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Hub Shaping Up

Hub Shaping UpLinks to counterbalance sections:
Part 1:  15 March 2010

Part 2: 16 March 2010

Part 3: 21 March 2010

PART ONE OF THREE  (15 March 2010)
Things have been going on in the background regarding the proposed developments around the M55 Hub - (in our case this area is also sometimes called 'Whyndyke Farm')

We first broke the news about this in 'Plans to Expand', back in November 2007.

Then, a year later, as part of our  Growth Point Progress report in Snippets November 2008 we reported that an 'informal' meeting of council officers and representative of United Utilities and so on, had come together to consider the idea further.

At that time it was being seen as part of the 'Growth Point Bid' - a scheme to provide even more houses than the number the Regional Spatial Strategy says we must bear, and something that we had to 'share'. with Blackpool who were going to get all the cash benefits to regenerate the centre of Blackpool, whist Fylde lost the land an got the hassle.

But then we started to notice tensions developing.

Mostly, we think this was because, almost alone at FBC, Freckleton's Councillor Trevor Fiddler, saw the great threat this Growth Point scheme posed for Fylde.

Equally he saw that development at this site on Fylde's terms could provide all the housing the RSS says we had to accommodate. Cllr Fiddler is one of the few councillors now at Fylde who can recognise potentially serious problems; he is fearless in exposing problems when necessary, and,  (almost alone in the ruling administration) he generally uses common sense to solve them.


UPDATE PARAGRAPHS: 15 March 2010
We have been asked to point out that it was Cllr Liz Oades who first saw the problem with the Growth Point scheme. It is correct that she saw the problem from the very first report presented by Cllr Small at Cabinet in 2007 and she led the process to have the decision of Cabinet 'Called In.' We are happy to have the opportunity correct this mistake.

Our reference to Cllr Fiddler was intended to be in his role as part of the ruling administration and Chairman of the Planning Policy Committee at the time, and our comments relate to his efforts to move the strategy toward using the hub as Fylde's housing allocation land and away from the Growth Point scheme.

Equally the comment about using common sense to solve problems was intended to contrast Cllr Fiddler's common sense approach with that of most of the ruling group at the time, who seem more motivated by party politics and the exercise of power. It was not intended, and should not be taken to mean, that Cllr Fiddler has a monopoly on common sense in the council as a whole.


We alluded to what was going on in "HUBble, Bubble, Toil and Trouble" Blackpool was starting to get tetchy with Fylde who seemed to be moving away from sharing the M55 Hub development with Blackpool as part of the Growth Point scheme, and more toward getting the financial benefits of it for Fylde.

This is all beyond the Commissar and his Lieutenant who both thought it was essential to join in with Blackpool and the Growth Point Scheme. But Cllr Fiddler and others have been working in the background, and things have moved up a gear.

We hear that  recent legal advice says that Fylde Borough Council must make progress on our own LDF and Core Strategy on the basis of issues and circumstances within the Fylde Borough boundaries. (The emboldening here is ours, and the 'LDF' is the Local Development Framework, which is a new style of loose-leaf type local plan that all councils have to prepare).

By implication, this advice seems to freeze out the 'Blackpool option'

As Fylde's Chief Executive says "it will be up to Fylde Borough Council alone to make these key strategic decisions in due course once the issues and options have been identified and consulted upon."

Mind you, with this lot, nothing is certain, and sometimes things turn out the opposite way to that which everyone has been led to believe.

So we were interested to hear that Fylde's Council has been invited to what is described in the Chief Executive's newsletter to Members of the Council as an 'Informal Meeting' to hear a presentation from David Lock Associates on Wednesday 17th March at 6:00pm at Lowther Pavilion.

The point, to Quote the Chief Executive again, is to "give all Members the opportunity to assess what benefits (or otherwise) the concept might have for Fylde communities and whether this could be taken forwards in any way, shape or form in our core strategy."

We've asked if this meeting is open to the public. We think it should be but we're not sure at present because unlike all the other meetings it has not been published on FBC's website.

We'll add a bit more info as soon as we know, and if we're allowed to go and hear what is said, we'll bring our readers a synopsis of the meeting in Part Two.


PART TWO OF THREE  (16 March 2010)
We asked about attending, but according to the Council's solicitor it was a briefing / training session for Councillors, so the meeting was not open to members of the public to attend.

