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Melton Grove Meetings

Melton Grove MeetingsThere's a new development, and there have been two meetings that we can now update our readers about.

The new development is a petition on FBC's website  which allows anyone with a Fylde postcode to support a postponement of the sale of Melton Grove to allow further discussions to take place. If you're a Fylde resident and you agree that residents should be properly consulted, you might like to show your support by clicking the link to the petition. (Page Updated for removal of postcode limitation 3.3.11)

Quick update: Melton Grove is a small housing estate in Lytham for worthy local people from Lytham and St Annes. It's owned by the Clifton (Lytham) Housing Association, a limited liability company whose Directors are Councillors appointed by FBC. It follows that FBC 'control' Melton Grove according to company law.

Now to the two meetings......

SATURDAY 19 FEBRUARY
The first meeting was at Lytham Cricket and Sports Club a week last Saturday. Residents of Melton Grove and their friends and supporters gathered to discuss and decide whether to form a Residents Association. We went along at the invitation of John Ingham (pictured) - one of the residents.

At ten to the appointed hour, a goodly crowd was assembling. There was a circle of chairs in the middle of the room where residents were to sit, and some tables ranged round the outside for friends and supporters. We saw several of Lytham's great and good there representing the Civic Society, Defend Lytham and other organisations. There were people from at least one other housing association that we recognised, a chap from a housing consultancy, a couple of members of the St Annes Town Council and one from Fylde Borough Council.

The meeting started with Emma Duffy introducing her father John Ingham who gave a quiet exposition of his concerns about the sale, and explained how he thought they needed to speak with a single voice as a residents association. His voice was quiet anyway, but we detected a couple of instances where he was almost too upset to continue. Most - although not all - of the residents came from a different age in time, and we thought - without intending any disrespect to them, mostly, they simply didn't understand what was happening to them.

The meeting then heard from a former professional housing officer who explained some of the measures that, as tenants anywhere, they were entitled to expect, not least being properly consulted on any issues which would affect the terms and conditions of their tenancy. They were also entitled to proper representation and to 'tenant's friends' who could help them through the maze of legislation and so on. He said he thought they were being badly treated in this matter, and had not even had the consultation they were statutorily entitled to receive. He offered to help, as indeed had other professionals, we understand.

There were one or two residents who seemed intent on disagreeing with the idea of a residents association altogether. One in particular, who seemed younger than most, said there was no point in forming it because it was done deal and the Council were going to sell it anyway, so they were wasting their time. There were two sitting next to her that seemed to agree, and one that couldn't make up her mind, but most of the residents present did seem to support the idea of having an association.

We were puzzled why anyone should want to object so strongly to the idea of forming a residents association as this one lady appeared to. She was very forthright and vociferous in expressing her views, and we thought there must be more to it than was apparent.

The saddest part of the afternoon was to see how the scheme to sell their homes to a developer had caused such division and disharmony amongst what had up to then been a cohesive, quiet and settled community.

But that said, the number of those supporting an association was overwhelmingly in favour, and that was evident when a show of hands vote was taken.

There are 25 residents in Melton Grove, and 19 were well enough to attend the meeting. We didn't manage to get the voting numbers exactly, but it looked to us like 15 or so in favour of forming an association to speak for residents with one voice, and perhaps one to three either against or abstaining for lack of information. (We hear more people joined the Association after a subsequent meeting with the Shareholder / Directors on Wednesday)

The friends and supporters were then asked to leave, whilst the residents themselves discussed what they wanted the aims and objects of the association to be and so on.n.

We wish them well. It seemed to us that one or two might want to stay outside the association, That is sad, but we understand the Melton Grove Residents Association is now on the way to being established.


WEDNESDAY 23 FEBRUARY
The second meeting was on Wednesday 23 February. This was the meeting called by the Directors of the Clifton (Lytham) Housing Association. It was "to update you on the current situation and consider any questions or queries you may have on future arrangements."

Attached to the letter was a sheet outlining some of the proposals, it said....

"SALE OF MELTON GROVE

The Board of Clifton (Lytham) Housing Association has completed the process of the sale of Melton Grove. The terms have been agreed for a sale to The Windmill Group, though contracts have not yet been exchanged.

