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A Shocking State of Affairs

A shocking state of affairsThe Task and Finish Group that has been investigating The Scandal of Melton Grove will report to its parent Community Focus Scrutiny Committee in an extra-ordinary meeting at 6:15 next Tuesday 8th November 2011.

At present, you can follow this link to download the full (pdf file) report from Fylde's website. (When they remove it we will be able to provide a copy on request.)

The T&F Group report is a bit less than 20 pages and has recommended ten changes that need to be made.

It is critical of both members and officers, and has obviously found many of the faults in the process. But it also fails deeply in some areas ("none of the persons questioned could offer an adequate explanation as to why those things had not happened.")

Equally, there are some aspects of the scandal that do not appear to have been investigated at all.

For example, there is nothing about who was responsible for, how it came about, and why, the sale proceeds of Melton Grove were obsessively welded to the provision of a grant to Lytham Hall in the Cabinet Agenda using the administrative equivalent of Superglue. This linkage was not intended as a mere possibility. It had been phrased by someone who wanted the two to be inextricable - and we think this quite possibly hid an underlying intention to fund the grant to the hall by engineering the sale of Melton Grove specifically in order to do so. We'd have liked this aspect investigated - but it hasn't been so far.

There are other aspects that were not followed (or at least not reported as investigated) as well, such as the omission of the anticipated Melton Grove income from the Council's budget setting process, thus making it appear as if by magic after the budget was set, and hence removing it from the competing priorities of other spending and making it available for 'windfall' spending.

And we might take issue with some of the Group's administrative arrangements.

We'd have liked the whole T&F group to interview each of the witnesses they called (as a Parliamentary Select Committee would), and we were surprised that one of those appointed to be a T&F member appears not to attended any of the meetings but dealt with everything by email and reading.

But that said, it was not the usual whitewash we've come to expect from Fylde, (Cllr Mulholland never was a patsy to be easily manipulated if he chooses to make the effort).

This has been the first Scrutiny Committee that has come anywhere near doing what it was supposed to do, and, in the areas they decided to look into, the investigation he chaired shows they went into detail and had a grasp of the issues they investigated.

But you get the impression that nothing significant is going to come out of the inquiry.

Most of the recommendations are either blindingly obvious, or things that are only common sense and should already have been both in place and enforced.

But the key issue is that they were not enforced and, as one of our readers with an early copy of the report said, "you keep finding yourself saying: why was this allowed to happen"

And that question itself shows the source of the problem as lying in the higher echelons of (chiefly) the officer - but also the political - classes at Fylde who control what does and does not, happen.

The report also shows that there was inappropriate contact between an officer (or officers) and the winning bidder.

It says "However, in some way that the T&F Group was unable to establish to their satisfaction, not only was the offer to bid extended to Windmill Group, but the Board did not dismiss the offer made, as coming from a non-RSL organisation. Mr Whitehead, of Windmill Group, advised the T&F Group that he had been advised of the opportunity by a member of staff, but was not able to say with certainty who that may have been. The council's Principal Estates Surveyor and the Director of Strategic Development Services both acknowledged that they may have mentioned it in passing, although they did not consider that was improper."

We suspect there is (or at least was) a paper trail that would help in establishing the facts here, and we wonder, for example, if the T&F Group asked for the consultant's files if the Council's had either been destroyed or did not contain copies of correspondence around that time.

But, staying with the evidence the T&F group did see, there are two interlinked conclusions to which the reader of the report will come.

The first is that there is - or at least has been - a truly shocking state of affairs operating at Fylde.

Councillors have been, and are, ignorant of what is being done in their name.

Furthermore, with the probable exception of Cllr Louis Rigby, Councillors appointed (by the Council) to the Board of Directors literally did not know what they were doing. They simply accepted what the officers told them. And the officers were running agendas that bore no relationship to the declared objectives of the Council in respect of housing, let alone the much vaunted 'affordable' housing policies.

To counterbalance readers, this won't be much of a surprise, we've banged on about it week in and week out. But now, the establishment has come to that conclusion as well

In our view, the fundamental problem is that officers are out of control because almost no Councillor feels sufficient ownership or responsibility to intervene in the officers' agendas.

Far, far, too much has been taken on trust.

