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Snippets February 2012

Blue Mole Writes Snippets Feb 2012Our Blue Mole has been in touch again to tell us about a bit of whip cracking - nominally from Conservative Leader David Eaves - but suggesting that it's actually Dim Tim running the show by proxy.

We're told that Conservative Councillors have been firmly reminded they're not allowed to talk to, or contact, the press without prior screening and permission.

The issue seems to have blown up at a Conservative Group Meeting on 21 February 2012 after letters were sent to the paper by Conservative Councillors like Frank Andrews and Peter Woods  who wrote to the Express against speeding limits, and increased spending by councils.

The Blue Mole sees it as the day democracy died within the Fylde Tory group.

We sympathise with that view, but we have the date of proper democracy ending in Fylde as being 6 October 2005 (See our previous article Death of Democracy)

Following the Group meeting, it seems David Eaves wrote to all the Conservatives to confirm the resolution passed at the group meeting , "That all articles and/or letters should be cleared with the group press officer, Fabian Craig-Wilson, before being submitted to the media."

He also reminded them that this was not a new procedure, and that they have not appointed a press officer since the elections last May.

The only 'let-out' for frustrated Conservative Councillors is when the issue of concern is specific to their ward, because a Ward Councillor "may be contacted directly for a comment relating to any issue within his or her ward."

So it sounds like no-one will be allowed to criticise Dim Tim for his ridiculous 20mph universal speed limit, or to highlight other ('Conservative controlled') Councils that are heading for double-digit tax rises next year. (which will be our next counterbalance).

Newer Fylde Conservative Councillors will now have to decide whether they were elected as individuals, or elected because they carried the Conservative tag. If the former, we might see some principled ones leaving the group and becoming independent or non aligned. If the latter, they'd better shut up and put their pens down.

Sadly, if history is any precedent, we expect the latter to prevail.

We're finding the issue of the Victoria Hotel on Church Road really interesting.

We hope to do a more detailed article in the next week or two.

It's a curious case, and the first one that we've ever seen to use a refusal reason anything like the one that was developed by Fylde's Development Management Committee who said "The proposed development would result in the loss of an important, accessible community facility which, in the absence of a convenient alternative facility, would be detrimental to the maintenance of a strong, vibrant and healthy community as promoted through PPS3: Housing and the draft National Planning Policy Framework. The retention of this public house would be of such community benefit as to outweigh the provision of additional housing in this location."

That's nothing like the usual 'planning' reasons that are given when applications are refused.

Popular opinion (led by the Conservative, and Brigadier-like St Annes Town and Fylde Borough Councillor, Edward Nash) is certainly behind the campaign to keep it as a pub.

But popular opinion didn't save a previous (1980/81) application to demolish the stables at the rear, to increase the car parking available. A petition to retain the stables garnered 10,000 signatures. And if memory serves, even the Duke of Edinburgh wrote in support of retaining the stables at that time. Fylde had refused permission. Boddingtons (as it was then) appealed, and the Planning Inspectorate overturned the refusal and granted permission to demolish the stables

But what's different this time is 'Localism'.

To be specific, the Localism Act, part of which provides communities with new powers to help save cherished local facilities - giving community groups the time to develop a bid to buy a local asset, and thus helping local communities keep much-loved features (like the Vic) in public use and part of local life. The part of the Act that is of particular interest here is 'the community right to bid'

But there are quit a few snags.

Firstly the relevant bit of the Localism Act won't be 'made live' with it's Commencement Order until (it's currently estimated) sometime in October. Some had hoped it would be April, but that's now thought unlikely.

Secondly, properties to be 'bid' for should already be on a list of 'cherished community assets' which doesn't yet exist at Fylde as far as we know.

Thirdly, there's probably more than £1m that would have to be raised to pay for the building (you don't get them for free!) and that's a lot for a community group to find.

Fourthly, the current owners are contractually bound to the potential developers - probably via a formal option - and so far, the Localism Act has had nothing to say about whether a 'community right to bid' could 'trump' such an option* (and how much restitution or compensation would have to be paid if it did)  PLEASE SEE UPDATE AT END

We're a bit worried about the plan to save the Vic using 'Localism' arguments, when those augments don't even yet exist in practice.

