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Tax Con: The Cabinet Speaks

Tax Con: The Cabinet SpeaksIn Tax Con: About Turn?  we reported a meeting of Fylde's Policy Development Scrutiny Committee.

It was the first time we had seen a Scrutiny Chairman at Fylde defy the will of Cabinet and debate what was happening with the Asset Transfer scheme. This was a matter of real and significant concern to many residents.

We praised Councillor Fabian Craig Wilson for the job she did.

We were very pleased to see Vice-Chairman Cllr Kiran Mulholland back to his usual incisive form in cutting through the spin and twisted logic to get at the real facts of the matter, and we saw what we thought were the beginnings of the sort of cross party togetherness working that was the hallmark of the Council in former days.

All very positive.

Until last night.

When the minutes of the Policy Development Scrutiny Committee went to Cabinet as a recommendation.

The Policy Development Scrutiny Committee has two roles. One is to consider the details of matters it considers important, and to make recommendations on them to the Cabinet.

That was what it did last night.

Its other role is to monitor the decisions taken by Cabinet and to review them if they think it necessary, and to make a further recommendation to the Cabinet, or to the Council.

So what happened last night?

Well first, the minutes of the Policy Development Scrutiny Committee were handed round.

These minutes have been a long time coming, and had not been produced as part of the Cabinet agenda as they usually are.

We think you can infer things from that.

As we said in Tax Con: About Turn? the wording of the Committee resolutions didn't have their normal clarity.

That probably means that the officers responsible for constructing the minutes had a hard time. They will have been working under competing pressures. The view of the Scrutiny Committee had been quite clear, but the powerful Cabinet members would not have had the same view (and were probably cross the meeting had even taken place, so there might well have been something of a 'damage limitation' exercise bringing pressure from some Cabinet members to water down and weaken the wording of the resolution).

People higher up the administrative chain from the Committee Clerk had also invested a lot of time in getting this scheme through. People in Finance and Parks and so on, right up to the Chief Executive himself would probably have spent time constructing the web of interlinking plans to deliver what we claim would have been a huge increased tax burden on the people of Fylde, as they sought to use St Annes and Kirkham Town Councils as their money-laundering agents and sidestep the Government capping limit.

Just like they did 3 years ago.

If, Dear Reader, you put yourself in the shoes of the committee clerk for a minute, you'll will see that working in a council isn't always the tea-drinking pleasure-ground it's cracked up to be.

The clerk will have drafted their interpretation of the decision of the Scrutiny Committee. That's called a 'minute'.

They might have consulted the Committee's Chairman and Vice Chairman to see if they agreed the clerk's understanding of what had been decided at their committee.

Then it would be passed up the chain for approval, and that's where trouble could start.

Words here and there can be changed to subtly shift the meaning or sense of the minute, or to make its meaning less definite or clear. There might be heated arguments as a clerk tries to maintain the integrity of what they believed to be the decision of the meeting against what more senior people are telling them to do. This itself might cause such a delay as we saw this time, or it may be simply that those higher up the chain were holding the minutes back to keep their 'powder dry' until the last minute.

Or it might be that - as no doubt be the official line would be if anyone asked - the staff were just so busy, it took them an unusually long time to complete the two paragraphs that were the minutes.

So for whatever reason, the minutes were handed round at the meeting.

The clerk had done a fair, if not a good job in maintaining the integrity of the final minutes. They said

"Recommended for Cabinet Approval:

  1. That officers explore Asset Transfers further in relation to Kirkham Town Council, allowing the Town Council to go out to competitive tender for the parks and open space maintenance with outcomes showing localism and delivering efficiencies and value for money services.
  2. That officers be requested to bring forward further reports on:
    1. The identification of which assets constitute strategic assets
    2. The budgetary and governance implications of open space transfer to Town Councils, separate to the budgetary options in relation to the strategic assets."

Now that's a cunningly worded mixed-bag of a resolution.

You can read it one way so it says what the committee agreed.

You can read it in another way (especially the second part) to say all it needs is another report listing what the Council had already defined as Strategic Assets (to be charged over everyone in Fylde) and a reprint of the existing Jennifer Cross report which shows the budgetary and governance implications and so on.

That's why we said it was a fair job on the minutes.

The person responsible for them has done the best they can in the circumstances.

Even so, it wasn't weak enough for the Cabinet.

We had hoped that David Eaves as Leader would usher in a new period of consensus working and co-operation. That's certainly the talk he talks, and we believed him to be genuine in that desire.

But presumably, as with any group, there will be factions within it that hold differing views and there must be a question of how much influence the Leader can command within the group. And, just like the 'Informal Cabinet' meeting of a couple of weeks ago (which had already decided to drop the Asset Transfer scheme for this year) Cllr Eaves wasn't at the Cabinet meeting last night. We understand he has been away on holiday. If that is the case, he needs to get a  grip with what's been going on in his absence, and quickly, because the good he has done is being destroyed while he's away.

Deputy Leader Susan Fazackerley was in the chair, supported by Cabinet members Karen Buckley, Cheryl Little, Trevor Fiddler, Albert Pounder and Tommy Threlfall.

