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The Pool: In Depth.

The Pool: In DepthWe have covered this topic many times, (A list of links can be found at the end of this article for those who are interested in our take on the background), but we know it to be one of the most important topics for our readers.

Change is in the air, and St Annes Pool may yet re-open. But will everyone be happy if it does? Will people forget the awful administration that closed it? Will they forgive and re-elect them? Has John Coombes changed his mind or has it been changed for him?

To answer these questions, we're going to look at the background using quotes from the politicians.

We're also going to use the example of the swimming pool to illustrate how the introduction of the Cabinet System at Fylde has allowed power to be concentrated into too few hands. Hands that are without experience or understanding. Hands that have made inept and incompetent decisions - not only on the swimming pool, but on many other matters.

It has cost Fylde taxpayers dear, and continues to do so.

Buoyed up by his sycophantic acolytes and those Conservative party members whose unwavering party loyalty has blinded them to the incompetence of their leader, we have been financially shafted because (as we have heard from two respected pillars of the establishment in as many weeks), the people at the top are amateurs, playing at being in power without actually having a clue what they are doing.

But the worm is starting to turn.

The pools disaster began in 2006 when John Coombes decided his staff couldn't make the pools turn a profit (even though no public pool in the country does), and he made an attempt to privatise Fylde's pools.

He conducted an expensive tendering exercise only to find that most of the prices he got back were *higher* than it was costing at present. With one exception, his own staff were cheaper. That exception was the YMCA, and they were only slightly cheaper because as a charity they got mandatory exemption from 80% of the (roughly 45,000 a year) business rates payable on the pool building.

You'd have thought that process would have shown him the pools couldn't be run much more cheaply. But ideology, not common sense, was in the driving seat, and on he ploughed.

John Coombes told the Gazette "If the Council had its time again, we wouldn't build a pool like St Annes because it is designed for one purpose, swimming..." (Yes, really)

Then in February 2008, following the announcement of a loss of 700,000 in the Streetscene department, Cllr Paul Rigby (Cabinet Portfolio holder for Finance and Efficiency) admitted that spending in Streetscene had "spiralled out of control".

Word began to leak out that the pool was under threat because of this loss. John Coombes told the Gazette "The pools are not viable, we have been using an elastoplasts for the last five years... In my opinion the only way to go forward is to close the two pools and build a better, purpose built facility somewhere else"

Just before the meeting to decide the closure, the Gazette's headline of "Now will you listen" reported "thousands" had taken to the street in protest, and in what was the worst meeting Fylde Council has ever experienced, the decision to close them was forced through by Coombes and his followers as part of the budget savings measures to fill a black hole of 1m in the Council's finances.

The Conservative majority had supported its leadership and voted to close St Annes Pool. Councillor Karen Buckley told the Gazette "The future for public swimming in Lytham St Annes, I believe, lies with a new facility, managed and run by the private sector, at no further cost to the taxpayer, funded from the proceeds of the present site. Plans are afoot to undertake a feasibility study...." Councillor John Coombes told the Gazette "The Council has made its decision. It is now going down an alternative route"

Then in April 08, John Coombes turned down a 4m offer from Kensington Developments to save the baths. He told the Gazette "On July 31 Fylde Council will be walking away"

As Fylde's staff found employment elsewhere, the YMCA took over management of both pools in the run up to closure. They opened talks on the longer term future of the pools with the Council.

Locals organised a parish poll vote. Cllr Coombes told the Gazette "We are not under any illusions people want the facility but there is no money to keep it open" The public poll vote was 3,040 to keep it open and 15 to close it.

