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Enter the Puppet-Master?

Enter the Puppetmaster?Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water - He's back.

For the first time since he lost the leadership, the Commissar re-surfaced at the Council meeting on 27 September.

And sure enough, right on cue, the sort of havoc we've come to expect in Cllr Coombes' presence, ensued.

But this time he said nothing. He was silent. And you could hardly see the strings being pulled at all.

But we think there's trouble brewing - the sort of trouble that you find in a civil war, and this Council meeting might prove to have been the first salvo.

The issue that sparked our interest was the boringly named 'Community Governance Review'

Chiefly it was an item about increasing the number of Town Councillors on the St Annes on the Sea Town Council.

The background to this item can be found in Parishes in Peril and in Snippets July 2010 but it also has strong (and reverberating) connections to the divisive 'Equitable Taxation?' and 'Differential Taxation' schemes the Commissar tried to implement.

But to fully understand what's happening we need to go back and look at the founding of the St Annes Town Council.

Whilst the Commissar was wet behind his civic ears, the awful Ken Lee ran the Council with an iron fist. He came in with a brief to shake up the Council and he did. Classic buildings of character were being redeveloped with scant regard to the character of the area, and to the great anger of local residents.

One of his plans was to create 'Neighbourhood Councils.' We believe he intended these to become an easily manageable powerbase - to let him manipulate and claim public approval for his even more damaging plans that were to follow.

He was furious when residents of St Annes began to campaign for an independent autonomous council with its own statutory powers to give St Annes its own voice. He did everything in his power to try and stop it.

Whilst paying lip service to propriety, behind the scenes he enlisted the Commissar's support to strangle the infant at birth.

There were two main ways they did this.

They failed to set a first year precept for the new council so the new Town Council had no money,  and it had to 'borrow' from the Borough Council for its first year, placing itself in their debt.

But his main trick was when he made an invalid order which disregarded  the right (and responsibility) of the Electoral Commission to decide the number of members the fledgling Council should have.

The campaigning group had proposed - and the Electoral Commission had agreed - that the sensible number was eighteen.

This would give one councillor in the part of Fairhaven Ward that is in St Annes, two for the larger part of Park Ward, and three in each of the other (full) wards.

It would have given a representation level of around one Town Councillor to about 1,200 or 1,300 electors.

Parish and Town Councillors are not like Borough councillors, they generally don't get paid allowances, so the Commissar's arguments at the time about fewer councillors being cheaper were nothing but ignorance or baloney.

And generally, Town and Parish councillors roll their sleeves up and do the work of their Council themselves. So within reason, the more there are, the better.

Bigger numbers are also better because, in a ward of around 3,600 souls (which would have three councillors), you're likely to find one that is more sympathetic to your concern.

So we see Town and Parish Councillors a bit like we see doctors or nurses. Generally speaking the more the better.

And we agreed that eighteen was the sensible number.

But at a FBC Council meeting to consider arrangements, back in 2004/5, the Commissar swung the vote so they had only seven, and the Town Council has been almost paralysed since. It was a very successful ploy on his part, but, as we said, he acted outside the law to do it.

Readers can see conformation of these facts in the two letters we've obtained.

The first is a letter from the then Clerk of the Steering Group (who were campaigning for the Town Council) to the Minister at the time (Nick Raynsford). This sets the context.

The second is from (no less than) the Chairman of the Electoral Commission (Sam Younger) to our former MP Michael Jack, who had asked a question on behalf of the Steering Group. In it, readers will see that the Electoral Commission (who at that time was the authority in the matter) say that the arrangements put in place by the Borough Council were invalid, and open to legal challenge.

But in subsequent letters, the Electoral Commission suggested the Steering Group should not to institute a legal challenge, but they should ask the Commission to undertake a quick review of the decision after the Town Council was formed, (with the clear expectation that the number of Town Councillors would be increased to the appropriate level. The Commission was suggesting it could be done in six to nine months.

