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Consequences

ConsequencesNo, we're not talking about the amusing pastime played with fold-over paper.

We're using 'consequences' to describe what should have been a mostly unimportant item at a Council meeting. An item that grew well above its station.

We think it will turn out to be what national politicians call a 'tipping point'' - the time at which a shift in direction becomes apparent when you look back on events from the future.

We think what happened  at Council last Monday - and more especially, why it happened, will have far reaching consequences for the future.

So what was the little bit on nonsense that blew up into an item way beyond its importance??

It was an item called "Nominations to Outside Bodies"

This sort of thing is usually a very straightforward item - the Council has been invited to have someone represent it on another body - typically something like the Police or the County Council or something.

Its a bread and butter easy-peasy item. Propose some names. If there's more names than positions, have a vote and off you go.

But sometimes they can become niggly.

That usually happens when someone thinks they've been unofficially promised a place on an external body and it doesn't get carried through at Council and some bad blood creeps into the debate. That wasn't the case here, but we had something like it last Monday

Cllr David Eaves was proposing four names for something called the 'Three Tier Forum'. He put forward the names of Cllrs Goodrich, Redcliffe, Fazackerley and himself.

He then asked the mayor if he should carry on to the second set of nominations to the 'Health and Wellbeing Board' and at this he started to hesitate, as though not entirely comfortable with what he was doing.

He proposed Cllr Cheryl Little, and, as consequence of that, because she had served on the Health and Wellbeing Scrutiny Committee, it left a vacancy on that Committee.

He went on to say he would like to propose Cllr Brenda Ackers to that committee. Exceptionally, he then said "And in order to inform members, and to support that nomination, I'd like to read some information with regards to competencies with regards to Cllr Ackers, and her experience"

He then set off on an exceptional and glowing tribute to Cllr Ackers ability.

For six years she'd been a Non-Exec Director of the North West Lancs. Health Authority, Represented four health authorities on the Lancashire Education Committee, Chair of the Audit Committee quarterly meetings of Government Commissioners, Chair of the Diabetes Liaison Group, Chair of the Black and Ethnic Working Group, Chair of the Dispensing Committee, Lead Director for the Nursing Homes Inspectorate, Dealt with Health Authority Complaints, and was Conciliator for Complaints. She was also Lead Director for Independent Reviews concerning Hospitals, GP's Practices, Dental practices and Opticians, and a Non Executive Director of Fylde Primary Care Group.

Phew!

He said he had provided that information to support his nomination of Cllr Ackers to the Scrutiny Committee. (We felt a bit sorry for Cllr Cheryl Little at that point as, by comparison, it appeared she had no such positive attributes to commend her).

This glowing testimonial was unusual. It's very rare that anyone has professional credentials read out, and, as soon as it started, you knew something was in the wind. (It's a bit akin to the saying about 'protesting too much').

So our ears pricked up, and we watched with interest where it was going.

After being seconded by Cllr Pounder, Cllr Mulholland rose to speak. He wanted to know something from the Chief Executive.

He said: obviously, the Scrutiny Committee appointment was not on this agenda, and whilst he recognised it was a consequential vacancy from Cllr Little's move, he wanted to know if it was right that they fill that consequential vacancy now, as it was not an item on their agenda to do so.

Technically he was right (as sharp as usual). The answer probably ought to have been 'No; it needs to be on a public agenda for at least three clear days before Council can consider it.'

The Chief Executive deferred to the Legal Officer who said, in effect, the Council can do so if it wishes to.

So the Mayor asked to a show of hands as to whether the matter should be discussed that evening and was rewarded with a forest of hands from the Conservative side, and nothing from the other half of the room.

So something definitely *was* up.

The Conservative majority carried, and the Mayor said to proceed.

They took the vote on the Three Tier Forum first, and nominations from both the Conservatives and the independent councillors sailed through.

Then Cllr Little was easily voted through on the Lancashire Health and Wellbeing Board.

So it was coming down to Cllr Ackers being the problem, and we began to have an idea why.

