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Council Meeting 25 July

Council Meeting 25 July 2011Sadly, we're a bit behind were we ought to be with our reports, and we apologise to our readers for our tardiness.

This one's a quick run-through of the items on the last Full Council meeting before the summer recess.

It wasn't spectacular, but there is an occasional nugget.

This Council Meeting of 25 July 2011 was in two parts.

The first part was to create some new Aldermen following the retirement of some Councillors at the last election.

Names in the frame this time were John Bennett (35 years service), George Caldwell (34 years service), Patricia Fieldhouse (32 years service) and Paul Rigby (24 years service).

Candidates for Honorary Alderman must have 20 years or more service as councillors, and the vote to appoint them needs at least 75% support.

Typically the vote is unanimous and indeed it was this time. There is no special advantage to being an Alderman, and there is no financial benefit, but you do get an illuminated certificate, and a nice warm feeling of recognition.

The second part began with the minutes of the previous meeting.

Normally these are just nodded through.

But this time Cllr David Chedd raised the minute of what Cllr Ben Aitken proposed at the 28 March meeting (Where Cllr Aitken said "I proposed we sell Melton Grove" and the Chief Executive stepped over the line from being an officer (whose is to help and support members, and carry out their instructions, not to usurp their role), and altered the wording of Cllr Aitken's proposition just before the vote to "It is proposed to dispose of Melton Grove and confirm the decision of the Portfolio Holder" (Although it might not sound it, this was a very significant difference).

Cllr Chedd was challenging the validity of the minute by saying it was not an amendment but a counter-motion, and as such it was unconstitutional, and he wondered what could they do about it.

The Mayor invited the legal officer to comment.

Mr Curtis advised that the Mayor is the final arbiter in such matters and it is not protocol or lawful for the Mayor to re-visit the minutes of a previous meeting and re-open the debate, and in effect Cllr Chedd's concern should have been raised at the time the amendment / counter-motion was made, and it was now too late to revisit the minutes.

With careful phrasing of an apparently incontrovertible position, Mr Curtis, helped another small injustice to slip quietly into the annals of Fylde's history.

However there was another item in the minutes that almost slipped through the net unnoticed.

Readers will recall our report of 28 February (Still a Shambles) where there was a confidential 'press and public excluded' item at the end of the meeting which was described as a 'Staffing Matter'.

We speculated then that such items were not generally about gardeners or bin men but were usually about the top triumvirate - the Chief Executive, the Solicitor / Monitoring Officer and the Section 151 Finance officer.

We were in the foyer when the meeting resumed after a short break in proceedings, and we saw the Chief Executive leave the hall whilst councillors were still in session.

That's a pretty good clue as to who the 'Staffing Matter' was about.

It was made even more interesting when all the other officers came out of the hall - so Councillors could discuss whatever was on their agenda in complete secrecy.

We suggested then that the chances were that some sort of change was coming for the Chief Executive, and judging by the ejection of the other officers, we thought it might be not what he wanted to hear.

The minute of that item says: "It was resolved to defer this decision for three reasons;

  1. More information is needed about redundancy costs.
  2. The hands of a new Administration in May could be tied if the decision is made at the present time.
  3. When a decision is taken it should be done by looking at the full range of options for the most appropriate management structure of Fylde Borough Council."

So it does look as though he may be on the move, and that maybe he wants to go. There is a staffing review on the way (as we expect to report in our next article) so change might be coming.

We may be about to live in more interesting times, and the thoughts of the more experienced members might be turning toward where we will find (or with whom we will share?) a new Chief Executive.

Next was the 'refresh' of the Constitution. This is rapidly becoming an annual "change-the-rules-that-have-caused-us-a-problem" event and the Constitution is now so dominated by delegations - especially to officers; and Councillors are so hamstrung by its protocols and procedures (with which they only become familiar after years of service) that it is become a barrack-room lawyers bible, and an excuse for doing things the wrong way (because councillors have been persuaded - and have agreed - to do them the wrong way. For example the default way for selling land used to be via advertisement followed by competitive public tender. But the Constitution adopted after the Heeley Road debacle now says " Only the Director may recommend that the council sell land." and " Land may only be sold by tender if the Decision-Maker has expressly decided to do so." - So the default position now is not selling land by open competitive tender).

We'd better not get started on all the things that are wrong with Fylde's 'Constitution' otherwise we won't have enough pills in counterbalance towers to keep us calm for the rest of the day....

