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Petition for Change

Petiton for ChangeWe understand the Fylde Civic Awareness Group is about to deliver a petition containing more than 4,000 signatures of Fylde residents to Fylde Council.

It will call for, and most probably trigger, a local referendum seeking the abandonment of the Leader and Cabinet system, and a return to Committees - which many people see as a more democratic, open and transparent way of doing things.

The Cabinet system of administration has, for too long, damaged public confidence in our Council, and been at the root of many bad decisions that have cost Fylde taxpayers dear.

In 'Death of Democracy' back in 2005, we published details of the first plans to implement a change away from the what was then the long-established, tried and tested Committee System, to what became the Leader and Cabinet system.

We opposed this move at the time, saying "Instead of a collection of worthies, and people of principle with strong moral character representing the views of their electorate in Fylde, we will have acolytes, sycophants and 'yes-men', whose aim will be to seize the reins of power, not to serve their community.

This is not democracy, it is the politics of a politburo in a discredited dictatorship.

Councillor John Bennett wore a black tie to the Council meeting that decided to agree the change because he thought democracy had died in Fylde. Councillor Barbara Pagett also spoke out bravely against the plan, as did others"

What no-one knew at that time was that both Councillors and the Fylde's public were conned into believing they had to change when, in fact, they did not.

The former Commissar and a former Chief Executive had convinced councillors that 'staying as they were was not an option' under the legislation brought in by the Blair Government.

Technically this was true. But in a devastating portent of what was soon to become the hallmark of local government in Fylde - governance based on what appears to be spin and sleight of hand - the opportunity to stay more or less the same for councils under a certain size was denied to Fylde residents.

That was despite an opinion survey conducted by the Council showing a majority of people in Fylde wanted to retain the Committee system.

The Commissar dismissed this by saying so few people had voted it didn't matter, and he would disregard the result and implement the Cabinet system anyway.

Ribble Valley Council - which in very many ways is similar to Fylde, and is also Conservative controlled - took a different view.

They were also under the size that *required* them to adopt a Cabinet system and they did not do so.

Even today, they still operate the Committee system that has served councils well since about 1860

Over time, counterbalance has catalogued the truly dreadful decisions and waste of money this awful Cabinet system has wrought on the people of Fylde.

Then in Time to Restore Democracy? last January, we looked at the background and contrasted how the Cabinet and Committee systems work.

We also gave the background to the public call for change back to the Committee system, and we noted that the Fylde Civic Awareness Group was planning a seminar to explain the powers that had become available under the Localism Act to have a local referendum to allow the public to decide which system of governance they wanted their council to operate.

In the Democracy & Localism part of our article on 8th February, we set out the Seminar programme. We explained that FCAG was looking to recruit shops and households throughout Fylde who would act as places where people could sign or leave petitions. We offered our readers the chance to join this campaign and we know several became shops holding the petition or households acting as letterboxes.

The publicity surrounding the seminar considerably raised the profile of the way Fylde is run, and it provoked a reaction from the Leader and his Cabinet who came out fighting to oppose the change.

In True or False? in February, we looked at the arguments Cabinet members had made against changing back to committees and gave our take on why most of them should be disregarded.

Then in "Illegitimate?" of 13th March, we showed how Flyers and leaflets had been distributed urging people not to sign the petition to change Fylde Council's operating system.

These leaflets appeared to be from the Council. They were styled "A Message from Fylde Borough Council Leader David Eaves" and "Councillor David Eaves, Leader, Fylde Borough Council" and one of the flyers had a photograph of the Town Hall on the front.

The Council is prohibited by statute from funding (or or even from supporting) anyone who is trying to influence the electorate one way or another with regard to a petition, and we noted that when asked about them, Fylde's Chief Executive said "The leaflet is not a publication of the local authority and has not been approved, discussed or brought to the attention of the officers of the Council", adding "If we had been asked to be involved with or to support this leaflet we would have refused."

That was very clear, but pretty much confusing at the same time because all the people we spoke to thought it had come from "the Council".

