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John Coombes Steps Down

Coombes Steps DownWhen we published 'Decisive Company' less than a week ago, we drew attention to what we saw as the failing support that Council Leader John Coombes was  enjoying at the hands of his party colleagues.

We closed the article with the quote "He's heading for oblivion." because we could see the writing on the wall.

Now it's confirmed. The villain we love to hate is stepping down from the post of Leader of Fylde Council as on 10th May 2010, so we're going to review his time as Leader, then see what his going means for the future of Fylde.

His resignation statement says it is a decision he has not taken lightly but he feels the time is right for him to step down after steering the Council through one of the most turbulent periods since 1974 and, with a new course now set, he feels this is a good time to hand over the reins and for him to enjoy some time with his wife and new Grandson, as well concentrating on his business.

Now, it may be that his going is just as he says, (more family time), or it might be self-sacrificial - a form of hara-kiri to allow all the ills of the Fylde Conservative Party to be washed away with him in time for the next Borough Elections in may 2011. (Or indeed it may be actually sacrificial, and not so self inspired)

But whatever the underlying reason, in public, his colleagues will no doubt stand behind him, and be publicly supportive. That's the way of party politics.

However, when push comes to shove, he has failed on three big fronts.

  • He Introduced the Cabinet system of administration which has isolated him from the benefit available from the collective brainpower of the whole Council, and their testing of the policies he wanted to introduce.
  • He sees himself as a politician not as a councillor - and there is a gaping chasm between the two.
  • He has demonstrated financial incompetence in his oversight of the Council's money matters, the like of which has never been seen before at Fylde.

But whilst overall, we believe there are ample grounds to criticise his time as Leader at Fylde, we'll first say that, on a personal basis, he can be charming and humorous. He's very convincing, and when you speak with him you sometimes have to bite your lip to remind yourself not to be taken in by the arguments he will skilfully advance. He is an excellent and quick thinking advocate. As we said, he would make a good politician.

We bear him no personal ill-will - and anyway, as our readers know, we don't do articles about people's personal lives and circumstances, only their professional ones.

And we believe we have a lot to gripe about in that arena.

We've heard it said, and are at least partially convinced, that he came to the fore because of the adversarial style of the opposition in a former position of power. The Conservatives needed someone to equal the street-fighting ability of Paul Hayhurst, and Coombes was the man of the hour.

Either way, he set out his stall before the May 2003 election in a way that had not been done before. He undertook a massive opinion survey across the length and breadth of Fylde to identify what people wanted from their Council. Then he wrote the election manifesto from it. Simple. He asked people what they wanted, and promised to deliver it.

The Conservatives took power and set about making changes. If they had stuck to what had been in the original manifesto they would have got on better, but he ran up against Chief Executive Ken Lee, a strong-minded disaster of a man that had been appointed by the previous administration.

New man Coombes - with all his bravado - was no match (at least at the beginning) for Lee, who sucked him in, chewed him up, and spat him out in little pieces. Lee's will would prevail and the demolition of democracy in Fylde was set in train.

By 2005, things started going wrong when Coombes was persuaded to pursue the 'Equitable Taxation?' scheme (Note that it always had the question mark in its heading, That was Lee's attempt at humour at our expense as taxpayers. He knew it was anything but equitable).

But so did we. And the battle over that is not yet joined. We've only had skirmishes so far.

Then in September 2005, having convinced Coombes of the case, Lee's plan to demolish the Town Hall provoked outrage in Lytham and St Annes.

The honeymoon was, by now, well and truly over, and Coombes, who had been indoctrinated with Lee's ways, was, himself turning into a public enemy.

He had also become convinced of the need to change the administration system in Fylde. All the Councillors had been unhappy with the 'Streamlined Committee' system that Lee had introduced, and pressure for change was expected to culminate in a return to a proper Committee system.

Instead it brought in an Executive Committee system for 12 months before Councillors revolted against that too.

Then, in October 2005 in a judgement of exemplary folly, John Coombes supported Lee's introduction of the Cabinet System and embraced it as his own. They set a course to introduce in the following year.

