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Streetscene: Whitewash

Streetscene: Rubbish!We apologise to our readers for not keeping proper track of what's going on at Fylde recently. The trouble is that this despot-lead banana republic is so far down the pan that we can't even keep up with what's going wrong.

We get one story half written, only to find it is overtaken by another that's even worse!

So we're late with the news that this Monday night, the Council's 'Performance Improvement Scrutiny Committee' (and God knows they've got their work cut out), are meeting to hear all about the Great Streetscene Debacle that has cost the community its swimming pool and the Conservatives any chance of being re-elected.

Well, the Committee should be hearing all about it, but what it's getting is a sanitised bucket of whitewash of a report.

In No Accounting for Fylde which we published on 12 August 2007, we broke the story that the incompetents running Fylde had cocked-up the accounting system bigtime as they tried to install a new computer system.

Councillors without adequate competence to identify a serious problem (even when it was reported to them) failed to spot that the introduction of the CIVICA accounting system had gone belly up.

Spending was on one computer and budgets were on another, and neither would talk to the other. We said at the time: "We are also hearing stories that spending departments were being asked how much they think they have spent, because their accountants can't get at the figures! And big spending departments, like Dim Tim's 'Streetscene' were not actually sure whether they were solvent or bankrupt because no one knew."

That proved to be quite an accurate prediction.

As did our news in the same article saying "We also now hear that Finance officer Brian White is leaving for pastures new. Whether he was pushed or whether he has jumped ship we're not sure, but going he is."

So we knew about the accounting problems and we predicted the problems at Streetscene on 12 August 2007.

The Chief Executive was cross at what we said, and issued a statement saying "The Council's finances are not in meldtown."

We hadn't claimed they were. Only that officers hadn't a clue about what they had spent or how much was left to spend.

The meltdown came later - as it was always going to.

Then in 'Incompetence or Fraud?' on 27 January 2008 we broke the news that Dim Tim's StreetScene department was going to overspend by around £609,000.

Worse, they had presumed an income of another £100,000 that they had almost no chance of achieving, so the total loss they produced was predicted (on the Councils own figures) to be £709,000.

There was uproar. This deficit caused a massive raid on the Council's reserves and balances. It wiped over £1 million from them at one fell swoop.

But worse was to come, The Swimming Pools had to be closed for lack of money, and the Commissar went cap in hand to Government for permission to capitalise and borrow half a million pounds for day to day spending that Fylde's taxpayers will be paying back for the next 25 years as they watch their once proud swimming pool rot with rust and its tiles fall off.

There were many calls for an explanation on the Streetscene debacle, but they were always stalled with the answer that a member of staff was suspended and being investigated in connection with the incident and nothing could be done until that was concluded.

A cynic might wonder if that was a very convenient way to keep the matter well out of the public domain until all the heat had gone out of it.

We produced our own version of what had happened when we published Burying the Rubbish on 12 May 2008, and  we came to a conclusion of sorts about what had happened.

We explained how the Commissar and Dim Tim wanted to sell a perfectly good central vehicle maintenance depot in St Anne's to raise cash for their White Elephant new  town hall, so they leased a depot on an industrial estate in Poulton.

And whatever you do dear reader, don't miss the end of this report about the vehicle maintenance depot !

We showed how Dim Tim's Streetscene had made ridiculous assumptions about the income that was achievable. And how its fuel costs had risen by an incredible amount (around 25%).

But mostly we showed how a fire that should have been a crisis was allowed to become a disaster with bad decisions that had staff literally working through the night on premium rates to cannibalise burnt out lorries to provide a service in Wyre they were contractually obliged to provide.

Thousands upon thousands of pounds worth of spare part were ordered to effectively build new lorries because there was not the capital made available to buy new ones.

But even that left a shortfall and more thousands were spent on hiring in lorries at inflated rates.

We said at the time that the key fault lay in finance, though some attached to StreetScene. The finance officer in post at the time had already left, and it looked as though the suspended StreetScene officer wouldn't be coming back, so we speculated that could put the position of Chief Executive Phillip Woodward in doubt as well, for not keeping track of what his departments were doing.

We said at the time "Now dear reader, if you were in a position of power and influence, and this had happened on your watch, you can understand how tricky it would get." and we wondered how people in such circumstances might be tempted to try and escape the consequences?

Well again, as we said, first on your agenda might be to do away with the StreetScene Department. Then you would be able to say, 'Yes, but we took action to cut out the rot and disbanded that operation, its all history now' - or words to that effect.

That's now happened.

Streetscene is no more, and Dim Tim is out of the Cabinet (and running the Environment at the County Council for heaven's sake!)

We also said "But that crude stroke would make it obvious what was going on, so you might also be tempted to hide that process inside another. Something even bigger, so it looks convincing. You might try a wholesale management restructure. Not one that saves lot of money, but one that will minimise problems and protect most of the present employees."

That too happened. The former Unit Business Managers were  restructured and reduced in number,

We also said "Maybe you'd gamble that the StreetScene man won't be coming back, and you have one senior manager who is looking to leave anyway, and there may be a third ready for a move. So what better way than a complete restructure of senior management. " Then you can claim it's nothing to do with the StreetScene problems.

The Unit Business Managers were disbanded and have been replaced with a smaller number of Directors with significantly changed responsibilities.

So our readers have already had chapter and verse on the Streetscene story  excepting for who was responsible.

That's exactly what Saint Paul of Elswick has been after. He has been relentless in chasing this matter.