We also know the Chief Executive was formally asked to publicly dissociate the Council from the misleading comments that appeared to be being made in its name, and were being distributed widely to Fylde households.

There was ample precedent for him to do this - in "Not the Wrea To Do It" we reported a leaflet that had been put out regarding a proposed football stadium for which planning permission had been sought. The leaflet was thought by some to be misleading, and Fylde's Chief Executive published the following statement.

“I can categorically reassure residents that the Council has not provided any advice, confirmation or support for any of the information published in the leaflet. There has been no advice from any planning officer at Fylde and the council completely dissociates itself from the contents of the leaflet. The leaflet has no validity or credibility as far as the council is concerned. None of the options outlined in the leaflet have any substance and have not been discussed with Fylde planners. This leaflet has caused undue distress to residents and it is unfortunate that the publishers have chosen to peddle this message to the local community...”

Furthermore, in 'Snippets of September 2012 - (Shale gas adviser)', we showed that the Council had put out an (as far as we can tell) unsolicited statement about an expert they had used to advise their Scrutiny Committee on shale gas drilling explorations, saying....

"Fylde Council would like to state that Mr Mike Hill does not currently hold any formal advisory or support role on behalf of the Council.

Mr Hill did provide advice to the elected member scrutiny committee task and finish group that looked into the exploratory drilling work carried out by Cuadrilla held early this year. Mr Hill has no formal connection with the Council as stated by the media recently; he is not a spokesman for the Council in any capacity and his views and opinions are not representative of the Council. Mr Hill has not claimed otherwise, although his position has been incorrectly stated by the media."

So there is ample and recent precedent for the Council to dissociate itself from what it regards as misleading statements (as at Wrea Green), and even from views expressed completely outside the realms of Council work that might have been made by someone whose advice they once chose to seek (Mr Hill).

When pressed for more information, Cllr Eaves told the Fylde Civic Awareness Group the flyers were a personal statement from him, and were in no way connected to the Council - adding that it had been funded, produced, and delivered by the Conservative group.

Yet these flyers bore no indication they were political publications. They had no address, no party symbol, and no logo. Not even the name of a party.

The closest they came to that was where some of them said 'This postcard was produced at no cost to the taxpayer'

We think they were both confusing and misleading, but clearly, as far as Fylde's Chief Executive is concerned, when misleading and confusing statements emanate from the Leader of the Council in this way, he applies a different standard.

But it didn't end there.

Warton's Cllr Julie Brickles was incensed that Cllr Eaves appeared to be speaking on her behalf in those leaflets. She was angry that someone she had not elected as Leader appeared to be speaking on her behalf. She alleged that she had never elected Cllr Eaves as Leader of the Council.

When we looked into that allegation in some depth, (see illegitimate, Leaderless, and Snippets April 13) we eventually concluded she was right, and it was our view that, since May 2011 Cllr David Eaves, had not been the Leader of Fylde Council. So the leaflets he had put out claiming to *be* Fylde Council's Leader were inaccurate anyway!

At first Fylde tried to bluster it's way out of this unprecedented failure of corporate governance by claiming Cllr Brickles' allegation was wrong. Then, in the way of all who set out to deceive, it became aggressive and threatening to those who made such claims. Finally, at the11th hour, before an emergency Full Council meeting called to consider the matter, Fylde's officers finally caved in, and admitted they had not had an election for the Leader of the Council when they should have done, and Cllr Eaves was therefore not its Leader.

Fylde had no Leader.

It also had no Cabinet because Cllr Eaves was not the Leader when he handpicked them.

This had been the case for over two years, and it became a 'cause celebre' in Lancashire's local government circles But the key issue our readers should take from it is that this incident with the leaflets and the 'leadership' perfectly illustrates what we have long argued is wrong with the Cabinet system at Fylde.

The Councillors we elect do not run it any longer.

The 'Leader' does.

An explanation from another Council sets this matter out with some clarity.

