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Tax Con: The Parishes Speak

Tax Con: The Parishes SpeakJust before Christmas, (when the Borough Council still expected their Tax Con to be implemented), FBC arranged a meeting of the 'District Parish Liaison Group'  This group is a construct of FBC.

The stated intention was to create a forum where matters affecting both Borough and Parish Councils could be discussed, and issues of concern resolved.

We were never that enthusiastic.

It was OK in principle, but we would have preferred the Fylde Association of Town and Parish Councils to be the forum for debate amongst parishes, with the results of their deliberations being fed to FBC.

However, that grouping was not without its own problems, and the 'District Parish Liaison Group' has filled the void for most Parishes in recent years.

The meeting due just before Christmas included a discussion on Fylde's proposed Asset Transfer scheme.

We're not going into all the details again here - you can find them in the various 'Tax Con' articles on the menu on the left - but we understand from a notice sent out by FBC on 23 December that Jennifer Cross' work on the Asset Transfers was to have been discussed at a special District Parish Liaison Group meeting because it had been 'left over' from their previous meeting on 20 November. So FBC had arranged a subsequent meeting for 11 January 2011 with a single item on the agenda - 'Asset Transfer.'

However

On 6 Jan, just after 1pm, (on the day that their Scrutiny Committee was going to consider the matter in the evening), FBC sent out an email cancelling the meeting.

The reason given for cancellation was given as being "because it is unlikely that the transfer of open space assets to St Anneís and Kirkham Town Councils will go ahead from April 2011. This is because St Anneís Town Council has resolved to defer consideration of the matter until after the May 2011 Town Council elections and although Kirkham Town Council wishes to continue negotiations regarding transfer of open space assets, there are a number of queries which still need resolving.  The Borough Councilís Cabinet will be considering the matter further in January, and is likely to similarly defer any decision."

We understand this cancellation was implemented without reference to the Chairman - which is a bit, well, high-handed, to say the least.

We heard he was not best pleased, and he contacted FBC to say he wanted the meeting to be re-instated so the Parish Councils could discuss the matter.

That seems to have led the officer who normally deals with this to seek the advice of the Chief Executive.

We're told Mr Woodward said as there was no prospect of the matter being implemented he did not intend to go or to have any of his staff attend the meeting.

If you were the meeting's Chairman Dear Reader, we think you too might feel somewhat unhappy about this.

Especially given that the Borough Council's Policy Development Scrutiny Committee was still to consider the matter, and that the Council's Cabinet was not due to receive the report of the PDS Committee until 19th Jan.

So you might think a meeting of all parishes on 11 Jan would be able to feed useful information into those processes

But it looks to us as though the Cabinet's informal 'decision' to abandon the process for this year at least (a decision it could not lawfully take) is being implemented by the Council's officials even though there is no mandate for them to do so.

Our quote of "Oh what a tangled web we weave...."  in 'Tax Con? or Just a Cock-Up?' look more prescient with each passing day.

The meeting's Chairman seems to have been as unhappy as we, (and, we imagine, our readers) would have been in the circumstances. And he decided to go ahead with the meeting, even though FBC's officers appear to have walked away from attending.

We're able to let you know what happened at that meeting because we were invited to attend.

We were pleased to be invited because, although we are to be found occupying the Public Benches at several meetings so we can bring news of them for our readers, this is the first formal invitation counterbalance has received in its seven years of life. And it seems most appropriate, given that this con trick was one of the main reasons counterbalance came into existence as we published our second article 'Council Funding' on 3 March 2004

So, to the new pavilion on Bridges Playing Files in Warton we went.

At 7:15 there was a small convoy of vehicles wending its way round the housing estate and onto the playing field. By 7:25 the cream breezeblock walls and quarry tile floor of the meeting room were host to about 25 to 30 members of  Fylde's town and parish councils. We saw quite a few faces we knew.

The meeting started promptly at 7:30 with Cllr John Rowe in the chair, He began by saying there would no doubt be different views expressed. He also gave apologies for the Wrea Green contingent who had re-booked themselves when they had the message from FBC saying the meeting had been cancelled.

