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Melton Grove at Council

Melton Grove at Council (again)Last Monday's Council meeting saw the officials sitting at the most elevated position imaginable. From the floor there rose up the orchestra pit and then the stage. And atop the stage was the table and chairs for officials.

It may be that this layout was because of some unavoidable arrangements in the theatre, but you couldn't help get the impression that the officers - especially the Chief Executive - was trying to put as much distance as possible between him and the pain and criticism he knew would be coming from the floor.

This was his last Council meeting before the new Chief Executive (Alan Oldfield) takes over. And the Judas Cabinet Leader (who at Cabinet, proposed the sale of Melton Grove for 'thirty pieces of silver' in order to fund the grant to Lytham Hall) paid glowing tribute to the incumbent.

We hope to provide our own take on that shortly, together with what the changeover might mean for Fylde.

It was quite a busy agenda for a Council meeting, but in this article we're going to focus on just one item - the report of the Scrutiny Committee inquiry into the sale of the Clifton (Lytham) Housing Association - aka Melton Grove - to Peter Whitehead's Windmill Group.

Introducing the item, Scrutiny Chairman Kiran Mulholland was factual and moderate in style.

As he should, he proposed the minutes and recommendations of his Committee and asked for the support of Council.

They report is a hard hitting indictment of the Council's quite disgraceful behaviour in this mater.

It can't have made comfortable listening for any of the Conservatives who voted en bloc to effect the sale - probably mostly without knowing what they were voting for.

It must have been excruciating for Cllr Albert Pounder - or any of the other Directors - who effected the sale of their shares to Windmill.

It will have been uncomfortable reading for those in Government who were asked to intervene and failed to find cause to do so within parliamentary regulations, and for those who failed to exert political pressure over the local branch of their party.

It must be the case that the Judas Leader of Fylde Council who proposed the sale was also stung by the report.

The only reason it could be otherwise is that he was ignorant of what his own Chief Officers were doing - and that's even worse. Not only is that appalling decision making, it's also complete incompetence of leadership of the Council.

But those sections of the report that say the (supposedly independent) Board of Directors postponed meetings to take the advice of the ruling Conservative group, give the lie to the fact that he was ignorant - unless he doesn't even know what the party he leads is doing - in which case, God help us all.

Our readers know we have been highlighting this problem since February ten months ago. We said then there was something fishy. There was. And it now stinks even worse than it did then.

And  it's not going to be put right anytime soon. We hear of residents of the Grove whose rents are being increased by 46% and if you take account of changed payment arrangements, it can be as high as 60% for some.

We also heard that some who are now unable to meet these increases (for what should be socially affordable housing) need only pay half the increase this year, and can use the time between now and next year to sort their finances out and catch up with where they should be.

If what we heard is right, this idea has an awfully similar smell to the disgraced practice where US citizens - who were unable to understand what they were signing - were sweet-talked into signing the so called sub-prime mortgages that began low and rose steeply in a short time, to completely unaffordable levels.

The result was (inevitably) default and foreclosure (as the system had been designed to achieve), with the property returning to the ownership of the creditor, having had whatever payments were extractable before either re-developing it or letting it at a higher charge, or selling it

Of course that sort of thing couldn't happen here, could it?

And even if it did, the people  being evicted for non-payment, would become homeless, and FBC will have a duty to consider housing them wouldn't they?

Where would the sense be in that?

But getting back to the meeting, the Judas Leader followed Cllr Mulholland's proposal and said

"I'd like to thank the members of the Task and Finish Group for their time and their effort and persistence in pulling together this piece of work over the past two months. I know it has been a very difficult task to get to interview all the relevant people.

It's clear that the scope and range of the recommendations that the group has made and have now been endorsed by the full Scrutiny Committee that work has been very through, and no stone has been left unturned.

What I'd like to propose to Council is that we accept in spirit and principle the recommendations, subject just to one proviso.

