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Tax Con: About Turn?

Tax Con: About Turn?Fylde has announced that 'Asset Transfers' are dead - well for this year at least.

The line from FBC's Cabinet is that because St Annes Town Council decided to defer a decision until after the May election, there's no point in discussing Asset Transfers now.

In yet another example showing that Fylde's spinmasters are still hard at work with their doublespeak word-creation schemes (despite a supposed spirit of openness promised by the new administration), "a Fylde spokesman" told the Express and the Gazette that the proposed Asset Transfer scheme would also have brought a potential saving to Fylde borough taxpayers of 349,000 - because it would transfer from Fylde Council budgets to parish precepts.

This is technically true.

But it's balderdash of course.

And it's a deception.

That magic little word in that sentence is 'potential' - and that is the key to the deception.

The 349,000 (as we have previously reported) was what Fylde was pushing the Parish Councils to charge, so they could AVOID reducing their overall budgets by this amount and spend that 349,000 on something else

This would leave Fylde council spending 'no more' than last year, but taxpayers would be worse off, as 349,000 of extra tax was sneaked around the capping limit and 'money laundered' through the Town Councils.

Potential saving indeed.

You only need look what happened last time FBC conned the rural parishes into doing this.

When Parish Councils in rural Fylde took on their 'community assets' in 2008/9, the parishes raised an additional 305,000 in tax to pay for the open spaces maintenance.

Fylde Council's spending on open spaces without the scheme was 5.06m.

Fylde's spending with the scheme was 5.06m.

Full details of this con - using FBC's own figures - are available if you follow this link. And the Borough Council's deliberate intention to effect this capping sidestep and tax con trick on taxpayers was confirmed by a councillor at a Policy Development Committee meeting last night.

Yes, FBC had the POTENTIAL to reduce it's spending in 2008/09 of course.

But did they?

They most certainly did not.

As their Deputy Chief Executive admitted at the time "The agenda here is the avoidance of capping"

So we don't believe this is at all about St Annes deciding to defer considering the matter until after the May election.

We think this is about being found out, in a compromising position, with your fingers hanging over an open till of taxpayers money.

And Fylde's current scheme has just been found out.

The problem for Fylde's Cabinet was probably that this scheme reached a point where too many people - including counterbalance readers of course - understood what FBC was up to with it's Asset Transfer scheme, and the truth about it was beginning to emerge.

The searchlight of truth has shown it for what it was - a cheap con trick.

Both Town Councils had seen through it.

And Fylde's Informal Cabinet Meeting (whatever one of those is) changed their mind about going ahead with the Asset Transfer scheme.

Readers might wonder how this change of heart came about?

Well, according to the report in the LSA Express and comments at the meeting last night, an 'informal' meeting of the Cabinet was held on Tuesday night and "it was decided to put the issue for both towns on hold"

This is absurd.

There cannot be an informal Cabinet meeting that makes a decision. By virtue of it being informal, such a meeting would have no authority to make decisions.

Meetings to take decisions have to be convened with proper notice to other councillors, and to the press and public. Agendas have to be published at least three days in advance and the public have a right to be in attendance.

If the Express report is right - (and we've no reason to doubt it, because these are experienced journalists who know the importance of getting accurate information and presenting a proper factual account of what happened), and as last night's meeting confirmed - what our readers see here is the gross abuse of power by an executive that thinks it does not have to follow the rule of law.

It fell to Cabinet member and Deputy Leader Cllr Susan Fazackerley to try to explain the Cabinet's position at the meeting last night.

She said she wanted to dispel the myth that secret meetings were being held, and secret decisions were being taken. There had been an informal Cabinet meeting where Asset Transfers were discussed.

They were aware that St Annes Town Council had decided to defer consideration and Kirkham had asked a lot of questions, and they had decided... then, correcting that slip of the tongue she said.... they had come to the view, that it was very unlikely that a decision could be made this year, and nothing could be decided before April.