They had however sent an email which the Chairman read out.   It set the tone for the meeting when it expressed concern that the consultant's report hadn't been circulated to parish clerks as it would normally have been. They also said that Wrea Green PC believed that there was no case for subsidising facilities in Lytham St Annes.

Using the Lytham Green / Wrea Green argument we have rehearsed on these pages before, they argued that Wrea Green was as much part of a tourism drive as Lytham Green as it was used extensively in the Tourism brochures, yet it was paid for exclusively by Wrea Green residents. They concluded by asking that Wrea Green parish be included as being vehemently opposed to the idea of Strategic Assets - especially if Option 5 was pursued.

For our readers, Option five is from Jennifer Cross' report and is the option to re-distribute the costs of what FBC have defined as Strategic Assets over the whole of Fylde's population.

In the debate, Cllr Paul Hayhurst said it was "Absolutely deplorable that FBC had pulled out of this meeting" adding that in his view, this matter was going to be sneaked in at budget time when no-one knew about it.

He said he believed this was "blatant electioneering using a reduction in Lytham St Annes and the parishes were paying for it" adding "That's gerrymandering"

He wanted to know why a football field at Blackpool Road North was a strategic asset and one at Elswick or Freckleton was not, and why a bowling green at Lowther Gardens was a strategic asset and one at Singleton or Freckleton was not.

He said it was a "half baked report from a consultant and had reportedly cost £20,000 and she should have talked to the parishes and she should have been here tonight"

If we were her, we wouldn't have wanted to be there at all.

She got a fairly unpleasant kicking from the Fylde's Scrutiny Committee members, and this meeting would have drawn blood.

But before you feel too sorry for her, think on this. In the Scrutiny Meeting, Cllr Elaine Silverwood said she had been paid £20,000 for the report. Jennifer Cross said - and we were careful to note it down - "I wasn't paid £20,000 to do this piece of work"

Cllr Silverwood took the trouble to find out the exact contract value.

We were not surprised when she said later in tonight's meeting that the contract with Jennifer Cross' ('X Associates') had actually cost £19,950.  Yes really.

We leave readers to form their own views about the quality of honesty and integrity in such statements.

Cllr Linda Nulty from Medlar with Wesham said the decision was taken at an informal Cabinet meeting even before the Policy Development Scrutiny Committee had considered it. She said "I think it's appalling these sort of things are happening. The idea that these are strategic assets is wrong"

Cllr Maxine Chew supported the previous speakers, and said she understood the item had now been removed from the Cabinet agenda for 19 January, but it might still be possible to discuss it under the report from the Policy Development Scrutiny Committee. She said "Equitable Taxation was sold to us as a way of solving the double taxation issue. Changing it back again is wrong. What this is doing is taking money from the rural areas to fill their black hole"

Michael Gilbert of Warton - a chap of incredibly detailed knowledge about parish matters, and always worth listening to said they needed to split the two issues. Transfer of assets on its own was fine if FBC agreed to reduce its overall council tax by the same amount. But the problem was that Fylde couldn't be trusted to do that as they had already demonstrated.

He said the strategic assets were the problem - because that involved rural areas paying for facilities in an urban area, and the agreement they made with FBC two years ago when parishes started to charge for their own open spaces should stand.

Cllr Elaine Silverwood made for us what was one of the more telling comments of the night.

She said that the informal Cabinet that had made the 'decision' had been one where the Leader, Cllr David Eaves, was not in attendance.

We were pleased to hear that.

As readers will know, we regard his stated intentions as both honourable and fair, and we were surprised that he would have been party to such practice as happened.

We're still forming views about what he does (as opposed to what he says) and we were saddened to think he might have been involved in this foolishness. However, if he wasn't even at the Cabinet meeting, that puts a completely different complexion on matters so far as he is concerned.

Cllr Silverwood gave full credit to Cllr Fabian Craig Wilson who, she said, had been under a lot of pressure from officers to withdraw the item from her Scrutiny Committee agenda. We agree with Cllr Silverwood here.

She also said she thought everything was going smoothly until the new Section 151 (that's Finance) Officer came and he could see the opportunity to generate revenue via parishes. She said "Overheads from the Town Hall shouldn't be a burden on Kirkham residents. What they're doing is shocking. We do feel aggrieved that eight people can make decisions behind closed doors"

The Chairman noted that they could not stop FBC doing the Strategic Asset split, but they could make a noise and a fuss.

