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Parishes in Peril?

Parishes in Peril?If, like us, your copy of 'Fylde in Focus' found its way into your preferred poor-quality paper disposal arrangements, along with your Christmas wrapping-paper this year, then you probably don't have it any longer, and that's a shame.

Because inside it was a supplement called 'Fylde Matters'

This supplement has something of importance for everyone in Fylde. It carried news of something called a 'Community Governance Review' that we're going to focus on in a minute. (And show how you can get a copy if yours was thrown out at Christmas).

But first, we'll note that the front cover of 'Fylde Matters' has a photo of the quartet of Conservative leaders from Lancashire, Blackpool, Fylde, and Wyre Councils who are working (out of sight) on something called the Multi Area Agreement that will end up being what almost no-one on the Fylde coast wants, the dreaded 'City of the Fylde' melting pot - a single administrative unit of Local Government for the area (Actually we think it will be called "Fylde Coast Unitary Authority" - but hey, a skunk by any other name would smell just as bad).

If you want to see the figures and arguments that show why this plan is such a bad idea, have a look at City Sickers.

Straying even further off track, but still thinking about council newspapers.... It was not difficult to anticipate that when the County Council became Conservative controlled, and they promised zero rate Council Tax increases, cuts in service were always going to be on the cards.

We heard recently that one early casualty (that almost no-one will mourn) was the 'Lancashire Vision' newspaper. We understand it's editor was unhappy with the cuts in production and he left (or was otherwise eased out). But we also hear he has now resurfaced. Guess where?

You got it.

The Commissar has withdrawn the spin doctoring contract from Blackpool and appointed his own spin doctor at Fylde again. This time it's the same spin doctor that had Visions for the County Council.

We don't yet know the new spin doctor, so you can be sure we don't mean anything personal when we say that as soon as this gross waste of taxpayers money is removed from Fylde's budget, we will consider taking the Commissar's lupine cries about not having enough money to provide public services (that previous councils have always managed to give us) more seriously.

However, back to the supplement, and to the 'Community Governance Review'......

It has an exhortation for Fylde folk to provide their view as to what they think about parish and town councils.

There's a form where you can answer some yes/no questions and if necessary provide "Any other comment"

The questions might be a bit leading (or even misleading) to some, so we thought we'd provide our own take on them for our readers.

But first we need to explain how we got here.

Long ago, in the mists of time, before counterbalance existed, there was a group of people campaigning for St Annes to have its own Town Council.

They were most dissatisfied that the previous administration (yes there was one before the Commissar) had allowed awful things to happen to much loved buildings in St Annes, and with the awful social engineering projects that had been set in train by the worst Chief Executive ever to set foot in Fylde.

These people wanted a Town Council that could articulate their concerns; protect the culture and environment of St Annes, and keep in check the damage that the Borough Council was doing.

They petitioned for a Town Council and, just after the Commissar came to power, they eventually succeeded in persuading the Government to create the Civil Parish of Saint Anne's on the Sea.

After that, it was up to the Commissar to say whether he wanted to create the parish council to go with the civil parish, or whether he wanted the Electoral Commission to do it.

He failed to decide within the time allowed, so by default, (as was the law) the Electoral Commission started the process to create the Town Council.

When the Commissar saw what was going on, he wrested control back from the Commission by moving ahead with his own Order to create the new council.

Whilst he paid lip-service to supporting the embryo Council, he did everything in his power to kill it off, such as deliberately not precepting for its first rate and leaving it starved of cash.

But the real hammer blow for this new council was his argument that it would be more cost effective with a smaller number of Councillors. He persuaded the Borough Council there should only be seven councillors.

Note here that the Borough Council itself has a decent representation of one councillor for just over a thousand electors. This requires eighteen councillors for St Annes, but he said a Town Council would only need seven.

Research by the Aston Business School has found that the typical parish council representing less than 500 people had between 5 and 8 councillors; those between 501 and 2,500 had 6 to 12 councillors; and those between 2,501 and 10,000 had 9 to 16 councillors. Most parish councils with a population of between 10,001 and 20,000 had between 13 and 27 councillors, while almost all councils representing a population of over 20,000 had between 13 and 31 councillors

St Annes has a population of over 20,000.

Town and Parish councillors generally don't get paid. They are volunteers, and almost all in Fylde don't employ any officers except a Clerk. They do the work themselves as volunteers (which of course moves them closer to the people, keeps their feet on the ground, and their heads out of the clouds).