Saint Paul Hayhurst was down her throat almost before she had finished speaking, to say this was a meeting held behind closed doors and it was totally undemocratic.

Our sharper readers will also have noted reference to the April date. This is the date by which budgets have to be set, and it confirms again were confirmation needed, that the aim of this con all along has been about FBC saving money and boosting its own budget. It's not about localism and parish councils being more efficient, its about money laundering to by-pass the capping limit, and it's a con trick.

The Cabinet's power is corrupting, and the sooner we get back to a properly balanced Committee system the better.

But, Dear Reader, things could have been even worse.

Fylde has a committee called the 'Policy Development Scrutiny Committee' (awful name, we know) whose purpose is to advise the Cabinet on Policy formulation, and to scrutinise what they do, and to hold the Cabinet to account for the decisions they make.

That Committee met last night, (two days after the 'informal Cabinet' meeting saying Asset Transfer was going to be abandoned) and, on it's agenda was.... - guess what -  ... yes, the forty-six page report about Asset Transfers.

The Committee report included detailed information from consultant Jennifer Cross who has been paid to produce the report.

The report had one recommendation "That Members of the committee comment upon the report and make recommendations for consideration by Cabinet."

And the stated reasons for doing this was "To ensure Members are aware of the issues associated with any transfer of assets and the committee can advise Cabinet".

So what we had here was a committee, about to take evidence from: a consultant engaged by their officers; together with evidence from their officers directly; and from the public.

They were to go into the detail of the Asset Transfer plan, to and make a recommendation to Cabinet.

But that same Cabinet attempted to pull the rug from under them - by deciding 'informally' that they wouldn't be considering it anyway

That Cabinet is the same body that the Policy Development Scrutiny Committee are supposed to be both advising and keeping in check.

To be honest, when we set off for last night's meeting, we've never been less sure about what would happen. The situation was without precedent at Fylde.

If the Policy Chairman (Cllr Fabian Craig Wilson) had decided to pull the item from her agenda we would have been very cross today, and we'd have been calling for her resignation as chief watchdog. (When the watchdog has been trained by the thief, and it continues to respond to his commands, its time for a new dog).

But she's evidently made of sterner stuff, and, unphased by the Cabinet's readiness to treat her committee with such contempt, she said "What the Cabinet has done is not relevant to what we are doing here tonight"

Bravo!

counterbalance is happy to commend Cllr Wilson and issue a merit star for her independence. Well done Cllr Wilson.

The meeting opened with the public session and a chap who had formally objected to the Asset Transfer notice published in the press by FBC spoke about how the Council's plan would produce less good value for St Annes taxpayers. He said FBC spent 11.4m overall on providing services, and the money to fund that came from Council Tax 5.5m and Government grants 5.9m. So when Fylde Spent 1 it only cost local taxpayers 50p - the other 50p coming from Government.

If there was no government grant, he said the cost to Fylde taxpayers for the same work would double, because Fylde would have to charge the full 11.4m in Council Tax.

He went on to explain that Town Council's were not eligible for the Government Grant so when they charge for the same service, it costs local taxpayers the full 1 and - unless FBC were going to contribute the half that they get from Government, that was much worse value for taxpayers, and he argued the transfer should not go ahead on that basis.

He said had more to explain but the Chairman said he'd had more than the three minutes they usually allow people to speak, and that was it.

The meeting proper started with the Chairman saying she had wondered if tonight was the appropriate time to discuss the matter given Cabinet's pronouncement, but on balance she thought the discussion should go ahead.

Cllr John Davies asked if she could explain the position with Cabinet further and she could not (or at least wouldn't be drawn on it).

Saint Paul Hayhurst was quick off the mark, he said "I feel as though the parishes have been conned, this report is talking about a 25% tax increase in rural areas"

With some initial difficulty (you could see St Paul was fired up), the Chairman quietened him down and asked Mrs Clare Platt, Fylde's Director of Community Services to introduce the report.

