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Snippets - February 2010

Snippets February 2010

A selection of bits and pieces of news and comment that are probably not big enough for an article of their own, but merit a mention for our readers.

We look at Fylde's next Mayor and a link with the Royal Train (photo), the possible demise of the St Annes recycling centre, and of Lancashire Locals; Lowther gardens play area; Street trading, Fairhaven lake; Sea defences, The town hall accommodation scheme (yet again), Bus service cuts, Winter gritting, the M55 Heyhouses Link Road, Housing plans for Ballam Road (and St Annes), A brief look at the replacement for the disgraced Streetscene department, and a request for more cash for Fylde's beleaguered Standards Committee who are taking two years to complete investigations into complaints made against Fylde Councillors.

FYLDE'S NEXT MAYOR
We have been pleasantly surprised by the Mayoralty of Cllr Paul Rigby. His chairmanship of Council and other meetings has generally been good and even-handed, if not excellent.

But, as is the way of life, there is continual renewal - and in May, a new Mayor will be installed. It will be no other than our own Queen Elizabeth Oades of Kirkham. The Mayor is the first citizen of their borough. They are the Queen's representative here, and they take second place only to Royalty within their own borough. In all other company, and at functions in Fylde, the Mayor has primacy.

Cllr Mrs Oades has a long history and experience of local government, having been an officer in her early days and thence clerk to Kirkham Town Council and finally a Borough and County Councillor. We don't recall seeing her perform in the chair of a meeting but we do know she has a depth of experience that is probably unrivalled on the present Council. We wish her well.

Just as a small aside at this point, at a recent Scrutiny Meeting at the Town Hall, it fell to Cllr Mrs Oades to pass on a message of apology from Cllr David Chedd who was making his way to the meeting by rail from an appointment in Manchester and had been delayed, she said, by a train. - The Royal Train.

We are indebted to Cllr Chedd (who arrived shortly after the meeting began) for the photograph from his mobile phone, and we could not help a wry smile that it was 'Queen Elizabeth' who remarked that it was the Royal Train.

After all, we thought, she of all people should recognise it!


RECYCLING CENTRE
The first cash-saving casualty of the new Conservative zero-budget-increase administration at County Hall seems to be 'St Annes Tip' or, to use its Sunday name, St Annes Recycling Centre. This is probably one of the better services County Hall provides for the taxes it absorbs from Fylde residents, but it looks set to go.

We can see an argument for not having two such tips in Lytham St Annes, and as most people go by car it won't be that much more difficult to go the extra mile to Lytham, but what you have, you never want to lose. There are issues being raised about carbon footprints and additional travel, but if Lytham were to close those arguments would equally apply to Lythamites travelling to St Annes.

We get precious little from LCC for what we contribute (we once heard it said by a Labour leader that as a wealthy area, Fylde's role in Lancashire, was to contribute to the costs of our less well off cousins in East Lancashire, so there is a cost-benefit argument to keep both, but it looks as though a reduction of one is on the cards.

There's also an issue about St Annes tip being used a lot by people from Blackpool. Administratively speaking, Blackpool is no longer part of Lancashire.

Since it seceded and became a Unitary Council in its own right, no-one from Blackpool pays any Council Tax to Lancashire County Council and, as a consequence, when Blackpool people use St Annes tip, they are getting something for nothing because the costs of running the tip are borne exclusively by LCC taxpayers. Blackpuddlians pay nothing.

Most people probably wouldn't give this a second thought of course, but we understand it is a factor in the thinking behind the choice of which tip to close to help make the savings that will keep the County Tax a zero rate increase this year.


END OF LANCASHIRE LOCALS
The second noticeable cut arising from LCC's new politicians (or maybe its more of an ideological decision) is the proposal to abolish the Lancashire Local Committees where County Councillors and some Borough Councillors get together on matters that affect both councils.

They also put county officials in the spotlight and are open for public access. Any member of the attending can speak (without giving notice) in the public platform session to put issues views or questions on anything on the agenda. Open and transparent - at least to some extent.