The terms of the sale permit the purchaser to redevelop part of the site, but also include a number of provisions intended to protect the interests of the existing residents, and the need to retain the majority of the site as affordable housing. These include requirements that:

a) When 5 bungalows have been vacated, that area can be redeveloped, but that 15 bungalows will continue to be made available as affordable housing for social rent or special needs groups.

b) No attempts will be made to exert pressure on any of the occupiers of tenancies that exist at the lime of purchase in order to secure premature vacant possession except where there is mutual agreement to do so.

c) Not less than 15 existing or new bungalows will be retained for affordable or special needs accommodation ad infinitum

d) There will be no more than a total of 22 dwellings retained or built on the site

Readers will note there is no detail here about the need for future residents to have a local connection, or about their age, mental capacity, or behavioural history, that might be associated with special needs groups added to the original intention of worthy people from Lytham St Annes whose demonstrable contribution to the community was rewarded with an affordable secure home for their old age. Nor is there any indication whether the additional housing envisaged is 'market value' or 'affordable', whether it is to be family orientated or retained more or less restricted by property size to the couples that now occupy the bungalows. Not is there any indication of the number of storeys to which new properties might be planned.

The letter was not even accurate. The Council isn't selling Melton Grove at all. It's disposing of shares in the company that owns it. We think they were trying to keep that from being made public, and this is the result. Either that, or the view prevails that when you're dealing with tenants, accurate information doesn't seem to matter.

This meeting was to be attended by "the Directors and key officers of the company, and representatives of the purchasing company" as well as residents.

Even now, at this late stage, we still don't see this letter contain an offer to consult the residents who might offer alternatives - as both the present company, and the Council - is required to do. It also raises a potential conflict of interest for some of the Council's officers and members.

Mr Woodward is the Council's Chief Executive, and also an officer of the Company. Mr Curtis, the Council's Solicitor, is likewise an officer of the company, as is the Council's Finance Officer. Each of these has responsibility to advise their respective organisations - and whilst we can see it is possible to do so wearing separate hats, and it may be this is what they have done, the perception that there is a conflict of interest when they are advising both the Council and the company in a sale and disposal will no doubt arise for some people.

Equally, the Councillors involved have responsibilities both as Councillors and Directors. We believe they run the risk of being reported for inappropriate behaviour to Fylde's Standards Committee, especially where, like Councillor Pounder, they are part of the Council's decision-making Cabinet as well as the Council, because they run the risk of having what is known as a Prejudicial Interest unless they step aside from one of the roles and take no part in it, and do not try to influence the decision that is made.

The National Standards Board - which is soon to be abolished - but which is still the primary source of cogent and authoritative advice on these matters offers guidance.

Their note called "Lobby groups, dual-hatted members and the Code of Conduct - Guidance for members" has been around for some time now.

It says "In some situations, it is unrealistic to expect a member of the public to believe you would disregard the interests of another public body on which you serve. For example, you should not sit on decision-making bodies, such as planning and licensing committees, when they decide applications from an authority on which you also serve. Even though these situations fall within the scope of sub-paragraphs 10(2)(a) and (b), a reasonable member of the public would think that your judgment is likely to be prejudiced. In addition, a legal challenge could be made against the authority's decision-making process if you participate in these circumstances."

We suspect that any councillors that have advocated disposal to both the Council and Company might find themselves at risk, as indeed might the decision to sell the site itself.

counterbalance was not invited to this meeting on Wednesday of course (we didn't really expect the Councillor Directors who called the meeting would want us there), so we can't report first hand, and our readers will have to rely on the various reports we have received from those who were in attendance.

From what we can understand, Cllr Brenda Ackers took the Chair in the absence of Cllr Pat Fieldhouse. (We have to say we've been very surprised at Cllr Fieldhouse apparently being part of this disgraceful move regarding Melton Grove. We know her to be a decent an honourable Councillor). Cllr Pounder was also present, but Cllrs Ashton, and Small were not there. That might turn out to be a smarter move than anyone thinks.

