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Throwing in the Towel ?

Throwing in the TowelIn 'Snippets - February 2009' we gave our readers the most up to date news of the Fylde's swimming pools.

Readers will remember that swimming pools are public facilities that generations of former councillors seemed to manage quite well, but which the present administration led by Commissar John Coombes can't even manage to keep open.

Way back in 'Winning the Pools' in September 2006, we said he was about to throw in the towel in an attempt to privatise our swimming pools by putting them out to tender with the private sector.

We said then that this was the last refuge of an incompetent administration ready to admit it couldn't do what all those previous councils had done, and run a swimming pool.

We were wrong however.

He didn't hand over the pools to the private sector - because the lowest bid to run them was more than the in-house staff were costing. So he closed them, or at least he closed St Annes, and has had Kirkham Baths in the intensive care unit for almost a year.

To maintain some semblance of electoral credibility, he pretends there is hope for St Annes, but we all know it's forlorn. There is no real hope he will open St Annes Pool for swimming again. In his corporate plan for 2008/09, the first outcome for 'Swimming provision' to be achieved by April 1st 2009 is that "The Council has no ongoing operational responsibility for the operation of public swimming pools."

Kirkham however, is in with a slim chance of not having its life support turned off.

The YMCA is in the frame to take over Kirkham Baths where the Council wants to give up, and they have reached agreement on most of the issues.

The Council and the YM have agreed that Kirkham Baths building and the car park will be given to the YMCA without charge provided they continue to use it for swimming - or a 'community leisure' purpose. (Although until the Government grant for swimming runs out it would be leased to them). The Council would also offer some financial help by laundering the cost of the YMCA's power needs, and they would let them have all the stocks of consumables and spare parts at Kirkham Baths for free. In addition FBC will contribute 20k a year, index linked and guaranteed for five years. The Council will also agree to close the learner / splash pool.

The main sticking point, as we predicted in 'Winning the Pools' eighteen months ago, is in the staffing arrangements.

This is because of a piece of legislation that applies when new organisation takes over an existing undertaking. The 'Transfer of Undertakings - Protection of Employment Regulations' (TUPE) wraps a legal protection around the terms and conditions of existing staff on this sort of takeover.

At present, Kirkham Baths has 7 full time, 6 part time, and 5 casual staff, amounting to a full time equivalent of 10.7 staff.

Essentially, they are 'the problem' here. The YMCA doesn't want as many staff to run the pool if they are managing it, and they probably don't want to pay the cost of the present staff (because the existing nationally-set terms, conditions, rates of pay, and pensions entitlement are - for them - unaffordable). This might be because of the actual cash cost, but it could be to do with the fact that it might be seen as improper for them to be paying staff in one swimming pool differently from those in another pool they run in, say, Wyre area.

You can hardly blame the YMCA.  Fylde's John Coombes has already signalled he's not prepared to keep the pool open with the present costs, but he doesn't appear to want to do the dirty deed himself, so he's trying to offload 'the problem' for someone else to deal with. However, from what we can see, the YMCA doesn't want to be seen as the bad guy in this matter either.

So there's a standoff, and its resolution is deliberately being delayed until the last minute to increase the pressure and concentrate minds.

With the ethics of a double glazing salesman, he's trying to get the YM to sign on the dotted line before his 'best offer' expires. What a way to run a council.

If there is a solution, it will be a case of who blinks first. Either John Coombes will find more cash; or the staff will accept the pain necessary for *some* of them to stay in work - possibly on reduced terms and conditions; or the YMCA will take on all the staff, and bear the initial cost, followed by the bad press and future cost of reducing them in number and probably in terms of their pay and conditions.

The YMCA had asked the Council to restructure the service before any transfer. If the Council did this, it would be Fylde's responsibility (and Fylde's cost).

The Council's view - with some justification we believe - is that this might be held to be unlawful under the TUPE legislation, so they're not up for it.

So there are only four ways out of this situation:

  • John Coombes can pay the subsidy that will let the YMCA maintain the existing terms and conditions (at least for a while anyway).
  • The YMCA can decide to carry the extra cost themselves.
  • The terms and conditions can be reduced by agreement, or
  • The baths close and the staff are paid redundancy.

Readers might wonder how the YMCA can manage with less staff than the Council. The answer to this is not wholly clear, but is probably because either they will open for shorter hours, or the level of activity or safety cover provided will be reduced.

In most businesses you can get productivity improvements by working harder or more efficiently. But the job of a pool attendant or lifeguard is to attend. To be there. You can't increase productivity when the output is simply to be there to watch for problems.

Once you have fixed the opening hours (and with them the number of attendants etc needed per pool), all you can do is minimise any overlap time between shifts starting and finishing for things like key-handover and so on.

So how come the numbers could be reduced?

Well, if the opening hours stay the same, the scope for change is very limited.

The Health and Safety Executive set the rules for staffing public swimming pools with attendants, specifying how many there must be per area of pool, (and the qualifications each staff grade must have). They also specify the periods of duty without breaks, and minimum periods of break between duty periods, (in just the same way that similar rules apply to professional driver's hours). This is in order to maintain a high level of concentration on pool activity for safety purposes.

