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No Solutions

No SolutionsWe were absolutely delighted with a decision of Fylde's Cabinet on Wednesday last week.

It's not often we can say that, and sadly, it's not often these days that we can praise something FBC has done.

But this was something they absolutely got right.

Even more important was the underlying reason that several of the Cabinet members said they had come to the decision they had.

It was an item about "FBC Solutions"

We've been keeping our readers informed of this beast since we reported the company formation in 'Doing the Business' in February 2007.

Then in 'Two's? Company' in November 2007 we showed who the directors were, and said "These quasi-businesses are known as ALMO's (Arms Length Management Organisations), and they can be used to distance people and politicians from the deliverer of a service, thus removing the democratic influence that is the whole point of it being a Council run service in the first place."

We also said it was a dangerous animal and needed to be watched.

Then in 'Snippets - February 2009' we said the Council had renewed its tenure of the Company which had been parked as a shell company because the Government wouldn't grant FBC permission to trade (because Fylde under the former Commissar was such a poor council)

In 'Management Shakeout' in May 2008, we showed how the new 'Operational Services Directorate' had been formed to replace Fylde's disgraced StreetScene department (new name, same faces, new image), and they hoped to get Wyre Council to put their bin men and gardeners in as well. (Yes really!).

Finally, in 'Tax Con Backfires' in January 2010, we reported that "...officers would look in detail at a business case and business plan for FBC Solutions Ltd" They never learn.

Change for the sake of change only produces the illusion of progress. And we're daft enough to keep voting for them!

Apart from the StreetScene disaster - just look what has happened with Fylde's other limited company the Clifton (Lytham) Housing Association. As we show elsewhere, hidden behind closed doors, it has betrayed the very cause it was established to serve. It was a huge embarrassment to the Council, and the Melton Grove Scandal produced the most shameful decision Fylde has ever made.

But in March 2001, Former Chief Exec Philip Woodward had used Jennifer Cross - (who, we understand, more or less *is* 'X Associates'), the nice lady who described counterbalance as 'other media' (as in her "seeing comments in Newspapers and other media") to advise then Council how to go about setting FBC Solutions up.

She said that FBC has potential to develop and launch FBC Solutions Ltd, the arms-length trading company (ALMO) that it established five or so years ago, and that company could be used to deliver a range of services to the Borough Council and to other organisations.

We said at the time, this idea was another disaster in the making.

Not because of what Jennifer had done - but because this sort of operation is a bad thing altogether. We've already seen with StreetScene how things can go horribly wrong and cost taxpayers a lot of money.

This FBC Solutions company was reputedly going to get 12m worth of spending to play with, and broadly, the plan seemed to be to be to 'integrate' the gardeners, bin men, mechanics and some managers into a single workforce, and the theory is we will need less of them because of that.

But for a whole shedload of reasons, this is a bad thing - not least the way in which a quasi-commercial Local Authority controlled company can hide from legitimate democratic pressure behind the mask of 'commercially sensitive information' that it will no longer make available.

Sadly, we have to admit, that it was our own hero St Eric Pickles (in one of his less good moments) who removed the restriction that had for years prevented the last few Councils like Fylde from 'trading' and by removing the blanket restriction, he had given Fylde the power to 'compete in the commercial marketplace'

So Fylde was talking about setting up a new Management structure, Boards of Directors - the whole works - to puff out the chest of failed would-be businessmen like Streetscene's Dim Tim.

We said we don't approve of Councils setting out to compete with local gardening firms or garages, or skip hire companies and pest control operations and such.

If Council's are good for anything at that sort of thing, it's only as a non-commercial counterweight - to stop people being ripped off by those in a monopoly position to charge unreasonable rates.

But when Fylde itself starts to charge unreasonable rates - as it has in the last year or so - and has had to bring its own charges down again, back in line with the local rate for the job - then even that reason no longer holds water.

We think the staff employed by Councils should be local people, working locally, for the benefit of local people. But in the last round of Budget meetings, we heard how there are now probably as many or more gardeners employed on contract work outside Fylde (maintaining fire stations and schools and verges from Skelmersdale to Carnforth and east to Earby or somewhere) than there are gardeners employed working on Council owned land in the Borough.

What's the point of that?

What on earth is the purpose of us paying people to work away from Fylde?

It can't be to raise money to offset the Council tax because that doesn't hold water - just look what happened with StreetScene.

Advocates will no doubt say it will be cheaper - because a company can pay less than the going rate, so it will get staff cheaper.

When will they learn? At the sort of grassroots level we're talking about here there's no fat to cut at anyway, and as always, at this level, when you pay peanuts, you get monkeys - and as a result, a less capable and competent service.

Honestly, you could weep for them.

Philip Woodward's report said "The report presented by X Associates LLP presents sound reasons to change from the status-quo and identifies a range of benefits from doing so; i.e. from safeguarding choice, value for money, democratic control and flexibility, through to the significant potential for service innovation, strategic service alignment, business expansion and income generation."