However, two things happened to prevent this. The Town Council had so much to learn in its early years that they took their eye off this particular ball, and the Government changed responsibility for the creation of town and parish councils from the Electoral Commission to local councils themselves.

That's like putting King Herod in charge of Mothercare, but it's what happened.

They expected local councils to act honourably and impartially in this matter. But Fylde just put the brakes on. They stalled and stalled the process. It took from 2005 to 2010 before they acted.

They finally instituted a 'Community Governance Review' this spring. The purpose of this should have been to increase the number of St Annes Town Councillors to 18 from its present seven, but again the Borough Council confused the issue, and widened the scope of the review to include a decision on whether Lytham and/or Ansdell should have its own Parish Council.

They also tried to rationalise some of the parish boundaries in the rural areas of Fylde.

The idea of parishing Lytham and St Annes was - in our opinion - chiefly connected with the Commissar's desire to make all Town and Parish Councils responsible for Parks and Open Spaces maintenance. His idea was to get them to charge for this so he could use the money Fylde had been spending on it for something else.

It would have looked as though the Town Council had increased its costs as it took on the extra work and increased its precept, whilst the Borough Council's precept stayed the same. They would have looked like goody-two-shoes.

That's really the sort of trick he wanted to play on us.

But Lytham and Ansdell didn't buy his con, and there was no support for a Town Council being created there. Equally, the rural areas made it clear they did not want any changes to their historic boundaries.

Whether adding these in to the St Annes question was a genuine attempt to do a full Governance review, or whether they were tossed into the mix so as to muddy the water for the St Annes Town Council debate, is not entirely clear.

But either way, in the middle of it, the Commissar stood down as Leader, and David Eaves was chosen as the new one. He immediately brought a new and fresh approach of consensus and co-operation to the Council. It was most welcome, and we've commented on it here several times in recent months.

We understand he had privately signalled a willingness to sort out the St Annes Town Council numbers, and it would come to Council in good time to get the number revised before the elections next May.

In the meantime, as part of the Governance Review, FBC had consulted a number of organisations. St Annes Town Council being one. They had debated the issue and, although some had misgivings about a large number, they all agreed that in terms of representing the people of St Annes, eighteen was the only way to go. Their vote on the matter was unanimous.

The Parish and Town Council Liaison meeting also recommended 18 when it was consulted, and 52% of the 'People's Panel' focus group said they wanted the Town Council to provide more services.

But when it went to Council in July, what should have been a nod-through decision became a nasty, bad tempered little meeting. Princess Karen proposed a delay whilst further investigations were made and that was agreed. (See Snippets July 2010)

Some members of the Town Council were upset, and representations were made behind the scenes. Although we have only hearsay on this matter, we understand that Cllr David Eaves said privately that he would support the 18 and it would go back to Council quickly and be sorted at the September meeting.

But then things went wrong.

We understand a private meeting of the Conservative group - where all the real decisions are taken - produced a row on the matter and in the end, the group vote failed to support their new leader's position.

These meetings are very secretive, and its difficult to get to know what goes on in them. Occasionally someone will let us know, but mostly you have to read between the lines and make some assumptions.

So the Council meeting on 27 September arrived. There were glum faces on many of St Annes Town Councillors. They knew the outcome before the meeting started.

We think it's no surprise that the Commissar chose to attend this meeting when he hasn't been to a Council or Cabinet meeting since last May.

It was also no surprise to us that when the vote was taken, he and Dim Tim had Cheshire cat grins from ear to ear, and were so unable to contain themselves they both rushed outside the main hall shortly after the vote. Perhaps they both co-incidentally needed the loo at the same time.

We're entirely convinced we see the hand of the Commissar at work here, pulling strings from behind the scenes.

We suspect he is being supported by Dim Tim and we note that at the same time, his arch-colleague Simon Renwick has just been re-admitted to the fold after a term of suspension. Furthermore, most of the speaking against St Annes getting 18 Councillors was done by Princess Karen Buckley, and to a lesser extent Cllr Roger Small.

