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Melton Grove Call-In

Melton Grove Call InIn Melton Grove Scandal, on 19th February, we said "We have uncovered an appalling tale that, in our opinion, rivals Fylde's now infamous, 'Streetscene' debacle."

So it is proving to be.

This sorry tale illustrates all that is wrong with the administration at Fylde Council. It is a catalogue of deception, obfuscation and out of sight dealing and, in some cases, over-ambitious councillors who - in our view - don't even understand what they're there for.

It is a perfect illustration and final crescendo of the disconnect that this dreadful Cabinet system - introduced by the unholy alliance of former Chief Executive Ken Lee and former Council Leader Commissar John Coombes - has wrought onto the people of Fylde.

This dreadful Cabinet system has bequeathed us a recipe for incestuous patronage based on power and ambition not on the wish to serve. The sooner it is changed back to a proper Council and Committee system where there is one vote per Councillor on every decision the Council makes, the sooner we will get some semblance of sense.

We had hoped for better treatment than to suffer debacles such as Melton Grove from the administration of Councillor David Eaves. It strikes us he is willing walk the right path, but is continually being side-tracked by elements within his party that have little understanding of what their role as a councillor should be - because they have little or no experience of  how a proper Council and Committee system should work.

This Melton Grove issue could go down in history as the worse mess that elements of the conservative group within Fylde Council have masterminded.

It will rank alongside the Pool closures and Streetscene as one of the most damaging issues for the administration.

And if readers think about the personalities involved in the decisions of all three issues, a common thread emerges.

in our view, this issue at least skirts the edge of being described as Misconduct in Public Office. That is a criminal offence; and it could yet have far reaching implications.

So we make no apology for this being one of the longer counterbalances we have produced. It is an issue of huge significance.

Just six weeks before an election, the majority party at Fylde has demonstrated its ability to turn what we believe at least some of its members saw as a Bird of Paradise to restore their electoral chances, into an Albatross around their neck.

And with that warning about the length, we begin the report of the Scrutiny Committee Meeting called by Queen Elizabeth Oades of Kirkham, and nine of her colleagues, to recover (set aside) the 'Individual Member Decision' of Councillor Trevor Fiddler to sell the Clifton (Lytham) Housing Association.

The meeting started at 6:15 in the Town Hall's Reception Room but soon after six, the public gallery was half full and it reached standing-room only by the start of the meeting. It was about half-and-half members of the public and councillors.

The air was full of expectation. It was one of those meetings where you know important issues are at stake, and there is a  tense atmosphere of anticipation before the start.

As the meeting began, Cllrs Mrs Fieldhouse and Ackers disclosed a 'Personal Interest' - because as well as being able to sit on the Scrutiny Committee that considered whether their decision to sell Melton Grove was right, they are also both Directors of the 'Arms Length Management Company' that decided to sell it.

We find it as odd as some of our readers no doubt will, that the people who made the decision are also able to debate and sit in adjudication on whether what they did was right or not, but no doubt they had taken legal advice as to whether they could do so.

Whether, from an ethical perspective, they should have done so,  when they could have nominated a non-Director colleague to substitute for them, is more questionable

Sitting in the public area was Freckleton's Cllr Louis Rigby. He also declared a Personal Interest as  Director of the Company but he was not on the Scrutiny Committee.

The Committee chairman, Cllr Fabian Craig Wilson laid out the ground rules for her meeting. She explained the Call-In had nothing to do with what the funds might be used for, and they were only considering the Portfolio Holder's decision of the disposal itself. She would have no discussion of what the money could be spent on.

Sensible we thought.

Cllr Wilson is gaining credibility as being a competent chairman of meetings. Readers will remember were impressed with her work in the Asset Transfer Scrutiny meeting. This time she reminded any public platform speakers that they could have no more than thee minutes to speak, and that the committee would not engage in debate or questions with the speaker.

As it turned out there was just one 'public' speaker. Emma Duffy.

Addressing the Committee she said she had been asked to read a presentation on behalf of The Melton Grove Residents Association which consisted of 18 of the existing 25 tenants. She said that four of the remaining 7 believed the sale had already completed, and the remaining 3 supported the new development.

