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It Ain't Over Yet

It Aint Over YetIt's now five years and thee months since we first reported a plan that threatened the residents of Melton Grove.

That was in our article 'The Great January Sale' when Fylde's former Commissar John Coombes produced pages of assets for potential disposal.

It's two years and three months since we broke the news that a cloak of secrecy was being woven to plot that disposal - as we set out in Melton Grove Mess.

Since then, the pages of counterbalance have been filled to bursting with the disgrace and the scandal that was the disposal of Melton Grove.

Everyone knows the foundation of Melton Grove was housing made available for worthy local people at well below market value rents.

But elements within Fylde Council deliberately set about dismantling those foundations on which Melton Grove rested.

We saw what we consider to be some of the worst civic behaviour by individual officers and members that you could imagine. Behaviour that culminated in an unholy rush to conclude the sale before a Council meeting called to debate the disposal could even be held.

Fylde's performance in that matter had eerie echoes of Neil Kinnock's jibe criticising Liverpool Council's Derek Hatton when he spoke of the disgrace of Hatton and his team 'scuttling round in taxis handing out redundancy notices'.

And so the decision to dispose was made.

After that, most people thought that was it; and nothing could be changed.

Fylde subsequently held a Scrutiny Committee inquiry which tacitly recognised that was the situation.   Instead of re-opening the decision, it sought - and did a pretty decent job of - finding out what had gone wrong, with the intention of identifying what should be done to stop it happening again.

Whilst we welcomed the work done by the Scrutiny Committee, and we agree with most of its findings, we did not think it addressed all the questions it should have covered (It deliberately avoided seeking to identify and apportion blame) and, most importantly, we were not confident that it would stop the same sort of thing happening again.

It was, and it remains, our view, that the scandal of Melton Grove was caused by the beliefs, attitudes and values of the people involved. And only by changing the people who held those views and took the decisions could you hope to make things different for next time.

The problem was not procedural. It was institutional.

We thought we had been proved right in that perception when, as we reported in 'Consequences' in January 2012 that the Chairman of Fylde's Scrutiny Committee - Cllr Mulholland launched a public assault on a former Director of Clifton (Lytham) Housing Association to prevent her from representing Fylde on an external organisation - claiming he had been "horrified" with her answers about Melton Grove.

She was, nevertheless, voted through to represent Fylde on that external organisation.

But in the fourteen months since that meeting, apart from making some minor changes to its constitutional arrangements, Melton Grove became a none-subject as far as FBC was concerned.

The deal had been done.

End of.

There were some questions to address regarding the supposed 'protection' that Fylde built in to the sale agreement, but overall it was thought that everyone had to 'move on'

But that was not the end of it at all.

counterbalance didn't publish its own conclusion article on Melton Grove because we didn't believe the matter had been concluded.

And during those fourteen months we became aware of a number of initiatives set in train that could yet come back to bite those involved. Most notable of these is a complaint made to the Local Government Ombudsman.

The LG Ombudsman service exists to provide an independent means of redress to individuals for injustice caused by unfair treatment or service failure by local authorities, schools and care providers and to promote good public administration and service improvement.

They have the same powers as the High Court to obtain information and documents, but their decisions are final and cannot be appealed.  However, they can be challenged in the High Court if it is believed that their reasoning has a legal flaw.

Their investigations are private, and although the findings are published, people are not usually identified in the published information.

They says themselves "When we find that a body we have investigated has done something wrong, we may recommend how it should put it right. Although we cannot make bodies do what we recommend, they are almost always willing to act on what we say."

And less encouragingly, "We do not have to investigate every complaint received, even if we have the power to do so. For example, we may decide not to investigate if we think the problem you mention has not affected you significantly."

With one exception, our own experience of the Ombudsman service has seen much of that final paragraph. We've seen them operate from both the inside and outside and, broadly speaking, our perception has been that they first try to find reasons not to accept complaints from the public about what a Council has done.

If that doesn't happen, they seem to send the complaint (as made) to the Council and ask for their views - seemingly in the hope that the Council will find ways of helping them avoid undertaking an investigation, or that the Council will do enough to mollify the complainant and make the complaint go away.

But in the case of Melton Grove, we are aware that during the months the Ombudsman has had the matter to consider, they have, very unusually, taken an exceptionally long time to move forward with it. That might be because the Ombudsman service is pulled out with work and couldn't get to it sooner, or it might be because they have (given the volume of published information from the Scrutiny Committee and others) already considered quite a lot of what went on from what is available in the public domain.

When we first heard that a complaint had been sent to the Ombudsman we were not overly optimistic about the chances of anything happening.

However.

We heard yesterday that Councillor St Louis Rigby the Magnificent - (the former Director of Melton Grove who stood alone like a rock preventing the disposal until he was removed - in our view wrongly - by the other Directors) had received a letter from the Ombudsman service, and we understand the Ombudsman has written to Fylde Council with something like 30 questions which the Council is obliged to answer.

To us, this process sounds as though serious questions are being asked of Fylde by the Ombudsman service themselves. We think that's unusual unless they are planning to conduct a thorough enquiry.

We said earlier that with one exception, our own experience of the Ombudsman service suggested they were keen to avoid accepting enquiries for investigation, and they were often not thorough in the questions they asked in the early stages.

As often happens it is the exception that proves the rule.

The exception to which we refer above was, in fact, Fylde's decision to introduce Jet Skis onto Fairhaven Lake. Fylde was censured by the Ombudsman for the way it came to that decision, they way they executed it, and for failing to adequately deal with the outcome once the decision it lease part of the lake to a Jet Ski company had been taken.

That outcome flowed on the back of some very serious questions that were asked of Fylde by the Ombudsman service.

In that case, there was no restitution or putting right of wrongs because the Jet Ski Operation had been closed down on the order of a High Court Judge who, at the request of residents living opposite, had visited the lake, saw what was going on, and decided the disturbance it caused it was a common law nuisance (as opposed to being a Statutory Nuisance which could be mitigated) and it should cease that same day.

It did.

And a young couple who had invested their home to fund their new Jet Ski Hire business lost out very seriously.

All in all, it was an unedifying piece of work by FBC - in much the same way that Fylde's conduct on Melton Grove has been unedifying.

It's not yet clear what questions and issues have been addressed by the Ombudsman with respect to Fylde's handling of Melton Grove, but we understand they have until the end of the month to respond to the Ombudsman.

What is clear, is that as far as Melton Grove and FBC is concerned, the fat lady's not singing yet.

We'll bring readers more as we have it.

Dated:    16 May 2013


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