The underlying logic here is - just do it differently, don't worry whether it's better or not. Change what you're doing now because change produces the illusion of progress and it looks as though something is happening.

We asked at the time if our readers had ever heard such nonsense. We were talking here about grassctting, weeding, streetsweeping, emptying bins, and fixing vehicles, where on earth does a "strategic service alignment" fit in to that? We expect the Council to use the tax revenue to provide services for us, not for others.

We confidently predicted FBC Solutions would all end in tears. The only solution they're going to get us into would be a sticky one.

Then on 18 March 2011 we reported that another report on "FBC Solutions" had gone to Cabinet

The plan was to have a shiny new Board of Directors running a company that can bid for work outside the Council, in competition with garden maintenance companies, garages, and waste clearance services and so on.

But doubts were starting to arise. The ever vigilant and experienced Queen Elizabeth Oades had some serious questions to ask, and also wanted to know why she hadn't had the report until that morning's post.

Mr Woodward explained that when the report had come in, it contained what he described as "commercially sensitive information"; (costs and estimates of current spending and so on) and the reason it has been "published slightly after the main agenda was that the 'commercially sensitive information" has been taken out, so that caused a slight delay in the actual publication."

So the public version has blanked out bits (Yes really)

This is the first sign of what happens.

What used to be public information is now becoming commercially sensitive information as Councils forget that we elect them to provide and run public services and operate governance for us, and they play at being businesses.

But the picture that Mr Woodward painted - of the silk-draped Emperor - mostly had everyone going along with it - until - with his clear eyesight and a good dollop of common sense (as ever), Councillor Trevor Fiddler saw the Emperor was actually naked and said "I don't have a question, it's more the prattle of a simple man, but I can't get my head around it. I don't understand it. It may be that I've been involved with a traditional Council for too long.... but my innermost being says you don't understand it so I don't have the patience to read it, and therefore I may not be in a position to have a positive vote."

Silence descended. We wanted to shout Bravo! That's what we need.

In the event, both he and Cllr Threlfall abstained in the vote.

As Cabinet votes at Fylde go, that's more or less unheard of. But it should happen more.

Then Mr Woodward left FBC in December 2011, and Mr Oldfield, the new Chief Executive took the reins of Fylde.

And in 'Ring Out the Old Ring in the New' on 28 December 2011, we said we'd heard rumours that he was likely to quietly drop the plan to launch 'FBC Solutions' as an Arms Length Management Organisation - (where Fylde would be running businesses with private boards of directors).

We also said that if this was the case, then maybe the scandal of Melton Grove has done *some* good on the wider scene.

We were double pleased here. First because we absolutely didn't support the creation of businesses by Councils - even if the aim is to offset falling tax income with trading profits. They inevitably challenge existing local businesses operating in the same field (but normally start using public money and asset transfers at less than proper market value), and if council staff were good at running businesses, they'd be doing that already. Council employees actually need a different skillset (and mindset) to those of business folk. The two don't mix well.

Secondly we were pleased about it because we had spotted a draft structure for FBC solutions recently, and it had something called an 'Independent Director' or some such wasteful salaried position listed. We heard tell this was expected to be an 'external appointment' - maybe like an Non-Exec director in a commercial company - and the word on the streets was that a former Chief Executive would probably be a very suitable person to fill that role.

So, we concluded, if FBC Solutions *had* dried up - as we heard, that's very good news. And if the new CE was instrumental in bringing that about, then it's a very good sign.

We can now report that's exactly what has happened.

The report to Cabinet last Wednesday "provided formal confirmation that after due consideration and appropriate research the decision has been made not to establish an arms length company to operate a range of community services. The report also provides details of further work into the current trading position".

It's recommendations were

1). To place on record the decision not to pursue the option of an arms length organisation to deliver key community based services.

2). To review the existing trading arrangements with a view to determining a clear way forward in relation to future trading options.

This resolution actually goes further than the decision to abandon FBC Solutions.

It also sets in train a review of existing contracting services.

Were not going to speculate where that might be going, but if it ends up looking at contractual working primarily in Fylde using spare capacity from the existing labour force, or, for example, with tree surgery work, where there might not be quite enough on Fylde's parks to justify a specialist unit being established, but a bit of contracted work for other public bodies in and around Fylde could provide the justification, then we'd think that was a very sensible line to take.

At Cabinet, David Eaves concurred with the decision to abandon the plan, and several other members spoke in support of abandonment.

We think it was Cllr Fiddler who said that, given the experience of a board of directors running Melton Grove, and the mess that had got them into, he was very glad to be able to vote for abandonment of the idea.

And with that, the decision to abandon FBC Solutions was made.

Old CE 0 : New CE 1

Dated:  22 January 2012


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