In May 08 John Coombes told the Gazette that people in St Annes could have a pool if they stumped up 40 a year to do so as he offered to pass the pool to the St Annes on the Sea Town Council, saying "This is the last chance saloon. If the people of St Annes are prepared to pay the expense of 40 a year they can have the pool"

A month later he wrote "Working with the Fylde YMCA, the Council has commenced a feasibility study to find an alternative site and funding for a modern, energy efficient pool attached to the YMCA site, either at St Albans or Mythop Road"

On 31 July 2008, St Annes Pool closed and John Coombes told the Gazette a decision on the future of the site would be made "within the next few weeks"

But after another 'about face' in November 08, confusion reigned as he said St Annes pool and Kirkham Baths were to be opened again and turned over to the YMCA to run. He told the Express "I am delighted to announce that a solution has been found which will secure funding for the borough's two pools for the medium term at no cost to the taxpayer. I am confident that the Cabinet will adopt the plan and we can proudly say we have resolved the issue. I've listened, learned, and delivered what the community wanted, and I hope that the Community will now respond en masse and support the pools more than in the past."

Just a day later he told the Gazette "A solution has been found to secure the future of both Kirkham and St Annes Baths at no cost to the taxpayer"

But John Cronin from the YMCA said "Fylde Coast YMCA is still in negotiations with Fylde Council and, as such, no arrangement to re-open the swimming pools has been agreed thus far"

A day or so later John Coombes said St Annes pool would be opening again "very soon"

But it didn't. Things went quiet until May 2009 when the Gazette reported Fylde Cabinet was prepared to take out a 500,000 loan to help fund a move to allow the YMCA to take over the St Annes Pool, allowing it to be opened for the summer of 2009. John Coombes said "This is the culmination of much hard work and the future looks much better for swimming in Fylde, which is what everyone wanted."

But then a new plan came to light, a private sector company offered to take on St Annes Pool for a one off subsidy of 200,000 and to install a fitness suite. Councillor Susan Fazackerley told the Gazette "The current position is there are expressions of interest from the YMCA and another interested party. There have also been a couple of other people who have expressed an interest. We will now have to explore all those expressions of interest and that will mean a delay"

Speaking of the second interested party, Cllr Coombes said "One of the key reasons we closed the pool was that the subsidy was going up and up, but this will be a capped subsidy"

But the Cabinet decided to put the management of the pool out to tender again.

Speaking in July 2009, Cllr Coombes told the Gazette "Hopefully all this will be all concluded before the snow is falling"

A month later in August, Councillor Fazackerley said the Council had nine expressions of interest and six had already looked around the pool with officers.

In early September 09, in a surprise move, the YMCA said it was pulling the plug on its bid to run the pool and decided not to submit a tender. In a statement they said ".. we feel to run the pool as a public swimming pool as we intended would not be possible with the funding and conditions outlined in the latest bidding process"

Councillor Fazackerley told the Gazette it was "inexplicable the YMCA was not prepared to take part in the tendering process."

Then the matter was delayed again as the council applied for two Sports Regeneration grants worth 500,000. Councillor Fazackerley told the Gazette this was a "fantastic opportunity to secure external funds to renovate the pool." It was fantastic. The grant did not materialise

Then one of the bidders went public with his plans. Councillor Fazackerley said it was inappropriate to comment. She said to the Gazette "There are at least half a dozen other parties who have expressed interest and the deadline for the submission of their plans is mid November."

In late September, the YMCA came back into the frame after the contract period was lengthened in a reopened tendering process.

Councillor Fazackerley told the Gazette "Tender documents will be sent out to our shortlist of preferred organisations soon. We will then choose the response that is best for the pool and for the residents using it"

This month (Feb 10) Fylde had received "All the bids from those wanting to run the pool"   Fylde Council bosses were reported as saying there were "many" interested parties but would not release the exact number because that was "commercially sensitive".

There were two.

We suspect they were the YMCA and the private sector chap with the fitness suite from the previous summer. So again, we were no further forward.

Last week, The Express reported gloom and doom. Cllr Roger Small said "There are two firm bids and they are very complicated" adding that financial support would be required from the Council, and it would be "a substantial amount".

Councillor Fazackerley was less guarded and said " We were hoping that someone would tender at no cost to the Council - there's going to be a substantial cost ....both want a very large sum of money from the Council and a continuing subsidy over the course of the lease...."