Cllr Fabian Craig-Wilson was invited to present the minutes and recommendations of her Scrutiny Committee.

She did so factually, in a workmanlike manner.

She explained that Kirkham wanted to go forward now, but they wanted to do so ensuring the residents of Kirkham got the best deal by putting the work out to competitive tender. St Annes was not in a position to go forward at this time, and wanted longer to consider the matter and to wait until after the May election (when it will increase from just seven, to twelve, Councillors).

She also said the Committee wanted a clearer definition of which open spaces were 'Strategic Assets' and which were 'Community Assets'    (In fact the committee said what they wanted was to debate what SHOULD be classed as Strategic or Community Assets, not a clearer definition of what FBC's officers or Cabinet had decided)

She also said the Committee had found Jennifer Cross' report complex, and they wanted the costs separated out for the Asset Transfers scheme and the Strategic Assets scheme.

(In fact the committee had asked for both this, and separately, for the impact on the Government Grants that were being paid to FBC as well).

So as readers will see, we began with what the meeting had wanted; watered down by what the clerk had recorded the meeting as wanting; and then again by what the Chairman reported the Clerk's minutes to mean at Cabinet.

But the Cabinet was having none of this malarkey. The bombshell was ready to be dropped.

Queen Elizabeth Oades of Kirkham had put down a question to be asked at the Cabinet meeting. The question asked the Cabinet to explain in detail how they intended to deal with the minutes of the Policy Development Scrutiny Committee (evidently Queen Elizabeth was hoping to avert a 'sweeping under the carpet' for the minutes)

Normally, if the Councillor asking the question is present at the meeting, the Chairman invites the Councillor to the Cabinet table to read out their prepared question and have it answered.

Again, the Cabinet was having none of this. Queen Elizabeth was unceremoniously ignored as her question was read out and she was told by Cllr Fazackerley that she would comment on the Scrutiny Minutes and deal with the question in what she had to say.

It was clear that what Cllr Fazackerley said must have been formulated at yet another 'Informal Cabinet Meeting' out of the public gaze, because as she read out a prepared statement, the other Cabinet members listened impassively. To us it looked like several of them had their 'heads down'. That's not a literal statement, but it describes a demeanour where they know what they're doing isnt right, but they have to do it, and they're putting up with doing it.

The whole meeting, Asset Transfers, changes at Lowther Pavilion and the Medium Term Financial Strategy was over, done and dusted in 16 minutes. That wouldn't have been possible unless the decisions had all been made before the meeting.

'Blue Peter' decisions like this ("Here's one I made earlier") are an awful way to run a Council. They are the province of those who have something to hide, those who are not able carry the argument in honest debate.

On the Asset Transfers, Cllr Fazackerley said she proposed they replace Recommendation 1 with: "This Council confirms its ongoing commitment to the transfer of open space assets to both Kirkham and St Annes Town Councils, and that further negotiations be held with both Town Councils with a view to securing the transfer at a time and on terms that are acceptable to all parties"

For recommendation two she said: "I would be happy for officers to undertake further work with relevant stakeholders after May 2011, to consider what constitutes a strategic asset."

The phrasing was careful. The delivery style cold and authoritarian. Maybe it's what she had decided to say, maybe she was reading the words of others, but whichever it was, it showed that the Cabinet had reverted to type. It is become the Politburo again in David Eaves' absence.

Readers will note the dismissal of the option for Kirkham to tender the work. This is now absent from what will become the Cabinet's Resolution 1 on this matter, and that the plan to consider Asset Transfers and Strategic Assets and their costs and governance arrangements separately, is now missing in Resolution 2.

We recommend that as long as FBC leave it on their website, our readers should view the short webcast of the meeting. You can follow this link to the webcast.  You'll see just what we mean about the tone of the delivery.

Despite all the fine words from Cllr Eaves, and the eloquent, and quietly spoken Cllr Susan Fazackerley, the iron fist came out of the velvet glove and smashed down on the fledgling of consensus.

Cabinet couldn't have said it more clearly - You do it our way' or you don't do it at all.

This is an awful way to run a Council, and it all stems from the Cabinet system that concentrates power and knowledge into too few hands.

We suspect this move has done a great deal of damage to consensus in the short term, and unless there is a significant reversal made quickly, it will have far-reaching implications for the future.

It must now be evident to (a clearly furious) Cllr Oades - and to most of the councillors outside the ruling party - that moves to secure co-operation and cross-party consensus are little more than another con trick - just like the Tax Con that was being worked on residents.

We wouldn't be surprised to see the gloves come off from the other side now.

For readers that can't view the webcast: in summary, the logic for Cllr Fazackerley's decision was that because St Annes Town Council was not in a position to proceed before May and it was unlikely to go ahead this year, Cllr Fazackerley had instructed all officers to suspend work on the matter until after May 2011.

She also said that to her, it was not acceptable to allow Kirkham to put work in the Kirkham area out to tender because it would "not adequately protect the interests of Fylde Borough Council" and she was not prepared to drop the transition period where both councils worked together for a period. (We think that means FBC want to keep hold of the reins of control both during, and for a few years after, Kirkham takes the work on board).

