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Rolling in it?

Rolling in it?counterbalance counts itself very lucky to have a following of loyal and concerned readers.

We've been amazed at the generosity, public spiritedness and, on occasions, the personal risk, that people are willing to take, in order to provide us with information that others would prefer to keep hidden.

So it was that, after our latest publication, (where we set out why we thought FBC was keen to sell Melton Grove outside its budget-setting process), we heard from one of our readers about a meeting that took place in Ansdell on 24th February.

About ten days before 24th February, our correspondent alleges that the proprietor of a small business in Ansdell told of an informal approach by someone called 'Ben'  who had rung the proprietor to encourage them to revive a business group in Ansdell.

The purpose of reviving the group was - at least in part - to participate in deciding how some 100,000 of funding should be spent in Ansdell, because, it was said, Ansdell had been somewhat neglected in terms of regeneration.

The dates are significant here, because they indicate that the arrangements to hold the meeting were made after the decision to sell Melton Grove had been taken, but before the storm blew up about it. And the 'Ansdell meeting' itself was held just after the Melton Grove story began to surface in public.

(The Melton Grove resident's meeting itself was held on 19th February, and the Ansdell regeneration one on 24th)

Our correspondent was told that in the conversation that occurred between the business proprietor and 'Ben', the suggestion had been made that the 100,000 was coming from the sale of Melton Grove.

Readers should note the third-hand element of this account, and treat it with caution. But that said, we do know our informant to be someone of integrity and honesty, and a well respected person in the local area.

We also know that the meeting was held on 24th at the Fairhaven Hotel - we understand it was inaugural meeting of a new or reconstituted business group, and was arranged by Pam Hornby (who we believe Chaired the former Ansdell Business Association until it became defunct after there were disagreements about the siting of a new Booths at Fylde Rugby Ground).

We're told those attending the meeting included Cllrs David Eaves and Cllr Ben Aitken, and Mr Richard Redcliffe, the well respected recently retired head of Ansdell Primary School. Mrs Hornby was also there, as were representatives of around seven Ansdell businesses.

Our correspondent says it was clear that word had got round prior to the meeting about some potential regeneration funding, including a notion of the source being from the sale of Melton Grove.

But when that was put to Cllr David Eaves at the meeting, to his credit, he dismissed the Melton Grove aspect.

After emphasising the difficult present financial climate, he did mention some possibilities of regeneration funding, including the residue of the "Blue Bus" money which was due to Ansdell. 

We emphasise here that we have no reason to doubt Cllr Eaves' honesty, integrity or sincerity in his statements to the meeting, nor do we doubt his sincere desire to support Ansdell's regeneration.

But if the prelude to the meeting has been reported correctly to us, the sums and suggestions made by others in advance of the meeting seem at odds with what he said at it, because the "Blue Bus money" isn't 100,000 - its just 22,000.

So what is the 'Blue Bus' money anyway?

Well, it's an 'Earmarked Reserve', and we've been tracking the funds that FBC calls its Earmarked Reserves for several years.

Earmarked Reserves are like money in the tea-caddy. It's money for a holiday or a new car or a new bathroom. Not for councillors of course, for them its money set aside for, say, paying for elections or office re-location, or some special thing they're saving up for.

Earmarked Reserves are not affected by years, so they carry over from year to year until someone spends them. They're also a very handy spot to squirrel money away of you have an excessive surplus in some years (when the income from Council Tax is more than you actually spent).

They're an even more handy out of sight 'disaster fund' that can be raided when things go financially wrong. And in the Commissar's time, unexpected surpluses and financial disasters were par for the course.

The information about Earmarked Reserves is published openly, but it's not all in one place, and you have to pull figures and words together from different bits of complicated financial reports to understand what the money is for, and how much is there.

This is no doubt because of some high powered accounting principle, but you really have to be a dedicated council-finance anorak like counterbalance to be able to follow them.

(We were once jokingly - well, we think it was jokingly - awarded the finance equivalent of an Oscar - called the 'Golden Anorak Award' - from a very high flying finance officer at Fylde for spotting errors in his budget that even he and other officers hadn't spotted - but they probably would have done eventually) .

Most members of the public (and many of the councillors) wouldn't have a clue that these Earmarked Reserves existed at all.

One of them is titled "Capital Project Fund (Bus Money)" and, as Cllr Eaves said, it relates to Ansdell.

It's currently 22,000.