She introduced Jennifer Cross of 'X Associates' who had been commissioned by Mrs Platt to look at moving the asset transfer scheme forward. She said it was a "draft interim report that would benefit from overview and scrutiny"

We thought that sounded like We know this is bad report but we'll get it right eventually.

'Draft Interim' reports are about as far from a proper report as a temporary-part time-casual employee is from a proper job.

Miss or Mrs Cross began on the defensive. She said "Sometimes we have to grapple with difficult issues in order to make changes." and that it still needed more discussion with the two Town Councils.

She said that her brief was to seek a stable, cost-effective solution and she had started in July.

She had valued the assets by reviewing and updating their previous valuations, and some other assets had been valued for the first time.

She said she also needed to know the maintenance costs and had had to undertake a site by site analysis because the individual site costs were not known.

That work had now been completed. (More about that later Dear Readers).

 She said the other issues she had looked at were listed on Pages 9 and 10 of the report and a number of options were presented that affect the Council Tax, but the Asset Transfer wasn't necessarily linked to the Council Tax changes.

She then used the 'H' word and said they should look at the full cost, before making decisions about 'headroom'

This is the term that has recently been coined - possibly by Miss or Mrs Cross, we're not sure - to describe the lump of money sitting in Fylde's accounts that was 'spare' if the Town Councils could be persuaded to precept the cost of open space maintenance themselves.

FBC could use this 'headroom' to help fund other services, or, - *potentially* - (look they've got us doing it now) to reduce the Council Tax by the same amount. (There goes another pig flying past the window).

She'd evidently offended Kirkham TC by saying she didn't think they could take on the work and she wanted to clarify that she didn't mean that their Clerk couldn't do the work, but that Kirkham didn't have the *capacity* to do the work which would mean a huge increase in their spending. (This matter came up again later from Cllr Elaine Silverwood, who didn't seem to be impressed by that explanation).

Miss or Mrs Cross said St Annes was similar and she'd like to put forward a series of 'Next Steps' before she finished her contract with Fylde. She also noted that Kirkham would like a performance style contract rather than a schedule of rates one, and St Annes wanted to take independent advice.

Then she said she would take questions on her report.

Cllr Karen Henshaw picked up her comment about analysis of the individual site costs where she had said words to the effect of 'FBC now knows all the details of all its assets', and asked "Did we not know that before"

(The answer Dear Reader, is just what we said. No they didn't, but there is more to come on this so we'll leave it hanging there for the moment).

Then Saint Paul Hayhurst waded in. He wanted to know if she has spoken to any of the parish councils to hear their experience of differential rating before she wrote her report. "Have you spoken with any of the Clerks or Parish Councillors?" he demanded 'No. was the effective reply. St Paul continued..., "don't you think you should have done with a proposal that would increase parish costs by 25%.

We didn't pick up the exact answer, but we think it was something like 'that wasn't in the brief I was given'.

Cllr Elaine Silverwood told her the reason she hadn't been invited to the 6th Jan meeting of Kirkham Town Council was because they spent the whole meeting drawing up the list of questions they wanted answers to. Cllr Silverwood continued "I find it incredibly insulting and patronising that you can make these comments about the Town Clerk and inability to take on the work ourselves. I really don't agree with a lot of the comments you've made tonight."

She went on to say they'd paid 20,000 to the consulting company for the work, and she did not believe that was necessary, and it was all an utter waste of money. She said the work should have been done by the Council's own officers. Miss or Mrs Cross subsequently said "I wasn't paid 20,000 to do this piece of work"

Then the Committee's Vice Chairman - Cllr Kiran Mulholland stepped in.

We know Cllr Mulholland of old. He's what we call a war-horse. Very able, very astute and able to grasp complex items quite quickly. Almost nothing puts him off or spooks him. We used to have a lot of time for him. We say 'used to' because we think his edge has been dulled by years of his talents not being used effectively by the former Commissar, and he seemed - to us at least - to go into a state of 'suspended animation' where 'it wasn't really worth his bother'

That's another problem with the Cabinet system of course. Good people who are not of your political party don't have their talents utilised properly.