The Gazette report of this week's Cabinet meeting quoted Cllr John Coombes as saying the Council was approaching final negotiations with two external bidders. He was also quoted as saying "We've said all along it was our intention to go out to the market and see if there was a more cost effective way to run the pool. We've now made a decision to go ahead with that course of action"

The Express report was done before this week's Cabinet meeting was held, so they reported what was going to happen. They said they thought it would need a substantial amount of cash from the Council, (thought to be 500,000).

They reported Cllr Coombes as saying "As leader of the Council I can say that my Cabinet and I will be advocating opening the pool again. This will be subject to formal approval of the budget by the full Council and will be subject to final evaluation of the bids." adding that "We have listened, learned lessons and taken very tough decisions to get the facility back open to the public. It's now up to the people of Lytham St Annes to use it."

We thought that sounded remarkably like deja vu of his comments in November 2008.

And there it sits until the Council's budget meeting on 1st March.

According to papers handed round at this week's Cabinet meeting, it will require a subsidy of 39,000 next year, and 98,000 for each of the next three years (The forecast doesn't go any further, but it can probably be assumed that it will be an ongoing subsidy - we think for the next 12 years) and if the Express was right, there will be a one off payment of 500,000 which will probably be covered by the Council taking out a loan. The finance officer has confirmed that the subsidy figures include the loan repayments for all capital borrowing associated with the re-opening.

So, it's now eighteen months on since the pool closed, and where are we?

Well, if it's going to take a loan of 500,000 (our information suggests 475,000) to put the pool into working order, that probably means they have to replace the enormous air handling unit which, when it was last replaced ten years ago, cost about 250,000.

By now it's probably 350,000. There will also be rusted up pumps and valves and light fittings and railings and anything metal but not stainless steel to be replaced. There will also be mildewy carpets to be replaced and woodwork warped because of the damp.

These problems are all because the pool was not properly 'mothballed', any more than the former Ashton Institute was 'carefully dismantled' (Well maybe in that case the JCB driver was as careful as he could be). The pool was simply drained, closed and boarded up.

In an atmosphere as damp as a sealed swimming pool building with no heating or ventilation left on tickover, everything will be rusted, warped and corroded.

This will be why it now needs 475,000 to put it back into useable order.

Now, if we put that sum into perspective, it's equal to 26,000 a month over 18 months. That's double the 13,000 subsidy the YMCA said it needed to keep the pool open 18 months ago, and if we'd paid them 13,000 a month instead of closing it, we probably wouldn't need to spend the 475,000 putting it back into working order now.

The 475,000 is also equivalent to almost a full year operating cost - even at  the grossly inflated price of 500,000 a year the Commissar massaged the operating costs up to in its year of closure. And even at that, we're still going to be paying 98,000 a year subsidy on top of the 475,000 we will borrow as a capital sum to put it into order.

Don't get us wrong here, we're not arguing to keep it shut. We believe it should be open. But all told, you will see, the sensible thing would have been to keep it open all along as anyone with half decent experience and common sense would have seen in the first place.

We have saved next to nothing by closing it, and arguably it has cost us more.

Why has this happened?

Because John Coombes' hand picked Cabinet(s) has had limited experience, and their breadth of understanding of such matters is insufficient - as they have ably demonstrated each time they have considered this matter.

But now - as we said at the beginning, the worm is starting to turn.

What can have happened to bring about this change of heart?

Well, As we have said many times before, he underestimated how unpopular the closure of the pool would be. As Leader, he is surrounded by a close coterie of acolytes and he doesn't get to hear the "No" word very often from them.

As well as limiting the knowledge and experience of decision making to just eight out of fifty-one elected Councillors, the Cabinet system means the Leader hand-picks his portfolio holders and changes them when he feel like it. So the ones that say "Yes Leader" get to stay (unless they do something overtly quite stupid as one or two have done), and those that question his plans too much get dumped. It creates a mostly aspirational climate around him, and that isolates him from reality.

Worse. What should be a primary balancing check - the rank and file Conservative councillors - failed to act as critical friends. They were loyal to, and mostly unquestioning of, the leadership when their loyalty would have been better placed to the community that elected them.

What this awful Cabinet system has given us is poor democracy with insufficient checks and balances.