Far too much has been delegated to officers or to the Cabinet.

Far too much responsibility has been removed from rank and file councillors.

Officers have also been allowed to bring in consultants whose briefs and parameters they have set with inadequate reference to, and inadequate understanding by, elected members.

When the public have raised legitimate concerns on issues such as, (but not only) Melton Grove, they have been disregarded and sidelined in favour of advice from officers that everything is above-board and lawful.

It was not always like this.

The late Lytham Cllr Bill Thompson would undoubtedly have walked across to Melton Grove as soon as the fuss arose and said to the residents, "Now, come on; tell me what's wrong. Why are you so upset?"

He UNDERSTOOD what his role as a councillor was, and he would have done something about it.

We have often seen him do exactly as we describe above whilst walking in amongst an angry group of people protesting about something the Council was about to decide. Most recently we saw him do it with the Heeley Road Group protesters. He listened to their concerns and advanced them in Council meetings. He saw his role as representing his electorate. Not managing them. He was a great councillor.

To the best of our knowledge, not one of the 51 Councillors in post at the time did that or anything like that with Melton Grove.

They would not think to do so. With party politics ruling the roost, it has been left to officers, who have either stonewalled or run their own agendas.

The Melton Grove scandal brings deep shame on all involved with it, but as awful as it is, it is but a symptom of a bigger problem.

And that is the second conclusion to which our readers will come.

The fundamental cause of this problem lies in the Cabinet System which has deliberately excluded rank and file participation in day to day decisions.

Many Councillors - especially, but not only, 'the opposition' - now speak as though they are not part of the Council. They take and share no responsibility for its decisions - because those decisions are not made collectively.

Councillors are not 'in charge'

One paragraph from the T&F report is particularly cogent in this regard. It says:

"The Group found that in this case, the Cabinet system was not conducive to open debate about a subject which was of great concern to many councillors. The Board reported only to Cabinet and took its instruction from them, via the ruling group. Cabinet did not find it necessary to regularly brief all councillors or permit a full debate when specifically requested by the Mayor. Although the matter had previously gone to council, subsequent to a call-in, there was insufficient detail made available at the time to permit full consideration of the issues. The Group also found that the Portfolio Holder, in making an individual decision to transfer the shares of CLHA to the council to facilitate the selling on of them to Windmill Oaks, was overly reliant on limited information. Cabinet and ruling group recommendations to the Board and the lack of communication appear to have been governed by a desire to accelerate a capital receipt."

It hints at the complete bypassing of the Council as a body corporate as the Directors of Melton Grove and the Company Secretary (who was also a senior officer of the Council) sought the direction of 'the ruling group' instead. This demonstrates a will to treat the Council with contempt.

It is well illustrated by another paragraph in the report which says: "Barry Dean had prepared a discussion paper for a meeting of the Board scheduled to take place in September 2010. At that stage, Windmill's offer was based on 9 properties being transferred to an RSL; 6 to a charitable organisation; (all 15 to be retained as "social rented accommodation") and five for sale on the open market. In that paper he recommended that should the Board be minded to make a decision now, they should proceed with the RSL offer. This meeting was postponed because the Board wished to report to and take instruction from the ruling group."

This is a perfect illustration of decisions made behind closed doors, with no accountability, no transparency, and in this instance, not even a record of the matters discussed or the decisions taken.

This is not how democracy should work

One officer who perhaps carries more responsibility for what has happened at Melton Grove than any other, had already described Melton Grove as operating in an "archaic and idiosyncratic way."

The allocation of tenancies at Melton Grove was traditionally intended for local worthy people of meagre means. It was unashamedly a sort of retirement reward for people in reduced circumstances who had done good service to their local community, The selection of such people not only requires, but demands, a close knowledge of the individuals in need, in order to be able to properly prioritise that need.

That's where the Councillors were absolutely needed.

They know the communities in which they live and can provide the much needed local knowledge.

So historically, the Melton Grove lettings were undertaken by an administration officer who dealt with the mechanics and paperwork, but the Chairman and the Board determined the most worthy applicant from the list.

This subjective approach is exactly what Members are there for. They provide the humanity element for the Council's decisions.

But it is subjective. And to officers in charge, subjectivity in decision-making is anathema these days.