We were instantly reminded of the District Parish Council Liaison Group meeting (Tax Con: The Parishes Speak) where we heard a Parish Councillor from Freckleton said when they tendered their work three years ago they had asked FBC to tender but rejected their bid because it was 50% greater in price. And likewise, the chap from Staining, who said they had found FBC was 100% higher than the highest of their other tenderers.

If Kirkham Town Council could tender the work themselves and do it for something like half the cost that Fylde had been charging residents in Kirkham over the years, it would look very bad for the Borough Council wouldn't it?.

But if the Borough can keep control of any transfer, and make Kirkham take the inflated overheads and on-costs that FBC charge, and maybe spread the introduction of the scheme over a few years, the cost increase won't be so noticeable.

And as for not being financially advantageous to the Borough Council, that's scarcely more than an admission of the deception Fylde want to play on us.

We're entirely convinced they will only implement this scheme if they can get the con trick to work and sidestep the capping imposition.

Parishes raise the money - but Fylde doesn't reduce their overall tax.

We think readers can expect to see more of this sort of thing going forward.

Loos will probably be next.

The Borough Council will look at passing responsibility for them to Parish and Town Councils as well before too much longer. Then it will be street sweeping and even more.

Fylde is aiming to become a 'commissioning council.' It doesn't want to be providing services itself, it wants to commission them from others. But it's still going to be taking the taxes from us.

We saw a sniff of where this is all leading yesterday when the Parks manager said they were chasing work in other areas and now did all the grounds maintenance for Wesham Town Council and for all the fire stations in Lancashire, producing an income of 243,000 next year, and they were in negotiations with Blackpool, Hyndburn and Lancashire County Council about providing grounds maintenance in those areas, but they had reduced the permanent grounds maintenance staff in Fylde from 22 to 14.

Principal Councils like Fylde are doomed to become businesses that operate from within their Borough but we could easily reach the point where they don't actually deliver any services within it.

But they will keep taking the tax.   You bet.

On the present trajectory, it could end up with our taxes being used to pay the salaries and on-costs of officers whose chief role in life is to apply for grants in the hope that they get enough to do something now and again.

Madness

So where does this leave the Asset Transfer and Strategic Assets debate.

Well, having nuked the process that was heading toward consensus working, we'd like to hope that someone is 'in trouble' when Cllr David Eaves gets back from his holiday. We'd also like to think it's not Cllr Wilson - whose loyalty deserves his commendation. At the opposite end, we're not sure who might have been behind the move to undo the Scrutiny Committee resolution. It might, or might not, be Cllr Fazackerley (though her part in it deserves no great credit). If the move originates from a councillor, we wonder if it might be someone more politically aspirational.

As far as Asset Transfer and the present incarnation of the Cabinet is concerned, that's the end of it - at least until after May and probably for 12 months when, as we predicted earlier, this discredited Tax Con will once again be lifted off the shelf, dusted down and, with a brief reference to the minutes of the Policy Development Scrutiny Committee which will be interpreted in the most favourable way at the time, it will all be regurgitated for what might well be a fresh lot of councillors after the May elections.

From Cabinet's perspective, it's also possibly the end of the road altogether for Kirkham if they won't take the offer on Fylde's terms (which we think they'd be mad to do as it could end up costing their taxpayers 60 extra each year for at least there years if they did).

St Annes is in a bit of a funny position now. Having heard that there's no prospect of avoiding the FBC overheads and the on-costs that Fylde currently charge, they will have to review their standing on the matter of whether they want to take on the liability. Again, under present circumstances, we think they'd be mad to do so.

From Kirkham's viewpoint, they'll probably be nursing the bruises they got from trying to co-operate and work together for what they saw as the common good, only to endure a kicking from FBC for their trouble.

On the 'Community vs. Strategic Assets' debate, in theory, that's to be had after May according to Cabinet.

But again, we think it's likely to wait longer. Some of the 'opposition' councillors and the Parish Councils are worried that this will be sprung as a surprise amendment using the existing Strategic Asset plans at Fylde's Budget meeting in March. It will cost rural parishes an extra 43 or so if it happens, and it would reduce the cost in Lytham, and especially in St Annes. Electorally, for the Conservatives - who have a majority in Lytham and St Annes (but not in the rural parishes) - this might appear advantageous.

But we don't think it will happen. There's little to be gained financially for FBC unless they can use this trick to mask the huge increase that would arise if St Annes TC took on the maintenance of open spaces. So we think the Cabinet and most officers will want to hang on, to use this weapon later.

But the most interesting perspective in the whole matter will be that adopted by the Policy and Development Scrutiny Committee. They were unusually clear, unified and adamant in their condemnation of the process being adopted. Cabinet has ignored their recommendation - and thus insulted the deliberations of that Committee.

We wouldn't be surprised to find the Cabinet decision called-in with a recommendation that the matter is debated at full Council.

We don't hear a fat lady singing just yet on this matter.

Dated:   20 January 2011


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