"Section 63 of the 2007 Act vests in the Leader all the Authority’s executive functions. The person who leads the Council, will initially hold all the Council’s executive functions under their personal control. It is then for him or her to choose whether to exercise some or all of these functions."

So within the law, the Leader decides who decides what.

Fylde is run by a Leader who chooses six of his party colleagues to become a Cabinet.

They then take most of the day-to-day decisions on behalf of the Council - and in doing so, they often seek to limit the information going to the other 44 councillors we elect.

This concentration of power into so few hands greatly increases the risk of bad decisions.

In the House of Lords in 1770 William Pitt the Elder, British Prime Minister said: "Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it" and his statement remains true today.

What we can take from this debacle is that in Fylde's case, the power exercised by the Leader and Cabinet system has been allowed to reach a point where the slicing and dicing of responsibilities is intimately mixing and confusing party-politics with the role of the whole Council, and this same process risks politicisation of what should be a fiercely neutral officer class.

This is quite clearly evidenced by the 'Leader's' anti-petition publicity - where he ably demonstrates either a deliberate intention to gain improper credibility/advantage by making it appear that the literature came from the Council, or it demonstrates a genuine inability to successfully distinguish the distinct roles and responsibilities of a Leader, Cabinet member, Councillor and Party Politician when making public statements.

Not very edifying either way, is it?

Then, in Fylde's March budget meeting, (when Cllr Alan Clayton sensibly called for the cost of a referendum to be included in the budget because it was a known possibility), the vehemence of opposition to the idea of changing back to Committees was quite astonishing.

Equally shocking was Cllr Tim Ashton's personal attack on the Clerk to the Fylde Civic Awareness Group who have, as a community group, campaigned for this change since 1998 - including gaining the support of Town and Parish Councils representing more than 50% of Fylde's electorate, submitting evidence to a Parliamentary Committee and arranging the information seminar in February.

Cllr Ashton's diatribe was so personally abusive that Fylde edited part of what he said out of their webcast "For legal reasons".

You have to wonder why the Leader and Cabinet, and the Conservative group in general, are so opposed to the abandonment of a Cabinet and the return of the Committee system?

  • It was a Labour Government that legislated to introduce Cabinets in most Councils.
  • Fylde adopted it when they didn't have to, and against the majority view of their own official consultation
  • It was the Conservative Party nationally who recognised the folly of Cabinet governance for Councils and, in their election manifesto, they promised the right for Councils to return to committees
  • It was the Conservative / Coalition Government who introduced the option in the Localism Act - (which also empowers local people to institute change via a local referendum)
  • It was the Fylde Conservative group set up a working party to look at how the Council might change back to Committees just before the last local election, but then failed to call a meeting of that working party since they maintained majority control of the Council after the election.

The administrative system a Council uses is not a party political matter. It's like choosing which operating system you prefer for your computer (Windows or Linux or Mackintosh for example).

It's probably even more like a business like choosing whether it will structure itself as a sole trader or partnership or limited company - they all operate using slightly different rules, meaning some are better than others for particular things.

Whatever governance system is adopted, it will not affect the overall majority that the Conservative group currently enjoys.

It does not *require* a change in any of the policies in place (although change will probably happen over time)

So you have to ask - why is it that the Cabinet and Fylde's Conservative group seems so opposed to its re-introduction when almost all the other councillors - of various parties, groups and those who are independents - strongly support having the Committee system?

Some folk will no doubt say it's because each Cabinet member gets an additional and discretionary £4,000 a year on top of the £3,000 a year that all Councillors receive by law, and the Cabinet Members won't want to lose that income.

Whilst it might possibly influence one or two, we don't think that's the main reason.

Others might say that Cabinet members - whose elevated status depends on the patronage of the Leader - are pretty much not going to want to start a revolt, or to argue with him. And that might have some validity. There have been few (if any) resignations from Cabinet on a point of principle that we can remember since the Cabinet system was introduced.

Some will say its because the Committee system would cost more and they want to keep the admin costs down.

But that's not the case either.