We saw nothing in this latest set of changes to improve things either. Belatedly it looks as though some members are beginning to understand that every delegation they approve means they're giving away more of their power, and this time at least, a couple of the proposals were put on hold for more detailed consideration by another committee. We live in hope - but not much.

The dreaded Snoopers Charter. The Regulatory Investigatory Powers Act (which in our view shouldn't even exist) is what allows agents of Government (including local Councils and a host of other folk) to snoop on individuals and access our private details. It authorises Councils to conduct  'covert surveillance' and people to lie about themselves in order to obtain information by deception.

Readers will be able to see from the tone that we're wholeheartedly against RIPA in principle, but it's not Fylde's fault that the legislation exists, and according to their report they only used the powers once in relation to preventing or detecting benefit fraud. So it's use does not appear to be widespread in Fylde at least.

We believe if criminal activity is suspected, it should be a matter for the Police to investigate. What we absolutely don't need, are hundreds of other organisations with powers of surveillance. This is a law that should be repealed.

Fylde could have refused to adopt (or rather re-adopt) it of course, but as expected, they adopted the updated policy.

Next up was the 'Corporate Plan.'

Since Fylde stopped working from plain common sense and became a policy-driven Council, this sort of rubbish has proliferated. There will have been hours of work and meetings to revise and produce this document (time that could have been much more usefully employed).

The main purpose of the plan, so far as we can see, is to tie the hands of Members and limit what they can do to whatever is the officer's interpretation of what it says in the policy.

We'd put money on it that only a handful of Councillors have any understanding of the Corporate Plan (and most will not even have read it), but they vote it through like the Emperor's suit of clothes whenever they are asked to do so.

Saint Paul Hayhurst was the only one to speak out against it.

The headline "Mission Statement" had offended him. It was an awful idea, and he said he thought it should be removed altogether, but he doubted he would get a seconder to his proposal to remove it.

So our readers can form their own view,  the Vision says: "Fylde will be a welcoming place with energetic, highly skilled, healthy people in flourishing communities."

(If we were less jaundiced about what has happened, we might be better able to avoid the temptation to compare the welcoming that previous and today's visitors would receive. - You know - we used to have free parking now we have to pay Fyldegeld for it. We used to be able to park free on the square, now it's built out to house paid-for car parks, and we and have wardens that dish out fixed penalties to generate an additional income stream. We used to have loos that were free or cost only a matter of coppers. Now they're expensive even when you can find them. We used to have a team of Park Rangers to patrol parks and the open spaces, today we have none. We used to have fourteen summer Games Attendants keeping an eye on behaviour of parks and bowling greens, now we have none. We used to have a Tourist Information Centre open seven days a week from 9 till 9 throughout the summer and 10 till 5 in the winter, now we don't even have a temporary part time TIC. We used to have a widely respected "Welcome Host" programme that trained visitor-facing staff in the public and private sectors. That's gone too. Now we have only one hard pressed tourism officer when there used to be five or more full time people, (and a team of part timers in summer) working to provide a welcome for visitors - so it's no wonder that we only have an events programme and a welcome that is quantatively a ghostly shadow of its former self).

Nevertheless; we do, at least, have a Corporate Plan that says Fylde will be a welcoming place. (And thus the implicit acceptance that it is not a welcoming place at present)

Readers will take from this rant that we're solidly with Saint Paul in saying we're unimpressed with Fylde's 'Vision' thing.

Our regular readers might recall our earlier article 'Short Sighted Vision' That article reproduced the some of the Vision's consultation comments, and we especially highlighted those submitted by the 'Lytham in Bloom Group'.

With their amazing horticultural improvements in Lytham, these folk have clearly demonstrated both what can, and indeed should, be done to improve the area, (because they self evidently understand, and are doing, what local people really appreciate). Lytham looks simply brilliant due to their efforts.

The Lytham in Bloom folk's alternative 'vision' was: "Lytham St. Annes is to be a vibrant green oasis in which people choose to live, work and invest and which is ever more attractive to visitors". But officers reviewing the consultation responses dismissed their suggestion with "Whilst the desire to amend the vision to this is understandable it is not considered appropriate at this time." (We wonder if you can't amend it during the consultation period, when can you amend it?)

Cllr David Chedd was also unimpressed with the new Vision, and we heard sotto voce mutterings elsewhere round the meeting about offence to the disabled (evidently some thought that the" with healthy people" bit struck too much of a eugenic chord) and so on.

In the event Cllr Chedd said he would propose the removal of the Vision statement altogether if St Paul would second him. He did, but when the vote was taken his proposal was heavily defeated.