She said her father, aunt and uncle were resident on the Grove and she had fought hard to protect their rights. She cared deeply about preserving Melton Grove for both the current residents and for all those who should benefit from it in the future, according to the trusts under which it was gifted by the Cliftons, and she assured all the committee that she had no hidden agenda.

Speaking from the Association's prepared text, she said "We believe the sale of our homes has been engineered behind closed doors over a considerable period of time without the residents, townspeople or most of Fylde Boroughs Councillors being consulted.

The very fact that Constitution has been changed, the leasehold purchased, and a sale been agreed without any consultation implies to us that those involved, know it is not in the best interests of the inhabitants of the borough."

Referring to the eleventh-hour pre-sale meeting at Lowther Gardens on 25th February, (to which tenants were invited) she said they had heard nothing to reassure them about protection of their tenancy rights in perpetuity.

This, of course, was why the land was given.

She continued "Melton Grove was gifted to worthy local people of retirement age of meagre means as a lasting legacy. That legacy is less than sixty years old.

Our homes and tenancies are far from secure and the terms of sale have huge loopholes.

There has been no consultation with the residents or townspeople."

She said the reasons FBC had given them for the sale were:

"1.Clifton Housing Association and Fylde Borough Council are no longer able to keep up with government legislation on running social housing. "

To this, she said "There is a management company running the estate and we have gathered a wealth of legal and financial professionals and experienced Tenant Association reps who are willing to make up the board of Clifton Housing Association and relieve the present Directors and the Council of that burden. To take control is within our legal rights as tenants.

2. The Council must realise its assets for the good of the whole borough.

In reply the Association had said "This is a Town asset. Leaving the Grove alone would benefit the whole Borough" she evidenced the support that had been given with letters signatures and so on and concluded "We believe the majority of the town is against this sale and ask you not to sell this town asset"

It was clearly an emotional and difficult time for her. Timed to the second of the inadequate three minutes she was allowed, her presentation pushed on at such speed that some of the older brains around the committee table might  have struggled to take it all in.

But what did come across was real passion. We saw in her the underlying flame of conviction rooted in the justness of her cause that is exactly the sort of injustice that tenaciously drives good people like Mrs Duffy to action on behalf of others.

When she concluded, the Scrutiny Chairman asked if anyone else wanted to speak. Two councillors did.

Cllr Kevin Eastham spoke and referred to his highlighting the matter at Council as far back as January.

(We reported him at the time saying  "Councillor Kevin Eastham complained about reading of decisions made in the Councils name in the press rather than from official documents.

He said that nowadays, Councillors were now not even being informed - let alone involved - in decisions that affected their electorate. He asked whether in future Councillors could at least be told of decisions made before the press were advised. He referred to residents in his ward, and gave the example of the decision to sell properties in Melton Grove, Lytham St Annes without a committee decision.

Answering his question (or rather not answering it, but side-stepping it) Cabinet Leader Cllr David Eaves said "The Board of Clifton (Lytham) Housing Ltd had been in contact with the residents at Melton Grove on the current situation."

We were very uneasy with that reply, and have been concerned for some time about the procedure surrounding what appeared to be an asset disposal by FBC.)

Cllr Eastham went on to tell the Scrutiny Committee that all parties agree they were finding things out from the newspapers and that was wrong. He said "We've been badly let down by the Chairman and possibly the Directors, who haven't kept us informed. This estate was designed by Tom Mellor and we shouldn't leave to chance the future of the site to the vagaries of a developer. I beg colleagues don't have a fire sale now, make sure we can exert some landlord control over the sale"

Councillor Louis Rigby (Who is also a Director of the Company) also spoke at this point and said "What a lovely little setting. It was left in perpetuity for the good people of Lytham. Why is it being sold? I have kept asking that question at Board Meetings and can't get an answer. And if it is to be sold, why is it being sold to a developer and not to a social landlord?"

The Chairman then invited Cllr Liz Oades (who had made the Call-in request), and Cllr Trevor Fiddler (who had made the decision), to present their cases, after which she would accept questions from members of the Committee to either, then Cllr Fiddler would be asked to leave and the Committee would debate the matter.