The proviso is that because a number of the recommendations have the potential to bring about changes to our constitution, we ask the Audit Committee, which has the responsibility for advising us on changes to the Constitution, to look at these at its meeting in January, take advice from external bodies, and come back to Council with the detailed proposals about how we can implement any changes.

This way, I think we can demonstrate that we have adopted a reasonable, thorough and methodical approach, to address the concerns expressed at the Council meeting in July. I move that proposal."

Susan Fazackerley seconded his proposition.

We were blessed with an overwhelming sense of de-ja-vu at this point.

Readers might remember when Princess Karen Buckley famously failed to propose the minutes of the Scrutiny Committee she chaired into the plans to sell the Heeley Road site for a Hostel, and she proposed a 'Monty Python' resolution at Council (and now for something completely different)

That resulted in her being censured by the Standards Committee and having to apologise to the Council for the error of her ways, and to undergo training so she knew not to do it again.

Cllr Mulholland did exactly the right thing in proposing the minutes of his committee, but before anyone could second it, in stepped Cllr Eaves with his own version of what should happen - so it wasn't even an amendment. Cllr Mulholland's proposition was simply abandoned.

And still no-one amongst the officers - who will have known what was going to happen for several days in advance - did nothing to rectify it.

We suppose it's just possible the result will end up being the same as if Cllr Mulholland's resolution had been proposed as per the Scrutiny Committee.

But instead of going back to Cabinet for a decision, it's being batted to the Audit Committee for them to have a look at first.

And they, of course, could recommend some changes to what Scrutiny have proposed. They could also decide it needs a bigger dose of looking at and push it into some very long grass for a year or two until all the fuss has died down (just as happened with the Streetscene and other debacles). In that sense, Cllr Eaves' quote of  "take advice from external bodies" as part of the recommendation is probably the bit to worry about.

So we wait to see where this will finally go.

Now at this point  Dear Reader, we could give you our take on the debate that followed. But, unusually we're not going to do that. We're going to reproduce, verbatim, the text of what was said at Council by the few Councillors who spoke on this matter. (None of the Conservatives did - we'd like to think they were too embarrassed to do so given what they voted for)

The first speaker was Queen Elizabeth Oades of Kirkham. She has a strongly developed sense of justice and injustice and, although we haven't always agreed with her in the past, we recognise and acknowledge her as one of the most able councillors in Fylde today. She gave a bravura performance.

"May I start by thanking those Members of the T & F group who took part in this investigation for their hard work

Whilst commending their recommendations, I have to admit that I feel somewhat underwhelmed that, despite the fact that many weaknesses have been uncovered in the democratic and procedural processes, councillor competence, and officer protocol, there would appear to be no recourse to action for the residents of Melton Grove, because I believe the most disgraceful aspect of this whole sorry business is the way the tenants have been treated, they are now facing increases in rent of 60-70%.

I hope that Board members are chastened by their failure to check that adequate covenants were put in place to protect tenants, and I hope that those Ward councillors, who assured residents that they would not be adversely affected by this sale can apologise to the residents for not making sure that this was the case.

In August, 2007, an Asset T & F group recommended to Cabinet that Melton Grove be disposed of to an RSL or, failing that, that the Board be charged, in future for the Administrative function. This recommendation was agreed by Cabinet and passed on to the Board.

You will note that, at that time, Melton Grove was felt to be an asset of the Council, with Council making recommendations to the Board.

Twelve to eighteen months later, the Board decided to dispose of the housing to an RSL.

In some way, which it seems to have been impossible to establish, Windmill, despite not being an RSL, was allowed to bid.

No one can tell us how or why a non-RSL was able to bid, why only one non-RSL was able to bid and why the Board was not advised against accepting the offer.

Despite the fact that advice appears to have been given to Chief Officers and the Board that, if the Windmill bid was allowed, the invitation should be widened, this was not done and no clear reason was given for this.