In our view this was the worst thing John Coombes did in the whole of his office. All the other disasters he has had flow from this one decision.

To silence opposition within his own ranks, he had Tim Ashton and Elizabeth Clarkson propose that Councillor Barbara Pagett be suspended from the Conservative Party for two months.

At around the same time, serious, old money people in Lytham were up in arms about Kensington's plans for Disneyland, but did he listen. No. He threatened his own party councillors that if they went to a Defend Lytham meeting, they would not be allowed to take part in debates and decisions about the matter as Councillors at a later stage.

Eventually, public anger forced a 'No' decision on the application, exposing his bad judgement on this matter quite clearly.

By November 2005, Coombes had recognised the damage that Lee was doing with his harebrained social engineering plans, and fired him. Or at least they agreed what many people believe was a financially gross severance package.

And in 2006, he formed the Politburo Cabinet. which became the most hated system of administration Fylde has ever known.

He also set about trying to form an 'Area Forum' in Lytham - (to have a more manageable entity than the Town Council that St Annes had set it's sights on having as a way to curb the damage being done to their area).

By June 2006, the first of the financial disasters that would mark his administration saw the light of day.

At the time it seemed serious, but it would be dwarfed by those that were to follow.

In July, unable to stay silent any longer, Councillor Barbara Pagett quit the Conservative party and went solo. We dubbed her 'Saint Barbara' for her courage.

In September 2006 he announced a plan to privatise the swimming pools. This was the first indication of a threat to them.

Following that we had the classic mismanagement of the bus concessions, and equitable taxation raising its head every budget time. Then, in January 2007, a four page list of land owned by the Council was secretly being considered for disposal to fund his failing Town Hall scheme.

In August 2007, we broke the story that the new Civica Computer system installation had gone belly up and, as a result none of the spending departments could tell how much they had spent or what they had left. We drew attention to the lack of financial monitoring and the fact that agency accountants (with no understanding of local authority finance) were being deployed to stamp on financial fires. We read this from a  report to Cabinet and said it was the equivalent of a big red panic button in the middle of the report, but John Coombes didn't have the experience to see it.

It was this problem that led directly to Streetscene's unapproved overspend of around £700,000

By November he was trying to sign Fylde up with Wyre for a joint working scheme and they got quite close before Wyre realised what a mess Fylde was in and backed away.

Part of this was the plan to create FBC Solutions - a commercial entity into which he planned to pour the manual workforce so they could compete against the private sector - the very people whose livelihoods he should have been seeking to benefit.

Then the dreaded Homeless Hostel scheme appeared. This was to be his undoing. It turned out to be the first decision he had publicly to back down from, and it showed his fallibility.

Then came the scheme to Join the 'Growth Point Bid', giving Fylde all the pain and Blackpool all the gain of development inside Fylde's boundary. This, he and Roger Small said, was something we must be part of and sign up to. Yeah. Right. That same quality of judgement was at work again.

In March 2008, we published 'High Performing Council' - a poem based on the trials and tribulations of Fylde that someone had sent to us. Set to the tune of 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic' it's worth revisiting this page to see the predictions that have come even more true since it was published. This was the day that 3,000 people marched in protest at the plans to close the swimming pools.

But John Coombes nemesis - and the event that sealed his fate - came two days afterwards. The Council meeting of Monday 3 March 2008 will go down in the annals of Fylde's history as its worst ever day.

This was the day that the Conservative Group supported its leader John Coombes, without a single vote against him, voted to close two public swimming pools. He has never properly recovered from this decision and that awful meeting where the Mayor had to call the police to threaten the public in the gallery that the Council was supposedly representing.

Then along came the Queensway scheme which John Coombes had so strongly supported at the Listening Day event. He evidently thought it was a good thing. The town thought not, and QED was formed to fight the proposals. Kensington made donations to Blackpool Conservatives and a smaller one to Fylde Conservatives, all of which have been handed back, of course when they were discovered, but it shows a proximity between developer and councillors that at best is unhealthy.