The County Council Leader says he does not "feel that the Lancashire Locals reflect our priorities as an administration for relationships with the other tiers of local government or with local communities"

We understand his preferred alternative for relationships with others after they are closed down is to use "The Lancashire Leaders Group and the newly established MAA Leaders Boards"

And if you are prepared to believe 'Leaders' (who are not elected as such by the public) and their wholly publicly unelected and unaccountable QUANGO progeny like 'Leaders Boards' are going to be anything like open and transparent, then you'll believe anything. This move will put too much power in too few hands. But maybe that's what he wants of course.
 

LOWTHER GARDENS
This Fylde BC administration really does not give a toss about propriety. They tried a comeback playground scheme in Lowther Gardens that risks offending the terms on which the land was given to their trust because they think they can get away with it.

They believe that because less than half of those with the right to enjoy peace and tranquillity in the Gardens have maintained an objection to the scheme, they don't need to take account of the promises they made when they accepted the land.

Worse, those with the responsibility for making Fylde's decisions, fail to recognise the difference between a garden and a recreation ground. Gardens are about peace and tranquillity, not about noise and activity. Those two bedfellows are the province of recreation grounds, playing fields and 'parks' which are generally measured in hundreds of acres and have sufficient space to separate and dissipate noisy activity areas from quiet areas.

They equally fail to see that the Lowther Gardens playground is, in practice, a Granddad's play area. The need is to cater for toddlers brought by grandparents. It is surrounded by old folks homes and large properties owned by wealthy (often retired) individuals. The area is not characterised by families with children and teenagers.

But in a bid to draw in funds from sources that require you to jump through equality-based social engineering hoops more suited to Lambeth than Lytham, the Council knows it has to comply, and the character of the area does not matter. What matters to them is grabbing hold of money to produce the illusion of progress which others define as forcing unwelcome social change.

So we say power to the elbow of Mr Barras and his friends who stand firm to preserve the values that the Council should be protecting themselves, and in doing so they remind the Council of its obligations. We also call for those who made this decision to be financially accountable if they are shown to have transgressed. But sadly, that ain't going to happen


STREET TRADING
Farcical is the best way to describe this result. It has been a classic Commissar's Cock-up. Take a simple problem at Fairhaven when the Ridesafe event wanted to do some small scale trading in order to offset its expenses. The simple answer, (if it was that important an event), was a public subsidy to promote road safety.

But no, as usual, the Commissar saw it as an income generating opportunity and extended the principle to other locations. Instead of fixing his problem, he compounded and magnified it. We've no doubt he has already spent more in officer time and legal costs that it would have cost to subsidise the Ridesafe event in the first place.

He's also managed to get most of the traders in the town angry with him.

Then in an attempt to win back the initiative (or because he was told he had to) he advertised a consultation on the principle of making various areas into 'Consent Streets' for street trading purposes.

Having undertaken the consultation, and received not a single letter in support of the idea, but being in possession of several letters of opposition from respected local organisations what does the committee receiving them do?

It decided to go ahead anyway.

What was that about being a 'listening Council'

The Commissar now realised the mess he's made and, based on a proposal from Ratepayer Councillor John Davies, he's now locked in discussions with the Lytham Enterprise Group and the Chambers of Trade to produce conditions that will prevent almost anyone trading anyway.

This looks to be shaping up into a huge fudge. So much so you could open a market stall with it. (Isn't this where we came in?)
 

FAIRHAVEN LAKE
We see calls from Mr Sloane of Kirkham to use Fairhaven Lake as a Watersports Park using an overhead towline that can pull skiers or what have you at speeds of up to 35 mph according to the LSA Express. Our Commissar is mildly positive but says he will need to go on a jolly trip to see them working somewhere else first.

This is history repeating itself.

It is about 20 years ago that a former Council (unusually for the more sensible councils we had in those days) made a big and badly judged mistake when it tried to do the same thing. That Council thought the waterskiing heyday of the lake in the 1960s could return with the modern equivalent.

Jet Skis.