His understanding (when we asked) was that it is not appropriate for us to go and listen to what was said. We accepted that position (at the time).


PART THREE OF THREE  (21 March 2010)
In the afternoon before the evening's 'Informal Meeting' we saw the summons that Members of the Council had received - the one that called them to the meeting.

It was headed "INFORMAL COUNCIL MEETING - 17 MARCH 2010" and we thought that was a pretty good description of a Council Meeting, not a training course.

 summons

You can judge for yourself by seeing the summons here. (pdf file) So we sought out the Council's Solicitor again (he is also the Monitoring Officer who is supposed to maintain standards of conduct) and asked him to reconsider his decision that we could not attend.

He winced.

Although he wasn't ever going to say so, we thought he pretty much agreed there were grounds to believe it was a council meeting.

The point about this is, that if it *was* a council meeting (and we're certain it was), and irrespective of whether it was a formal or informal one, the public - as of right - has access to it, unless the meeting itself passes a resolution to exclude the press and public (but it can only do that for one of series of clearly defined reasons set out in the Constitution).

The actual wording of Article 3 (b) of the Council's Constitution says citizens have the right to:

"i) attend meetings of the Council and its Committees and of the Executive and its committees except where confidential or exempt information is likely to be disclosed, and the meeting is therefore held in private;"

The Solicitor said he exactly understood what we were saying, and he agreed that the wording of the notice sent to Councillors for what he described as a "training / briefing session could have been more clear", but he would not change his previous decision.

So we asked "If we were to turn up and sit at the back would we be thrown out"  He didn't know. So we though we would test it. 

There's a famous, and favourite, quote of ours: "Man has only those rights he can defend" and we thought it applied here. So at a quarter to six, we slid into Lowther Pavilion and the room where the Informal Meeting was to be held. It was about half full with Councillors.

After a few minutes a very polite planning officer who is known to us asked if he could have a word, and memo'd outside the room. We went. He explained that it wasn't a public meeting so we couldn't stay and hear what was said.

We explained we had spoken with the Solicitor and heard nothing to convince us that we were not lawfully able to attend an informal council meeting as of right. We said we would leave as soon as the meeting passed a resolution to exclude the press and public.

He's sharp, and spotted the flaw in that promise. (If the meeting had not been called as a Council meeting, they couldn't actually pass a resolution to exclude anyone). He went to take further advice and we wandered back into the room, found a chair at the back near the coffee table and sat quietly waiting for the meeting to start.

He came back, and again asked us to leave. Very politely it has to be said, Equally politely we declined.  He went to find bigger guns.

A few minutes later, he returned in the wake of Fylde's Chief Executive, Philip Woodward who said he would have to ask us to leave because the meeting was not open to the public.

We politely disagreed, saying that afternoon we had seen the summons sent to members that declared it to be an 'Informal Council Meeting' and as such, it was, by the Council's own constitution, open to the public to attend.

We also said our ward Councillor had suggested we attend - to which he replied that she shouldn't have done so, and she had no authority to invite anyone.

Now, given that we have three ward Councillors - two of which are male - we wondered how he knew it was a 'she' that had suggested we attend.

As it happens, it was the lady, and she is one of the few councillors who uses the council's own email system e.g. xxxx@fylde.gov.uk  to correspond with us.

Email from all of the Councillors using that domain flows through the email servers in the Town Hall of course. Most of our council correspondents now use personal email addresses that don't go through FBC at all.

Back to the 'Mexican Standoff' -  we said we were not inclined to leave the meeting.

The threat level went from green to amber as we were next told "This is a private meeting and I'm now telling you to leave"

Again, we declined, saying we did not believe he had the authority to require any citizen to leave a council meeting, but we would nevertheless do so as soon as the meeting passed a resolution to exclude the press and public.

He then said "This meeting will not start whilst you are here"  - to which we said " Well that leaves us with a problem then, doesn't it"

We've actually been in this situation before at another place that wanted to exclude us improperly from one of its meetings, but we didn't think in this instance the Chief Executive would cancel the meeting and lose face in doing so.

The threat level went up to red as he said "Do I have to have you physically removed from the premises?"

On threat of physical force we left, explaining that we did so under protest, and would make a formal complaint that our rights had been violated and that proper procedure had not been followed.

