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Premature Ejaculation?

Premature Ejaculation?Sometimes, when things are said suddenly and quickly, and without enough thought, there can be unintended consequences.

And sometimes, when those consequences are irreversible, (and the circumstances in which they are said are suspicious), you're left asking yourself whether it was the intention all along to use such an ejaculation to bring about those consequences - but to make it appear to have been an accidental outburst.

We came across such an instance recently, and we leave it to our readers to form their own views as to the reasoning.

The story begins a while ago when the former Commissar became disenchanted with Fylde's swimming pools. He closed them - in what was probably the most self-harming move Fylde Council has ever made .

And even now, despite their being opened again, the controversy generated by the process of closure and  re-opening simply won't lie down and die.

We know this story has been of great interest to our readers. We have followed it from the beginning (Winning the Pools 2006) and we'll be there at the end. We have probably written more about the pools than anything else. (The first 15 articles we did are listed at the end of The Pool: In Depth which was published in  February 2010)

When the St Annes pool re-opened last year, most people thought that was the end of the matter.

But it wasn't.

Even now, the ramifications of previous decisions are still coming home to roost (and we think there are still more to come in the near future).

The most recent of these ramifications serves to illustrate just how politicised at least some of the officer class at Fylde has now become.

We can today report what appears to be a partisan move by one or more of the Council's officers. A move that seemed set to discredit one of the candidates on the eve of the Borough Council elections.

It's difficult to say with certainty that this was done with deliberate intent to damage the electoral prospects of Richard Ellis who was standing as an independent candidate in the Kilnhouse ward, but from the way in which the story is unfolding, it very much looks to us as though it could have been.

To bring readers up to speed on this matter we need to do a quick re-cap of events.

So, using a rough and dirty synopsis......

The former Commissar first tried to make the pool turn a profit. That failed (as it was always going to with a municipal pool).

Then they tried to tender it to the private sector only to find that most of the private sector prices were actually *higher* than it was costing at present for the Council to run the same service.

That exception was the YMCA. And they were only slightly cheaper because, as a charity, they got mandatory exemption from 80% of the (roughly £45,000 a year) business rates payable on the pool building. Their operating costs were otherwise more or less the same as Fylde BC's own staff (to operate it on the same basis).

So the Commissar switched plans, and started to talk about releasing the commercial value in the site by changing the pool site to some other (private sector) use.

But before that could be fleshed out, up came the reported loss of £700,000 on StreetScene and the pools were closed to save money to cover the losses.

Kirkham Town Council and the Rural Splash voluntary group worked hard with the YMCA and managed to get Kirkham's pool open again with the YM running it.

The Commissar's preferred plan for St Annes pool now became a 'complete seafront revamp' that would have seen either the pool building being 'renovated' or, more probably, its site changed to a different use. Needless to say that particular White Elephant never got off the ground either - (despite the consultants engaged to design it)

Then there was a brief flirtation with Kensington, and a promise from them to build a new pool if they got planning permission for Queensway. Dim Tim wanted it at Lytham - or at least he kept saying it would be a good site for a new pool. But that idea died the death as well.

St Annes pool's future went back into limbo for a while, and it stayed closed.

But in order to make it look as though something was happening, the former Commissar embarked on a series of new - he would probably call them - negotiations, with the YM to get the pool open again. However, his style of negotiating was closer to requiring unconditional surrender rather than looking to reach a satisfactory mutual agreement.  

A stand-off developed, and the YM eventually (and sensibly) decided they would not acceded to his demands that they bear all the costs associated with a reduction in staffing to reduce operating costs.

Then the Commissar tried to get things moving again. Shortly before our report in 'Snippets - June 2009' he picked up the early overtures from another company.

At the time we thought it might be one called 'Pulse' that had sniffed around much earlier, but that turned out to be wrong.

Either way, we told readers that final discussions with the YM had failed. We'd heard that the YM team walked out, saying, in effect, they didn't negotiate with a gun to their heads. It sounded to us as though the Commissar was trying to use the new interest to lever the YM into making a better offer - and they said no.

Then in 'Pooling Ideas?' in July 2009 we reported the approach from a local man who later turned out to be Richard Ellis. He ran an award-winning leisure club in Chorley.

He'd devised a plan to add value to the Council's pool by tying it into a leisure membership scheme. This would have seen all the other recreational facilities (bowls, tennis, golf and so on) continuing as they were at present, but they would also have become part of a set price membership-based leisure card that also allowed unrestricted use of the swimming pool and a new cardio-vascular fitness suite he was planning to install in the pool building, along with other leisure benefits.

We were a bit nervous about this approach.