Anyway, to get back to the main story: you could see this matter had woken him up and animated him.

He said he'd been at FBC for a long time - probably too long - and at one time he had been Vice Chairman of the Tourism and Leisure Committee under the old Committee system.

He said even in those days the Councillors knew the costs. They had a book of estimates that set out the costs on every piece of land the Council owned down almost to the number of nails used for repairs.

Evidently shocked by the revelations that officers no longer had this sort of information, He said "We shouldn't have needed to do all this work you say we've done"

He went on "This matter has taken me some time to get my head around it, but I now have it"

He said at the Chairman's briefing the previous day, he had called for someone high up in the finance dept to come and explain the position to him because he thought what was being proposed was 'double taxation'. (i.e. where FBC would use the 'Headroom' to spend the money on something else).

We actually heard some gossip that this had happened, and the alleged exchange was something like this:

Cllr Mulholland: When the parishes raise the money themselves, we will reduce our precept by the same amount won't we?

Finance: Not necessarily

Cllr Mulholland: Surely we will - otherwise we'll be charging for the same thing twice won't we?

Finance: Not if you call it something else.

Cllr Mulholland: Stunned look

We hasten to say that exchange is only allegation. We've no first hand knowledge or corroboration of what was actually said.

Back to last night's meeting.... Cllr Mulholland said "The two issues [Asset Transfer and Strategic Assets ed] should be split. OK it's not technically double taxation, but I couldn't find any of your options to make that saving alone, because they're all muddled up in the two issues. People in Kirkham would be paying twice. It's absolutely outrageous. I can't afford it, my residents can't afford it, and I will fight it all the way. There's a bad taste in my mouth that it will come back and this is a bad way of proceeding"

At this point we wanted to cheer. This was the old Cllr Mulholland: forthright, clear and firm. We haven't always agreed with him, but we greatly respect his ability and his forthright manner.

The consultant said she had only criticised the Town councils for a lack of capacity not a lack of competence. She hadn't been paid 20,000 to do this work, and her ambition had been to find something that was fair to everyone.

We say, there's only one condition that's fair to everyone, and that's to go back to the pre-Ken Lee days where funding for all open spaces in Fylde was the same for all residents, and FBC met the costs of work done by their own contractors and those of the Parish and Town Councils.

Cllr John Davies said he agreed with Cllr Mulholland. We would be transferring the costs to the Town Councils but not transferring the money with it. To him that sounded like a slush fund to provide sweeteners before an election. He thought most of the residents in St Annes would feel they'd been ripped off.

Cllr Karen Henshaw picked up that only one member of the public had objected to the transfer as cited at Para 11 of the consultants report. She went on to say the reason was the most of the public simply don't understand it, and that's why no-one objected.

Cllr Ben Aitkin said he thought they were losing sight of what they were there to discuss. He said differential taxation had made it fairer to smaller villages, but the people of Ansdell had rejected the idea of a Town Council there. He said no-one was being ripped off and everyone has a fair and equitable level of taxation.

To be honest, we didn't think he could have read the proposals properly to be speaking like that, and neither did Cllr Hayhurst, who said "Cllr Aitkin is looking at what's happening at present, not what's being proposed. It's the council taxpayer that is being screwed by these proposals."

He demanded to know who has selected the "Strategic Assets" - who had decided which parks and open spaces were designated as chargeable over all Fylde residents when they were paying for local [community] sites as well.

He said Lytham had its green and someone had said that should be a Strategic Asset, but Wrea Green had its green as well, and if Lytham's was strategic, so was Wrea Green's. He said there was no difference.

We find that difficult to argue with as well.

He said that because the consultant had not been out and spoken to the parishes, she had no idea how parochial they were and how decisions affected things.

As an example he cited the football pitch at Elswick. This and other facilities had been provided with money from the Parish and Borough Councils together with a grant from the Sports Council to provide more facilities than were needed in Elswick but they would also act as a village hub for the surrounding parishes.