It could be that the (very understandable) enthusiasm for the process in this instance actually risks damaging what might well become an important new tool for those that want to keep characterful and important examples of architecture from a previous age.

In fact, it was put to us - rather mischievously we thought - that someone high up in Fylde's planning hierarchy had been happy to provoke the resolution that was passed by Development Management Committee, in order to bring the embryo Localism Act into conflict with traditional planning law - in the hope that it would set a bad precedent for Localism and help maintain the 'supremacy' of planning law.

If that happens, it will be a bad thing for Localism, and it's likely to cost a few bob. We know some of our readers are already concerned about the costs of what they see as a futile appeal with no hope of succeeding, being borne by local taxpayers

The Inquiry into the appeal by Mcarthy and Stone will be held at the United Reformed Church, St George’s Road, St Annes, on April 24th

Leading up to that date, interested parties (that's anyone) can send written comments up to 6 March, and those giving formal evidence have to have them ready for 27 March.

You can follow this link to visit the Planning Inspectorate website for this appeal, and make a comment (online if you want).

The Case Identifier number is 2168726

Fylde is again advertising (so far, in fairly limited fashion) for 'a Trustee' for  Lowther Gardens.

The website advert says the present trustees are "the borough council and four committed individuals".

It goes on to say that in order to continue to manage the Gardens for the benefit of those who live in Lytham and the surrounding area, the trustees are seeking to appoint an additional trustee.

They remind us that object of the charitable trust is : “to promote for the benefit of the inhabitants of Lytham and the surrounding area the provision of facilities for recreation or other leisure time occupation of individuals who have the need for such facilities by reason of their youth, age, infirmity or disablement, financial hardship or social and economic circumstances or for the public at large in the interest of social welfare and with the object of improving the conditions of life of the said inhabitants.”

The advert says they are especially looking for individuals who can offer experience in management of public open space.

It also says that being a trustee may involve a significant commitment of time and work, and that trustees also have legal responsibilities for the way the trust operates. If you are interested in being a trustee, you should first read some guidance from the Charity Commission.

To apply, potential trustees are asked to use an on-line form or send an email to the Council's Solicitor - Ian Curtis - with their name and contact details, and a brief supporting statement (maximum 300 words), no later than 16 March 2012.

Whilst we've no doubt this trustee is necessary, and it is a move is the right direction, it's not going to do what is needed, and probably won't do what they want.

They're approaching it like a job application - like a competition. And there's no benefit side shown at all.

Then they wonder why nobody applies.

What on earth is going to motivate someone to apply when the "advert" says there will be a significant commitment of time, it could bring unspecified legal responsibilities crashing down around your ears, and by the way, its unpaid, and the Council is trying to offload all the costs in has onto the Trust so it doesn't have to pay anything itself.

Fylde should be in partnership with the Trust, not trying to screw it.

But sadly, it isn't unusual to see it done this way. The Advert's been done by someone without imagination. But that's only to be expected when someone who is a regulator (Solicitor) is running the show. We don't intend personal criticism here, but solicitors generally aren't the most positive of outlook, and Fylde's own solicitor is probably one of the most passive / reactive individuals you could meet (at least if the evidence he gave to the Melton Grove Task and Finish Group is anything to go by).

Imagine their writing an ad for the Army Recruiting Service. It might go something like this..... "You will be working in unpleasant conditions in foreign lands perhaps even swamps. You'll be shot at, deprived of sleep, have prepack food rations, and be legally responsible if you kill someone unlawfully even while under fire yourself. You'll risk being tortured if caught, and will be bullied by all and sundry. Write for an application form and copy it to us in triplicate within the next two weeks."

As one of our readers tells her youngster (who occasionally tests the boundaries of parental) control....  

"It's not going to happen"

At least three things need to change.

First, the Council needs to truly value, and to properly invest in, the service that the Trust is delivering for them. (Because that's what the Trust is (or at least should be) doing) - delivering a service for the Council that complies with the Council's stated corporate objectives. And yes, that means spending money with the Trust.

Second, there needs to be not one, but several more Trustees appointed. There should be a much broader spread of interests and acumen, including some specifically local people with local knowledge and several from the user groups that use the Trust's services.

Thirdly, the Council needs to look again at how it searches for Trustees. A dry as dust competitive job advert isn't going to work. As a minimum, there needs to be some accentuation of positives and some reasons for folk to get involved. And above all, someone who wants to make a success of the trust should be in charge of it from the Council's end, not someone who doesn't really want to be involved with it at all.