So began one of the worst chapters in Fylde's relationship with its electorate. Against mounting and vociferous opposition from local residents, planning permission was granted for the establishment of a jet ski centre. Then something approaching war erupted. Fairhaven residents formed into political (using the law) wing and a provisional (breaking the law - or at least taking firm direct action if not actually breaking the law) wing.

There were two outcomes.

A young couple who had put their faith into the Council and sold their house an invested the proceeds in a business to rent out jet skis on the lake were forced out of business by a very astute legal move by residents opposite and nearby (including one resident in particular) whose lives were being badly disturbed. They brought a high court judge to the lake one day.

He listened to the noise, puffed on a cigar, declared it to be a common law nuisance, and said it must be shut. It closed the following day and the couple lost almost all their money.

The second thing to happen (which actually started before the Jet Skis closed) was that a planning application to change the use of a gift shop into a shop selling Jet Ski items became the subject of a report from a Planning Inspector from Bristol.

His report probably sealed the fate of the lake when it said (and here we have to paraphrase) that the Council should not even seek to restore the activity that had once taken place there, but they should recognise that time had moved on and the lake was more of a wildlife reserve now. He refused to allow the change of use from the gift shop.

So we figure it might be difficult for Mr Sloane to get his plans enacted. He will have to convince those living opposite of the value of his plans and, if they need planning permission, (as it appears they will) well, we'd be hesitant.


SEA DEFENCES
Staying with Fairhaven Lake for a moment there was an interesting little tussle at a recent Cabinet meeting. A report showed that £92,000 had been received from Barrats in respect of a 'Section 106' agreement which had promised in connection with the Queen Mary School development (probably outside the £2m or £3m they are supposed to pay over for so called 'affordable' housing) for the improvement of public transport facilities and the enhancement of existing areas of public open space.

The logic for this is that there is no (or at least insufficient) open space in the QM development itself, so the developer has contributed money to compensate the Council who will have to provide it elsewhere.

That will be difficult given the stipulation that it has to be within 1km of the site. The public transport improvements likewise will probably be because the site has no shops or social facilities built into it and what exists are judged to be too far to reach by foot, so a contribution to improved public transport has been made. The normal expectation would be more bus services.

However, the Cabinet decided that on officers advice, they would put £20,000 into improving bus stops, and spend the rest commissioning consultants to develop a masterplan (the Commissar does love these Masterplan's doesn't he? It's just like being at the height of the USSR. Maybe we can expect a five year plan soon). The Masterplan will specify how the lake and grounds should be improved. (Which doesn't bode well for Mr Sloane unless his plans are built into the new scheme).

Councillor Eastham thought this was wrong, and that the money should be spent on practical improvements in the grounds. He made quite a strong point of it, saying that path repairs might be one of his priorities. The Cabinet took a different view and opted for the consultants. At least they did say they would involve ward councillors like Cllr Eastham in the study.

Unusually, we could actually see the argument made for a masterplan this time. There is a scheme to improve the Sea Defences in that area that's probably worth about £3m and, no doubt seeing what's happened at Blackpool and more especially at Cleveleys, the thoughts of spending £70k to pull in a percentage of the £3m on the lake itself is appealing.

But we can also see a few snags. Spending money on consultants isn't going to ensure a percentage of the £3m materialises on the lake. Secondly, in former times, the Masterplan would be worked up by the hired hands, by the paid officers of the Council (although if the Commissar has got rid of most of them already, there may not be any left).

The third thing wrong - and we were surprised no one else spotted this - the Cabinet was recommended to, and probably did, approve an increase in the revenue budget of £92,000 because they were not expecting the money, so it was outside their exiting estimates.

Now, so far as we know, it is the responsibility of the Full Council to deal with the budget, and we're surprised no one said it was outside the Cabinet's locus to make the decision they did.

But then, as we've said before, this is an administration not given to propriety.

TOWN HALL - WHITE ELEPHANT  Mk2
The gross waste of money that the now abandned Mk 1 scheme cost (we estimate £800,000) shows every sign of repeating itself as the Commisar desperately tries to find something to do that will become his 'legacy'.