It was clearly a good and sensible commercial idea. It looked like a really good deal from the customer's point of view, but we thought there would be resistance from existing clubs and users of the outdoor recreational facilities if people could turn up with a membership card and play. (Some of the clubs based on bowling greens and tennis courts feel a strong, almost proprietorial, interest).

We thought the officers view of Mr Ellis' proposals was at best lukewarm. Their report to Cabinet was a clear exercise in back-pedalling.

We found this curious.

The YMCA had walked away and were not contenders any more. FBC had been looking to offload the pool for years, and they'd received a proposal from Mr Ellis that looked to provide all they wanted - and more.

So why didn't they embrace him with open arms? Why did the officer's report say they needed to decide - in effect - whether the Council themselves should specify what they are prepared to accept, or whether they should be open to the offers and suggestions from others (like the offer from Mr Ellis) and, secondly, why did it say they needed to decide whether they were only prepared to offer the swimming pool on its own as the service to be tendered, or whether to allow some other measure of 'value added' service to be included (fitness suite and other leisure services like Bowls and Tennis and so on).

The conclusion of the report was very clearly leading toward an option to put the pool out to a sort of quasi-tender where FBC would assess the 'suitability' of some potential bidders, then enter into a dialogue with one or more of them to jointly agree what could be done.

This was where it started to go horribly wrong.

If they'd have been happy to have Mr Ellis, they wouldn't have needed to do this.

But in our view, it was clear at this time that they didn't want him running the pool.

There had been a formal tendering process with no cheaper bids, Fylde had looked into redeveloping the whole site and that was a non-starter. They'd had discussions with the YMCA. Those had broken down and left them with no-one other than Mr Ellis' proposal.

There was only one conclusion to draw.

They didn't want Mr Ellis.

And they were preparing a smokescreen re-tendering process to be able to discount his proposal.

Now, to be fair to the Council, it may be that we would have agreed (though probably for very different reasons) that Mr Ellis' proposal wasn't the one we would have chosen as our preferred solution. (We'd have preferred a municipal swimming pool that was not run as a commercial operation, but as the high standard public service, as it was when the pool was properly run by previous Councils before the Commissar). But we'd have been honest with Mr Ellis, and told him that up front.

What the Council did was to devise a complex 'bidding' scheme.

After advertising the 'opportunity' with absolutely no restrictions on what potential bidders could submit (a pool was preferred but they were prepared to consider all other ideas), they would evaluate the companies who submitted bids, and choose one with whom to negotiate what would actually happen.

Even our readers could predict where this silliness would end up - and it wasn't going to be with Mr Ellis running the pool.

There were nine so-called "expressions of interest" after the advert. This probably meant that nine companies had asked for the application packs, but in the end, only two proposals were returned,

Mr Ellis and the YM.

FBC's farce was rapidly turning into a tragedy.

Mr Ellis was, as we understand it, encouraged to work up and submit his more detailed proposal. We know he worked diligently and spent a lot of time, and a not inconsiderable sum in payments for surveys and costings and so on to produce a detailed, carefully-priced scheme.

The YM also submitted a bid, though perhaps with less detail because their proposals hadn't changed a lot from before. They just planned to run the pool more or less as it was (perhaps with a few less features - like the learner pool - that would save a bit on staffing costs).

The essence was that they needed a continuing subsidy to run it as a pool. Mr Ellis needed a subsidy for a couple of years but he expected to be able to repay that, and in time, to hand FBC a portion of the profit he made.

In April 2010, following a press release put out by FBC's spin doctors, we reported (with no great surprise) that the Cabinet would be recommended to accept the YMCA proposal to 'Re-open St Annes Pool' They were the 'safe pair of hands' with a track record in Pool Management. The contract was, of course, eventually awarded to the YMCA.

We contrasted the content of the two bids in detail in 'Who's in the Swim?' a month later. Mr Ellis was clearly less expensive for taxpayers, but the Council thought he had made unrealistic assumptions about the number of memberships he could sell.

Given the Council's predilection for making their own 'unrealistic assumptions' you'd have thought they were experts in such assessments, but we were less impressed.

In 'Various Updates (Policy, Pool, By-Elections)' of June 2010 we reported that Mr Ellis had cried 'Foul!' on the way he had been rejected, and that the Councils external auditors had taken a preliminary look at the tendering and contract letting process and were, themselves, deciding whether to take some action.

We said at the time "If they decide to act, it's most likely this would be a Public Interest Investigation to see whether the process to let and award the contract was fair and in the best interests of Fylde's taxpayers. We'd quite like to see the result of such an investigation. We don't believe this was a clear cut decision at all."

And we concluded "... whilst we welcome the move to re-open the pool, we have nagging doubts about its future, and we think those involved in the process are not yet out of deep water."