We believe the Conservative rank and file will eventually realise just how misplaced that loyalty has been, and how much they have allowed him to damage their electoral chances for May 2011. He could even have affected the parliamentary result with a new candidate in Michael Jack's place, even though at national level, Fylde is considered a pretty secure blue seat.

Equally badly, it has to be said, many rank and file non-conservative councillors have failed to apply themselves assiduously enough to understand the financial, administrative, and political processes that govern the Council, and they have not kept sufficient watch on what the Cabinet was doing. They have thus not followed-through on procedures that might have allowed them to shine greater light on what was going on and to better expose the wrongdoings.

But eventually, as is the way of these things, even those councillors within his own party were always going to turn against him, and we think that's what is happening here.

The Conservative showing in the County Election sent a shockwave through the local party. Whilst everywhere else the Conservatives re-took seats they had previously lost, Fylde actually reduced its conservative seats on the County Council. That wasn't an opinion poll, that was fact. Less seats. And who planned and led the campaign?

Without anything being said openly, the concern from that election has been slowly building. Their leader keeps leading them into blind alleys using poor judgement. The Pool, Heeley Road, North Beach Car Park, Town Hall Accommodation, Street Trading, Events that will disturb the peace of local green areas, selling alcohol in Ashton Gardens. All of these are alienating voters. And alienated voters sweep you from, not into, office. The election is only a year or so away, and they need some good news.

Mostly of course, they need some good judgement. But they're not getting it.

As we have seen from the pool story here, the path being followed has already changed half a dozen times. The YMCA has been offended by his streetfighter strong-arm negotiating tactics to bring them to heel and lower their price. But in the end we predict it will be Cllr Coombes that eats the slices of humble pie and pays the YMCA the equivalent subsidy they said they needed to run St Annes Pool eighteen months ago.

Only this time it will probably have increased because of the rusting and deterioration that will have taken place in a sealed empty building with a damp atmosphere with no heating or ventilation switched on. There will be a lot of work to do.

His quote to the Express of "As leader of the Council I can say that my Cabinet and I will be..." is very unusual phrasing for him. He never puts his Cabinet first. If there is anything to be said it is nearly always in his name, not that of his Cabinet. We think that was a subconscious phrasing.

We know there was a closed meeting of the Conservative Group last Monday, and it was one without the usual minutes being taken. We believe there was considerable argument about the pool issue and John Coombes was arguing they could not afford to re-open the pool. Others, probably with the election in mind, were putting strong arguments to spend the money and open the pool whatever it cost. We gather this was chiefly the Lytham and St Annes councillors, and they put their views with some force.

When it came to the vote we believe John Coombes proposed that the cost of opening the pool was too great, and the pool should stay closed, but he was not able to carry the group, who voted against him and decided to open it again. Hence, we suspect, his Freudian phrasing of "...my Cabinet and I..." at the Cabinet meeting on Wednesday last.

We're also quite confident to predict that it will be the YMCA (the folk that John Coombes tried to bully into a lower price) who are awarded the contract to manage St Annes Pool, probably for 12 years with an option of a further three years.

There are also echoes on the radar about a similar group-vote on the Council Tax levels where the plan had previously been to increase it by 4.99% for each of the next three years. The papers handed round at the recent Cabinet show 4.99% next year but 2.5% a year thereafter. Again we believe John Coombes proposed the 4.99% for all the future years, but his colleagues voted against him.

Losing the vote of your own group is a humiliating experience, it shows you are not trusted by those that elected you. Not only that, but we are also picking up some albeit muted, mutterings of discontent from within the Cabinet itself. We think his days as Leader are now numbered. And we would not be surprised to see him step aside at some point after the pool is re-opened.

So to return to our original questions: will everyone be happy again if the pool does open? Will people forget the awful administration that closed it? Will they forgive and re-elect them? Has John Coombes changed his mind or has it been changed for him?

We can probably say that people will be a lot happier, and some will undoubtedly forgive. Will they be re-elected - well, put it this way, without making this change and reopening the pool, they would have been in real trouble. As it is, it will improve their chances, especially if John Coombes decided to call it a day in the not too distant future. He can then be blamed for everything that went wrong, and a new name will give a clean-slate start to their election chances, just as they think changing the discredited Streetscene name to Operational Services will do.

