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Cabinet Misc. March 2011

Cabinet Misc. March 2011Some people wonder why counterbalance is so popular, and why so many people read it. (On current stats, we're heading up to 10,000 page reads a month).

We think part of the reason is that we apply in-depth analysis to gossip that we have tested from two or more sources, and from that, we can often draw conclusions as to what is going to happen before it is announced.

We say this not in an attempt to 'blow our own trumpet' but to explain the loyal following we now have. And nowhere has our predictive capability been proved more reliable than in the agenda for the Fylde Cabinet meeting of 23rd March which has just been published.

There are four counterbalance articles as a result of items on that agenda. This one - which covers the itsy-bitsy items, and one on the request for £300,000 from Lytham Hall are published today.

We're working on ones about the Wyre Waste contract and revisions to the Former Commissar's 2020 Vision. Those will be out to our readers shortly.

Here are the itsy-bitsy items

POLICY DEVELOPMENT SCRUTINY COMMITTEE
The minutes and recommendations of the PDSC are the first item on the Cabinet agenda. It looks to us as though David Eaves came back from an extended holiday and found the Cabinet had fallen apart in his absence. Deputy Leader Cllr Susan Fazackerley (as we reported in Tax Con: 'The Cabinet Speaks') took, or was prevailed upon to take, a hard line on the Asset Transfers plan, and basically said all bets are off for 12 months.

We think this was because, like a pickpocket, FBC had been caught with its fingers hovering over an open drawer full of Council Tax, but couldn't make the 'dip' quickly and quietly enough - because both Kirkham and St Annes saw they were being conned by the plan to transfer liabilities to them.

They knew that FBC could charge the same Council Tax as it had before, letting the Town Councils appear to be the baddies by raising another £70 or so from each household, and thus taking the blame for the tax increase, and they weren't having any of that.

Star performer of the whole sorry saga was St Annes Town Councillor Arnold Sumner.

As we reported in Tax Con on Hold? he thundered to the Town Council: "This is an awful proposition. There are no assets here. Fylde Borough Council want to dump their non-commercial open spaces onto us. It will mean a 300% increase in our precept and we didn't form the Town Council to rip off the people of St Annes"

This is absolutely the sort of unspun, open, honest dealing we have a right to expect from those we elect.

It's a great shame he is standing down from the Town Council in the forthcoming elections. He is the 'Lord of St Annes' and oozes practical sense. Like the Hereditary Peers in Westminster, he has no edge, he is completely independent. He needs favour from no-one and seeks to impress no one. He is thus not susceptible to vanity and having his chest blown up with the frippery and ceremony that others need to demonstrate their 'importance'

It follows that, without him, it will be a more difficult job to keep the con-merchants at bay next year (when this matter will undoubtedly come back). But for this year, the Tax Con we've been reporting for ages was finally shown to be what it was. A deception.

And it has been temporarily silenced since Cllr Eaves came back.

To square the circle and restore some sense to his Cabinet, he has bought-off Kirkham's anger with the promise of a look at the scheme again before next year, and Cllr Fabian Craig-Wilson's Scrutiny Committee can at least chalk up a victorious notch on its bedpost.

In cost terms, giving way to Kirkham doesn't matter too much on this one. The Kirkham Con-Trick would only have generated about £160,000 for FBC, so its small-fry compared with the £1m or more available from residents in Lytham and St Annes.

So it looks as though Kirkham will be given special treatment and get it's open spaces back without any tricks - that's if you trust what was said to the Scrutiny Committee of course.

Cllr Susan Fazackerley told them she had looked at the timetable again and thought they *could* now move forward with Kirkham during this year, (contrary to a very clear cold and precise "No" that she had said at Cabinet), so everyone was hunky-dory with it, and they were all friends again.

She omitted to mention that St Annes was still going to be overcharged on its Council tax again this year though.

This will happen because the Special Expenses charge is not going to be altered to take account of Jennifer Cross' more accurate cost analysis of sites in Lytham St Annes and Kirkham.

We make it that St Annes residents are being overcharged by about £10 a head (and probably have been for the last three years or so), and Lytham folk undercharged by about £17 a head. This ball has been hit into the long grass for the moment - or at least they think it has - but long grass can also house Tigers.

So we expect next Wednesday's Cabinet will endorse the findings of the Policy Development Scrutiny Committee, and this will set the transfer of assets in motion for Kirkham, and kick-start more discussion on what constitutes a 'Strategic Asset' that should be charged over all Fylde residents, rather than a locality.