In September, the auditors were still trying to decide whether to make a formal investigation. We also said that Council officers were trying to get this put off - on the basis that there might be legal action taken by Mr Ellis against the Council.

In November, we reported the Council's external auditors KPMG had decided to look into the matter despite FBC trying to get it postponed until after the May elections. (The Council had argued that if they were required to produce documents etc during an audit investigation, that information would be in the public domain, and might then be used against them, or at least prejudice their defence, in a subsequent court case brought by Mr Ellis).

Readers should note that 'public domain' comment. We will return to it shortly.

Hoping for justice from the Auditors (and, based on our own experience, we think that was a vain hope), Mr Ellis dropped the legal case.

We detailed his allegations against FBC in 'Audit Called In at Fylde' and suggested that - depending on what the auditors found - Mr Ellis might then take the matter up with the Ombudsman.

We concluded that the end game was nearing, but it wasn't yet clear. We said "Auditors generally don't make big waves where they can be avoided (look what happened at ENRON), and Fylde isn't going to want trouble with an election looming, so things are still uncertain as the final chapters are written."

But we undertook to bring our readers further news when we heard what had been decided.

November became Christmas, and the months passed on, as the Auditors continued to look into the matter. There was no news emerging.

During this period, Mr Ellis decided he was going to stand for election to the Council. We commend his public spiritedness in this regard. He had seen the inner working of FBC and was struggling to put right what he saw as a wrong from outside the Council, and he wanted to effect change.

He stood up and was counted.

We understand (and we reported in 'Runners and Riders 2011') that he chose the Kilnhouse Ward because the sitting Councillor there was Cllr Christine Ackeroyd who was one of the key councillors involved in the decision not to select Mr Ellis' bid for the Pool. He would therefore legitimately be able to draw voter's attention to what he saw as the better value he could have offered taxpayers if she had not been party to blocking his plan, and ask them to back him, rather than her.

We saw some of his campaign literature, and we thought it was very powerful.   In it, he said.....

"I have seen at first hand over a period of 18 months how Council Officers and the current Conservative Cabinet system works. It’s completely undemocratic and all decisions are made by people with no background knowledge or experience in that field. Meetings are held behind closed doors without proper consultation, regardless of the cost implications to the taxpayer. Although they will say they’re saving us money, the Cabinet’s decision to award the swimming pool tender to the YMCA has cost Fylde residents £1.6million more than my bid and their facilities and services are less."

Our readers will remember that in the lead-up to the election, we were also saying both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems were nervous about their findings on the doorstep, and expected to be in trouble.

As it happened, that didn't turn out to be the case - either locally, or even nationally, for the Conservatives, but there was a great deal of nervousness as the election date approached.

Then, (apparently on 4th May) a few days before the election, a Fylde Council Spokesman (whose identity is as yet formally unknown) issued a press release headed "Auditor confirms fair process on reopened pool"

The press release has since been removed from their website altogether, but whilst it was there, it went on to say....

"A recent independent audit into the way that Fylde Borough Council let the contract for operating St Annes Swimming Pool has confirmed that the process was open and fair.

The pool was re-opened in 2010 by the YMCA after an 18-month closure and a competitive tendering process to identify a new operator on a reduced budget.

The council’s aim was to reopen the pool on a long-term sustainable basis for less money than it had cost to run before its closure in 2008.

The YMCA deal saved Council Tax-payers £178,000 per year and resulted in the pool opening with a gym as well as the swimming pool.

A Fylde Council spokesman said: “Tenders were received from two bidders and the best deal for the public was chosen.

“KPMG, the Council’s external auditor, has confirmed that the selection process had been handled fairly.

“They have conducted a very thorough review of the process and we are pleased to say that they agree it was carried out in accordance with all relevant legal requirements and protocols.

“We never doubted that the process had been fair and transparent as officers were concerned only to get the most advantageous result for the taxpayer.”"

Mr Ellis - who, we understand, knew the audit report had not been issued - was (understandably) furious.

We heard that he contacted the newspapers to whom the press release had been sent, and warned them not to publish the story because it was incorrect.

He has also told us that he saw large numbers of Conservative party workers parachuted into Kilnhouse Ward just before the election, and he believes they could have been using the Council's press release  to damage his standing in the eyes of the Kilnhouse electorate.

We think it is difficult to judge the extent to which this happened - if, indeed, it happened at all. There were always going to be a lot of Conservative party workers in Kilnhouse because that had become a target seat for them, so it might have been quite natural to have a lot of workers on the ground on election day, simply to turn out their supporters.