Later this year, (15th November to be precise) we're going to have a “Police Referendum”.

The idea is that instead of having a Lancashire Police Authority, (as we do now) we can elect our own choice of someone to be the 'Lancashire Police Commissioner'

The present system in Lancashire sees a Police Authority made up of 17 Members. Seven of these are appointed from Lancashire County Council, one each comes from the Unitary Councils of Blackburn with Darwen and Blackpool.

The remaining eight are independent members, selected on merit following public advertisement. They are appointed by the whole Authority.

Police Authority Members are responsible for making decisions on behalf of the local community about local policing services and budgets, (eg the part of the Council Tax which is spent on Policing).

They have no control over operational policing (which remains the responsibility of the Chief Constable), but they can and do set what they (on behalf of the community) consider to be overall budgets and priorities.

The Government thinks they're remote and no-one knows about them. We think that's probably right for most folk. But that's not to say they won't listen and they haven't done a good job in the past.

In fact counterbalance has first-hand experience of them doing exactly what they should do - when (supported by the Police) we started our campaign  to make nightclubs pay for the policing necessary to prevent the disturbance that was being caused when the nightclub closed.

The Police Authority agreed to take the matter up and took the idea all the way to Government. But with New Labour in the pocket of the drinks industry at the time, they were not interested. (See our first ever article Nightclubs Should Pay of 19 February 2004).

But the Government wants to change the way  public accountability for policing is provided, and they have passed new laws to bring that about. They want us to choose an individual to commission our Policing Services.

The incredibly curious can see more on the Home Office Website (including how to stand as a candidate for the £85,000 a year job).

The Police Service itself stands quite separate because - as we understand it - the Police are technically Her Majesty's Constabulary and, at the end of the line, they are answerable to the Crown rather than Parliament.

So between now and November, local worthies are considering whether to stand for election to this new job.

Probably the highest profile candidate nationwide so far, is John Prescott  (now Lord Prescott) - He's shaping up for the Humberside job.

In Lancashire we heard early suggestions that County Councillor Driver (Leader of Lancashire County Council) might be interested and we've had several people tell us that Fylde's own Councillor Tim Ashton might like a go at it.

The salary might be quite a pull for some people,  but candidates who stand for election will each have to pay a non-returnable deposit of £5,000 and produce 100 signatures of support. We wonder if some we know would be able to find 100 people to support them.

But perhaps the money will be less important to others.

Kevin Horkin, a Ribble Valley businessman and Councillor has said he will stand, and is believed to be the first person to formally declare that intention.

We think the choice is likely to be decided on what we call the Heinz effect – (when someone says beans, most people say Heinz – because they’re well known). So with directly elected anythings. You tend to get people elected who are well known locally. (Ahhh! I’ve heard of them, so I’ll vote for them). Chemists and newsagents nearly always do well.

Celebrities or household names will have the best chance because, remember, it's the whole of Lancashire that will be voting. So unless you have a county-wide public profile it will be a hard slog.

We're not that much enamoured of the idea in principle to be honest. Concentrating power into fewer hands is never a good direction for democracy, and the whole ‘directly elected’ thing is pointless in our view unless you also make each candidate set out their financial plan for their term of office – showing how much they will spend, broadly what they’ll spend it on, and how much of that will come from taxation.  That way you have something objective to judge them on.

Surprisingly, (because we don't agree with him on almost anything else, and least of all his disgraceful handling of the Jean Charles de Menezes killing) we find ourselves close to the same camp as that of Lord (formerly Sir Ian) Blair who has said the Government's plans for elected police commissioners are a "completely terrible idea that has not been thought through". We don't go quite that far, but we're in that direction of travel.

So there we are. If you fancy a go, and have £5k to risk, and 100 friends, you could get started straight away.

We'll keep readers posted.

Probably not. 

And if this isn't going to cause a fuss, we don't know what will.

Cuadrilla, the gas exploration company have said they're going to do a 'Geophysical Survey' around the Fylde.

They have been working with land-owners and the County Council to establish access to land and agree the route the survey will take.