This, of course, is the old powerbase of the Commissar, and we think the Machiavellian training he had from Ken Lee has surfaced, and he is become the Puppet-Master, controlling the group from behind the scenes and pulling the strings.

He would no doubt deny this and point to the fact that it was Cllr David Eaves who proposed only twelve councillors instead of the eighteen that St Annes should have had.

We heard Cllr Eaves speak and it's true he did propose the twelve. But there was no conviction in his voice as he made the proposition, and he took little or no part in the debate after moving the proposition. That role was taken up by Princess Karen - the Smiling Rottweiler according to some of her colleagues on the Council.

If, as we believe, David Eaves wanted St Annes to have eighteen Town Councillors, readers will wonder why he didn't say so, and why he proposed only 12.

The answer to this lies in the rigid rules for Conservative Councillors which include the following:

"6.7 Members shall not ask questions, move motions or speak in opposition in debates at Full Council meetings unless they have indicated their intent to do so at a prior Group meeting. If they were unable to attend the Group meeting, they must inform the Chief Whip before the start of the Council meeting.

6.8 Members will support decisions taken at Group meetings on all issues other than matters of conscience, relating to the member's ward only, when members should abstain from voting and should maintain a silence."


So once the group meeting has come to a decision, it binds all members, even the Leader, and even if he disagrees.

This, of course is at the root cause of why counterbalance dislikes the party system. Party Members are not free to vote as they wish. They cannot act in what they believe to be the best interests of their electorate, and this malaise affects all political parties of any size.

It's actually worse, because the rules go on to say that members cannot speak except in support of a group decision not only at Council meetings, but also to the media, and at any public meeting.

So if we are right, what we have in David Eaves is a Leader who appears to be a good, honourable and consensual Councillor, trapped within the rules of his party, and potentially held captive by it.

If that is what is happening, we are entering a very interesting phase in Local Government in Fylde.

If the Commissar has turned Puppet-Master and is being supported by his former acolytes, the party is in deep trouble, and the result will either be a 'civil war' or a new leader.

Either way, with an election fast approaching, it will be very damaging for them. And although we don't know him that well, we don't think David Eaves is the sort of chap that would put up with that sort of treatment for very long.

Again it depends if our interpretation of (mostly circumstantial) situations is right, and we freely accept it might not be - but if it is, then the Conservative group on Fylde Council will have some very difficult decisions to make.

Backing David Eaves with his consensual style is not going to be first nature, but if they don't, and they back an unholy alliance of power-crazed individuals who got them into this mess in the first place, means they will face the political wilderness for longer that they thought imaginable, and they will be punished at the polls next May.

If they need early warning of this, they need look no further than the recent Kilnhouse by-election where, despite falling in the polls nationally, the Lib Dems took the Kilnhouse seat from the Conservatives. It's also true that the Conservatives have won other Fylde by-elections by a comparatively small margin.

So, back on topic, what of the Community Governance Review item at the Council meeting itself?

Well, as we said, Cllr Eaves proposed 12 Councillors for St Annes. He said this would move the Town Council forward, and he proposed no further action on the Lytham/Ansdell situation or on changes to rural boundaries.

Princess Karen seconded the motion and did all the talking. She said that had been a lot of consultation, including on doorsteps in the recent by-election campaign in Kilnhouse ward (we figure that was a bit limited given that it's only one of seven wards in St Annes). She agreed that the Liaison Committee had proposed 18, as had the Town Council itself.

She said 'they' had held a meeting of St Annes Councillors who had decided not to support the 18, but 'they' would support 12.

She also said the 'People's Panel' has said 52% wanted the Town Council to deliver more services. But she said the 'Fylde in Focus' leaflet had produced only six responses, so there was no clamour from the general public, and an increase from seven to twelve would allow the Town Council to go forward.

Cllr Chedd spoke against the motion and asked why, as a St Annes Councillor, he had not been notified of a meeting of St Annes Councillors.

Cllr John Davies, Tony Ford and Saint Barbara Pagett who all represent Ashton ward asked the same question.