Cllr Louis Rigby (who we believe has been refusing to sign some papers in connection with this matter) was also in attendance, as were Mr Woodward, Mr Curtis and a minute taker. The potential purchaser was also present, together, we understand, with members of his family and someone from 'Fylde Community Link' who might be involved if the sale goes ahead. Also present was the man that FBC had employed to value/survey Melton Grove.

We also understand that Cllrs Ben Aitken and Ken Hopwood attended, but they are not Shareholder / Directors. We understand Cllr Hopwood didn't speak, *Please see update at end but we're told that Cllr Aitken spoke twice to say he was in favour of the sale.

Someone said at the start that they could see no plans, wasn't that what they were there to see? The answer seemed to be that there were no plans. One of our correspondents noted the developer had said "I have no plans for redevelopment of the site"

Good start.

There seems to have been a lot of time spent on paragraphs a] and d] (ie the redevelopment potential) of the 'Sale of Melton Grove' sheet that accompanied the letter calling the meeting. One correspondent on this matter told us the only definite statement to come out was that there will be maximum of 22 houses on the site, but someone had said there would be "5 new houses"

The Councillors were asked why was there any need for a sale of Melton Grove at all? and the answer was that it was a Council asset and the council needs to sell its assets so everyone in the borough can benefit. It seems there was no definitive answer as to what the money would be would be spent on either.

A resident asked the three Directors of the Clifton (Lytham) Housing Association to give the residents their individual view as to why Melton Grove should be sold at all. We were told Councillor Rigby replied that he couldn't understand why planning permission may be looked upon favourably now by a developer, when the CLHA itself was rejected several years to put up more social housing, and our correspondent gleaned the view that Cllr Rigby was maybe against the sale of Melton Grove

It seems Councillor Pounder's reply was difficult to understand as he brought in issues with which our correspondent was not familiar, but their  impression was that Cllr Pounder was in favour of the sale. .

We're told Councillor Mrs Ackers was forthright in responding, and said that she was in favour of the sale.

Another question: Why was no resident consulted? We're told that Cllr Mrs Ackers said she thought the Council had notified tenants. Someone then said they didn't think the letter of 4th December 2009 was a consultation. (We detect a terminological difference here between "Notification" and "Consultation").

Our correspondent on this matter of 'no consultation' alleges that Cllr. Mrs Ackers said "I am sorry if you feel you weren’t consulted but nothing can be done now”.

This appears to have been followed up with "But there is something - you could delay the sale and consult now with residents on the safeguards they want putting in the agreement between FBC and the purchaser."

One correspondent said that at this point the Chair whispered something to Chief Executive who shook his head. Cllr Mrs Ackers then said "No". Another correspondent said Cllr Ackers looked to Mr Woodward who was sat alongside her and he responded with a shake of his head, at which point Councillor Mrs Ackers then said that it would not be possible to delay the disposal.

One person said the newly formed Melton Grove Residents Association did not feel that they had been notified in accordance with 'Duty to Involve' regulations and following discussion the Chair seems to have acknowledged that was valid and said sorry, but "it was too late now"

Cllr Rigby asked if the money from the sale had been earmarked, and received a "No"

We're told that Cllr Rigby said that from the Association meetings he understood the sale was subject to planning permission. Cllr Ackers was reported to have said definitely not. Cllr Rigby seem to have remained concerned about a 'clawback clause' and said "Its planning permission for sale"

Another question asked "Who will police the agreement once Windmill owns the assets?" The answer was that everything has to go through planning, followed by a long explanation as to the thorough procedures planning committee follow.

(We make the observation at this point that Councillor Directors who expect the Council's planning process to ensure post-development adherence to tenancy terms demonstrates the greatest triumph of hope over common sense that we've ever heard of)

Questioned whether that meant that the Council might not get the balance of their money if planning permission was not granted produced the reply that it was only 10% of the sale price, and that was "normal procedure".

If, as is alleged, the purchase price is around £1.3 million, that makes the 10% worth around £130,000. It's a mark of how far Fylde has come that this £130k is now considered a mere bagatelle. We wonder how that view will go down in negotiations with staff being asked to accept redundancy or diminished terms and conditions in employment contracts that have been agreed since they began their employment.