The football pitch cost 5,000 a year to look after, and had been used regularly by a team from Singleton, not Elswick.

This was OK whilst FBC was meeting the maintenance costs, but when Special Expenses were introduced and Elswick residents had to meet the costs on their own (even though the facilities were designed for a wider catchment area), they could not afford the cost, so Singleton FC were told they could no longer use the football pitch and it was closed to save the 5,000 a year.

He went on to say "this committee needs a full look at the strategic costs and which areas they apply to. We also need to look at the Rate Support Grant and Non Domestic Rates payments from the Government and how they affect the situation as the public speaker pointed out."

But for us, Cllr Kevin Eastham was the star of this particular show.

He said that it had generally been felt that FBC could avoid capping with the last parish council change.

It had all been disguised, but they had increased the tax by 9% and "got away with it."

He said most people were not interested in the argy-bargy between Town and Borough Councils. He said " If you have all the assets in the family why do you need to split them. Don't transfer them, just implement a management agreement. Just stop messing around re-arranging the deck-chairs"

We like Cllr Eastham. He's a nice man.

And although we seldom agree with what he says, he has usually thought through the logic of the situation, and that deserves respect.

But this time we agree completely with him. His short, but insightful and incisive contribution did two things.

First, it confirmed what the former Deputy Chief Executive had said "And yes, the agenda here *is* the avoidance of capping.

It also showed that at least some members of the Council knew this and conspired to by-pass the capping limit and raise taxes in 2008/09 by 9% when there was a 5% capping limit imposed. [And as we have pointed out, we believe this is exactly what some elements of the Borough Council are planning to do this time as well]

Secondly he hit upon the exact solution to the problem of how to give Town and Parish Councils the authority to make local decisions on community parks and open spaces.

That is: to use and fully fund them as the Borough Council's agents to manage and administer the work to maintain them.

This must be the perfect solution all round if your aim is to improve management of the spaces.

But not, of course, if your aim is to con more tax out of people.

Miss or Mrs Cross responded to this suggestion with "The brief was to look at transferring assets, not to look at management agreements" etc

Cllr Hayhust said there were three issues apart from the Asset Transfer, and all needed to be dealt with separately, with separate reports.

They were the Rate Support Grant / Non Domestic Rates, the dispersal of assets (more later), and the classification of Strategic Assets.

Cllr Elaine Silverwood said her biggest regret was they did not complete the transfer last time they tried and she felt it was scuppered when Kirkham was lumped in with St Annes. She said that no-one was satisfied with the idea of 'Headroom'

Cllr Dawn Prestwich said they had talked for a long time and there was a great deal still to be discussed. She thought there were too many things in the pot and they needed to separate them.

Cllr Mulholland agreed. He said "Equitable taxation wasn't about equity for parishes" and he was disappointed about this report. He thundered "How the hell have these all been rolled up into one issue. We need to separate them and we should demand that this comes back piecemeal."

And so came the time to sum up and make recommendations to the Cabinet (who, it seems, have already decided not to do anything anyway)

The Chairman said after Kirkham's questions had been answered and things had been looked at separately, this matter needed to come back to them as separated issues and she would propose that. We think we heard it seconded but we were not sure.

Cllr Silverwood read out a proposition that sounded something like "Asset transfer should be explored further for Kirkham Town Council allowing them to go out to competitive tenders for the work" Again we thought we heads someone second this proposition

Cllr Hayhust said the parishes felt excluded and he wanted consultation with the Parishes about which assets were strategic. He also said that Fylde Officers had yesterday decided not to attend a Fylde Borough / Parish Council Liaison Meeting due for 13th December where the single item on the agenda was Asset Transfer and Special Expenses.

Cllr Brenda Ackers. A member of few words asked "Why has the Cabinet decided to shelve this? I couldn't vote for Kirkham on its own because it affects everything else"

At this point Cabinet member and Cllr Fazackerley explained the Cabinet's position as we set out toward the start of this article.