Cllr Buckley responded to say "We have consulted formally and informally, so whilst it wasn't a formal meeting that Cllr Chedd was not invited to, we have consulted informally, and we can revisit the situation in a few years "

We believe what she was referring to with her 'informal' meeting was a private meeting of Conservative Councillors for St Annes who had discussed (and apparently agreed what to do about) the matter.

That being so, it's also why non-conservative Councillors, including all the Ashton Ward Councillors, and Cllr Chedd, didn't get a look in. If that meeting was held under Conservative Party rules (as was likely) we think it is quite disgraceful to allow decisions on such matters to be made on party lines, and that alone merits challenging.

Readers might wonder why Borough Councillors in St Annes were so against letting St Annes Town Council have eighteen councillors.

This situation is not uncommon. The usual reason is that they feel threatened. But good Councillors have nothing to fear, and a lot to gain from a strong Parish or Town Council whose focus can be singly on St Annes when the Borough Councillors should focus on the wider area of Fylde.

But surprisingly, it wasn't only the Conservatives who voted against the eighteen. We were (at least at first) amazed when Saint Paul Hayhurst upped and said he thought they were going some way to support St Annes with twelve, and he thought eighteen would be blurring the edges and it was worth waiting to see how twelve would work out.

We thought his halo slipped a bit here.

His own parish is Elswick and Little Eccleston * and that has seven councillors and a population of 1,613 (according to ONS). So that's one Parish councillor for every 230 people.

If we apply that level of representation to St Annes (with its population of  30,000) we find St Annes would need 130 Town Councillors! - and in the face of that, even eighteen pales into insignificance..

So why is St Paul not on-side? He's a great supporter of Parish Councils, we've heard him speak of them in glowing tones in the past.

The answer probably lies in the issue of Differential Taxation. He's probably thinking that if St Annes Town Council were to be more active, it might decide to take on the maintenance of some of St Annes community open spaces - just as thirteen of the other fourteen Town and Parish Councils did a year or two back.

And if - as per Fylde Borough Council's latest pronouncement on the topic - the Borough Council were then to decide that the major parks and gardens (Ashton, Lowther, Promenade and Fairhaven, and maybe the Memorial Gardens at Kirkham) were deemed to be intended to met the needs of the wider Fylde population - not just local residents - and thus be a 'General Expense' - which would be chargeable over all Fylde residents - it would increase the tax payable by residents in Elswick (and other Fylde Parishes)). That's not something St Paul would want to risk.

So we think he's stifling his natural support for parishes in order to minimise possible future costs for his electorate.

On the other hand, several Town and Parish councillors spoke in support of St Annes getting eighteen Town Councillors, so either they didn't see the curved ball this might bring, or they were, ahem, shall we say, less partisan than St Paul was.

Cllr Tony Ford, who is also a St Annes Town Councillor and chairs their meetings, proposed an amendment to Cllr Eaves' motion.

He said he was pleased the Borough Council recognised that improved levels of representation for St Anne's Town Council were necessary, and he set out some of the background that we have provided for readers above.

He said Fleetwood Town Council (formed 2 years ago) will still have more councillors than St Anne's but it has an electorate which is at 3000 smaller. He said Lancaster City Council had recently created Morecambe Town Council and had agreed a Council of 26 Councillors, a ratio of one Councillor per 1,000 electors.. [which is broadly the ratio that St Annes had sought].  He said Fylde's Legal Officer Ian Curtis had accepted and agreed with the arguments and the figures put forward in the submission by the Town Council for 18 members, and quoted from the Department of Communities and Local Government who advise on Community Governance reviews.

The guidance said that, for communities with over a 20,000 population, the number of Councillors should be between 13 and 25. With St Anne's having a population of 30,000 he considered that 12 Councillors was far too low to allow for sufficient and effective community representation.  He noted that a decision to restrict the number of councillors to 12 flew in the face of the Conservative's 'Big Society' idea and the Localism agenda, and suggested that if the Fylde experience is an example of the face of localism and the much vaunted big society, then will prove to be a 'sham' before it has even got off the ground.