It's a study of the subsurface geology in the region – the varied layers of rock beneath the surface, and it uses vibrating technology, similar to sonar, to map the area. The survey will map the layers of rock in the region, so Cuadrilla can identify which layers of shale rock are the most promising for extraction.

A posh booklet has been sent to almost everyone in the Fylde plain, so we don't need to go into too much detail.

Never one to miss a PR trick (and given the local hostility they probably need to be on top of their game) Cuadrilla also claim there will also be what they call "a significant economic contribution made by the survey, which will see around 40 local people employed over the course of three months. and make a direct contribution of £1.5 million to the area over the course of the survey".

So what's going to happen?

Well - at least as far as Cuadrilla are concerned, there are two parts. They plan to lay a net or grid of cables up and down the countryside with microphones attached, and leave them in position for about thee weeks Vibrator lorrywhilst a convoy of four or so "specialist vibrator (vibroseis) vehicles slowly operate along a number of predetermined roads and tracks falling within the area"

We're assuming here that the machines are like the big slow moving lorry convoys you sometimes see on the Motorway. We've always assumed these are testing for cracks and so on in the motorway surface.

Quite how much vibration these machines cause we don't know, but when you pass the motorway ones, you don't notice it.

But "in association" with the vibration operation, Cuadrilla are going to set off a series of what they call "small charges" down "a number of pre-augured holes." These will be detonated and "a slight muffled thud may be heard after each detonation"

We're guessing the aim here will be to pick up the sound waves as the vibrations and detonations echo down through the rock and back to the microphones and - presumably - Cuadrilla's technical boffins will be able to read these to show where the different layers of subterranean rock are located and how deep they are.

You have to say, it doesn't sound as thought it's going to be a popular thing.

So who says they can do it?

Well Cuadrilla claim it will be done "in accordance with the provisions of the Petroleum Act 1998 under licence PEDL 165 as issued to Cuadrilla by the Department of Energy and Climate Change" and it will comply with Part 22 Class B of the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995

The latter sounds like it's something that is called 'Permitted Development' and so it won't need planning permission.

We can think of a few folk that might be upset by that.

We checked the PEDL (Petroleum Exploration and Development Licence) and it covers an area from about Morecambe to Southport and inland a bit further than Garstang, so we're presuming Cuadrilla can simply go ahead and do it within the terms of the licence and because it's permitted development.

It may be possible for Fylde to make something called an "Article 4 Directive" that would (or might?) remove the permitted development rights but this is into very esoteric planning and is probably unlikely.

So stand by for the tests.

Meanwhile.... in a galaxy far away - well, in America to be precise, things are not going too well for the frackers over there.

We're grateful to one of our readers in Spain (counterbalance is nothing if not international in its appeal ;-))  for the link to the Huffington Post which reports two bans on fracking in New York State in the US.

Under the heading "New York Fracking Ban In Towns Upheld By Second Judge", it reports how the town authorities of Middlefield (population about 2,114), had refused to allow the drilling because *it* has authority to say *where* drilling can take place. (The higher level State Authority controls *how* any drilling can be done)

A farmer / landowner had argued  the ban was overruled by a state law designed to create a uniform regulatory scheme for the oil and gas industry.

But an acting State Supreme Court Judge ruled on Friday 24 Feb 2012, that the authority vested in towns and cities in New York State allows them to regulate the use of their land, and it extends to prohibitions on drilling.

In this judgement he dismissed the arguments  of the farmer / landowner who had already sold leases on almost 400 acres (160 hectares).

Middlefield's attorney, had said earlier on Friday that victories in his case and in Dryden could have statewide implications. Adding "For the last year or so, the gas industry has been threatening (towns), 'you're going to lose in court, so don't even waste your money," and he argued that the decision they had made would emboldens other towns.

Dated:  29 February 2012

One of our readers has kindly referred us to Section 96(4) of the Localism Act which says "If a relevant disposal within subsection (2) or (3) is made in pursuance of a binding agreement to make it, the disposal is entered into when the agreement becomes binding."

Tha'ts probably not good news for the campaigners. The implication is that, so far as the Localism Act is concerned, the disposal is considered to have taken place when an option to purchase is agreed between the parties, not when the actual disposal takes place.

Section 99(2) also says St Eric can, by regulations, make a whole host of provisions for compensation apply.

Readers can follow this link for the Act online, and this link to download the whole ACT as a pdf file


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