COMMUNITY FOCUS SCRUTINY COMMITTEE
We generally don't follow this Committee. In our view the Chairman has no understanding of what his committee should be doing, so we find it mostly pointless and a bit of a waste of time. That said, Independent Councillor Janine Owen's specific request for an item about the Cuadrilla operation for shale gas produced a decent and comprehensive report from officers, and a sensible decision to visit the site and see for themselves what was going on. We applaud her action, but wonder why officers hadn't already brought reports on the matter before she highlighted it.

FYLDE'S CORPORATE PLAN
This is the farcical process that attempts to show that the Council has a Corporate vision, objectives and priorities. As readers will see from elsewhere, it has no such thing. It has a scheming, deceptive hidden agenda set behind closed doors that it should be ashamed of. There is nothing corporate about this plan, other than the capacity to act as a future reference point to justify actions that lie buried in mildly-worded sentences saying next to nothing until you read between the lines of them. It's not worth wasting any time on at this stage.

FBC SOLUTIONS LTD
Jennifer's been at it again!

Jennifer Cross - (who, we understand, more or less *is* 'X Associates'), the nice lady who described counterbalance as 'other media' (as in her seeing comments in "Newspapers and other media") has been engaged by Fylde again, and has no doubt just finished telling them what they wanted to hear (Which is one of the reasons a Council like Fylde engages a consultant).

Although her report wasn't completed in time to go out with the agenda, (and therefore we can't help wondering if this one will come in the same 'provisional draft interim form' or whatever descriptor was applied to what we described as her 'Tax Con' report a short time ago). The report to Cabinet heralds that Miss or Mrs Cross' report will say FBC has potential to develop and launch FBC Solutions Ltd, the arms-length trading company (ALMO) that it established five or so years ago, and that company can be used to deliver a range of services to the Borough Council and to other organisations.

This is another disaster in the making.

Not because of what Jennifer has done - she might have done a very thorough report, we've not seen it yet. No, its bad because this sort of operation is a bad thing altogether. We've already seen with StreetScene how things can go horribly wrong and cost taxpayers a lot of money. This company is reputedly going to get £12m worth of spending to play with, and without seeing the details in Miss / Mrs Cross' report, broadly, the plan seems to be to be to 'integrate' the gardeners, bin men, mechanics and some managers into a single workforce, and the theory is we will need less of them because of that.

But for a whole shedload of reasons, this is a bad thing - not least the way in which a quasi-commercial Local Authority controlled company can hide from legitimate democratic pressure behind the mask of 'commercially sensitive information' that it will no longer make available.

We've been keeping our readers informed of this beast since we reported the company formation in 'Doing the Business' in February 2007. Then in 'Two's? Company' in November 2007 we showed who the directors were, and said "These quasi-businesses are known as ALMO's (Arms Length Management Organisations), and they can be used to distance people and politicians from the deliverer of a service, thus removing the democratic influence that is the whole point of it being a Council run service in the first place." We also said it was a dangerous animal and needed to be watched.

Then in 'Snippets - February 2009' we said the Council had renewed its tenure of the Company which had been parked as a shell company because the Government wouldn't grant FBC permission to trade (because Fylde under the former Commissar was such a poor council)

In 'Management Shakeout' in May 2008, we showed how the new 'Operational Services Directorate' had been formed to replace Fylde's disgraced StreetScene department (new name, same faces, new image), and they hoped to get Wyre Council to put their bin men and gardeners in as well. (Yes really!).

Finally, in 'Tax Con Backfires' in January 2010, we reported that "...officers [would] look in detail at a business case and business plan for FBC Solutions Ltd" They never learn. Change for the sake of change only produces the illusion of progress. And we're daft enough to keep voting for them!

Apart from the StreetScene disaster - just look what has happened with Fylde's other limited company the Clifton (Lytham) Housing Association. As we show elsewhere, hidden behind closed doors, it has betrayed the very cause it was established to serve.

Sadly, we have to admit, it was our own hero St Eric Pickles (in one of his less good moments) who removed the restriction that had for years prevented the last few (incompetent) Councils like Fylde from 'trading' and by removing the blanket restriction, he has now given Fylde the power to 'compete in the commercial marketplace'

So now we're talking setting up a new Management structure, Boards of Directors - the whole works - to puff out the chest of failed would-be businessmen like Streetscene's Dim Tim.

We don't approve of Councils setting out to compete with local gardening firms or garages, or skip hire companies and pest control operations and such.

If Council's are good for anything at that sort of thing, it's only as a non-commercial counterweight - to stop people being ripped off by those in a monopoly position to charge unreasonable rates. But when Fylde itself starts to charge unreasonable rates - as it has in the last year or so - and has had to bring its own charges down again, back in line with the local rate for the job - then even that reason no longer holds water..