But equally, Mr Ellis' concerns could have some basis. He was only 52 votes behind Mr (now Cllr) Armit. So if only 27 of the voters who chose Mr Armit had voted for Mr Ellis, then he, rather than Mr Armit, would have been elected as a Councillor for Kilnhouse Ward, and the Conservatives would have lost overall control of the Council.

Mr Ellis subsequently commented about the press release on FBC's website.... "The Council has misquoted KPMG, the Audit has not been completed and the contents are very selective to the outcome to date. Both the Gazette and Express have withdrawn the article."

We also understand that KPMG were not the happiest of bunnies - because they have not - as Mr Ellis correctly said - published their report yet.

(What we think will have happened is that KPMG will have released a draft of what they propose to say, and that will have gone to both Mr Ellis and the Council. They will have asked for any factual inaccuracies in their report to be flagged up prior to publication)

However, when we saw the Council's press release saying the report had been received, we were keen to get our hands on it, especially as the Council's spokesman suggested it had exonerated them. We were also puzzled though, because usually when Auditors release a report (especially one that clears the Council) they are keen to publish it themselves and we expected to find it on FBC's website.

But it wasn't there.

So on 8th May we asked for a copy.

We said we had noticed that a day or so before the election, the Council's website said a recent independent audit into the way that Fylde Borough Council let the contract for operating St Annes Swimming Pool had confirmed that the process was open and fair, an that the statement also gave outline details of the Auditors findings.

We noted we hadn't seen the Auditor's Report reported to the full Council (or to any of its committees for that matter), nor had we seen a notice of any decision that had been made on said Auditor's report by the relevant (or any) Portfolio Holder (The point here being that releasing the report before advising all of the Councillors was jumping the gun somewhat)

So we asked if FBC would explain on whose authority "A Fylde Council spokesman"  had made the statement on their website, and who the Council's spokesman was on this occasion. We also asked when the Council had received the Auditors report, and we asked politely for a copy of it.

The reply was short - if not sweet. It said....

"Your request for information is being dealt with under the procedure for Freedom of Information requests. I hope to be able to respond substantively well within the statutory deadline."

We've been there before. This was nothing more than FBC using the Freedom of Information procedure as a device to delay giving an answer.

The FoI legislation allows 20 working days from the day after the receipt of the request for an answer to be provided, but it often takes Fylde a lot longer to answer. But maybe that's just because we come well down their importance list.

It could also be that by the time they have to release the data (even if they do it within the time allowed), the final audit report will have been published, and this mess will have become a non-story as far as they are concerned.

Readers will have gathered we were not impressed with their answer, and we responded to say that whilst we were interested in the report and its conclusions, we were more concerned about what - at least superficially - appeared to be yet another instance of news being disseminated in the Council's name (in this case possibly with political motivation) without it having been reported to, considered or determined by the members of the Council that we elect to office.

We said that none of what we had asked for ought to merit any delay at all. The Auditors report must be a public document for it to have been reported in their press release. The date it was received was a matter of simple fact of a date stamp on it, and the person who made the statement and their authority so to do are equally two minutes of a reply.

We asked if there was no-one left at Fylde who remembered how things should be done, or whether they were having to resort to using FoI as a delaying tactic because they now had insufficient staff to deal with even basic inquiries.

We concluded by asking for a quick reply to the questions.

We doubt we will have an official answer much before the 20 days is up on 3 June, and we're not surprised by that. Fylde is such an awful council now that it has to take such extra-ordinary measures to achieve what it sees as the most pragmatic options to minimise the Council's "reputational risk" (Chief Exec's own words in quotes)

Unofficially, we're told that Fylde's Chief Executive is rapidly distancing himself from the press release which he knows shouldn't have been published. He also knows it was incorrect, and that KPMG were misquoted in it.  That's probably why it has been removed from their website. (Readers can follow this link to see a copy of the original webpage)

We think that puts the Chief Executive in a very difficult position (and there's no wonder his officers don't want to answer the questions about when they received the report and who authorised the press statement).

So for the moment, they're keeping the lid on the steaming mess.

Reading between the lines of it all, it looks to us as though Fylde will probably be cleared of doing anything actually unlawful again - just as they have scraped through in previous skirmishes with 'officialdom' - but we very much doubt they will escape criticism altogether, and that might just be amplified a bit as a result of the premature press release.

We'll bring readers the report, and an analysis of what it means, once it is published.

Or indeed, before then, if FBC manages to send us a copy of what they used to publish their press statement before the report was published!

We'll also keep an eye on the possibilities of it having changed the course of the election. If Mr Ellis decides to make a complaint to the Electoral Commission about the Council's actions (which may have swayed the outcome of the election, both at Kilnhouse, and as the overall picture), we could be set to run for a bit longer yet.

Dated:   29 May 2011


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