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countering the spin and providing the balance


Post Cabinet Report: March 2011

Post Cabinet Report: March 2011This is a report of the Cabinet  meeting of 23 March 2011. We provided an introduction to, and analysis of, the agenda items  in 'Cabinet Misc. March 2011, What A Waste, Short Sighted Vision, and Funding Call Lytham Hall'

The main issue on Cabinet's Agenda was the matter of the Melton Grove disposal and the Council's linking of the proceeds of that sale to supporting a request from Lytham Hall for funding of £300,000.

The Cabinet meeting began with an announcement from Cllr David Eaves that the date of the meeting had been moved back a week because his wife had been taken into hospital for surgery. That being the case it shows the revised date of the Cabinet and the closing date of Lytham Hall's lottery scheme were co-incidental and our inference that they may have been connected might have been wrong. If that is the case, we apologise without reservation.  We also wish Mrs Eaves a speedy recovery.

Equally we wish a speedy recovery to Mr John Ingham, resident of Melton Grove and Secretary of the newly formed 'Melton Grove Residents Association' who was ambulanced to the Vic's A and E department yesterday with suspected heart problems. This awful matter is taking its toll on everyone.

The Cabinet meeting began with a 'Public Platform' where members of the public who register in advance can express a view about any item on the agenda.

A chap called Peter Savic (who became involved with the Council's operation because of his concerns about plans for North Beach Car Park) - spoke about Melton Grove. He said the Hall might be a worthy cause to fund,  but the wording on the Cabinet's agenda precluded them from considering other funding options, and he thought that was wrong.

He also said if it was being disposed of as an asset sale, the property was undervalued in the Company accounts and it should be revalued before disposal to get a proper valuation. He also  argued the disposal process was flawed as well.

When the meeting proper started, an urgent item about "a grounds maintenance contractual arrangement" was reported, and it was decided this would be taken in private session at the end of the meeting with press and public excluded, so that's all were being told about that at this stage.

The Policy Development Scrutiny Committee minutes were taken next. The commitment that Cllr David Eaves gave to Kirkham about 'Asset Transfer' - and the promised reviews of the Strategic Assets  - were agreed by Cabinet. Cllr Eaves said there would be some budgetary implications but he was prepared to move the minutes for approval and did so.

The waste management services contract that we discussed in 'What a Waste' was next. Queen Elizabeth Oades had a written question asking what effect the non-renewal of Fylde's contract with Wyre Council would have on the Council's finances. Cllr Albert Pounder replied that it was all taken into account already so there was nothing to worry about.

He also made the point that no other local authorities or public sector organisations had been invited to tender by Wyre. So it looks as though Wyre's experience of using Fylde seems to have put them off using all councils and public sector organisations.

Cllr Oades pressed him for assurances there would be no increased costs as a result of problems with transferring staff and we thought he said there shouldn't be anything they don't already know about, because TUPE (best not to ask dear reader) would apply.

She went on to ask about the costs for supervisors and managers and overhead staff like accountants, and clerical people. Cllr Pounder didn't seem sure what would happen, but when pressed he said to the best of his knowledge they would be transferred as well. (We're less certain he's right about this - any commercial contractor will seek to minimise their liability to accept staff transfers - but we'll no doubt see what the future brings on this matter).

Next up was the Lytham Hall request for £300,000. Again Queen Elizabeth had some questions.

First she wanted to know when the Council had first received the request for the £300,000, and said she wanted to know the date for the 'informal request' (rather than the 'formal request' that caused it to be put on the Agenda)

Cllr Eaves replied "I am told February 2011"

She went on to say she had seen a copy of a solicitor's letter and asked if a decision taken tonight would be legal. Cllr Eaves replied "I am told yes, the allocation of capital funds above £250,000 is a lawful function of the Council in accordance with its constitution, and hence the recommendation is for an 'in principle' agreement subject to a full council approval and actually receiving the capital receipt"

We were a left bit unclear by his answer. There's no doubt he was right about the way the council might spend a capital receipt, but what he didn't address was whether the sale itself was lawful, and that's a different ballgame.

We wondered why this matter was on the Cabinet agenda anyway. There's no reason why it couldn't have gone straight to Council in the first place. Cabinet didn't need to be involved at all because it has no locus in spending sums over £250,000.