A counterbalance reader tells us that The Lancashire County Council Property Services Group (This is another of those quasi-but-not local authority businesses), and been awarded the contratct let by Fylde to do yet another feasibility study on this disasterous white elephant project.

BUS SERVICE CUTS
This is another of our interests. Bus companies haven't been public services for ages now of course, they are businesses. So if they can't make money running routes they simply stop running buses on them. It's very upsetting for those who have not adapted to the new philosophy of course, but it's cold economics. Public service is long gone in what is now (somewhat inappropriately) called public transport. There some uneconomic routes that are subsidised as part of the tax you pay to the County Council, so they still count as public service, but for the most part, money rules on the buses.

Then came the Government's free travel scheme for pensioners. We've been into this at length before (see Bus Pass Update) .

And now this is being blamed for quite savage cuts in bus services. We don't think that's right

As we showed in 'Budget Busting Bus Blues' the Commissar snaffled £205,000 of the first £486,000 that the Government gave him to pay for concessionary travel in Fylde, and spent it on other things. But eventually, it ended up costing him (and us) £899,407.

He was actually so lax with the checking the journeys, the bus companies in Lancashire made an EXTRA £1.8 million profit on top of what they would usually have made, and they had to refund £60,000 to Fylde out of their excess profits that, for shame, they couldn't keep.

But then things got worse and there were big debts in parts of Lancashire and surpluses in others. Most places seemed to be worse off though, with not enough to pay for the bus fares they were being charged.

We could see two reasons for the higher costs. Partly, we believe there was over-booking of OAP rides on a very significant scale. (when you're not paying yourself, you generally don't worry as much about what your ticket says). This resulted in excessive charges (such as the excess £1.8m) by the bus companies.

There's also the problem for some areas of being attractive destinations and transport hubs (You restart the 'who pays' clock when you change buses, so if you change at Preston, they pick up the tab for the next leg of your journey).

It looks as though, out of desperation, the hard-done-by councils pushed Lancashire County Council (who manage the pooled money of many Lancashire districts) into reviewing the remuneration package. As they drove a better bargain than the had done before.

It used to be 70p per and is now "around 50p"

Blackpool Transport (which is actually owned by Blackpool Council but operates as an Arms Length Management Organisation) cried foul and promptly announced a reduction of 60 drivers and significant cuts in services (e.g. the 14 stops before it gets to St Annes after 6pm and is reduced or cut at weekends). Those cuts are just starting to bite, and people are starting to blame the OAP bus pass scheme.

But there might be another question to ask here.

The rate of reimbursement is calculated to ensure the bus operator is left no better or worse off as a result of providing the concession. This ensures that operators are fully compensated for the service they provide but they do not receive any hidden subsidy through reimbursement (which these days could constitute illegal state aid).

The rate paid to bus operators has been lowered, but if they feel they are being unfairly treated by a Travel Concession Authority like LCC, a bus operator can appeal to the Secretary of State for Transport.

There doesn't seem to have been an appeal against LCC's rate - or at least no-one's been talking about it - so maybe there isn't sufficient actual justification for an appeal, and maybe the previous rates being paid by LCC funded the 'fat'  that is now being cut in terms of staff and routes.

Reduced services are clearly unpleasant for users, but maybe this is a necessary wake-up call for Blackpool Transport.


WINTER GRITTING WOES
We're pretty unimpressed with the highway authority's performance and its unpreparedness. We know people that were marooned and reliant on neighbours for shopping. We know people who couldn't get to work. That's unacceptable.

The excuse of "we couldn't get enough salt" cuts no ice here. Just as they cut no ice with it.

In this we distinguish between the chaps driving the gritters who probably worked their hearts out, (even though we didn't see any in our patch) and the managers who allowed things to fall into a state where the resources simply were not sufficient.

They claim it's not possible to prepare for a once in 30 year occurrence. We say it's a good job the folk in Accident and Emergency at Blackpool Vic. didn't take the same view.

