction that explains what has 'guided' the clerk in preparing his budget, it mentions "the potential transfer of the parks and open spaces function to the town council."

This can of worms will be ruinous for local residents.

It is the endgame of the Commissar's 'Equitable Taxation' and 'Special Expenses' con to extract yet more money out of us.

Just as the swimming pool is too costly to be serviced by St Anne's residents alone - because it was built to serve the wider population of the whole of Fylde, and for visitors - so places like Ashton Gardens and the Promenade Gardens (where 75% or more of users class themselves as non-residents of St Anne's) are also intended to be supported by populations that are wider than just St Anne's.

Former Borough Councils knew this - which is why these areas were explicitly classed as general expense over all Fylde taxpayers. We expect a challenge to Fylde's accounts on this matter when the accounts have closed next year.

But even *preparing* for the expense to potentially transfer the function to the Town Council is going to cost us more, probably in additional hours for the clerk, additional travelling costs, training, and so on.  And that's way before any actual transfer of ownership and responsibility for maintenance takes place.

We detect the hand of the Commissar at work here. It has long been his intention to divest himself of responsibility for parks and gardens and, more recently, swimming pools. We would not be surprised to find meetings have been taking place with him and the clerk to discuss the possibilities, and - based on the paucity of detail in the clerk's budget - we wonder about the extent and quality of information that is being given to the Town Council on this matter.

PREMISES
Up to now the Town Council has been meeting in St Margaret's Church Hall or at the home of one of the members for committee meetings. We can understand they need somewhere to meet, and somewhere to keep papers and so on (although microfilming or digitisation could probably get round much of the storage problem). We also know the Town Council had made a sensible decision to put aside any unspent funds each year into a 'premises reserve', so they could save up to buy suitable premises when the savings had grown enough, and some premises found that were suitable.

The premises currently being spoken of , we understand, involve the short term lease of a three storey property on one of the roads off Wood Street. So it would be an ongoing rental, with ongoing costs, not an outright purchase.

We also understand it is likely to be a short term lease - maybe two or three years, which raises the question of what happens to the cost at the end of the lease when the office rental market has picked up again, and you have expanded the staff and equipment to fill the space available?

St Margaret's costs something like 20 a meeting. With (say) 20 meetings a year (allowing for a few extra than the usual one per month), that's around 400 a year for premises costs (the Town Council's projected outturn is 500).

But the projected outturn budget for this year has also just had an extra item of 5,000 quietly slipped in for "Office set up" - and for next year, there are new items for: rent; rates; and insurance, that come to 12,500 (and that's as well as the 500 item carried forward for hall hire). So next year the cost to have set up  the new premises and run them for a year is estimated to be 16,000 (and that's before they do any maintenance work on them, for which no allowance appears to have been made.) 16,000 would provide the present arrangement for 32 years.

We're sure we will be told it's really about providing a public presence, and raising the profile of the Town Council in St Anne's and being more accessible. We think it sounds more like the foundations for an ivory tower.

People will no doubt come to their own view of whether this is a good move and represents good value, but as one of our readers said to us recently: "the total cost of the admin and overheads side of things will be around 60,000. That means we will be paying in the region of 1,000 a week for admin and overheads. That's a poor show; and more the sort of thing we have come to expect from the Borough Council."

Saint Anne's on the Sea Town Council has built up a good stock of public capital in the short time it has been with us, it would be a shame if it allowed itself to squander that as well as money it collects from us.

You can follow this link to see the full draft budget (pdf file) that was presented to the December Town Council meeting.

10 January 2009 


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