Concluding, he said the Borough Council had got it wrong in 2005 and he urged all councillors to do the right thing this time and allow representation in the order of 18 councillors as per the original submission.  To do otherwise would be perverse and irrational.

Interesting choice of words there we thought. A decision that is irrational or perverse is one of the grounds for undertaking a Judicial Review of a Council's decision.

Winding up to oppose the amendment, Cllr Roger Small said he fully supported the Portfolio Holder  (That's Princess Karen), adding that he thought there needed to be debate between FBC and St Annes Town Council as to who does (or should do) what.

He obviously has no conception about what matters he should be taking into account in deciding a Community Governance Review.  He should be looking at community identity, appropriate representation and convenient and effective administration.

Who does what has absolutely nothing to do with it.

Then came the vote on Cllr Ford's amendment to give St Annes on the Sea Town Council 18 councillors.   (O = Not Present). It was.....
 

Cllr Brenda Ackers Against   Cllr Craig Halewood O
Cllr Ben Aitken Against   Cllr Peter Hardy For
Cllr Christine Akeroyd Abstain   Cllr Kathleen Harper Against
Cllr Frank Andrews Against   Cllr Paul Hayhurst Against
Cllr Timothy Ashton Against   Cllr Howard Henshaw For
Cllr Keith Beckett For   Cllr Karen Henshaw For
Cllr John Bennett Against   Cllr Ken Hopwood For
Cllr Karen Buckley Against   Cllr Keith Hyde Against
Cllr George Caldwell O   Cllr Angela Jacques Abstain
Cllr David  Chedd For   Cllr Cheryl Little Against
Cllr Maxine Chew For   Cllr Kiran Mulholland O
Cllr Elizabeth Clarkson Against   Cllr Linda Nulty For
Cllr Peter Collins O   Cllr Elizabeth Oades For
Cllr John Coombes Against   Cllr Janine Owen For
Cllr Michael Cornah Against   Cllr Barbara Pagett For
Cllr Fabian Craig-Wilson Against   Cllr Albert Pounder Against
Cllr John Davies For   Cllr Dawn Prestwich O
Cllr Leonard Davies Against   Cllr Simon Renwick O
Cllr Barbara Douglas Against   Cllr  Louis Rigby For
Cllr Kevin Eastham Against   Cllr Paul Rigby Against
Cllr David Eaves Against   Cllr Elaine Silverwood O
Cllr Susan Fazackerley Against   Cllr John Singleton Against
Cllr Fiddler, Trevor Against   Cllr Roger Small Against
Cllr Patricia Fieldhouse Against   Cllr Heather Speak Against
Cllr Tony Ford For   Cllr Thomas Threlfall Against
Cllr Richard Fulford-Brown Against      

That was 28 against and 14 in favour with two abstentions, so Lytham & Ansdell are not going to be 'parished', and the boundaries of rural parishes will stay as they are

St Annes Town Council is going to have 12 councillors next May, not the 18 it needs.

We don't think the fat lady is singing yet, and we're not sure this matter is over either.

But even if it is, we think the ramifications of the process that arrived at  this decision are going to rumble on for a while.

And we'll be keeping an eye on anyone who aspires to be a Puppet-Master.

And Finally..........For the conspiracy theorists amongst our readers..... within an hour of the meeting finishing, this notice appeared on the Council's website... "Full Council Meeting Webcast 27th September 2010 - Unavailable Due to technical problems with the audio feed from Lowther Pavilion. 27/09/10"  If it wasn't a co-incidence, it might have been something that was said in the Community Governance Review, or it might have been Cllr Pounder who accidentally voted the wrong way on another item later on. It's surprisingly easily done.

Dated:    7 October 2010

Update 9 October.
Thanks to the sharp eyed reader who pointed out St Paul's  Parish is Elswick whilst his ward as a Borough Councillor is Elswick with Little Eccleston. We're happy to correct the slip of the pen.

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