So with only seven, the new St Annes Town Council had 3,000 electors per councillor, and it was woefully under capacity.

The Steering Group that brought about the new council complained (loudly) to the Electoral Commission, eventually reaching the Chairman of that organisation himself who wrote ".... It also remains the Commission's clear view that the arrangements [for the election of Town Councillors] put in place by the [Fylde Borough] Council are not valid. It follows that the arrangements themselves and anything done in reliance of them is open to legal challenge. Having made this quite clear to the [Fylde Borough] Council, the Commission does not regard it as necessary or desirable for the matter to be resolved in that way, particularly where there is an alternative solution"

He went on to say that his preferred solution was for the Boundary Commission to undertake a short review of St Anne's on the Sea with a view to making recommendations for revised electoral arrangements.

In plain English what this meant was that the Commissar had cocked the job up (yet, again) by trying to take over. If matters had been tested in law, the Order he made to create the Town Councillors could have been held to be illegal.

But rather than have Fylde Council taken to court, the Electoral Commission's chairman suggested short and quick review that would put things right.

That was in April 2005.

And the Commissar has had the brakes on ever since.

Then, last year, the power to create town Councils passed (God forbid) to Councils like Fylde. They now undertake the review process themselves. Thoughts of King Herod being put in charge of Mothercare spring readily to mind, but that's now the law.

Once the Commissar got the power to undertake the review himself, he stalled and stalled the review process.

Finally, however, now it suits HIS own purpose, he's going ahead.

This might have something to do with the fact that, in some circumstances, when doing a Community Governance Review,  Borough councils that want to alter the electoral arrangements for a parish less than five years old, need the consent of the Electoral Commission for whatever they propose. St Anne's on the Sea is just over five years old now.

That could well have been why he was waiting - so he could avoid having to get any changes approved by the Electoral Commission.

BUT

And this is the crucial part....

Instead of just reviewing and increasing the number of Town Councillors in St Annes, he's decided to widen the thing out and have a review of all the Town and Parish Councils in Fylde.

You might wonder why?

Well, we think he has ulterior motives.

Firstly, we think his ultimate aim in this matter is to reduce the number of elected councillors on the Borough Council.

Sadly, we know many people will support this idea. Knowing that each Borough Councillor gets an allowance of around £3,000 a year gets people's backs up. So the Commissar will find it quite easy to sell the idea on the basis of saving money and being more efficient, just like he did when he improperly held St Anne's Town Council to just seven members.

So what's his ulterior motive by reviewing all the parishes you might ask?

Well, Fylde is an exceptional Council because it has a very high number of Independent councillors.

At present, they are mostly from the rural area, but with the mess the Commissar's been making in the coastal strip, the independents, Ratepayers and Liberal Democrats are slowly increasing in strength.

Each ward in Lytham and St Annes has around 3,000 electors, so in a Borough election (where there is one councillor per 1,000), you can vote for up to three Councillors.

With this as an option, even dyed-in-the-wool Conservative voters will choose a Ratepayer or an independent like St Barbara Pagett as a second or third choice on the voting slip in three-candidate wards.

These second and third choices from Conservative voters help some non-conservatives to get elected at Borough level - often pushing out Conservatives who contest the 'third' seat.

We suspect the Commissar thinks that if he can get it down to two councillors a Ward, there's less chance of Independents and Ratepayers being elected. (= More power and control for him).

And he is party-politically ruthless enough to do almost anything to minimise opposition to his power.

So a main hope in conducting the Governance Review is that he will be able to find enough in the comments and answers that people provide to justify his calling for a reduction in the number of Borough Councillors.

We think Councillors are a bit like doctors. The more you have, the better you are. Bigger numbers mean a wider base of knowledge and experience, less chance of corruption, and more chance that you will be represented by at least one councillor in your ward whose views are in tune with your own.

The second, and probably even bigger ulterior motive the Commissar has, is something we alluded to in our last article 'Tax Con Backfires'

He desperately wants a Town Council to be created in Lytham so he can finish off the great con he began last year, and hive off all the parks and open spaces in one fell swoop to Lytham, St Annes and Kirkham. Based on his current plans, this will increase the Council Tax for everyone in Fylde by up to £70 a year.

Now; counterbalance knows its place.