They said the salt is expensive and there's a limit they can spend.

We say that broken hips and legs and arms and hospitalisation costs (quite apart from the human costs) are way in excess of a few bags of salt.

They say they couldn't get enough salt anyway because the Government was sending supplies to the South. We say if they'd have started with plans to do more areas than they did, they would have had more salt to start the bad weather with. They only planned to do:

  • County Motorways (eg.A601(M))
  • Principal 'A' Roads
  • 'B' Roads and
  • Other Roads:

- between or through large centres of population,
- serving hospitals, ambulance and fire stations,
- leading to main centres of employment
- on important commuter routes,
- leading to important industrial and military establishments,
- providing single access to villages.

BUT

East Lancashire districts received a higher level of coverage much involved: Principal 'A' roads plus 35% of the remaining network, whilst the flatter districts (like Fylde) in West and South Lancashire only got 'A' roads plus 17.5% of the remaining network.

So in fact, the priority list is a waste of space in terms of what will be done. It only says which are the most important.

And if you only *plan* to do 17% of the priority roads, you're not likely to get as much salt as you actually need for 100% of them. (and even then you aren't planning to do ANY of the estate roads)

Oh! and here are only three gritting machines for the whole of Fylde, and in any case there are not enough staff to do more work.

They had not thought about supplying farmers with snowploughs or gritting trailers so they could help keep rural roads open, and milk tankers could have reached rural farms and animal care services get about.

The position with footways (those parts of the Highway that are not carriageway) is even worse. The County plans to do NO precautionary gritting. So they don't intend to do anything about preventing people falling and breaking limbs. But they will do some paths that are really important.

In St Annes that 'really important' amounts to St Annes Road West from "North Clifton Street" (we presume they mean Clifton Drive North) to St David's Road and adjacent access to Railway station, and St Andrews Road North from Beach Road to St Annes Road West.

The County Council admitted there had been no thought of using gardening and similar staff in borough and parish councils who mostly can't work on the land in frost and snow, but who could have spread grit.

The highway authority is under a legal duty to ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable, that safe passage along a highway is not endangered by ice and snow.

Just look at the wriggle room the have created for themselves in that definition.

Gritting is clearly a service like the one Churchill had in mind when he spoke of lions being led by donkeys.

Only at LCC it's more likely led by arrogant, out of touch buffoons than donkeys.

The only salvation is that it looks as though the senior politicians have been as angry about this as we have, so there maybe some scope for change.


M55 HEYHOUSES LINK
The recent Lancashire Locals also had this on the agenda. Regular readers will know we're not a great fan of this road. We thing it has been sold to us as a false prospectus. It will make journeys to the motorway easier, but it will also bring all the traffic from the motorway into the back of Lytham St Annes, putting HGVs on roads that were not designed for them and leaving them at the Cypress Point junction to filter through domestic roads into the town centres.

During the Queensway Inquiry, it became clear that officers at the County Council were prepared to change the alignment of the road to benefit the developer. Up to then, the plan had been to put the new road to the right (landward side) of the existing moss road, leaving the 'old' road as a bridleway and footpath.

However, to follow this line, Kensington would have to acquire some land that they may have to pay a lot for, so they persuaded the County Officers to put a kink in the road and let it wander into land that is already in Kensington's ownership. But to do this, it will mean the new road (which will be a fast modern road (like the Squire's Gate Link Road) will have to cross the 'old' road and ditches twice. That's going to mean two Pegasus type crossings for horse riders within a very short distance which can't be a good thing for road safety. As the man from LCC said "Yes, there will be a trade off between convenience and safety if this route is chosen" Given LCC's obsession for road safety, we found this an odd approach.


BALLAM APPEAL   (WITH ST ANNES OVERTONES)
A chap called Peter Whitehead is planning to extend Lytham by developing a new housing area on Ballam Road just past the posh houses on Laburnum Ave. Whilst things were going well with FBC planners he was happy to let the application for planning permission run on. However, as soon as it became clear that Fylde's planners were going to recommend refusal, he upped and appealed to Government that Fylde had taken too long to decide the matter.