As to whether he has changed his mind or had it changed for him? Let's just say we believe he has become persuaded of the need to re-open the pool.

Dated:   18 February  2010

LINKS TO OTHER POOL ARTICLES
17 July 2009 Pooling Ideas?
He's emptied the pool but he can't stop the leaks. The Commissar sidelines a plan for a combined pool and leisure scheme that might have seen St Anne's pool re-open in January and opts to 'tender' it out - which will take longer. What's going on? Who made the offer, What did they say, and why didn't other elected Councillors know about it? We have the inside track for our readers.....

20 February 2009 Throwing in the Towel ?
The swimming pool standoff between John Coombes and the YMCA nears its climax - who will blink first? Will any of Fylde's swimming pools stay open?.....

26 April 2008 Mayday May Day Mayday
The Parish Poll where St Annes residents should exercise their vote to save the swimming pool will be held on 1 May between 4pm and 9pm. We explain some of the arrangements and look at the background. We also remember a big corruption case that rocked Local Government when bribes were exchanged for planning permissions a few years ago.......

11 April 2008 Walking on Water ?
At last the hidden agenda is exposed. Thanks to Kensington, we can all see it's not about the operating cost of St Anne's Pool, its about asset stripping public facilities to fund promenade re-development. But this time he's probably bitten off more than he can chew. His friends in Blackpool can tell him about demolishing the Derby Baths  an act of municipal vandalism that still rankles with most folk around here - and that was 40 years ago.....

4 April 2008 Pools and Planning
In its plan to asset-strip the site of St Anne's Swimming Pool - probably to fund redevelopment of the promenade - Fylde Council seems to have forgotten its own planning policies prevent it from redeveloping buildings currently used for sport and recreational purposes for other uses. Is this another own goal?.....

29 March 2008 Pools and Polls
The report of the meeting to call  a Parish Poll on the closure of the swimming pool.

21 March 2008 Borough Babes: OK ?
Two St Anne's Town Councillors vote to oppose closing St Anne's Pool, but then vote to close it at the Borough Council meeting. A member of the public tears a strip off them in the meeting for being two faced, and calls on them to resign.....

Dated: 8 March 2008 Travesty of Democracy
Exclusive. Our pen picture of the Fylde Council meeting that  voted to close Saint Anne's Swimming Pool only 20 years after it was built. Who said what?, and who voted to close it?.....

5 March 2008 High Performing Council
We (exceptionally) publish someone else's view of just what a high performing Council Fylde is. You might be amused.....

1 March 2008 Pool Transport ?
See how the Commissar is using con tricks with bus pass spending to justify threatening to close swimming pools. But is he really going to close them? We expose the spin and deception in his justification, and look into some possible hidden agendas....

25 February 2008 Sink or Swim?
We look again at the threat to close the pools. Why have the operating costs been inflated? Is it an asset stripping scheme to release the site values for commercial development?  It's starting to smell like that........

14 February 2008 Pools Protest
Kirkhamites protest at plans to close their baths, and the Politburo Cabinet votes to close both them and St Anne's Pool. However, a Cabinet split appears as Dim Tim tries to get a new pool built at Mythop Road and Simon Renwick tries to keep Kirkham open - or it is all just good theatre at Lowther Pavilion........

9 February 2008 In Deep Water
The Commissar is going to close St Annes Pool and maybe Kirkham Baths because his spending on the Street Scene department is "Spiralling out of Control" But we hear he is going to blame St Annes and Kirkham Town Councils for the closure because they refuse to rip us off........

1 November 2007 Pooling Resources
After months of uncertainty and abortive spending on reports and plans to privatise its swimming pools, Fylde Council looks set to keep the pools in-house

29 Sept 2006: Winning the Pools?
Plans to privatise Kirkham Baths and St Annes Swimming Pool are afoot. The Commissar admits managerial incompetence and wants to hand them over to the private sector.


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