And far be it from us to tell folk in Lytham whether they should, or should not, have a Town Council of their own. But it does seem to us, that his move to push for a Lytham Town Council is simply so he can dump the cost of parks and playing fields on it, and not reduce his own spending when he transfers the work. It also seems to us that this is a poor reason to have one.

But we understand this intention has been confirmed by senior Council officials within the last few weeks, so it looks to be the real reason.

Thirdly, we've no doubt he will try and use whatever he can find from the results of the public survey (the one now being conducted in 'Fylde Matters') to justify merging some parishes together to create bigger administrative units, and reduce the numbers, and thus reduce the prospect of independent councillors being elected.

So what are the questions he wants us to answer in this survey? How are they phrased to encourage us to give the answers he wants?

Well you can see for yourself on Fylde's website 'Fylde Matters Page, and downloading "Issue number 5" as a pdf file from the links on the right hand side of the page

First, they have found a friendlier, snappier name for the 'Community Governance Review' and called it "Your Place, Your Voice"

And they insist "It's your community so we NEED your views!"

As to the questions.......

"1. Do you feel that the area covered by your parish or town council represents the community that you live in?"

You get to choose Yes or No to this one.  There's a map to help you see where all the parishes are.

So far, so good

"2. If you live in Ansdell and Lytham you do not have a parish council. Should the Council consider parishing these areas?"

This is another Yes / No choice. But this time it's something of a leading question isn't it?.

The subtext is that if you're living in Lytham or Ansdell you're losing out so you really ought to have one. The fact that the Commissar is very keen to have one in Lytham so he can dump a shedload of work onto them and raise extra from tax himself is probably the real driver here.

"3. Do the boundaries make sense in the 21st century?"

Yet another Yes / No choice, but even more leading.

What would be wrong with "Do the boundaries make sense?"

By adding "in the 21st Century" it creates the impression that they are old fashioned and not up to date, so the boundaries should be changed to make them "make sense in the 21st century" And, of course, if he did that, he might be able to merge some parishes together, making them less 'local' and, of course, having potentially less councillors, and certainly less independent opposition to his party machine in elections.

"4. Are you happy with current arrangements as long as it provides you with a say in local decision-making?"

They can't resist adding that second - and potentially confusing - concept can they? Again, the question could have been "Are you happy with current arrangements?"

By adding the second part, it leads you to believe that you're somehow getting second-best option with the present arrangements, so a change from them would only be sensible.

Of course, anyone who sits down and thinks about their answer to this question, will come to a considered view, but asking the question like this prompts a subliminal message of "No, I'm not happy" from those who are answering 'en passant'

"5. Do you want your town or parish council to be able to provide more local services?"

Another Yes / No choice, and whilst it might look innocuous, we think it's something of a trick one.

The range of services that any Town or Parish Council can provide is set out in statute. So what they can do is nothing to do with what we would like, and we can't change the national law, any more than Fylde Council can.

The problem with this question is the "be able to" bit.

The question should have been "Do you want your town or parish council to provide more services?" i.e. within what they are allowed to do, do you think they are doing enough?

But again, the clever subtext for those answering without too much thinking is "there must be some things they could or should be doing that they are not doing.... so yes, I would like them to be able to provide more services."

No doubt the Commissar's hope is that he can use a resounding "yes" to justify an enormous tax increase for us all when his 'Differential Taxation' sees all parishes raising the tax for parks and leisure services themselves. This will also allow the Commissar not to reduce his spending when he dumps the work on them.

In fact, parish councils can be hugely important without providing *any* services.

They can (and we would argue should) exist primarily to represent the views of their community to others. To the Borough Council, the Police, the Health Service, the County Council, to Government, and whoever else is appropriate. They know their community intimately and are best placed to express its collective opinion.

Fylde Councillors are obliged to put the needs of the whole of Fylde above those of the individual community that elected them. Not all do of course, but they are supposed to give pre-eminence to Fylde.

This can create tensions when for example councillors are obliged to vote for moves that benefit Fylde but are unpopular locally - such as the location of, say, hostels.

A parish council generally has such a small area that this sort of conflict does not usually arise

counterbalance is a great supporter of most Town and Parish Councils. That doesn't mean we won't criticise when they do something wrong of course, but they usually have far more common-sense than any other tier of government, they are close to the people, and they are traditionally (if not exclusively) non-party political.