Councillor Liz Oades spoke brilliantly. She began by saying that several years ago they had sold their council housing stock. There had been full consultation with not only tenants, but with staff and councillors as well. There had been a vote of all tenants - which would have stopped the sale if the vote had gone against it. The process had been open and transparent.

She strongly objected to the lack of transparency and consultation on the sale of Melton Grove which was also owned by the Council. and she said if they hadn't been made aware of the sale by residents no one would have known about it.

She had a copy of a solicitors letter sent on behalf of some of the tenants which spoke of the Council not being legally able to effect the sale in the way it was proposing to do so, and that both the Council and the individual Directors of the housing association might also become liable for claims of damages if they proceeded. She said she wanted to know if the claims in that letter could be satisfactorily answered.

Clearly angry at what was being done, but with her usual cool composure, she then launched into a blistering series of unanswered questions, demanding answers to her probing.

This had become a proper Scrutiny Meeting.

It was the first proper Scrutiny Meeting we've seen at Fylde Council.

Cllr Oades went so fast and there were so many unanswered questions we couldn't get them all noted down, but the ones we did manage to note were:

  • At what dates were residents consulted?
  • Did they vote on the transfer?
  • How and why was the sale decided?
  • How and why was a developer chosen as the purchaser?
  • Is there a conflict of interest for officers and councillors who represent both the Council and the Company?
  • Is the sale good value?
  • Have the allocation of new tenancies been stopped?
  • Is it true that Fylde will have to grant planning permission to get the full sale price that has been agreed with the developer?
  • Is it true that more houses will be needed for the developer to get value from the site?
  • How did a request from Lytham Hall come to be made? and this request be linked to the Melton Grove sale?

She spoke of rumours circulating in Lytham about the sale, and made reference to the sort of electoral and political benefits that could underlie the decision to sell, (as we have been highlighting ourselves).

She concluded by moving that the decision was not proceeded with until the full Council has had time to fully consider, and fully debate, the matter.

Councillor Trevor Fiddler spoke honestly and openly about  his 'Individual Member Decision' to sell Melton Grove.

We know Cllr Fiddler of old. There are many matters on which we instinctively agree with him, and a few where we disagree but, as we have also found with Cllr Janine Owen, when Cllr Fiddler disagrees with you he has the strength of character to tell you politely to your face and explain why he has another view. So even when you disagree with him, you respect his integrity. He's not the sort to hide behind procedure.

He said he had welcomed and invited the Call-In. The first he had heard of the matter was when he was asked to make a decision on it. There were all sorts of rumours about it and people were asking all sorts of questions, so he conditioned his decision to its being subject to a full council debate.

He said he made the decision to sell because he and the Conservatives believed that councils are no longer social landlords, and he doesn't think that Councils are best equipped to run social housing.

He said this was a unique scenario. The Arms Length Management Organisation of Clifton (Lytham) Housing Association had proceeded independently of the Council and came up with the best way to dispose of it. And their preferred option was to sell it to a Registered Social Landlord, but then Windmill Property came on the scene and offered an amount of money that was sufficient for the Board to change its mind,

So he said, it was the Directors of the Company who had changed the process of disposal, and it was not just a transfer of the housing stock. He said the deliberations had not involved the Council, and none of this had been part of his briefing when he was asked to make the 'Individual Member Decision'

Readers will no doubt be as shocked as we were at his candour about the inadequacy of the inner workings of the Council, and that a decision like that could be made with almost no detailed information having been provided, but that is undoubtedly what he said.

We think it is time for wholesale root and branch reform of a Council that can allow matters to have reached such a sorry state. And in that we regrettably include the more senior Officers who have allowed such an awful administrative processes and lack of information to develop without properly exercising their duty - which is firstly to the public good,  and secondly, to the whole Council, not just to the Cabinet, the ruling group or a sub-set of either.

At this point Councillor Louis Rigby tried to intervene to make a point of personal information but was ruled out of order by the Chairman as the time for speaking as members of the public had closed.

That concluded the presentations by the decision-taker and the Call-in requester, and the meeting moved to the phase where Scrutiny Committee members could ask questions of either party.