Cllr Mrs Oades went on to ask about previous funding requests from the Hall and Cllr David Eaves said he had been told that the Council made a £5,000 contribution in 2009 to the earlier bid stage. Mrs Oades continued with several questions about public access and so on. Cllr Eaves said he couldn't answer them as they were a matter for the Trust, though he recognised that public funding should bring public access. Cllr Oades made the point that this decision was premature if they were being asked to make it without all the information they needed.

Next up was Cllr Linda Nulty who wanted to know if it was "legally or morally right, that a treasured facility, which was gifted for the specific benefit of the elderly community in perpetuity, can be sold on to a developer regardless of whether some of the properties are kept for this purpose or not?"

Cllr Eaves said tonight's item is about an in-principle donation from a capital receipt if, in fact, the company was sold, and the substance of her question was the subject of the call-in, so it ought to be addressed and answered elsewhere.

At this point Cllr Trevor Fiddler produced one of the most honest answers we have heard in all this matter. He said "It is unfortunate that the linkage between the desire to help Lytham Hall, for a capital grant, to be related to the sale of Melton Grove, knowing the circumstances around, and the evolution of the process of coming to a conclusion about Melton Grove.   I feel rather personally sad that it's clouded the issue."

He added "And I do feel we ought to take it separately, I think when you look at Liz's questions they're all specific and pertinent to the item on the agenda, and that's whether or not this council ought to make a capital grant, irrespective of where we find the money....I gleaned from the Leader's comments that it will be a Council decision - in principle does the Council support this Council giving Lytham Hall that capital sum"

"To link in with Melton Grove, at this stage, prior to the full debate about Melton Grove, .....because the decision I made as the Portfolio Holder responsible for Melton Grove was rather simple. I didn't have all the facts, I wasn't aware of the process, and my conclusion was that I agreed in principle to the sale of Melton Grove. That was conditional on a full debate in Council.....So I feel that we ought to separate the two items, deal with whether the Council thinks it is a fit and proper use of Fylde's capital monies for Lytham Hall, and secondly to deal with the issues that have been raised over Melton Grove....."

Then came the question from Cllr Brenda Ackers (who is one of the Directors of the MG Housing Association. She said she was asking questions on behalf of Cllr Tim Ashton (another Director of Melton Grove Housing Association), She asked:

  • Is the cabinet able to confirm how many jobs will be created at Lytham Hall should the lottery bid be successful?
  • Is it correct that LCC have committed a Countryside Officer 3 days per week to work in the parkland and a graduate trainee to help with the lottery bid?
  • Are the Cabinet aware that this project has the potential to create a major tourist attraction on the Fylde Coast?
  • Are the Cabinet also aware that the Heritage Lottery have stated that if the local authorities are not willing to commit funds then the bid would be unlikely to succeed?
  • Does cabinet appreciate that should the council support the £5m lottery bid for Lytham Hall (the only grade 1 listed building in the Fylde) to the tune of 300k, this equates to over £15 coming into Fylde for each £1 invested by FBC

Cllr Eaves answered most of them in the affirmative.

Then, with what we thought was the hesitant and faltering style of someone whose heart wasn't really in it. or at least, someone who was choosing his words very carefully, (we couldn't tell which it might be) Cllr Eaves summed up saying it was an in-principle decision that he was prepared to propose, and Councillor Susan Fazackerley seconded it, but he again repeated the assurance he gave that this would be subject to a full debate as the next full council next week.

The Cabinet vote to approve the recommendation was unanimous.

As readers will expect from our writing on this matter so far, we disagree.

This ought to have been a matter for Council not Cabinet. And there was no need for the request from Lytham Hall to be linked to the disposal of Melton Grove.

This is something either Fylde's officers or some of the ruling group members have decided to do, and whoever it is has shown exceptionally bad judgement in doing so (that is, if they were not embarked - as we have said before - on setting out to tie the hands of the Council and make Political Capital out of the matter just before an election).

In times not too distant, this sort of debacle would not have been tolerated at all,  and heads would be set to roll.

It's only the sterling work done by residents to highlight their plight, and the strength of pure commonsense expressions of shock, awe and dismay handed out to Councillors by the good people of Lytham and elsewhere, that this tragedy has been stopped from sliding through almost unnoticed.

If  there was ever an example of how a Cabinet system that concentrates power into too few hands is an awful thing, this has been it.

If there was ever an example of secrecy, deception, twisting, obfuscation and lack of openness and transparency, this is it.

If there was ever an example of how not to consult with the people affected by your decisions, this is it..

If there was ever a reason not to have an Arms Length Company set up by a Council to run public services without it being publicly accountable, this is as good as it gets.