One of the residents showed the meeting a copy of the Decision Notice to be considered on the 3rd March by Cllr Trevor Fiddler, and said he understood that meant that FBC were not yet the owners of Melton Grove, because the Clifton (Lytham) Housing Association had not transferred the shares to them.

Our correspondent thought that once they had the shares, FBC would immediately transfer them to Windmill Homes. Our correspondent asked the Chairman if the transfer of the shares could be deferred for say a month so as to allow the Melton Grove Residents Association team to look into the circumstances surrounding the sale.

That request didn't get very far from what we understand.

Another questioner said that the notice of transfer of shares of Clifton Housing Association had been published on Fylde's website the previous night. They asked did the Council now own the Association? Cllr. Pounder is reported to have replied that you shouldn't believe what you read on websites.

When we heard this, we wondered if he meant counterbalance - which is where, according to several councillors of our acquaintance, they get to hear what's really going on at Fylde before they get the official line. So surely he didn't mean us?

When the questioner continued to Cllr Pounder "But it was Fylde Borough Council's website" it seems the reply came once more "You can't believe what you read on websites"

We're puzzled.

Can this really be the same Councillor Pounder who sought (at great length, and in the middle of a debate on the pool closure) to extol the virtues of the Council's website when he was responsible for it, at the ill-fated 3 March meeting that closed the swimming pools - and where one wag in the public gallery shouted out "Yes but you can't swim in a website" we wondered?

A more serious reply seems to have come from Cllr Mrs Ackers who allegedly said the council decided it was the easiest way to transfer the assets.

We have two things to say about that. Firstly 'The Council' has made no decision on this matter. It has never been asked to consider it. The Conservative administration with its overall majority has skulked off into a dark corner, colluded with officers who we think ought to have had more backbone, and appears from what we can see to have dumped it on what we imagine is an unsuspecting Cllr Trevor Fiddler as an 'Individual Member Decision' that he's quite possibly been asked to sign without knowing what it was all about.

This is housing matter. One wonders why it was not given to the Portfolio Holder in charge of Housing - unless whoever they are now (and we've no idea who it is) was not up to the task of carrying the argument.

We hope the relevant people will take note, and not to hide their shame behind the mask of 'The Council' which includes proper Councillors whose boots such people are not fit to clean.

And if that makes us sound angry, it's because we are.

Very Angry.

This is exactly the sort of thing that happens when too much power is concentrated in too few hands- whether its a Cabinet or a Company.

The second thing we say is that this process may be the only way they can deal with a Director who is so public spirited, and concerned for his fellow man, that he won't hand over his shares voluntarily.

And it might also be because they can sidestep some of the tax liability if they give some of the proceeds to charity and, as we've said before, we think Lytham Hall is in the frame there. Whether those running the hall would be willing to accept it under such circumstances will be an interesting situation to watch.

One of our correspondents said they came away very depressed, with the view that "this was never about the welfare of the elderly and vulnerable tenants living at Melton Grove. This was a deliberate act on behalf of the council to acquire a valuable community asset which they could sell."

To give readers an indication of how it feels to be in this position at a time of life when you ought not to be subjected to this sort of distress, we have included another correspondent's apology for taking so long to provide notes of the meeting.

They told us "Sorry I have been slow in responding, I have felt rotten, anxious and had difficulty sleeping, but nevertheless the fight must go on"

We've been shocked by this sordid and sorry affair. What we see in this shameful episode is councillors behaving more like shysters hustling on Blackpool promenade, and officers who are colluding in the process. It is both disgraceful and shameful.

And it's a long way from being over yet.

Dated:   2 March 2011

UPDATE: 5 March 2011
Cllr Hopwood has asked us to report that he did ask a question about what would happen if a resident went into hospital. He wanted to know how long they could leave the property vacant before a termination of their tenancy arose. He tells us he didn't get what he thought was a satisfactory answer, but Mr Curtis spoke about existing covenants being maintained. We're happy to be able to add this update and correct the deficiency in our correspondents' reports.


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