Councillor Elaine Silverwood addressed Cllr Fiddler and said "It was predictable that this would be called-in. How does it sit with your conscience when vulnerable residents are put under pressure. Did you not ask questions about consultation? It seems to me that pressure had been put on you because of deadlines?"

Cllr Fiddler replied that there had been no pressure. He had been asked to make a decision in isolation, and although it was unusual, it would produce an income of 1.35m, and if current and future tenancies are safeguarded it was a reasonable approach. He said "But there are lessons we have to learn. There has been a total lack of consultation and a total lack of transparency. No one spoke to the residents, or kept them up to date, nor did anyone keep the Council up to date" and with what was undoubtedly a thinly-veiled reverence to the plan to create FBC Solutions Ltd  as another Arms Length Management Organisation (see our article on 'FBC Solutions' at the end of Post Cabinet Report: March 2011) he said "It's a good job we don't have too many AMLO's"

Our readers will see here for the first time the official figure that is being spoken of as the sale price: 1.35 Million. 

In Melton Grove Scandal back in February we said "There is some evidence - as yet unconfirmed, that the original offer was just short of 1m and it was subsequently increased to around 1.3 or 1.4 million." 

As a complete outsider, counterbalance knew before 19th  February, and published, the approximate figure that had been agreed for the sale. We have now been proved correct.

We are amazed that the Council officers failed to include this sum as estimated income in the Council's estimates of expenditure published a month later. It is inconceivable that they did not know the sum and that it was intended (but for the actions of the Melton Grove residents) that the Council would have done the dealing by now. We heard that the Council's Legal officer had said it would all be done and dusted before the date of this Council meeting.

Thankfully that has not happened, but it is a scandal that the officers concerned failed to include it in the accounts.

Councillor Silverwood Whose probing began to yield golden nuggets of information asked "From a Development Control point of view are you happy that residents will be protected by planning conditions and regulations?"

Cllr Fiddler replied "Not many of you will have seen the Management Agreement. Considerable emphasis has been placed on tenant protection. I'm confident that the covenants are strong.

In terms of DC [that's Planning Permission for our  readers] it's difficult to predict. Melton Grove is an idyllic little settlement. Redevelopment of that site has been considered before and it didn't get further than the officers because it was not thought to be at all suitable. Planning policies as they are written now support social housing so anything that reduced the number [of affordable social houses] would likely be viewed in a negative way"

We took that to mean he thought there was little practical prospect of any redevelopment taking place through the planning permission process because of the site's setting and its history, and especially if it sought to reduce the social housing provision.

Cllr Fiddler later went on to correct Cllr Mrs Ackers saying that housing for special needs groups was not classed as 'affordable social housing', it came into a different planning category.

For those able to read between the lines, we  think we can infer a view that this site would never get planning permission for the sort of re-development that would put commercially-viable market-value housing on it. So it could be a real pig-in-a-poke purchase for any possible purchaser who had designs on providing market value housing there.

Once again, courtesy of Cllr Fiddler's candour, our readers will see that the management agreement is being drawn up without tenants being involved in its drafting, and without even the heads of agreement being reported to - let alone approved - by the Council in whose name they are being written.

This situation is either deliberately intended to prevent democratically elected councillors who might have an alternative view (and wish to properly express it) in the dark - and thus minimise opposition to the plan, or it is an officer class running amok and out of control, taking it upon itself to run the Council without reference to members, or it is plain incompetence. Either way it is unacceptable, and if we were responsible for such a debacle, we would not feel able to continue in post.

If we were David Eaves, we would be looking for new officers.

Councillor Karen Henshaw wanted to know about the background to the decision and said "Who asked you to make the decision, and if you were worried about it, why did you not seek to defer it?"

Cllr Fiddler said he had been asked to take the decision by an officer of the Council, adding "not a senior officer". He said he absolutely supported the decision to sell Melton Grove because it was a political decision that reflected Conservative thinking.

He said he could have deferred making a decision but the prospect of a large capital receipt led him to make the decision in favour, but he only made it in principle, subject to a debate at Council.