Just before that, he provided (and Fylde BC published) details of a Section 106 agreement that would provide offsite affordable housing. In this regard his proposals include an 11 bed supported housing unit for the homeless.

In short, it will be potentially Heeley Road Hostel Mk2.

And he wants to build that somewhere in St Annes. We have been told it involves two sites, but no-one could find out whereabouts. Because Mr Whitehead said he was negotiating to buy the two sites in St Annes, Fylde planners regarded it as commercially confidential information and wouldn't release the plans for the hostel site(s).

But when he appealed, it became public information and we understand the former Heeley Road Hostel Group contacted the planning inspector who said it was public information and could be seen at Fylde Council. When the group went to see the plans at Fylde they were told the inspector had advised them that Mr Whitehead had withdrawn the aspects that related to the hostel and they were therefore no longer in the public domain.

This, dear readers is, quite frankly, not on.

You can't have something classed as a public document and then classed as secret, so the Hostel group complained to the Inspector in Bristol. He said it was no longer available.

We understand the Hostel Group were not best pleased at this, and they expressed a desire to make a formal complaint and to approach the Information Commissioner about a failure to provide public information in response to a Freedom of Information Request.

Just the threat of that seems to have resulted in a call from the Planning Inspectorate's regulatory department who suggested they might be willing to conduct a review of the Inspector's decision in this matter. We understand from the Hostel group that review is ongoing at the present time.

However, shortly afterwards, the Inspector has announced that he has changed his initial opinion on this matter and will now not decide it on "written representations" but will hold a hearing at which interested parties will be able to make representations in person. It will be a public forum where the Inspector will lead a discussion involving the applicant, the council and other
interested parties of all the issues that he or she feels to be relevant.

The effect of this change is that the clock has re-started on the application. Written statements are still to be submitted, but this change in process means that the 6 week timescale for their submission starts again from
the decision date of 9th February. This means that written statements are not now required until 23 March and should be sent to the Planning Inspectorate.

Now this might be to and two adding up to five, but did anyone see the article in the LSA Express this week about the YMCA 'acquiring' the Catholic Club and former school on almost adjoining sites on St Albans Road? And isn't the YMCA also a Registered Social Landlord of the type that can operate hostels, and isn't the Face to Face project partially about housing.

With Mr Whitehead looking to buy two sites in St Annes for a Registered Social Landlord to build a Homeless Hostel it does make you wonder where they will be, doesn't it?

But until we are told where his sites are it can only be speculation of course.


OPERATIONAL SERVICES

This is going to be the new name for the bin men. Hard working chaps who were disgraced by their leaders who reported a loss of £700,000 when they were known as Streetscene, they hope we will forget that if they give the service a new name. No chance.

A so called "Modernisation Strategy and Options Appraisal" has been prepared to set the future of service delivery until 2015. The grand aim is to make the service "fit for purpose" (it is already, they just need some sensible people in charge of it), and to "serve as a template for cultural and behavioural change across the organisation"

That phrase has the delusions of grandeur that ought to make anyone afraid.  We're going to have a closer look at this plan shortly.

STANDARDS COMMITTEE RESOURCES
At a recent Council Meeting there was unusual unanimity about giving more resources to the Standards Committee to investigate complaints made against Councillors.

Regulars will know we think the problem is not the resources, but the rules that allow playground level  (He pulled my hair) complaints to be made in the first place when the system should be reserved for serious complaints where there is not quite enough proof to prosecute.

As it is, it's typically taking two years from making a complaint to hearing the outcome, and that's bad news both for the complainant and the Councillor who is the subject of the complaint.

As St Paul Hayhurst (who was investigated and exonerated by the National Standards Board following a complaint against him made by Chief Executive Philip Woodward) noted in the meeting, since the local system began in May 2008, not quite two years ago 25% of Fylde Council has been reported to the Standards Committee for inappropriate conduct or behaviour.

Dated:   14 February  2010


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