Cllr Hayhurst said there were two issues, and they had to be separated. Even if Asset Transfers didn't go ahead, the Strategic Asset scheme could, and that would cost the parishes dear.

In a suggestion of rather duplicitous purpose, he said that St Annes TC was being offered the dregs of the open spaces and they should stick out for everything. (If they do that of course, it's unlikely to happen at all, and there would be no strategic Asset Split, and no additional charge to rural parishes like Cllr Hayhurst's own - which is why we thought his comments a bit duplicitous)

He proposed that the group write to Fylde Council to deplore

  1. The cancellation of the Liaison Group meeting.
  2. That no representatives of the Borough Council had attended.
  3. That the Group had been treated with contempt by cancelling the meeting without consulting its chairman.
  4. That there had been no consultation on the 25% increase in costs under one of the options proposed,
  5. That a further item be placed on their next agenda
  6. That the Leader of FBC be asked to attend their next meeting to explain the Borough Council's conduct.

That proposition was seconded by Cllr Alan Clayton of Medlar with Wesham and voting was unanimous in approval.

There were a few tail-end bits that are worth mentioning.

Cllr Silverwood said that Kirkham had already got two alternative prices to the one FBC had given them and they were considerably less  than Fylde's

Someone from Freckleton said when they tendered their work three years ago they had asked FBC to tender but rejected their bid, partly because it was 50% greater in price, but also because it contained a clause that said all complaints had to go through FBC's management and not directly to staff on the ground - which meant they didn't feel the reaction would be quick enough, especially at weekends when FBC's management staff were unavailable.

Staining said they had found FBC was 100% higher than the highest of their other tenderers.

Cllr Tony Ford of St Annes said the Town Council wants to take on the open spaces just like Kirkham but they had many questions.

They challenged the split of 'strategic' and 'community' assets and a number of other issues.

They had been appalled that at the first meeting they had been given three sheets of paper and asked to make a decision based on that information. They had since had more, but were appalled by its quality.

Following a question from Staining PC as to whether St Annes would be prepared to take on the 'Jewels in the Crown' (the larger areas like Ashton Gardens and the Promenade Gardens) Cllr Ford said "Yes" - then quickly qualified that by saying that was his own view. The Town Council hadn't yet voted on it, and he wouldn't want to be misquoted.

Cllr Richard Nulty from Greenhalgh and Thistleton Parish said part of the problem was that the officers at FBC didn't understand parishes and so tended to ignore them. He thought the parishes ought to do something to try and redress that. "They need to understand us" he said.

And with a brief summing up by the Chairman the meeting closed at about 8:30pm

So where does this leave us?

Well, what you see is a united front of parishes to oppose the plan to impose General Expenses / Strategic Assets on them.

We think they need not fear that happening. Almost the only reason FBC would need to do that would be to hide the unbelievably high Council Tax increase that St Annes Town Council would have to impose if it did decide to Take on the community (or even worse in a financial sense, all the open space) areas.

So Fylde aren't going to press the nuclear option of strategic assets until they reach agreement with St Annes (which is why we think we can detect moves amongst some of their peers to prevent St Annes being in a position to agree to accept assets).

We're sure Fylde's Leader would be happy to tell the parishes that 'Strategic Assets' are off the agenda when he meets with them next time.

We think the issues in Kirkham and St Annes about taking a transfer of assets could be overcome to quite some extent, but we doubt they will be completely.

For example, we heard quite rightly from Cllr Richard Nulty (who has some experience of this as a former operations manager employing large numbers of manual staff), that where a transfer of premises, work, equipment and materials takes place, that will constitute an 'undertaking' and the law will require existing employees to transfer with that undertaking on existing terms and conditions.

This is non-negotiable. It's the law.

The only way we can see 'around' it would be for FBC to agree not to re-advertise and re-tender for the work when the present contract periods end. That would mean them making existing staff redundant and meeting those costs.

Then the assets could transfer without 'sitting staff' so to speak. This can be a most unpleasant and costly situation depending on the age and service of the staff involved.