It was created maybe 15 or 20 years ago when FBC sold off (privatised) the Blue Bus Company to its then management who, a few years later, sold it on to Blackpool Transport. A big capital receipt was generated from the first sale, and that was divided up pro-rata to the electorate (or per head of population, we can't exactly remember which). It was then distributed for Town and Parish Councils to spend as they sought fit.

Where there wasn't a Town or Parish Council in place (this was years before the St Annes Town Council was formed), a special-purpose Working Party of Borough councillors from each area in Lytham St Annes was formed to make the spending decisions. Some of Lytham and St Annes allocation went to help buy the former GRE Sports Centre for the YMCA to run in Lytham, Some went toward Lytham Hall, and some went toward the Dreaded Domes in St Annes Square.

But the sum allocated for Ansdell was never spent, and has been parked in the accounts for something like the last 15 years or more.

Our tracking of the Earmarked Reserves can only go back seven years, to April 2007 when it was 21,000 (and we think that was the original sum).

It had 4,000 pulled out in 2007/08 when the Commissar's financial incompetence nearly made the Council insolvent, and 5,000 was put back the following year in 2008/09.

So now, there's 22,000 there, waiting to be spent.

It looks to us as though the deep search for budget savings this year has shone light into those dark and dingy corners of Fylde's accounts that have been gathering dust for the last fifteen years or so, because the Earmarked Reserves have popped up, and many are now either offsetting spending cuts, or, if they're not needed for that, (like this Blue Bus money), they're about to be spent.

Cllr Mrs Buckley's press release was jubilant about the way Fylde is now managing its budget, it said "Council 'back office' costs have been reduced by 25 per cent in the last three years, helping councillors cut the annual budget from 11.4m in 2010 to 10.99m in 2011 and pass the savings to Council Tax-payers through a freeze to the Council Tax bills being posted to homes later this month."

They've set their budget for next year with the much vaunted "no front-line cuts in service" and no Council Tax increase.

So they must be rolling in it now, because they've found two more lots of unexpected spending-money for Fylde.

Businesses in Ansdell look set to get a say in how the 22,000 Blue Bus money should be spent to regenerate the area, and the Council - if it sells Melton Grove - looks set to get something like 1.3 or 1.4 million in income that it doesn't need for its budget.

Readers might ask why we say the Council doesn't need this money?

Well, when Cllr Louis Rigby and the newly formed Melton Grove Tenants Association asked officers if the sale proceeds from Melton Grove had been earmarked for some special purpose, they were told it hadn't.

And at Fylde's budget-setting meeting last Wednesday, the Council's budget for next year 2011/12 (and for the next five years) was set and balanced without any income from the sale of Melton Grove being included - so they have all the money they need for the next five years.

Furthermore, at that same meeting, a move to have the proceeds of the sale of Melton Grove used to pay off some of the Councils growing debt was proposed by independent councillors, but this was voted down by the Conservative majority.

So - as we were told by the lady whose dad has been thrust unwillingly into the forefront of trying to defend the homes of Melton Grove residents - "the money isn't earmarked, the budget is sorted for the next five years without Melton Grove money, The council debt will not be reduced by the sale, the Clifton Housing Association runs at a profit which increases each year, the Tenants have not been properly informed under the Councils, 'Duty to Inform' - and a town asset that was gifted by the Clifton's for the elderly of meagre means ad infinitum is going to be sold unnecessarily and 26 of our elderly and most vulnerable townsfolk are in one way or another going to be upset."

It beggars belief that Fylde's ruling group can be so stupid as to let this sale go ahead in these circumstances.

They risk making themselves a laughing stock, and we think they urgently need to find an honourable way out of this mess.

We think Cllr Fiddler saw this when he said at the budget meeting that he wanted the debate on the disposal of Melton Grove to go before the full Council.

Fortunately, there looks to be a way it could happen.

We understand that Cllr Mrs Oades has started a process to call-in the disposal decision for scrutiny. That Scrutiny Committee could decide to call it in and refer it to full Council for proper consideration and debate.

And at that point, the ruling group could show they have the commonsense and compassion that David Cameron set out to demonstrate as the hallmark of modern Conservatism. They could stop this unnecessary sale in its tracks, and start to discuss options for the future with the new Melton Grove Tenants Association.

We hope they will.

And until yesterday, that was the end of this article.

But we're now picking up stories about a sale of the shares in Clifton Housing being lined up for 23 March, and the Cabinet Meeting has just been put back to that same date. But the Call-in date has now been fixed for 24th March.

Sounds like something odd is going on here. No doubt we'll have more for our readers shortly.

Dated:   10 March 2011


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