Because of the abysmal record-keeping it has not been possible to establish why the remaining RSL bid was rejected and the Windmill bid accepted, nor has it been possible to establish why, when the Heads of Terms were amended by Windmill, and before they were finalised, the new arrangements had not been advised to the RSL to determine whether they would like to revise their offer, so can it be demonstrated that Best Value was achieved?

Different hats seem to have been taken on and off throughout the whole process.

When councillors queried the right of the Board to change Articles, they were told that the Council had no remit as Melton Grove was owned by the Board.

If this was so why did the Cabinet instruct the Board to dispose of the asset?

Why did FBC officers advise both the Board and the Council?

Why did the shares revert to the Council?

Why was the Portfolio Holder given the decision making function in relation to the disposal?

Why has the receipt come to the Council?

Why did the Board report to and take instruction from the Cabinet and the ruling group whilst the Council was denied the opportunity to debate the matter?

Other questions come to mind from this investigation. The T & F group were told that our solicitor intended to put protective covenants in place to protect tenants. Mr Whitehead apparently complained about the methods being used by Mr Curtis and it is alleged that the Chief Executive instructed Mr Curtis not to put them in, why?

Why were opposition groups not party to information freely given to the Conservative group?

Ex- Councillor Fulford Brown, who apparently had a business link with Mr Whitehead, failed to declare a prejudicial interest on whether to proceed with the sale and his vote was crucial as the motion was carried by only one vote.

Councillors subsequently complained to Mr Curtis and were advised that nothing could be done about it other than reporting him to the Standards Committee.

Mr Curtis subsequently advised the T & F group that if councillors had formally complained then the Leader of the Council could have revoked the vote and the sale would have had to be debated again. Why was this information not given to councillors at the time?

I believe that this whole affair has been a very dark time in the history of Fylde Borough Council.

I hope that the Council will accept the recommendations and learn from them. We must move forward in an open and transparent way and make sure that nothing like this ever happens again. "

We wanted to applaud at this point. In the five minutes allotted to her, she had picked up the essential issues that made this scandal of Melton Grove so wrong

But then it got even better.

Next up was Saint Paul Hayhurst of Elswick. He is probably the most  experienced Councillor on Fylde. He can also find jugular veins with ease.

Speaking in measured tones, he said:

"Well Mr Mayor, this is an absolutely disgraceful situation. In fact, the report, when you read it, doesn't give the full details, which did come out in the Scrutiny Committee.

And in fact, some of the comments that were made there, and some that were made by members who took part in this process, revealed that this is a complete absolute mess, and we still don't know whose done what to whom, and why.

All we know is that it stinks

I was Leader of the Council when we actually disposed of the Council Houses and we did things in a very different way. We actually told the residents involved as to what the pros and cons were of the situation, and we left it up to them to decide whether we went ahead with the sale. And we were overwhelmingly given the mandate to sell those houses.

Here, we're in a situation where the residents have had very little consultation, and any views that have come up have been overridden anyway.

I did at one stage think that this was the Cabinet that was obviously doing this. But what came out of the Scrutiny meeting was that the Cabinet was quite naive about how it dealt with this. In fact I believe the Portfolio Holder, when he was asked questions, said he's not bothered to read everything, and didn't really know what he was doing, which I think is appalling when you think we're dealing with public money here.

But the thing which concerns me more than anything is paragraph 44 because, whilst we may have a situation where some members may not be up to the job - and I include the answers that came forth from Cabinet members - but what we do rely on is officers. Officers to advise the Council and the Cabinet as to which is the correct way to go.

I have to say that I've been on this Council for over 30 years, and I remember the days of Alec Cork and people like Roger Wilkinson who were very careful officers who ensured that this Council did not do anything incorrectly.

And what have we got in paragraph 44? We find that the officers didn't bother to consult the head of housing on this issue. Why do we have a head of housing if we don't consult him?

"Appear to have been persuaded by Windmill." I just can't believe that we have officers who allow the people who are purchasing the site to persuade them, without them checking up.

"They did not consider whether RSL's should have been invited to re-bid when they changed the terms of the sale."