Cllr Mulholland asked to speak.

He said "Thank you Mr Mayor. I'm going to speak against this proposal. It doesn't give me any pleasure to do so I can assure you. And I'm actually not going to offer another alternative, so I will be speaking directly against the proposition. I'm not being political, and unfortunately, it will seem I'm being personal, but I can assure you it's not on a personal level.

However, as Chairman of Community Focus and Chairman of a recent Task and Finish Group that looked into the Melton Grove affair, I really don't feel I'd be doing my job as a Councillor if I didn't make some comments here..

Cllr Eaves has read out a glowing resume of Cllr Ackers' past achievements, and it is very impressive, going back to 2007 and 2009.

It was in 2011 when we asked Cllr Ackers to come before the Task and Finish Group, which she did voluntarily and in a very cheerful and articulate way, and was more than willing to help us with our questions. But, as you're all aware, the report of the Task and Finish Group was very critical of the Directors of the Board, very critical of the Trustees, and made some recommendations.

There were members of the Task and Finish Group that wanted to go further. They felt that nobody who had been a trustee should be allowed to hold any position at all on any outside body or in the Council.

There were those of us that felt this was going too far, but you all saw the recommendations. I hope you've considered what's in that report, and the inferences in it.

The member who's now been proposed to represent us, when asked about the issue of the disposal of Melton Grove, openly told us that she had no idea about RSL's [Registered Social Landlords], what they were, what the differences were between RSL's and private developers. It wasn't her field and she knew nothing about it.

Now, that's coming from somebody who's a Director, who's making a decision to dispose of that company and dispose of Melton Grove.

I would like to think that anybody acting and nominated by the Council to sit on an outside body, albeit a private company, as a Director would have made it an absolute point to find out exactly what RSL's were. The whole history of the disposal was peppered with references to RSL's, disposal to RSL's, the difference between RSL's and non-RSL's.

So I'm sorry but I'm horrified. I was horrified by that response as were other members, but I can assure you, I'm not saying this with any pleasure. I'm not making it up. That was the response..

The Task and Finish Group were also asking questions about the actual final decision that was taken for the disposal, and Cllr Ackers replied to us in a very pleasant manner that she'd really got on board with the Directors at quite a late stage, and basically she'd gone with the flow.

They aren't my words Mr Mayor, they aren't my words, they are her words. So I'm sorry but how anybody can be particularly happy that that is our chosen representative somewhat defeats me.

And I shall certainly be voting against it.

Thank you Mr Mayor.


For a few moments, you could have heard a pin drop.

Cllr Mulholland, forthright and fearless as ever, had not shirked his responsibility as Chairman of the Scrutiny Committee. He was as brave  to make such a stand as he was right to do so.

It could cost him the Chairmanship of that Scrutiny Committee - although given its fundamental purpose (to scrutinise events), it would be a travesty of justice were that to happen.

From what he and others said at Council on Monday, it is even more clear that the Councillor Directors of the Clifton (Lytham) Housing Association were held in very low esteem by those on the 'Task and Finish Group' (who had investigated  their actions and responsibilities with regard to the Scandal of Melton Grove). We've privately been given access to the thoughts of some members of that investigating group and it is truly shocking. The matter still has the potential for further action so we're not publishing anything at the moment for fear of prejudicing future action. But we will make matters more widely known once three current trains of action come to conclusions.

As Cllr Mulholland finished, Cllr Tim Ashton stood to speak.

Readers will recall that Cllr Ashton is listed as Director of Lytham Town Trust which owns Lytham Hall and was set to benefit to the tune of 300,000 from the sale proceeds of Melton Grove as set out in the Cabinet Minute proposed by Leader David Eaves.

He took no part in public debates in Council or Committee about the disposal of Melton Grove. He declared a prejudicial interest and left the room. Like Cllr Ackers, he too was a Councillor Director of the Clifton (Lytham) Housing Association and, so far as we are aware, he was not required to declare any prejudicial interest when acting as a Director of the company, so he could participate fully in, and help to shape the decisions of, the Board that decided the future of Melton Grove..