Eventually, the Chief Executive issued a secret report (Around a year later in May 2009). But it wasn't sent to all the Councillors, and anyone that wanted a copy had to go and get one.

It wasn't even properly debated at the Audit Committee.

Talk about paranoia and information control, these guys take the biscuit.

But undeterred, St Paul pressed on, and at the last Council meeting he proposed a notice of motion for a full debate on this matter by the whole Council.

And that's what's being debated on Monday evening at 7:00pm at the Town Hall.

Well, it should be, but we suspect it will be a stage managed performance that doesn't address the issues.

We think he will get his say at Scrutiny Committee, but it won't be debated at the full Council.

The recommendation, which we have no doubt will be approved, is that the Scrutiny Committee "note the report".

We have no doubt that with a majority on the Scrutiny Committee, the Commissar's acolytes will close down the debate altogether and refuse to let the full Council even discuss it.

Once again on this occasion,  we understand the report into the matter hasn't even been sent to all the Councillors, only to a select few, and it may be that even they have had to go and find it and download it from the intranet.

There have been none of the usual press releases from the spin doctors.

The root cause of all the financial problems in Fylde is being kept as quiet as possible, but there is however, a watered-down version of the Chief Executive's report from May last year on Monday's agenda, and so long as the Council's website holds it, you can download it from here.

This report explains, just as we predicted toward the end of "Porn Pawn" in July this year, it was probably the fault of the former Finance officer, but because the Cabinet might not have let him have enough staff to do his job properly, he probably can't be blamed really.

And the suspended one didn't do enough wrong to merit calling the police or even a formal warning, (This despite the allegations of "failure to follow the Councilís financial and procurement regulations / the use of Council assets for personal and private purposes / threatening and aggressive behaviour and the bullying & harassment of staff / nepotism & other acts of favouritism" that were made against him).

So instead, he "agreed to leave the Council's employment via a compromise agreement" (and with the benefit of an undisclosed severance package that had been agreed with the Leader of the Council).

This was felt to be "......the most pragmatic option which exposed the Council to the least amount of additional financial and reputational risk..."

So that's all right then. The council isn't seen as incompetent. No one was to blame, and no one was at fault for the loss that closed our pools, drained the financial reserves, and caused a debt we will be paying off for the next 25 years.

Well if Fylde is comfortable with that, then counterbalance is comfortable with the accuracy of the predictions we made for our readers on this matter.

According to the Chief Executive's report he didn't know there was a serious problem until November 2007  Our readers knew in August 2007.

The Chief Executive didn't report on the reasons for the shortfall until May 2009. Our readers knew most of them on 12 May 2008.

Our current prediction is that the Scrutiny Committee on Monday evening will let St Paul of Elswick have his say, then decide not to debate it at Council at all. They will just note the report.

"End of" - as they say these days.

So if you want to hear the full story of what went wrong, you'll have to go to the Scrutiny Meeting on Monday at 7:00pm at the Town Hall.

St Paul is always worth listening to so it won't be wasted time.

There is a public gallery where you can sit and listen to how our money has been poured down the big financial black hole that is this administration at Fylde Council.

And so the whitewash of this disaster will continue.

BUT.....wait for it......  Its not over yet.

You remember we said there was a sting in the tail.....

Well, when the plot to sell off the Central Vehicle Maintenance Unit on Heeley Road  (The depot that looked after servicing and repair of the bin lorries) was hatched at first, it was going to be sold for housing. The Commissar was close to accepting an offer of around £310,500 way back in November 2006.

But then, using all his financial acumen, he ditched that in favour of giving it away for no net income for a Homeless Hostel. A protest group fought a pitch battle to try and stop that happening. Amongst other things they claimed the land was worth around £500,000.

The Commissar and the Cabinet dismissed this out of hand and refused to put the land up on open tender.

Then a developer came along and offered £400,000 cash - which even the financially incompetent Commissar couldn't refuse, and the depot was sold to him - We expect he will now sell it on to others at a profit.

But within the last fortnight, a friend of counterbalance who drives a vehicle that is maintained at Fylde's vehicle maintenance depot in Poulton told us the mechanics there are looking forward to moving back to St Anne's.

Yes, really.

It seems that the Commissar is going to build them a brand new Central Vehicle Maintenance Unit somewhere behind Jewsons and New Fylde Housing, near the household waste centre.

You couldn't make it up could you!

We think it's probably because the Wyre contract, (despite Fylde's use of  'seasonally adjusted' make-it-look-better figures that have switched around £300,000 out of the Wyre contract and straight onto Fylde's taxpayers), is about to go into a loss making situation, and Wyre are so fed up with the high charges for extras that Fylde have been charging them, they've gone elsewhere for the extra services more cheaply.

Which means Fylde will plunge even deeper into the red.

And in any case,  (although they are far too polite to say so publicly) Wyre are so fed up to the back teeth with being ripped off by Fylde that they were about to give them the boot off the contract anyway.

Which means that the depot at Poulton will be a long way from where Fylde's bin lorries will be working in future.

At this point, we wonder if our readers might like a small diversion to re-arrange these words into a well known phrase or saying.  "A Brewery, in, couldn't,  a piss-up, organise"

But what they are *really* good at is information management and keeping things out of the public gaze.

Which is where we come in.

One final point. In all of this, readers should note it's not the bin men who are in any way at fault  in this story. They generally do a very good job in difficult and often unpleasant circumstances, and deserve the pay they earn.

Sadly, they're led by some people who don't.

Dated:  20 September 2009


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