In some private pools, commercial interests are allowed to compromise user safety, but we can't imagine that even if a business (and the YMCA is a charity) were to run a public swimming pool, they would be allowed to reduce the safety staffing levels from those in place when the Council was running it.

Surely, even the Commissar wouldn't want a lower safety standard to apply when our children are involved, so it probably means different opening hours, and maybe some staff savings from closing the learner / splash pool.

At the debate last Wednesday, an unusually comprehensive report setting out the position was presented. The Politburo Cabinet was told that if the matter wasn't resolved by 31 March, it was going to cost FBC 22k a month, for which no budget exists.

A main area of contention other than the TUPE situation was what to do if the 'hand over to the YM' scheme went ahead and the pool ceases to operate in the future.

The broad picture was that if losses by the YMCA reached 50% of the market value of the asset (site and building, which is estimated to be worth 400,000), then the pool would close immediately and the agreement end.

Several scenarios were rehearsed to address this possibility. One was where, during a leasing period, the Council would simply resume control, and pay back the operating losses the YM sustained.

Another was that (after the leasing period) the Council would buy it back for a nominal amount and pay back the operating losses the YM sustained (probably out of the proceeds of selling the site).

There was also another option to allow the YM to dispose of the site, with any surplus after deduction of operating losses being returned to the Council. Finally, a fourth option allowed the YM to re-invest any sale proceeds in 'community provision'

When the Council's Scrutiny Committee considered the report, they wanted the surplus to be invested in leisure provision in rural Fylde, but that didn't find favour with the Politburo who deferred a decision on that for a further report.

One other quirk was that if we got to 31 March and then started the TUPE transfer of staff, there would be an 'unbudgeted' cost of 22k a month for probably two months whilst the TUPE process worked through. Cllr Renwick sought to use this to say they could extend the deadline for the YMCA decision by a few weeks without losing anything, but the Commissar was having none of that. He said "This is the best deal we can come up with"

Concluding the debate, Chief Executive Philip Woodward read out four 'Blue Peter' (here's one I made earlier) resolutions he had prepared, and the Commissar said Cllr Renwick would propose them and the Vice Chairman would second.

In the event, Cllr Renwick sought to amend the resolution he had been told to propose (so as to extend its deadline beyond 31 March), but was unsuccessful in doing so and had to propose the resolution that had been prepared for him by the Chief Executive.

The decisions were

  • To empower officers to negotiate with the YM as per the Cabinet's preferences
  • To empower them to begin preparations to close the pool if no agreement exists by 31 March
  • To suspend the Standing Orders that required them to dispose of all assets by competitive tender (so they can give it away for nothing to the YM)
  • To bring a future report about how the residual proceeds of any disposal should be used.

Curiously, it wasn't a unanimous Politburo decision, because Cllr Paul Rigby abstained.

So there we have it, the saga continues. We understand people close to the 'Rural Splash' group are not exactly ecstatic about the plans, but regard them as the least bad option available.

Cllrs Ashton and Renwick said they think it's a "good news story."  

We think it's a disgrace that the Commissar and his handpicked team can't even manage to run a swimming bath properly, let alone a whole Council and, as one wag commented to us, "They should invite the YMCA to run the Council as well - they couldn't do a worse job"

One slightly worrying point. We heard some gossip about the condition of some of the structure and plant and equipment at Kirkham. It was only gossip, and it may be unreliable, but the suggestion being made was that it would need substantial investment in the next two years or so. That might well kick in the closure option at that time, even if agreement can be reached now.

Your guess is as good as ours as to what will happen. If pushed to predict, we think the YMCA will stay with their position about not being willing to take on the liability under TUPE unless there is some form of cash adjustment to compensate them for costs incurred.

The Commissar won't want to do this, and so he is probably likely to blame the YMCA for the failure if it happens, hence the Gazette's lead to their story of "Fylde Council chiefs have issued an ultimatum to YMCA bosses over the future of Kirkham swimming pool....."

Conversely, he has been meeting with Government Office North West recently, trying to get more cash out of them, or to allow him to raise the Council Tax for next year above the Government's capping limit of 5%. We've seen two instances of late where he has suggested an over-capping precept is being considered.

In reality, we believe this is unlikely. Government isn't going to make an exception for a Council that lost 1.2 million through financial incompetence last year,  but the Commissar might think it would allow him to blame the Government for closing the swimming pools if they don't give him the money he needs (If he thinks we'll fall for that he's got another think coming).

But it is always possible he will magic a rabbit out of the hat at the final budget meeting on 3 March. We noticed in this years accounts the main cash reserve has increased to 669,000 from its previously assumed balance of 530,000 (at this time last year). Whilst we agree it is prudent and sensible to have a higher reserve cash supply (for major disasters like flooding or an uninsured structural collapse), the difference between the Auditors recommended minimum of 530,000 and the reserve now planned (669,000) might just be enough to keep both Kirkham and St Annes pools open for another year if he chose to pull the rabbit out of the hat again.

To do this would be quite a risky strategy because whilst he might convince some he is the saviour of the swimming pools, we think most will be angry to have had the wool pulled over their eyes for so long.

Dated:  20 February 2009


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