Councillor Ben Aitken asked how many people at Fylde had organised the sale?. Cllr Fiddler said it had been organised by the Directors of the company. Cllr Aitken came back with how many officers were involved? Cllr Fiddler replied that Council officers were not involved in the decision. (We noted at this point that it was not clear which 'officers' were being spoken about. The Council's Chief Executive, and Head of Legal Services and Finance Officer are all also listed as 'Officers' of the Clifton (Lytham) Housing Association and to us, it wasn't clear whether Cllr Aitken was asking about officers of the Council, or officers of the Company. Nor for that matter was Cllr Fiddler's reply any more clear).

In response to a question we didn't quite catch, Cllr Fiddler continued to say that historically Squire Clifton was believed to have sold his share to some people in Huddersfield and they had sold it to the Housing Association. Councillor Aitken asked if there was a Deed of Covenant. Cllr Fiddler replied that it was a popularly and widely held view that there was, but he had been told that the Council's legal view held the popular view to be wrong. Cllr Aitken asked if the market value of the site as it stood was 600k to 800k. Cllr Fiddler replied that in his view if all 20 propertied were going to be kept for Social rented housing, the market value was 700k. Cllr Aitken then asked Mr Curtis, the Council's legal officer (who is also an officer of the Clifton (Lytham) Housing Association) "Is the sale legal" Mr Curtis replied "I believe it is"

We have some experience of dealing with Mr Curtis and we know he picks his words very carefully. We noted we did not hear him say 'Yes it is'

We believe he knows, as we know, that only the decision of a court will determine whether there are trusts in play here that will, themselves determine whether what the Council is proposing is lawful. We have known Mr Curtis on the one hand, and the Attorney General and the Charity Commission on the other, to be at odds before, exactly on the matter of deciding whether a trust exists, especially where it is a complex matter, as here.

We tend to leave this sort of stuff to expert barristers, but we understand it is possible to have a trust which has general charitable intent which is therefore a fully charitable trust, and that the latter can arise to what are called 'implied or constructive trusts' which exist without formal documentation.

With both Mr Curtis and former presidential candidate George H. W. Bush it is very important to keep the phrase "read my lips" in mind at all times.

Cllr Aitken concluded by saying to Mr Curtis that they had heard the estate could be self governing. He asked "How does FBC feel about that?"

We thought that was a rather odd question to ask given that Cllr Aitken is part of the definitive voice of the Council. Mr Curtis, again choosing his words carefully said "I can't answer that"

Next came Councillor Brenda Ackers. She began by demanding of Cllr Fiddler "Do you know how many meetings there have been to ensure tenants are protected by clauses in the sale?" Then, before he could answer she launched into a Marie Antoinette style rant of self justification for her position as guardian of the poor people of Melton Grove (Readers please note: that's our interpretation of her style and tone, not what she said). She fired off so furiously, we couldn't keep up and make notes of what she actually said, before she was brought up by the Chairman and other members of the Committee who reminded her that the purpose of this session was to ask questions, not make speeches.

To help readers understanding, we might say that regarding her original question, we saw a difference between there being meetings at which the Board might consider how best to protect the residents of Melton Grove, and meetings to consult *with tenants* on what was proposed. Such meetings are both the tenant's right, and the Council's duty.

Chastened only slightly she asked "Are you aware that residents were not informed because the negotiations were confidential?" A gasp of disbelief shot around the public gallery and even members of the Committee seemed horrified at this statement.

And in those two questions Dear Reader you see the root of the problem that the Directors of  Clifton (Lytham) Housing Association, together with the Council officers (with different hats on) that have advised them, have caused the Council.

She got really twitchy and pulled a lemon-sucking face when Cllr Fiddler said "My view is that this has not been dealt with in the normal way - for example with a referendum on council house sales"

She was not a happy bunny at all.

Councillor David Chedd asked "What is the worst that could happen if we abandon this sale?" Cllr Fiddler said "I couldn't support that. As I pointed out before, it was a political decision for the Council not to act as landlord. I think a sale is a win-win situation because FBC would get a large capital receipt"

Readers will recall we said there were instances where we disagreed with Cllr Fiddler. This is one of them. But we respect his integrity and his honesty in describing it as a political decision.