If the 'Strategic Assets' and 'Asset Transfers' schemed are split - as most seem to want, it is most unlikely that the plans would ever come to fruition because there would be riots on the streets if St Annes Town Council took on ALL its open spaces - at a cost of around £738,000 over 10,522 Band D equivalent properties.

This would produce a Council Tax charge for St Annes taxpayers of something like £70 instead of the present £8 or so, and with nothing to offset that £70 with in terms of Strategic Asset recharges, there would be trouble

We think this is the point that was being missed at tonight's meeting.

There is a bigger picture being played out, and most of the parishes don't seem to have cottoned on to it.

They seem to think that FBC's decision to look at Strategic Asset splits now is an isolated issue. We don't believe it is. Our theory runs something like this.....

The plot was hatched to allow FBC to quadruple its financial benefits by persuading town and parish councils in small doses to take on board the maintenance and charging of open spaces in their area.

To make it work, you have to be prepared to continually re-designate what are and are not Strategic Assets (aka General Expenses) and  Community Assets (aka Special Expenses) in selected areas as the need arises.

Phase one of the scheme saw all the open spaces in Lytham St Annes and Kirkham designated as Community Assets / Special Expenses. This upped the cost in LSA and Kirkham, but reduced it by £43 in all the parishes. Most of them has less than £43 worth of open spaces to maintain each year, so most of them made a saving for their taxpayers, so they jumped at the scheme two years ago.

Phase two was always going to be to get Lytham Parished, create a town council there an do the same thing. But that process went wrong, and it put the first fly in the ointment.

Undeterred, FBC swept on with its plans with Kirkham and St Annes in Phase two (albeit revised).

Kirkham was being thrown to the wolves and more or less not allowed any Strategic Assets/General Expenses, so everything was going to go onto significantly increased parish precepts. We think this is a reflection of the keenness that Kirkham had to take on 'their own' areas, and FBC thought they could get away without helping to soften / reduce costs in Kirkham.

St Annes was more of a basket case. Some of its councillors didn't even want to take ANY assets from FBC, and said so, publicly and loudly. So in order to get the cost down to a persuasive level, some costs had to be taken out from St Annes and respread over the Parishes.

We're quite firm in our belief that this was always the intention. It's not a one off, it's part of a strategic con that had already been played on the rural parishes, and whose time had come to be used on the Town Councils. This time the £43 was about to be 'transferred back' onto the parishes to make St Annes look better as it voted to raise the money itself, hidden by the saving thrust onto rural parishes.

But the Town Councils spotted the danger and the process stalled as they asked for more and more information and clarification. It's now at impasse stage, and no-one can tell how it's going to shake out exactly.

We think both Asset Transfers and Strategic Assets are probably off the agenda for another year at least.

This leaves Fylde with three problems that we can see:

Firstly it won't get the quadruple benefits from retaining the National Non Domestic Rates and by failing to reduce its spending as the Town Council increased its precept. So its own service cuts will be worse.

Secondly, Now they know the real costs of maintaining each separate area, it's likely that St Annes Band D Special Expenses Tax will drop by £10, Lytham's will go up by £17, and Kirkham's will go up by £20. That's going to be tricky for FBC to explain come budget time, and we think they will try and sidestep this change, but we're not at all sure they will get away with that.

Thirdly, a probably unintended consequence of the failure to make the tax con work is emerging, and it is this. Because Special Expenses relate directly and only to specific services that are performed elsewhere in the borough by a parish council, it's going to be really difficult for FBC to shift any of the spending on open spaces to any other budget heading, and it's going to be impossible (so far as we can see) to cut the spending on open spaces without also making a corresponding cut in the tax take, (because the income to fund it is separately identified on tax bills as a Special Expense) and that gets you precisely nowhere if you're looking to make savings to use elsewhere.

The probability is that FBC has tied its hands more than it would have wanted to do - so far as making savings and transferring resources from leisure and parks services onto others is concerned - because the Special Expenses they charge are only for that use. That's why they're 'Special'.

This is the only reason we can see that FBC might still want to do the strategic / community asset split - so they can re-absorb some or all of the spending on parks and leisure into their General Expenses and simply divert them elsewhere or cut them out of sight.

The next instalment of this sorry saga is probably the Cabinet meeting on 19th Jan next week. We wait for that with bated breath.

Dated:   11 January 2011


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