This company has not only kept both their tenants and the council in the dark, it has denied the people it was set up to care for their basic legal rights as tenants.

We support the Lytham Hall project. We want the Council to make a proper and fair contribution to a very important building and grounds.

But not by selling Melton Grove in order to do it. 

That is a price too high.

And to those of our critics - and there are one or two, (albeit there are more who have thanked us for highlighting the issue) who think we set out to damage the cause of the Hall by linking Melton Grove sale with the request from Heritage Trust for the North West and with other unseen agenda we say this:

It was not counterbalance that linked these two matters together so tightly that it is now almost impossible to unlink them.

We did not make the approval of a grant to the Heritage Trust for the North West "conditional upon the sale of Clifton (Lytham) Housing Association Ltd "

We did not say the capital grant  should "be fully funded from the Clifton (Lytham) Housing Association Ltd sale receipt"

It was the Chief Executive's report to Cabinet.

Those words are direct quotes from the Chief Executive's recommendations to Cabinet, and the words that the Cabinet itself has now recommended to Council on 28th.

What counterbalance did was to shine a light into those dark corners, were  this work was being forged,  and we told our readers about it before others had published it.  And we will continue to do so wherever we find such shameful examples of a local authority failing to respect its service users.

We're not going to waste any time on this, we regard it as a gross waste of time and space. It's corporatespeak, with no measurable outcomes and it ties up officer time that could usefully be spent on sensible, practical matters.

We prepared readers for this in Cabinet Misc. March 2011. It didn't get any better for hearing.

The plan is to have a shiny new Board of Directors running a company that can bid for work outside the Council, in competition with garden maintenance companies, garages, and waste clearance services and so on.

We confidently predict it ever gets off the ground it will be an even bigger disaster than StreetScene was.

And the trouble is already starting. Queen Elizabeth Oades had some questions to ask, but she was told they were all answered by Mrs Cross' report. However Mrs Oades hadn't had the report until that morning's post and had not had time to read it properly.

The Chief Executive explained that when the report had come in, it contained what he described as  "commercially sensitive information"; (costs and estimates of current spending and so on) and the reason it has been "published slightly after the main agenda was that the  'commercially sensitive information" has been taken out, so that caused a slight delay in the actual publication.

So the public version has blanked out bits (Yes really)

This is the first sign of what happens.

What used to be public information is now becoming commercially sensitive information as Councils forget that we elect them to provide and run public services and operate governance for us, and they play at being businesses.

Mr Woodward said Mrs Cross' report "showed the Arms Length Management Company is capable of delivering efficiencies for the Council"

Note he didn't say it *will* deliver efficiencies, nor does he say it will save  x thousands of pounds in year 1 and for each of the next five years. It was only "capable of delivering"

But the picture that he painted of the silk-draped Emperor had everyone  going along with it - until - with his clear eyesight and a good dollop of common sense (as ever), Councillor Trevor Fiddler saw the Emperor was actually naked and said "I don't have a question, it's more the prattle of a simple man, but I can't get my head around it. I don't understand it.   It may be that I've been involved with a traditional Council for too long.... but my innermost being says you don't understand it so I don't have the patience to read it,  and therefore I may not be in a position to have a positive vote.

Silence descended. We wanted to shout Bravo! That's what we need.

In the event, both he and Cllr Threlfall abstained in the vote. As Cabinet votes go, that's more or less unheard of.  But it should happen more.

Councillors are there to moderate the inhuman folly of technical and professional officers.

Left to their own devices, officers and members are poles apart, and going in opposite directions. Officers tend toward being mechanistic hard-hearted automaton professionals, whilst elected members are driven by the very human needs of their electorate and care little for efficiency if it as the expense of humanity. But when the combination works properly, the tension between them keeps the feet of both firmly on the ground and the decisions close to common sense.

Don't give up Cllr Fiddler. That's what you're for. May the force be with you.

As we described in Cabinet Misc. March 2011 most of the other items were land handouts to parish councils or park improvement schemes all of which were motherhood and apple pie and voted through with no discussion so we're not going to repeat what we said in our pre-Cabinet report.

The only other matter was the Vision thing and they glossed over that quite quickly save for Cllr Fiddler's fulsome praise for the Regeneration Officers. It's one of the areas that he and we differ.

And that was more or less it.

So the Melton Grove Saga continues at the Scrutiny Call in tomorrow and possibly again at Council on Monday.

As they used to say in cinematographic circles "Don't miss our next thrilling instalment"

Dated:  23 March 2011


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