Councillor John Davies asked if they were wasting their time with discussion. The Call-in people clearly wanted the matter called-in and to go to Council. The Individual Decision Taker wanted the same thing, so why were they arguing about whether to call the decision in or not.

He said he had read the legal document from the Residents and he thought it would be irresponsible of the Committee NOT to call it in.

Cllr Fiddler replied "It's not unusual for us to receive a legal document that tries to threaten or browbeat this Council" He said he could only refer to their own legal officer's view that there was no substance to that letter.

Councillor Kiran Mulholland, Vice Chairman of the Committee asked "About the methodology of selling council houses, did you think it odd we weren't following that model?"

Cllr Fiddler replied "Well that was a national model, this is an Arms Length Management Organisation"

And that brought the questions to an end, save for an interjection by Councillor Louis Rigby, for whom the Chairman , sensibly, exercised her discretion and stretched a point in the rules. Cllr Rigby said, (tellingly, we thought), "Only four board members voted for the sale. I disagreed  with it and Roger Small wasn't properly a Board Member"

And with that he confirmed what we have thought all along.

He has steadfastly opposed the sale of these houses. He alone amongst his fellow Directors has done his duty and deserves the title of Trustee. He alone has seen the need for tenants to be consulted. He alone has tried his best to stop the sale taking place, and he alone appears set to continue to do so by refusing to sign the papers to give up the share he holds.

If that share is lost to him, we believe it will have to be as a result of the majority Conservative Group on the Council deciding it will take it from him without his agreement - assuming that is possible under company law.

His comment also confirmed the story we broke to our readers in 'Capital Funding Request - Lytham Hall' where we said there had been an Emergency Board Meeting last week to vote the former, and well respected Councillor Bill Thompson's share, to Roger Small. Because up to then, the Company officials appear to have forgotten to do that.

counterbalance salutes Councillor Louis Rigby of Freckleton for his honesty, his integrity and his plain common sense. He has done exactly what he was elected to do.

The Committee then moved into debate phase.

The Vice Chairman opened the batting by saying he agreed with Cllr John Davies earlier comments, and couldn't imagine anyone would disagree. He said "I move we call the decision in and refer it to full Council on Monday because the debate on this matter should be at Full Council"

Councillor Pat Fieldhouse said the decision had not been taken lightly. The welfare of the tenants had always been their main consideration. The Directors had done everything above board and they had invited tenders.

Although we have a lot of time for Cllr Fieldhouse, she's wrong on this one. The welfare of the tenants gave the Council a legal requirement to consult them on proposals, and to involve them in decisions that affected them. They were not properly consulted. And if Councillor Fiddler is to be believed, the price from Windmill Properties came after the tenders (which itself would be very irregular) and anyway, it was the increased offer that turned them from selling the houses to a Registered Social Landlord rather than a developer. We don't doubt Cllr Fieldhouse in her motive, but we think she has been misled.

Councillor Dawn Prestwich said "There is too much of a grey area. Communication has broken down. Something has gone wrong. This should be discussed in full Council"

Councillor Liz Oades spoke to second Cllr Mulholland motion to call the decision in and refer it to Council.

Councillor Karen Henshaw said "If it goes to Council on Monday can the public ask a question at the meeting"

The Chairman consulted with the clerk and said No, it was too late for a question to be submitted for Council. It was clear members of the Committee were not happy with that answer and rumblings began about suspending standing orders to allow public questions to be asked. The Chairman closed that down by saying any member of the public could take a question to their councillor and ask them to raise it at Council on Monday.

Councillor Ben Aitken said "This is a sensitive issue. We need transparency" Then he began a political attack on Councillor Elaine Silverwood but was brought up short (and much to his evident disagreement) by the Chairman who said she would not have the Committee used for political point scoring.

It's a long time since we've seen such effective chairing of a meeting, and we were very impressed.

There were a few moments of terse interchange between Cllr Aitken and the Chairman before he appeared to fold his arms and sit back in his chair looking for all the word like he had taken his bat home and wasn't going to play any more.

Councillor Silverwood didn't make matters any easier for her when she started to respond and was equally given short shrift by the Chairman for her choice of language.

And with that the matter was put to the vote.