The Government has done an economic impact assessment of changing from one system to the other, and concluded there need be no additional cost except for a period of transition as one system hands over to the other.

The Conservative Minister in charge of all local government - St Eric himself - said: "The Government does not envisage that those councils choosing to operate the committee system will be subject to any additional operational or administrative costs to those operating one of the executive models (save for transitional costs)."

So apart from the costs of changing the headed notepaper and some re-training or whatever, the Government says there's no reason it should cost more.

We agree.

In fact, Stroud council - which has already returned to the Committee system - plans to redistribute some of the former Cabinet Member allowances to other Councillors who will have a bigger role on decision making in committees, *and* expects to make savings of £50,000 a year by returning to the Committee System.

But what the return to Committees would do, is make the Council more accountable for the decisions they take - because all the Councillors have oversight of all the decisions that are about to be taken, and can intervene to ask for them to be reviewed

It also ensures a broader spectrum of views feed into the decision making process because - unlike the Cabinet system where Fylde's Leader has consistently chosen members of his own political party - in the Committee System, committees are legally obliged to reflect the political balance of the whole Council as far as possible. That broadens the perspective and brings wider vision to deliberations and debate.

It also means that the much greater depth of wisdom and experience that is collectively available from all Fylde's councillors who can, as of right, feed into the decision making process and lead to greater understanding and better decisions.

But the greatest benefit for the public is better democracy through improved transparency of decision making.

Many decisions are really made in Conservative Party group meetings behind closed doors.

Once made in group meetings like this, these are collectively binding on all Conservative Councillors. Their local party rules say they may not vote against a group decision, and it is only in limited circumstances that they may even abstain from voting.

This situation has given rise to what we have called the 'Blue Peter' decisions of Fylde Cabinet - ('Here's one I made earlier')

It prevents the electorate from knowing which Councillor supports or does not support each issue that is debated, because the debate is behind closed doors.

It is thus impossible for us to know who we might wish to vote for, because we only know what they *say* they support or do not support, we cannot know what they actually did support, and thus who we might wish to vote for.

The group system would, of course, still operate this way in a Committee system, but the real debate on issues would be had in the Committee itself, and those councillors who support or do not support an issue can be challenged for their views and thus identified, and held to account by the electorate for the decisions they make, and the views they hold.

In fact, the Cabinet System allows decisions to be taken by just one Councillor - they can take what is known as an 'Individual Member Decision'

Power from the Leader is delegated to an individual to take the decision on his own.

It is often only after such decisions have been taken, when a fuss bows up that the public realise what was going on. But by then, under the Cabinet system, it is often too late to change anything.

As Cllr Peter Collins has said, "Quick decisions are not always the best decisions."

Under the Committee system, the officers report to a politically balanced committee of councillors with a range of views and experience, and that group would have come to a view.

But the view that they come to is then subject to the will of the whole council.

Committees do not have a final decision, they make a recommendation to the meeting of all councillors at the Full Council meeting.

Historically, most of these Committee recommendations go through 'on the nod'. The Council would not usually disagree with a decision made by one of its committees.

But in the fortnight or so between the decision to recommend something, and the Full Council meeting, there would have been time for the matter to become known about and publicised in the media and thus to the public. And those who might be affected or who are concerned, could contact their councillor.

When it reaches Full Council, if councillors feet there was significant public concern about decision, they could ask for the matter to be sent back to the Committee for further consideration. (Or in extremis they could actually refuse the recommendation).

When a matter is reconsidered at Committee, any Councillor may attend, and has the right to speak on behalf of the residents they represent.

(People we speak to are usually surprised that the rank and file councillors they elect, and who currently represent them, have no automatic right to speak at Cabinet meetings where most day-to-day decision are taken. They are limited to submitting written questions several days in advance of the meeting and cannot take part in the debate).

What the Committee system does do - apart from broadening and deepening the range of vision and experience that goes into decision making - is to put a safeguard in place that requires a time interval between a committee debate and the Council's final decision - during which the public have an opportunity to contact and lobby their councillors who then have time and opportunity to require bad decisions to be re-examined where necessary.