Cllr Ashton said: "Thank you Mr Mayor. It will come as no surprise to you this evening that I stand to support Cllr Ackers in this nomination. I've known her for over eight years as a fellow ward councillor. I've known her to be professional, hard working, experienced, as we've already heard, concerned about Fylde, not just about her own ward. She's extremely tenacious, single minded, and she has my full support on this Scrutiny Committee that meets at the County Council.

She'll do her best to represent the people of Fylde, and she'll also have a Lancashire-wide view, which is necessary on such a Scrutiny Committee.

I'd just like to take Cllr Mulholland to task, because I too was a member of Lytham (Clifton) Housing Association. And I too was invited to the Scrutiny Committee that Cllr Mulholland chaired. I gave numerous dates two council meetings; he never got to hear my evidence although I offered plenty of dates, so I was absolutely flabbergasted when this Task Group reported to this Council, not having heard any of my evidence.

I'd sat on that board for years, and it's my understanding as a councillor that I'm not an expert, I expect officers who are experts to advise me. I listen to the evidence, and then I make a decision. I'm not, as a councillor, expected to be an expert. I can't be. That's not my field. I'm a politician, that's what I'm expert in - getting elected.

It is my understanding Mr Mayor, that a decision on Melton Grove went to the Portfolio Holder, Cllr Fiddler, and then came before this full Council. I declared an Interest; I didn't take part in any of those decisions. So I think it's really really petty tonight, to hear Cllr Mulholland criticise Cllr Ackers for working extremely hard for this borough, and I think she'll make an admirable representative on this Scrutiny Committee. Thank You Mr Mayor.

He was right in what he said about his expertise - at least to a point. He's right to say the role of a Councillor is not to be an expert. But he has held other responsibilities for which expertise is most definitely required.

It was his lack of expertise as a Portfolio Holder for Streetscene that meant he didn't see the disaster that was looming when the department for which he was responsible reported a loss of 700,000. (But as he later said of that "... at the end of the day nobody died"

We also assert that he would have needed some expertise for his role as a Company Director of the Clifton (Lytham) Housing Association.

This 'dual hattedness' has been a problem all along, and especially so at Melton Grove. (and it's why we don't like the idea of Individual Portfolio Holders and Council-owned private companies).

People (excepting for the solidly grounded Councillor St Louis Rigby the Magnificent) have switched in and out of their Councillor and Directorial responsibilities like chameleons - in some cases using the 'change of hats' to intentionally disregard the broader responsibilities they should have had.

After Cllr Ashton concluded, Cllr Linda Nulty said "I would just like to add my support to Cllr Mulholland, as a member of that Task and Finish Group. One of the firm recommendations was about the Directors, we felt that the Directors had not done their job properly, and that they should not hold official outside body positions in the future. And that is nothing personal against any of those people. It was simply that that was the feeling, and the answers that we got, from our interviews, and we felt very strongly that those people should not be on our outside bodies in the future. So I'd like to support Cllr Mulholland."

Cllr Charlie Duffy said "Thank You. I would also like to support Cllr Mulholland. The fact is what happened with Melton Grove...., well, everybody knows the result of that, and the people responsible for that, in my opinion, aren't fit for serving on anything like this. I also find it quite amusing, that Cllr Ashton stood up in support of Cllr Ackers and spent a few minutes talking about himself, not about Cllr Ackers. I will support Cllr Mulholland."

There were no other speakers, and the Mayor took a recorded vote which was

For Cllr Ackers: Cllr Ackers, Aitken, Akeroyd, Andrews, Armit, T Ashton, S Ashton, Buckley, Cox, Craig-Wilson, Cunningham, L Davies, Donaldson, Eaves, Fazackerley, Fiddler, Goodman, Goodrich, Jaques, Little, Nash, Pounder, Prestwich, Redcliffe, Singleton, Threlfall, Wilder, Wood. (28)

Against Cllr Ackers: Cllr Beckett, Brickles, Chedd, Chew, Clayton, Collins, J R Davies, Duffy, Ford, Harper, Hayhurst, Hodgson, Hopwood, Mulholland, Nulty, Oades, Rigby, Silverwood, Speak. (19)

Abstain: Cllrs H Henshaw (Mayor), Eastham (2)

Absent: Cllrs Hardy, K Henshaw. (2)

Cllr Ackers was duly appointed as all the Conservatives closed ranks around her and exercised their majority.