The Chairman said she did not want to take a recorded vote and a show of hands would be sufficient.

The a vote of some sort was taken.

To be honest it was a muddle.

We'd have insisted on clearly worded propositions so people knew what they were voting for, but we didn't think that happened, and we'll have to wait for the minutes to see what the Clerk thought was actually decided.

A second vote was taken on Cllr Silverwood's proposition and we made it a majority in favour with 2 abstentions but again we'll have to wait for the wording.

So what does it all mean? What's going to happen now?

Well it's tricky to say. There are a lot of invisible agendas at work here.

There's one that's now probably in a minority but probably with strong support from officers, that this is the last chance saloon, and the original idea should be pushed through if at all possible.

This could bypass capping and give a cash increase of 345,000 to FBC. It would also give them a further 200,000 or so from NNDR and Government grants, so you can see the appeal - but in true David Brent fashion - perhaps not if you're paying the extra tax.

There's an agenda which divides party loyalty for some whose commitment to their parish is stronger than their commitment to a party and they will fight tooth and nail to prevent Strategic Asset costs being imposed on parishes. That means doing whatever is necessary to stop the present process in its tracks.

There's an agenda of both fear and opportunity that will seek to use whatever it is that happens to their own benefit in the May elections, so these folk will be pushing for the best outcome to suit their needs.

And there's an agenda that believes Town Councils should be running the open spaces, but not on the terms presently on offer.

And from within this matrix there will need to be further and separate consideration given to a range of aspects.

Our best prediction is that it will all disappear onto the back burner again for at least 12 months - possibly longer when, once again it will be picked up, dusted down, have the figures updated and re-appear as it has several times before, wearing a different coloured coat.

Why the delay?

Well, the Asset Transfer can't start this year because FBC can't push them out. It's for Town Councils to decide whether the terms they're being offered on are suitable to their residents and accept the transfer or whatever other arrangement best suits them.

The Strategic Assets split doesn't depend on Asset Transfer, and could still make an appearance either at Cabinet or at Budget. But if it does, the Council Chamber will turn into a passable likeness of Kandahar Province. That would be a meeting not to be missed.

If it doesn't happen, then we will probably see another (or maybe the same) consultant engaged to do an analysis of the site values and maintenance costs of all the areas in the rural parishes like Wrea Green and Elswick and Freckleton in preparation for a discussion on what should be included in the list of strategic assets.

But what is being missed here, and the thing that will cause a local furore is that now the real costs of maintenance are known, and have been estimated for next year, there's no reason not to apply those costs to the Special Expenses we pay next year.

That's likely to lower Council tax in St Annes and increase it in Lytham and Kirkham. And that news could be very upsetting for the May elections.

We'll have a detailed look at this in a future article.

But we'd like to end on a positive note.

counterbalance is often accused of being negative. We don't think we are, its just that the processes introduced at Fylde by Ken Lee and John Coombes - chiefly the Cabinet system that has ruined what was once a good common sense rather than policy-driven council - rub the majority of sensible folk here up entirely the wrong way, and we think we make that view known. Certainly that's what most of our readers write and tell us.

But we can say that despite the Cabinet's - and perhaps some officer's - wish to push this through, for the first time in several years of our recollection, a Scrutiny Committee Chairman did the job she was supposed to do.

The Vice Chairman awoke from his slumbers and did an even better job, and the committee - with one or two exceptions who were simply there as majority party voting fodder - behaved as you might hope.

They were visibly horrified and angered that the information was being presented to them selectively, and without a complete picture, and that it had been rolled up to lead them to a particular conclusion. And that conclusion was to the financial detriment of their electorate.

The Committee saw through that, and bit back.

We found that very heartening.

This is very healthy for democracy at Fylde.

It shows there is a spark that could be fanned into life by the restoration of the old Council and Committee system, and that there are still people of ability whose talents deserve the epithet 'Councillor'

Those we salute today.

Dated:   7 January 2011


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