So for all these reasons, we were very happy to support the Fylde Civic Awareness Group's initiative to ask the people of Fylde if they want to take to themselves a decision about which operating system their council will use on their behalf.

Sadly, the petition has come too late for its proposer - the late David Meldrum  - to see it to fruition because Mr Meldrum, died earlier this year.

The Localism Act says the triggering of a binding referendum to decide this matter must be preceded by a petition with the valid and legible support of 5% of the Fylde electorate.

In number terms, this means the assenting signatures of 3,077 people who are also on Fylde's electoral roll

Despite the Leader and his Conservative colleague's attempts to dissuade the electorate from signing, we understand that FCAG will deliver more than 4,000 signatures to the Council on Tuesday 29th October 2013.

The signatures have been collected in shops, from internet-based petition forms, at meetings, from personal deliveries and contact, and via on-street collections.

The group tell us they heard and noted concerns about the cost of holding a stand-alone referendum, and changed their timetable to allow the referendum to be held on the same date as the European Elections - (22 May next year). That way, the Council is committed to staging an election anyway, with ballot papers, voting booths, counters and so on having to be provided for that.

So any additional costs for the referendum need only be marginal in real terms, albeit that it is expected that expect Fylde will choose to apportion the costs equally between the two votes for its own accounting purposes.

The referendum will provide the people of Fylde with their right to decide which system of governance they want their Council to operate, and FCAG say will be happy to abide by the public vote.

They feel that by delivering the petition and triggering the referendum, they have fulfilled the mandate they accepted from the public meeting in 2008 which called for a return of the Committee System where all our elected councillors have the right to receive the same information; the right to speak; and the right to vote, on all decisions made by our council.

Changing back to Committees is a current trend in Local Government.

Nationally, about 40 Councils across the country are considering changing back to Committees.

A dozen have already decided to do so. (Hartlepool, Reading and Stroud Borough Councils, together with Brighton & Hove, South Gloucestershire, Newark & Sherwood, plus Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Nottinghamshire County Councils have already voted to change, as have Kingston-upon-Thames, Sutton, and Barnet in the London area).

All these councils have ended their leader and cabinet models, and returned to the pre-2000/05 regime in which decisions are taken by politically proportionate committees rather than cabinet members.

As we said earlier, Fylde's Conservative Group oppose the change. One of their chief reasons has been that "only a very small group want the change" They dismissed the proposal for change as being made by 'just a few people'

In fact it was 200 people who passed the original resolution calling for change.

In view of their earlier comments, it might be interesting to see Fylde's reaction to the petition containing the signatures of more than 4,000 of their electors.

When they recently received 2,000 responses to a consultation on the former Scruples site, their spokesman told the Gazette that Fylde's officers were: "astounded by Fylde's sense of civic pride" adding "It really has been astounding - one of the largest responses to civic involvement in many, many years."

We wonder if the superlatives will be even greater for the civic involvement in a formal petition of twice that number - but we're not holding our breath!

To mark this milestone as the petition is delivered, the members of the Fylde Civic Awareness Group, and those who support their aim in this matter, have been invited to assemble at 2pm on Tuesday 29th October, on the steps of the reception entrance to the Town Hall in St Annes for a photograph to mark the occasion - prior to the group handed in the petition. We're sure counterbalance readers who support their aim would also be welcome on the photograph too if you'd like to go along.

The Council will check the petition once it is received, and will rule out anyone who might have signed it more than once, or who is not on Fylde's electoral roll. They will also seek to discount any entries they regard as illegible, but we understand FCAG are reasonably confident they have a sufficiently large inbuilt margin for such discounting.

If that proves to be the case and the petition is verified, it will likely trigger a binding governance referendum for Fylde in May next year, and between now and then, Fylde will be devising the committee system it would operate in the event of a vote for change in the referendum.

There is more to come on this, and we'll keep readers posted.

Dated:  27 October 2013


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