We would not be surprised to find that the officer to whom we refer would have preferred tenancies to be allocated by an automated computer programme working from a points system linked to something like NI Numbers and tax records.

That's what senior officers do.

They seek efficiency, and the order of automata.

Without the humanising restraint of member involvement in day to day decisions, officers will always end up where the present ones have gone.

They will create human tragedy.

The poignancy of that comment is amplified when we say that in this same week that the T&F Group has reported, residents at Melton Grove are being advised of rent increases of 40% to 60% by their new landlord. We understand some are being asked to pay £102 a week for what is in effect, or at least should be, preferential social housing.

So much for the protection of tenants that was widely trumpeted by the Council prior to the sale.

So much for the job that officers should have done in protecting tenants.

So much for the comments made by the former Chairman of the Board, Councillor Patricia Fieldhouse who said in Melton Grove: 'The Facts'

"However, it [the Board] wanted to ensure that the philanthropic aims of the company were preserved."

and

"Existing tenancy arrangements remain in full force..."

And so much for the man who proposed the decision at Cabinet and spoke not a word against it all the way through the disgraceful process, even when faced with overwhelming evidence that things were not right.

So much for the Judas who sold out Melton Grove residents for the developer's thirty pieces of silver

The unseemly haste with which officers, (closely supported by the ruling Conservative Group members), pushed the decision through - using Derek Hatton style tactics - scuttling round after hours with papers to be signed, and having meetings 'by email' in order to forestall a wider debate by the full council - was a disgrace of the first order, and is an affront to democracy.

The reason given for the disposal (i.e. the administrative costs of running an arm's-length company) was always a fallacious argument. The way officers have manipulated gullible members is a scandal, and the way the supposed 'separation' of a private limited company has been used to screen what was really going on from both the public and from elected Councillors is quite breathtaking.

But we don't think anything much will happen: and the main reason nothing will happen is that, even if the suggested recommendations are put in place, this isn't going to arise again.

Melton Grove was a unique situation: it will not be repeated. No other issue will ever attract the same avuncular, affectionate concern that members as Clifton (Lytham) Housing Association did (when they were doing what they should have done instead of acting as callous asset strippers).

And after all this, if anyone thinks it is still a good idea to grow 'FBC Solutions Ltd' as a private so-called 'Arms Length' management company so it can hide its activities out of the public gaze and be less accountable, (but with much, much bigger sums of money involved), they need their heads examined.

We have amassed a great deal of information on his matter and may yet make it available more generally, but for the moment we're content to hear what the Community Focus and other organs of the Council have to say as the process rumbles on.

We suspect it will now be too late for the mistakes to be put right as far as tenants are concerned, and that's both a shame and a disgrace. The least they deserve is a public apology from both the Leader of the Council and the former Chairman of the Directors.

We can't see the Council backtracking on its deal.

The only way we could see that happening would be for it to voluntarily initiate a Judicial Review of its own processes. Something like that could have the decision to dispose set aside by the court, but we suspect it would probably be out of time to bring a case anyway, even if a will to do so existed.

We have no doubt there are Councillors whose consciences will have to cope with the consequences of the awful decision they made, and for which they will ultimately be held to account by a higher authority.

So we're left with the question posed to us by a reader

If it's to late to help the residents, can any good come of this?

And the answer is Yes - it is the right platform from which to launch a case for a return to the Committee system.

Further, the Chief Executive and the Monitoring Officer must be required formally to explain their roles in all of this before the full assembly of Council.

Why did the Chief Executive and the Monitoring Officer (whose statutory task is to intervene in matters of this sort) allow it to happen: and how can it be that he even took a prominent roles in its happening?"

We imagine those are the sort of questions that the wider Community Focus Scrutiny Committee (and others) will want to address.

There seems to be a presumption running through the report's recommendations that you should change the rules when something goes wrong.

But if the failure is one of enforcement (and to us this seems to be the case), then the answer must be not to change the rules, but to change the people who should have undertaken the enforcement in the first place.

When the watchdog doesn't bark, its time for a new dog.

We'll keep our readers in the picture as the Scandal of Melton Grove runs through to its conclusion.

Dated:   4 November 2011


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