What concerns me is that we didn't re-advertise it at that stage, and allow other developers to come on the scene. Surely, we are dealing with public property, and the message I've had over thirty-odd years in this Council is that when you're dealing with public property, you've got to be whiter than white. You don't pick on one developer and decide to sell it to them without consulting others. If you make changes then you re-advertise.

"Took at face value that Windmill was a respected and experienced Social Landlord." - and they only had one property. Again, surely, we employ officers to advise us and to do this work. Surely the officers should have done the job on this.

And then they failed to keep detailed records at the Board Meetings. So we don't know now who did what to whom, and we're still in a complete cloud as to why some of these very very dubious decisions were taken.

I have to say, and I've been a critic of his for many years, but I have to throw this at the Chief Executive. Because the fact is that I have previously said that the Chief Executive should consider his position when we dealt with the fire at the refuse depot. Since then we've had Heeley Road, which I see that the Cabinet wanted to make sure they didn't have another debacle like Heeley Road. But on this occasion, the fact is that I understand that from what came out of the Scrutiny meeting was that the Chief Executive led the way on this sale. And if that is the case, I think it is a disgraceful situation.

I've said before that he should have gone, and I'm delighted that he's now decided that he's taking early retirement, because what we've had over the years is that we've gone from one debacle to another.

And I have also to say that this again demonstrates how poor the Cabinet system is, because the fact is - I know we've got an item on the agenda tonight - but in the old days when we had Committees, a lot of these questions would be brought out at Committee. A lot of the concerns would have been brought out and would have been rectified as we went along.

We are in a situation here tonight where we have a Cabinet that didn't have the experience or the ability to deal with this issue, and they were badly led by our officers.

I've got to say this is probably the darkest day in Fylde Borough Council's history."

At this point we thought we'd heard it all. But there was even better to come.

Cllr Charles Duffy - fast becoming a force to be reckoned with, spoke quietly and softly, but his quiet manner failed to deliver the punch that lay behind what he actually said. It was only when we read the transcript that we realised how accurate and right he had been.

We leave readers to judge for themselves. He said

"I'd also like to thank Cllr Mulholland and the members who took part actively in the investigation and the Task and Finish Group. I think they've done as much as they were ever able to do. The recommendations will, I think, help to address some of the deficiencies that have been exposed during the sale of Melton Grove.

Unfortunately too many questions remain unanswered. It's clear from paragraphs 29 and 47 for example, that everybody now seems to agree that there was little or no consultation. We didn't need a scrutiny report to tell us that.

The answer I would have liked to have seen in the Scrutiny report is why the consultation was so inadequate. Even after this was brought to the attention of Council months before the sale completed, there was still no meaningful consultation. Why?

How many of the Ward Councillors or Cabinet or Clifton (Lytham) Housing Association Board Members actually talked to the residents of Melton Grove?

It seems that the attitude was one of 'I know I'm not going to like the answer, so I don't think I'll bother asking the question." Perhaps recommendation three will help to prevent a repeat of this in the future, but not unless we find out who decided the resident's opinions didn't matter.

It's the attitude of people involved that have caused this issue. They must have known that they should consult with the residents, but they chose not to do so.

I don't believe for one minute that this was an oversight. Nobody is that incompetent.

If we can attribute all that has gone wrong with this sale simply to incompetence or lack of governance, then I could possibly agree with Scrutiny's statement in paragraph eleven, that it was not the purpose of this review to attach blame to any individual. However, when inappropriate actions are taken knowingly and deliberately, simply pointing out that something has gone wrong is totally inadequate.

In those circumstances, the responsible individuals should be held accountable. No amount of new recommendations will prevent the same people, from taking the same actions, if there have been no repercussions for them.

I don't intend going through all the unanswered questions here tonight because a lot of them have already been asked anyway. The time for answers was in March, when Council did have a chance to debate the sale, but, of course, most councillors didn't really know very much about it then.