We'd have voted with them, but almost everyone else didn't. So now we have the approved Vision and a shiny new Corporate Plan.

This got a bit exciting. It can do sometimes. It's when the Council chooses who to have as their representative on a number of external bodies (Schools often have Councillors as Governors, some charities have them, and some big businesses eg Salwick and Blackpool Airport, have them on consultative committees, that sort of thing)

Altogether there were about 25 organisations looking for representatives. The Council Leader proposed the existing list except for half a dozen that were vacant for one reason or another, and he put some new names in the frame for those.

Queen Elizabeth spoke for the Independent and other Councillors and proposed some alternative names.

In a gesture of willing self-sacrifice, the Leader said he would be happy to cede his place on Springfields Works to (ward councillor) Cllr Peter Collins.

And everyone agreed to Cllr Ken Hopwood replacing Councillor Silverwood on LSP Economic Development Group.

But there was contention around the proposed representatives for the Board of New Fylde Housing, Blackpool, Fylde and Wyre Council for Voluntary Services, LCC Adult Social Care & Health Overview and Scrutiny Committee, in particular.

Saint Paul tried to get the matter deferred saying he (and he suspected other Councillors) didn't know enough about some of the proposed new representatives that had only just been elected to the Council and he thought they should have a pen picture of each proposed representative circulated to all Councillors so they could make their minds up on a factual basis. His - to our mind sensible - proposal was heavily defeated.

The vote when it came was blatantly political, and the Conservative nominees were all voted through.

We heard some gossip that prior to the meeting the Leader had let it be known he would be willing to welcome, (or at least he would not oppose) independent Cllr Ken Hopwood having the place on Blackpool, Fylde and Wyre Council for Voluntary Services, but when it came to hey-lads-hey he proposed Cllr Len Davies, and in the vote, he stood his ground for a Conservative place.

This sounds to us like the rogue elements in his group can still force his hand if they want to.

There do seem to be at least two main camps within the Conservatives - and the goodly number of new councillors will have complicated that matter still further.

Intriguingly, this item was just a heading on the agenda with "Report to follow" however, it didn't make it to the meeting in time and the matter was deferred. This is a big ticket item even though it's significantly less cost that the former Commissar's White Elephant new town hall plan, so we'll keep an eye out for it next time.

(That's Fylde's Finance supremo to you and me). Former money wizard Bernard Hayes is now fully occupied in Preston as Deputy Chief Executive or some such elevated position, so his former underling at Preston - Joanna Scott (with apologies if that term is inaccurate as we don't know their respective positions in Preston that well) mostly assumed overall control of Fylde's finance department a while back. Mr Hayes has now severed his links with Fylde altogether, and for a while it would seem that day to day stuff at Fylde has been dealt with by a chap called Paul O'Donoghue, whilst Ms Scott casts a watchful eye over what he is up to.

This item was to regularise what was happening, and formally designate Mr O'Donoghue as Fylde's  Deputy 151 officer.

Everyone seemed OK with the idea and it went through on the nod. That said, whilst we have to agree that Bernard Hayes did a first class job of turning round the absolute disaster the Former Commissar had created in Fylde's accounts, and that is greatly to his credit, we found his style rather secretive and difficult to take to, and we've also seen similar traits of secrecy in Ms Scott's working at Fylde. We don't know Mr O'Donoghue very well yet, but he comes from a competent stable, so provided we're getting value for money this is probably one of the few 'outsourcing' schemes that seems to be working.

This item was a half-hearted attempt to plug a few gaps in Fylde's Standards Committee which is shortly to be abolished anyway.

This abolition is a St Eric Pickles special and most welcome. As we've said before, the national Standards Board was bad in its conception, and worse in its execution. It failed to deal effectively with what it should have been looking at, and became completely clogged with title-tattle playground complaints between councillors and sometimes - unbelievably - even complaints by officers about the behaviour of elected Councillors!

When it's bristles became fully clogged, the national Board spawned a local Standards Committee in each of the 400 or so Councils across the country. They too became clogged up with trivia. It was a gross waste of resources and, thankfully it's going. The two exiting members were thanked for their work, and Cllr Tony Ford was voted in to replace Cllr Howard Henshaw (whose mayoral duties preclude him from being a member) for the remaining, short, duration.

With that the meeting closed, and it leaves us to report on the Cabinet and Scrutiny Committee held before the summer recess. We'll have reports on those shortly.

Dated:  04 August 2011


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