We think the staff employed by Councils should be local people, working locally, for the benefit of local people. But in the last round of Budget meetings, we heard how there are now probably as many or more gardeners employed on contract work outside Fylde (maintaining fire stations and schools and verges from Skelmersdale to Carnforth and east to Earby or somewhere) than there are gardeners employed working on Council owned land in the Borough.

What's the point of that?

What on earth is the purpose of us paying people to work away from Fylde?

It can't be to raise money to offset the Council tax because that doesn't hold water - just look what happened with StreetScene.

Advocates will no doubt say it will be cheaper - because a company can (we think might is a better word) pay less than the going rate, so it will get staff cheaper.

When will they learn? At the sort of grassroots level we're talking about here there's no fat to cut at anyway, and as always, at this level, when you pay peanuts, you get monkeys - and as a result, a less capable and competent service.

Honestly, you could weep for them.

Just listen to this extract "The report presented by X Associates LLP presents sound reasons to change from the status-quo and identifies a range of benefits from doing so; i.e. from safeguarding choice, value for money, democratic control and flexibility, through to the significant potential for service innovation, strategic service alignment, business expansion and income generation."

The underlying logic here is - just do it differently, don't worry whether it's better or not. Change what you're doing now because change produces the illusion of progress and it looks as though something is happening.

Have you ever heard such nonsense. We're talking here about grassctting, weeding, streetsweeping, emptying bins, and fixing vehicles, where on earth does a "strategic service alignment" fit in to that? We expect the Council to our the tax revenue to provide services for us, not for others.

We confidently predict FBC Solutions will all end in tears. The only solution they're going to get us into will be a sticky one.

MORNINGTON ROAD
Another of the formulaic makeovers for open spaces in Fylde. This time it's £200,000 for the playing filed hidden in the back of Lytham located where most people would understand if you said "behind the houses next to Stanways". We wish the community group that has organised this well.

We see here the first instance of what will become a most unwelcome feature in Fylde's open spaces - something called "differential mowing" This is where you only mow a small proportion of the whole area as often as you used to, and you let the grass grow in other areas and only cut it once or twice a year. This sort of practice is sold on the basis of encouraging wildlife and a more naturalistic landscape. But it's really about lowering standards and saving money on what is intended to be a recreational playing field.

As the report author Darren Bell says "The project has been designed to avoid increased maintenance commitment. The existing play area will be replaced by a similar but updated facility. Some areas of closely mown grass will have a reduced maintenance commitment through the implementation of differential mowing"

Quite.

LYTHAM LIFEBOAT HOUSE LEASE
The 50 year lease taken by the RNLI expired last September and FBC's Cabinet is being recommended to agree a renewal at the former rent of £10 a year.

No contest. RNLI is one of the few British Institutions we can still be proud of and the excellent and dangerous work they do is an absolute reason to justify the use of a non-commercial rent.

TOM'S CROFT CAR PARK, FRECKLETON
The plan is to give the Car Park at Tom's Croft in Freckleton to Freckleton Parish Council at no cost, subject to there being a 'clawback' clause if the Parish Council were to commercially develop any part of the site in the future. This should result in a saving of £2,000 rates payable by the Borough Council, and some savings in utility service costs which will be paid by Freckletonians in the future. We doubt the saving will happen so this will add £2k or £3k to the bills of folk in Freckleton without FBC's cost reducing by this amount, they'll simply spend it on something else. It's the Tax Con writ small.

But that said, we think Cllr Trevor Fiddler - who holds a position of influence in the Cabinet, and makes important decisions - will be pleased with the result.

We wonder why The Cabinet haven't offered to do the same for Kirkham Town Council - who have repeatedly asked for control of the town centre car park. Maybe it will come with the Asset Transfer.

LAND AT WRAY CRESCENT
Another giveaway. It looks as though Wrea Green is finally going to get the land that for years it has been asking for at the top of Wray Crescent to use as a grazing and football area. The 'saving' to the Borough Council on this giveaway isn't detailed in the report, but the recommendation is to go ahead.

ALLOTMENT LAND - KIRKHAM
Yet another giveaway. Allotment land off School Lane in Kirkham is being transferred to Kirkham Town Council at their long standing request. There's no significant 'saving' for FBC on this one either, and we think it's likely to go ahead.

With all these freebies and giveaways, anyone would think there was an election coming, and those in control wanted some good news for their election leaflets.

Dated:   18 March 2011


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