Either a deliberate decision had been taken to keep you in the dark, or it had just not occurred to anyone that you should be kept informed. Now that the deal has been pushed through, there is little chance of the Council rectifying any of the mistakes that were made. The result is that this Council has failed the people it should have been protecting. Those responsible can't even use financial benefit to the Council as an excuse. The Council would have benefited just as much or even more by selling to a Registered Social Landlord, in line with the original wishes of this Council.

The report shows that this Council was woefully ill equipped to deal with arms length companies, and yet the Council is in the process of setting one up. I think we need quite a few more recommendations before that's going to work.

I do welcome Scrutiny's report and recommendations in so far as they go, but I do not believe they have gone anywhere near far enough.

I would like to propose one additional recommendation. You may not think that this recommendations should be necessary. I don't think it should be necessary, but it is. The recommendation is that "Any Councillor who quotes from a written document during a Council debate, in order to strengthen their case, should have taken all reasonable steps to verify the accuracy and provenance of that document, and should, on request, make it available for scrutiny by any other Councillor during that debate and for a period of one month thereafter."

Cllr Elaine Silverwood rose to second his proposition.

What Cllr Duffy was getting at of course, (but was too polite to say), was the way Cllr Ben Aitken quoted from a document in the Council meeting last April which we reported in 'Still a Shambles' and described at the time by saying "He then read out a letter which he said was from the residents of nine properties. (we've subsequently heard that assertion is being challenged). The letter was an attack on the Residents Association and said everything was OK so there was nothing to worry about". 

It was later shown that his statement about the letter was not accurate.

Then, the ever brief-but-to-the-point Saint Louis the Magnificent spoke and said "is anybody man enough to say who instigated this sale, because it certainly wasn't the Board."   No one spoke

That's one of the strangest things. Until the Chief Executive took personal control of the process, there was no suggestion of not disposing to a Registered Social Landlord.

It's also strange that he became so involved with the Board at all. His job was to advise the Council, not the 'independent' Board.

Unlike the Council's Solicitor, he was not an officer of the Board, and if it was independent as we're told, he had no locus to be involved in its deliberations.

Equally, we found it strange that  when setting the terms to pick the consultant to advise the board, he made it a requirement that they should have experience in the North West, and only one applicant - the one that was chosen - was based in the North West. The others invited to tender were national companies.

There are so many coincidences and unexplained issues in this sorry saga that if you didn't know better, you'd think there was something untoward going on in the way that the sale of the company was effected. But of course, that can't be the case. If it had been, we'd probably have seen the Police involved before now.

So how did it conclude?

Well, the Judas Leader said "I can accept Cllr Duffy's additional recommendation, and I also remind Council of my recommendation as to how the recommendations should be dealt with."

And after being seconded, this was voted through without dissent.

So, we await the meeting of the Audit Committee with interest.

Oh, and there's just one other thing. Below is a quote from the Medium Term Financial Strategy which was also on the Council agenda. It shows the second lot of money from the sale of Melton Grove being earmarked for Environmental Improvements in Wood Street, St Annes (and we confidently expect the remainder to go on the Environmental Improvement schemes at railway stations and in Ansdell - just as we predicted in previous articles - except it didn't happen before the election).

This is the 'blood money' Fylde has generated; and it's why Melton Grove was always going to be sold, and its residents abandoned, by the majority Conservative group.

QUOTE: "In March 2011, no external funding sources had been identified [for Wood Street] The Cabinet resolved that should additional resources be identified then an additional report should be submitted to it for consideration. This report asks if Members wish to fund, by way of an addition to the capital programme, the scheme as set out in the report, to be delivered early in 2012."

"The approved capital programme currently has a surplus in resources of 1.057m, as reported to the portfolio holder in August 2011. This surplus has arisen as a result of a capital receipt of 1.357m received in July 2011. The surplus has been adjusted to reflect the 300k capital grant to Lytham Hall approved by members earlier in this financial year."

Don't say you weren't warned this would happen.

Dated:   2 December 2011


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