In April 2009, he reshuffled his Cabinet. Out went Pat Fieldhouse, Paul Rigby with mayoral duties, but out also went his stalwarts Tim Ashton and Simon Renwick. Back came Susan Fazackerley, and in came Cheryl Little and David Eaves. Big changes that were not altogether logical to follow at the time.

Then came the Lancashire County Elections.

Everywhere else in the country Conservatives swept to into power. Blackpool reversed a huge labour majority to oust Labour from office. In Fylde, the Conservatives actually lost ground to independents and liberal democrats.

We have said several times that this is when it finally began to dawn on the Conservative Group in Fylde that they were being led to the edge of the cliff by their lemming leader.

We heard there was an attempted 'coups de main' to oust Coombes soon after this.

We also heard Princess Karen's name linked as the heir apparent, but some thought that would only bring them 'more of the same' and a group started to coalesce around the more consensus seeking Susan Fazackerley who promptly declared she would have none of it, thus exposing those who had sought to make her king (or in this case queen), to their fate.

When internal fighting like this breaks out within the group it is always a prelude to change, and often the loss of power.

Few groups win elections. Mostly the ones in power lose them.

Since then we've had the laptop-images issue, a badly handled SHLAA process and the Streetscene whitewash meeting (and a change of name for the department)

We've almost had more extra-ordinary meetings than we've had scheduled meetings in order to affect the outcome and the results.

We've seen committees packed with ringers to produce particular results, we've seen yet more plans to introduce the 'Equitable Tax Con' backfire in the Leaders face, and we've seen Fylde declared the joint worst local Council in Lancashire, with the official description of 'performing poorly' and 'failing to meet minimum requirements' for Managing Resources.

And most recently, we've seen in ''Decisive Company' how - in our opinion at least - John Coombes was putting party above people, and losing the support of his colleagues when he sought to weld Fylde into the 'Blackpool Fylde and Wyre Economic Development Company Limited'

Now he is standing down. So what do we think were the causes? Well, you can perm any number you like from amongst these:

  • Insufficient previous experience of running a council.
  • No empathy with the concepts of public service.
  • No ability to see when finances are going the wrong way.
  • Too influenced by presentation.
  • Desperate to control media presentation of his activity.
  • Desperate to get Fylde into the champagne league of big-boy councils.
  • Opposed in principle to consensus.
  • Financially incompetent.
  • Whilst he listened to others, he heard and understood little or nothing.
  • He had 'consultation exercises', not consultations. He didn't actually want anyone else's views, just to appear to want them so they would be less likely to oppose him.
  • Finally, he corrupted the officer class with political expediency for his own ends instead of allowing them to be properly independent and acting for the Council as a whole.

He's not a good councillor. But he may be a good politician.

So who is going to replace him as Leader?

Well, whilst that is a matter for the full Council (for which you can read 'the Conservative majority') to decide, and with the rapidly rising Princess Karen Buckley occupied in Hyndburn for a while at least, logic suggests it will be  the Deputy Leader, Councillor Roger Small.

That's going to make life tricky.

He's been the acceptable face of John Coombs' policies for some time now. And it's difficult to tell whether that was through conviction to the policies or loyalty to the group.

He's the one with the nice smile (when he thinks to use it), and the logic that appears so entirely reasonable that no-one could disagree with it. He has a (mostly) non-hectoring manner, and comes across like a good family doctor.

Our own experience of him is that either he doesn't have the time (or perhaps the inclination) to research things he is asked to make decision on in enough depth to properly understand the implications.

And he is prone to believing what officers tell him without testing it.

In short he is not thorough, and you do need to be thorough and able to grasp the details that hide so many of those little devils in Council work - because at the bottom of it, Council work is all about people, and people are different, and have particular needs.

The devil is always in the detail.

One of our readers won't be too happy about the replacement. He has previously told us that he prefers John Coombes to Roger Small - because at least  (as our friend believes), "when John Coombes opens his mouth, you know he's lying". We couldn't possibly comment on that view, and we know it's not meant in a literal sense anyway, but the converse implication is what is intended to be conveyed we feel

Dated:   13 April  2010


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