If it were down to us, we would actually have parish councils assessing and handing out benefit claims and the like. They would be far more accurate in assessments because they usually know the individual and their circumstances when a claim is made.

Parish councils can also act as a filter - helping to point urgent or especially needy cases to the right part of the Borough or County Council, and they can act as a seed-bed for the Borough Council, helping those with little or no experience of the role to cut their civic teeth.

Se we argue that Town and Parish Councils contribute a great deal of value to a community even if they don't undertake any service delivery - and that way, they cost next to nothing as well.

If a community wants a higher level of service than the Borough or County is prepared to provide, we think it's right that Parishes should be able to precept for, and fund, top-up services to produce that higher level.

But they should definitely not become dumping grounds for the incompetence of larger councils.

So we might not answer question 5 with a "Yes" (we want our parish council to provide more services), and certainly not when the underlying reason is a tax con by the Commissar.

Finally, there is a section on the form that allows you to provide "Any other comment" and we'll make a suggestion for our readers in a minute, but first, we think there are some questions might be are missing from the list. What about ...

  • Does the name of your parish council describe the area it serves?
  • Is the area your parish covers too big?
  • Is the area your parish covers too small?
  • Should your parish be split into smaller parishes?
  • Should your parish be amalgamated with another into a larger one?
  • Does your parish council represent the views of local residents well?
  • Does your parish enable you to have a say in local decisions that affect your area?
  • Is your parish so big or diverse that it should be sub-divided into wards for the election of councillors?

As far as the "Any other comment" space goes, you might like to talk to your local parish councillor(s) about this to see what they suggest. They're usually very approachable and reasonably well known in the community.

We'll be having a thing or two to say in this section of the form ourselves.   We expect to make comments about parishes not employing armies of consultants, and not having plans for ivory towers, and not being financially incompetent, and not closing down services, and not having spin doctors, and keeping things in decent order, and acting on what they hear, and not having Streetscene departments that report losses of £700,000, and not taking on waste collection contracts that mean they subsidise other areas, and not paying humungous sums to say they have outsourced all the services they used to deliver, and not ticking government boxes, and not building secure hostels in residential areas, and not trying to sell land worth £400,000 for £250,000, and not trying to turn the area into a market traders paradise, and not frightening away shoppers and residents with over zealous traffic wardens, and not ripping people's eyes out with extortionate parking charges, and not using fixed penalty notices as a source of income, and about parishes being more representative, and more local, and focussing on what people want, and doing the work on a voluntary basis, and mostly, being trusted by, and honest with, their electorate, and not trying to con them out of millions of pounds by tax increases that are specifically designed to get round the government's capping limit and con money out of an electorate that is far too good and trusting for the likes of the Commissar.

But apart from this awful tax con, what our Commissar is really after, is to make changes at parish boundary level so he can ask the Electoral Commission to make reflected changes to Borough Ward and County divisions that echo the changes he will make at parish level. His plan is no doubt to change and amalgamate parishes as a precursor to amalgamating Borough wards.

So if you live in Fylde and you don't want to be conned into paying extra tax, tell your friends in Lytham and Ansdell to think about opposing his call for a parish council there.

And if you value your independent councillors, don't answer any of his questions in a way that he could use to reduce the number of parish councillors, or merge parishes or wards together.

And above all, DO send your views in. By law they have to be taken into consideration and, as we've seen with this lot before, he is prepared to ignore representations that go against what he wants if he is able to claim that not enough people sent views in to make it representative.

Of course, it goes as he wants, it will probably be implemented even if only ten people reply. Why do you think the supplement came out at Christmas when everyone was distracted? Could it be that the few supporters he still has will provide the justification he needs?

We know our readers might have binned the questionnaire at Christmas, so just in case you did, we've reproduced a handy scanned copy you can print out, fill in and send off.  Click here for a copy of it  in pdf format

Completed printed forms go to:
"Your Place, Your Voice"
Town Hall, St Annes
FY8 1 LW.


Alternatively, as it says on the form, you can call with your views on 01253 658506

Or you can email your views straight to the top man in Fylde's electoral system:
ianc@fylde.gov.uk

He did ask for your address including postcode so they can identify your ward and parish council. (But he says your details will be kept confidential)

You might also like to pass this webpage address, or the form for printing, to your friends in Fylde and ask them to send their own views.

Dated:   27 January  2010


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