It was difficult seeing all the hands from the public gallery and we can't be sure this is the result, but it was the result as we saw it, If we have attributed a vote to anyone incorrectly we will change it on request. However, as we saw it, the voting was as follows:

  • Chairman, Cllr Fabian Craig Wilson: For the call-in
  • Vice Chairman Cllr Kiran Mulholland: For the call in
  • Councillor Brenda Ackers: Against the call in
  • Councillor Ben Aitken: For the call in
  • Councillor Frank Andrews: Against the call in
  • Councillor Patricia Fieldhouse: Against the call in
  • Councillor Richard Fulford Brown: Abstained or did not vote
  • Councillor Leonard Davies: For the call in
  • Councillor John Davies: For the call in
  • Councillor Karen Henshaw JP: For the call in
  • Councillor David Chedd: For the call in
  • Councillor Elizabeth Oades : For the call in
  • Councillor Dawn Prestwich: For the call in
  • Councillor Elaine Silverwood: For the call in
  • Councillor Heather Speak: For the call in

So we made it eleven for the call in, three against the call in, and one abstention or no vote.

Either way, it was an overwhelming call in vote, so the matter now goes to where it should have been debated, to the Full Council meeting.

We think when it gets there, it should be deferred.

We think that because the Council has still not met its legal obligation to properly and meaningfully consult with the tenants before any further action is taken. And they should.

We also believe the Council and the Solicitor acting for the tenants ought to jointly procure a barrister's opinion as to the legality of the disposal, bearing in mind the very specialised and complicated legal issues that surround the creation of actual and implied de-facto trusts. If the Council has nothing to hide or fear on this matter, it ought to welcome receipt of definitive charity law advice from a nationally respected and independent barrister such as the likes of Mrs Francesca Quint, whose chambers advised them on the charitable status of Lowther Gardens.

There should also be time for a vote of all tenants to see whether a majority want their homes to transfer to the developer chosen by the Directors or to some other social housing provider, or whether they can produce a credible self management structure themselves, hiring in the legal, financial and technical expertise they would need.

And last, but not least, if all of that that militates for a sale, the council should receive full and comprehensive reports from the relevant officers on all the housing, legal and planning aspects of this matter, and it should at least see a heads of agreement - if not the actual contract - under which the tenancies could be transferred if that is the outcome of consultation and a vote.

And it could be delayed to a future Council.

Both the revenue and capital budgets are already set for next year, and the budget for the next five years is balanced. So the argument about needing the money is irrelevant as far as the Council's planned spending is concerned.

The Heritage Trust for the North West has asked for a contribution of 300,000 toward it's lottery bid. The Hall is an important building and deserving of support in its own right. It will, over time also increase the number of visitors who come (and spend) here. We think it's a worthy cause, and if Councillors agree, they could easily take 300,000 from their General Reserve which, on the day of the meeting, is expected to stand at 2.1 million according the Council's own figures. It is predicted to be 1.5 million in March  2012 - that's 12 months hence. The external auditors say the minimum level for the General Reserve (and bear in mind there are still other reserves) is 750,000 so the Council can easily find 300k from its reserves to contribute to Lytham Hall's bid.

Alternatively, they could fund it from borrowing.

Whilst their borrowing is already high at 8.3m, their 'overdraft limit' is 12m so they can easily find another 300k from borrowing, and because that would be paid back over 25 years, it would spread the cost over the generations of residents who would enjoy the benefit of what has been spent. That's exactly what borrowing for capital schemes is intended to do.

So we see no reason to push this disposal of Melton Grove forward at this time.

Deferring consideration to a Council after the election would be a sensible compromise and allow time for tempers to cool and a proper analysis of the options for the Council (as opposed to the options for the Company Directors). It would also allow time for a proper meaningful consultation with the tenants.

We began this article by saying "We have uncovered an appalling tale that, in our opinion, rivals Fylde's now infamous, 'Streetscene' debacle."  Well, it's not only StreetScene that is its rival. This has now become David Eaves' own 'Swimming Pool' moment.

If the majority party push this matter through on Monday we believe they will be walking into the wilderness, and the thirty pieces of sliver they receive will be their collective and individual obituary for years to come.

Dated:  27 March 2011


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