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Melton Grove at Audit Committee

Melton Grove at Audit CommitteeThe Melton Grove resolutions that were referred from Council were considered by Fylde's Audit Committee last night. So we went to listen.

We've not been to Audit Committee before so we hadn't seen it operating.

We should say, albeit from observing just this one meeting, we were very impressed with the chairing of the Committee by Cllr John Singleton.

It's a long time since we have seen anyone at Fylde chair a meeting so well. He took *ownership* of the agenda. It was his meeting. He had a good grasp of the topics. He had thought about the items he was taking (in some depth), and was able to ask searching questions of the officers presenting them. He did not overtly direct the Committee to any particular line, and his style was efficient, fair and firm. Good chairing.

But, given what had gone on at the Council Meeting on Monday, we thought there might be some fireworks over the Melton Grove item on his agenda - because the Vice Chairman of the Audit Committee is none other than Cllr Brenda Ackers - a former Director of Clifton (Lytham) Housing Association and the subject of an (unsuccessful but intensely embarrassing) attempt to prevent her serving on another external body at Council last Monday.

When it came to the 'Declarations of Interest' she said that she had thought she would declare an interest in the Melton Grove item, but had been advised by Mr Curtis (the Council's solicitor) that it was not necessary for her to do so, so she was not doing so.

We recognise she is no longer a Director of the Clifton (Lytham) Housing Association but, because this item was about the changes that Council thought necessary to prevent similar situations arising in the future, and it concerned a time when she was a Director making some of those decisions, we think she should have stayed with her instincts, declared an interest, and left the meeting for that item.

It's difficult for us to see how someone who was held by her peers to have conducted herself inappropriately as a Director, should sit in judgement and make objective decisions about what should be done to change things for the future.

However, we're pleased to report that in practical terms, her continued presence made no difference to the debate or result.

The Director of Corporate Resources introduced the report saying it was simply an update to let them know what was happening with the revision to the Council's Constitution. She said "We determined an independent review of our Constitution was required" so 'they' had asked an officer from Blackpool to do one, and she intended that a report would come to the March Audit Committee when he had done so.

She went on to say that the Independent reviewer had had a provisional look through Fylde's Constitution and identified some points he wanted to discuss with her.

Then, with particular regard to Melton Grove affair he would like to interview: her; the solicitor; and the Democratic Services Officer. He would also like to interview Cllr Mulholland, Cllr Eaves and Cllr Singleton.

So she wanted the Committee to note the report that evening, and she would report again in March.

We were not best pleased by this.

Firstly, the instruction from Council was not to review the Constitution, (in was only in September that the last review was completed). It was to refer a specific series of eleven measures, (only one of which specifically sought a change in the Constitution) to the Audit Committee for further consideration of their impact on the Councilís Constitution.

Council instructed the Audit Committee itself to consider each of the measures and determine what, if anything, their impact might be on the constitution. So it was intended that Audit Committee should consider and scope the task.

That role now appears to have been usurped by officers.

Second, if the Council had wanted an Independent external review of its Constitution, it should have asked for it. It did not. Nor did it authorise officers to carry one out. Therefore officers have no mandate from the Council to arrange one. (Readers should note that using an external reviewer also allows the officers at Fylde who should carry accountability for actions, inactions, and their decisions to become more distanced from that responsibility).

Thirdly, it sounded as though some of what ought to be recommended changes that are specific to the Melton Grove issue are about to be mixed in with a general review and update of the Constitution overall.

We smell an attempt to push this into long grass, for a long time, before another whitewash. Just as the Streetscene and other controversial items have been treated. The passage of time dims memories and dulls the edge of concern.

But only time will show whether we are right or not.

Cllr Akeroyd wanted to know if we'd had an external review of the Constitution before. The answer was "No"

Cllr Harper wanted to know why Blackpool had been chosen. The answer given was that Fylde has a close working relationship with Blackpool. The man that's doing it is very able and part of a national organisation that looks at Governance, and he does training on Governance Issues.

Asked what it was costing, the answer was "About £1,000 I think"

The Chairman said he was happy with most of the recommendations, but noted that recommendation (i) (about training for councillors involved on external bodies) was not part of the Governance issue, it was about training, and that was being addressed separately from the role of the Audit Committee.

He also said the interviews sounded OK but he thought they should, out of fairness, add Cllr Duffy to the list of those who would be interviewed.

We didn't just get her reply, but it sounded like - yes you can do that if you want - and we thought the tone a little petulant.

We were pleased that Cllr Singleton had made that suggestion.

Whilst it may be that it's better to have those who disagree with you 'inside the tent' where you can see what they're up to (rather than outside the tent where you can't), it did not seem to us that this was the rationale for Cllr Singleton's move. It appeared to us as a sensible and proper decision that was also fair and just.

To be honest, we don't think the Constitution was that much at fault in the issue of Melton Grove (although changes made to it in other areas in recent years have turned it into something of a disaster) The problem was not what was written in the Constitution, it was how people (mostly officers, but also some members) selectively interpreted the Constitution to their own agenda, and whilst those people remain at Fylde, the prospect of selective interpretation is ever present, so changing the Constitution won't make an iota of difference.

When the Task and Finish Group (who investigated Melton Grove) said the problem was one of governance, we don't think for one minute they meant the Constitution, we think they really meant that officers hadn't behaved as they should have done, and the Directors had, at best, placed far too much trust in the advice given by officers.

So it's behaviour that needs to change, not the rules.

And for the moment, this is where things are left.

Council asked Audit to consider what it had proposed. Officers have intervened to start what looks like mission creep or worse.

We'll bring you more in March


Dated:  27 January 2012


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