Now dear reader.... When you read the following synopsis of what was said at the meeting, (we've had five separate reports of it so far, but if anything different arrives, we'll add it on as an update at the end) you might wonder what all the fuss was about.

There was no decision, and there doesn't appear to be any significant new information presented that wasn't available before Christmas. Hmmmmm.

In HUBble, Bubble, Toil and Trouble....  back in August last year, we said a potentially dangerous game was building.

We noted Blackpool were saying things like  "David Lock Associates (jointly commissioned by Blackpool and Fylde Councils) is currently finalising a preferred master planning option for the wider M55 Hub lands (including Marton Moss) to inform Core Strategy preparation of both Councils"

These sorts of comments blur the edges of what was really going on. Fylde has decided to do its Core Strategy separately from Blackpool precisely to avoid Blackpool having undue influence.

We're going to cover this more in an future article. But basically, we think Blackpool wants the M55 Hub as part of its "Growth Point Scheme" which will contain houses that are over-and-above its RSS allocated housing numbers, (but which they hope will generate the cash to meet Blackpool's RSS housing numbers as it re-develops central Blackpool)

We think at least some of the councillors at Fylde, on the other hand, have begun to see the M55 Hub  *AS*  Fylde's RSS Housing allocation.

Back in August last year, we said that "in this wriggling can of worms that is now known as the 'M55 Hub' scheme (a scheme that might mean different things depending whether you're in Blackpool or Fylde), there's little chance of seeing the bottom of the tin for quite some time, but we'll keep our eye on it and bring you news of which way the shoals of councillors are swimming in Blackpool and Fylde as we notice any changes."

Initially, we thought the aim of Wednesday evening's M55 Hub Meeting was probably to muddy that water still further.

But it wasn't.

Having had reports from several who were not 'thrown out' of it, we now think it was about internal blood-letting and beginning a process that will formalise a change of direction.

But we believe the Chief Executive wanted to avoid the full story coming out, and thus sought to hold an unconstitutional, secret meeting behind closed doors.

When practices like this corrupt people's trust in the institution that is supposed to represent them, it's very bad for democracy, and it's difficult to be sure what actually happens (because we are reliant on second-hand information). However, we've done our best in the circumstances.

So what was it that was said in the meeting?

Well, according to our informants, the presentation from David Lock Associates seems mostly to have followed the M55 Hub Prospectus that  was published as long ago as July 2009.    Its a 10mb download and available from this link on Blackpool's website   - or failing that, go to
http://www.blackpool.gov.uk  then
Select: M on the alphabetic menu
Select: M55 Hub (First item)
Select: Publications (Link at top RIGHT of this page)
Select: DLA Prospectus (mid screen 3rd item down)

Views from Fylde councillors who attended Fylde's informal council meeting  seemed to range from - "Well, nothing was said really, apart from what's in the 'Prospectus document"

(That has plans for 7,000 or so houses - of which they seem to say 4,000 would be in Fylde -  plus business land, plus shops, plus 4 primary and 2 secondary schools, a country park and green belt, doctors and health related services, libraries and so on)

Through to other comments such as "it was about Blackpool trying to take over" and  "It was aimed at trying to stop the Hub development altogether"

Specifics (and new information) that came out were that The Lock Group and Blackpool have been talking with LCC in the past day or two about school places for the proposed development. So behind the scenes, Blackpool is pushing this forward rapidly.

The other bit of news to emerge was that none of the development would meet the costs of the 'Blue Route' (that's the pointless section of new road from the Whyndyke Farm roundabout to Mains Lane - for more info see the third snippet  on this page).

So that route just dropped another ten notches in its importance.

What does seem to have been a considerable issue, and was mentioned by three of our correspondents is that no-one on the Council seemed to know that the 'M55 Hub Prospectus' was being produced. They were quite shocked to see it had been, and demanded to know who had authorised its compilation.

The answer was given reluctantly, and only after persistent questioning, but it seems that the decision was made by officers - without what councillors thought was adequate reference to Council. (Readers should note this does not necessarily refer to the present planning officers - there have been a lot of leavings and new appointments in the recent past)

We figure the David Lock people will have been quite gobsmacked to hear that Fylde's councillors knew "nowt about it"   - as they say. They will have assumed and been working on the premise that this is what Fylde Council wanted.