There is a video webcast of the meeting available on FBC's website. Use the alphabetical selector at the top of the page for 'W' then look for 'Webcasts'

So what are the implications of what's going on here?

Well, when Council Leader David Eaves proposed the disposal of Melton Grove at Cabinet, and he linked the proceeds of the sale to fund a grant to Lytham Hall, he will not have known, and we did not realise at the time, that he had probably sown the seeds of his own demise. It has become a public scandal.

For his part in that scandal, we dubbed him the 'Judas Leader' for selling the residents out for the developers thirty pieces of silver, (and we were criticised by some for doing so).

Like the former Commissar, we don't dislike him as a person. He seems a really nice man, but his judgement is not up to what is needed. As one of our readers says - I don't judge people on what they say, I judge them on what they do.

His Cabinet is, for the most part, seen as being composed of lightweights, and the composition of that Cabinet is down to him.

It appears to us that, from time to time, he has to make statements and announce decisions that we suspect he does not support or believe, and in that sense he may be a prisoner of his own party.

(Conservative decisions are mostly debated and made in private group meetings outside the public gaze before a Council or Committee meeting. After an internal party vote decides the matter, everyone is required to support it when it is made public at a Council Meeting or Cabinet. So if the vote in the Group meeting goes against what a Leader wants, he still has to take ownership of it and support it - even if he disagrees)

We hear there are elements within his own side shaping up to challenge him for the leadership - we expect that to come to a head in April or May. We are picking up gossip about secret meetings where sides are being taken.

The problem is that the most likely candidates to challenge would almost certainly be worse.

Dim Tim - for example. He is one of the longer serving Conservatives, but as with his turning down of the Mayoralty next year, the Leadership would probably cause him to give up his lucrative position at the County Council, so he's probably unlikely to want to do that.

Princess Karen is another contender. She's very ambitious and was parachuted into a Conservative Parliamentary seat in East Lancs during the last elections - which she narrowly failed to gain. She obviously wants to make progress. As with some of the others, she's a charming and personable individual, and we think she'll make someone a good MP, but we think she's entirely the wrong sort of person to lead Fylde Council. To us, she's simply another Commissar but with greater Machiavellian capability - and you know what a mess both of those character traits have got us into in the past.

Yet she does seem the most likely. And because the Melton Grove scandal has weakened Cllr Eaves - both directly from his behind-the-scenes instructions to supposedly 'independent' Directors, and in personally proposing the disposal at Cabinet, and by not being ready to deal effectively with the very serious issues that came out of the Task and Finish Group report (which we think was already watered down more than it should have been), and now by tying himself (or at least being tied) so closely to nominate Cllr Ackers (who evidently was thought not to be competent by some the Task and Finish Group), and because he has not acted to remove those around him who are seen as less than competent, we suspect some of the newer members of the Council will be wondering just what they have got themselves into, and they might be seduced to support the Princess, if only for the sake of change - and Cllr Eaves could find that Melton Grove becomes his nemesis.

If the Princess is supported by some of the newer members, and she does decide to challenge for the leadership, we think it's likely to split the group, and that could mean some of the greyer ones stepping aside or crossing the floor. She can't afford that, so if our guess is right, there will be an atmosphere of positioning and promises and clandestine discussions at Fylde.

So we suspect the Conservative Group is not an entirely happy experience to enjoy at the moment. But of course, you won't get to know that.

As you can see from the transcript above, even in adversity, the Conservative ranks stay (mostly) closed - unless a mole leaks something, of course.

Dated:   25 January 2012


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