This issue gives us a clue as to the reason for this Council meeting, and for its being held in secret.

Based on what we have heard, we believe Cllr Fiddler, and perhaps Cllr Mrs Oades  - who we have been told both led much of the questioning - is ready to take on any 'out of control' officers that have been running the show with insufficient feedback to councillors - (or at least have been running it with the compliance / connivance of the Commissar and those clueless Cabinet cohorts that don't even understand what planning is, and who thought we *must* be part of the Growth Point Scheme).

If Cllr Fiddler *is* going to do that, he will need the support of the majority of the Council behind him - so he need not be fearful of  being isolated when the going gets tough.

We think that's what the meeting was about.

It was about cementing support for a change of direction by explaining just what a stupidity joining in the Growth Point Scheme was. We think it was also about setting a course to make sure Fylde extricates itself from the Growth Point scheme with maximum speed and benefit for its residents.

The final cementing piece in this argument is the "recent legal advice" referred to in the Chief Executive's 'Members Newsletter' of last week, which said - in effect - that Fylde had a duty to look after its own land. This means it has been confirmed that Fylde Council's focus must be on the needs of its own residents, not those of Blackpool or the wider 'sub-region' - as the civil servants in Manchester would have us classified.

That legal advice didn't come from Fylde's own solicitor (or he would have given it himself in his own name in a report to councillors) , it sounds to us very much like a Barrister's opinion obtained as a prelude to, and as a basis for, what might become Fylde's last stand -  where the battle of Whyndyke Farm might become our latter day 'Alamo'

That being the case, you can soon expect to hear civic gunfire as there is an outbreak of hostility - both within Fylde, as officers are steered on a new course away from the Growth Point Scheme, and even more loudly between Blackpool and Fylde as the sparks begin to fly when Fylde applies the brakes to the Growth Point Scheme.

(Readers will remember that Blackpool already has one war-front open with Preston on it's Tithebarn scheme. We think it's soon going to be wondering why it got into this Growth Point thing at all).

Therein lies the danger in this. There's really big money involved here and the present Government is keen to see the Growth Point scheme succeed.

If 'Nu Labour' retain power after the election, it could become a rough ride for Fylde, and we might see a 'Development Corporation' or something similar being formed, with powers that can override Fylde as the local planning authority.

But a change of government has promised, and we might see, the awful top down regional housing targets (and possibly the growth point schemes for housing that sit on top of them) stopped altogether, and something more akin to common sense prevail in national planning policy.

One question lingers - hanging in the air like the Sword of Damocles - If we're right that Councillors feel they have been kept in the dark, and not told about the M55 Hub Prospectus scheme and so on. And that officers have been 'out of control' and doing their own thing on it, who is it that carries the can for that? Who is it that is the Head of the Paid Service and ultimately responsible for managing the staff in their charge?

We think it's the same chap that tried to stop the public hearing about what took place at this meeting. The one that threatened us with physical removal when we sought to exercise our democratic right to hear what was said in the Council meeting.

We noted in 'The Pool in Depth' back in February that for the first time (so far as we were aware), the Conservative Group had failed to support one (and possibly two) proposal(s) put to the Group meeting by the Commissar. In fact they had decided to do exactly the opposite. We said this marked a sea-change in direction and the beginning of the wane of his power.

Then in 'FBC Budget 2010 / 2011' we said we thought that that some officers who were thought to have nailed their colours toward the top of the Commissar's mast would inevitably go down with his ship when it sank.

If we're right and that sea-change in direction has begun at Fylde - as we sense it has - then we speculate that the present Chief Executive won't be threatening to have too many more members of the public removed from future Council Meetings.

Dated:   15 - 21 March  2010


UPDATE 2
Comments from other Councillors since publication include:

  • The scheme was originally seen with 8 options, now revised to 4, - but it is just one option for Fylde's core strategy.
  • It should be seen as 'a community on the edge  of the urban area'
  • Claimed to need a 'strong planning framework' to shape the development properly.
  • Low density - claimed to be only 35 dwellings/ha where most are 42 to 48/ha
  • 50 Ha employment land = claimed to produce 6,000 jobs
  • Park and Ride scheme planned to link with Blackpool. (LSA mentioned as an afterthought in this regard).

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