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Snippets February 2013

Snippets Feb 2013 Blue Mole is BackTHE BLUE MOLE RETURNS
Another missive from the Mole tells us of goings-on inside the normally closed doors of the Conservative group.

This time the news is that the Conservatives are returning to what Mole describes as the age-old-routine of seeking paper candidates to cover their shortfall in real candidates for the County elections in May.

['Paper candidates' is a term often used when a  person allows their name to be put forward as an election candidate, but does not expect to put much - or any - effort into canvassing themselves. They simply rely on the party name to get them elected and maybe some canvassing on their behalf by others].

Mole tells us the paper candidates for LCC are expected to include Princess Karen's husband for what Mole describes as "a no-win seat in St Annes".

It seems the shortfall in 'proper' candidates is being attributed in part to the falling membership, which is down something like 25% in Fylde, and in part to what Mole calls 'an ill-informed selection process that excludes good candidates' ("because they are chosen by a committee from all over Lancashire, not from Fylde").'

Mole also tells us they think the shortfall is also partly attributable to Leader David Eaves' ruling that no standing councillors who harbour ambitions for, or presently occupy, a Cabinet seat, could stand for LCC, (this effectively protects Cllr Fabian Craig Wilson from serious internal challenge), leaving possibles such as Ben Aitken, Princess Karen and Cheryl Little with any County ambitions they may have, halted.


COUNCIL TAX BENEFIT CHANGES
Council Tax Benefit is a subsidy paid to lower income households who are judged unable to afford to pay the whole amount - for example if you are a pensioner on a low pension of say £70 per week, it's obviously going to be difficult to find £150 a month for Council Tax on your home. People are means tested for eligibility to receive the benefit. Some would have 100% of their Council tax bill paid, others less.

Readers will have seen in the media in the last few days that councils up and down the country are having to implement 11th hour considerations about Council Tax benefit changes.

Some say this is going to be Cameron's Poll Tax. We doubt it, but whether it will be or not we can't really tell. What we do know is that it is going to cause a lot of upset from April.

So what's happening?

Well, up to now, although Fylde pays Council Tax and Housing Benefit into claimant's accounts, the cost has been met in full (well almost) by Government. But this year as part of their plans to limit welfare spending, the Government has told Councils they will only pay 90% of the benefit that is currently in payment.

[Whilst we understand and support the need to reduce overall welfare spending, we think this is quite a blunt and arbitrary way of going about things, and it might have been better to look at the means test to see if alterations to that process would have been more fair]

But this is Government's chosen method, and it means a 10% cut in payments to Councils.

Councils were initially given two options, they could pass on the reduction and reduce payments to claimants by 10%, or they could subsidise the benefit themselves (by the 10% they were 'losing'). That way local - rather than national - taxpayers would cover the 10% that was not being paid. In Fylde it would have cost us (as local taxpayers) around £90,000.

However, there is another little twist. The Government also said that certain classes of people should not be subject to any reduction in the benefit they receive. Most notably this includes pensioners.

In Fylde, with its highly skewed demographic toward older people, this is a big consideration. When pensioner claimants are excluded from the calculation, what was a 10% reduction for everyone becomes a 32% reduction for the remainder.

At the last minute, the Government - perhaps mindful of this sort of impact - has modified the scheme to reduce it, and Fylde was given a further choice. They could join a 'transitional scheme' where working age recipients of benefit would not have to pay more than 8.5%.

The cost to Fylde Council of implementing this scheme (we understand it is available for just one year) is estimated to be £49,158  for next year, so national taxation is sharing about half the 'transitional' subsidy.

But there is another problem lurking in the wings.

Fylde is the billing and collection authority for Council Tax, but they don't keep it all, The lion's share goes to Lancashire County Council, and smaller shares go to the Police and Fire services, (and smaller sums still go to Parish Councils) for their running costs.

Usually each of these authorities works out how much it needs then it 'precepts' for that amount, and Fylde is obliged to collect that and pay it over to them.

But under these new arrangements, whichever option Fylde Council selected for the benefits scheme WOULD ALSO APPLY TO THE OTHER PRECEPTING BODIES.

And they had some strong words to say to Fylde because Fylde's decision would have a major impact on their budget.

In LCC's usual careful language that you have to read between the lines of to understand, the County Treasurer said 'For God's sake don't go for the transitional scheme' (Please note: We've interpreted this from what he actually said using his well honed Council-speak).

The fire service was more blunt. They said "Our initial estimates are that if all the Authorities across Lancashire accepted the grant, the additional cost to the Fire Authority would be somewhere in the region of £200k in 2013/14, potentially rising to approx £400k in 2014/15 hence the one off funding is withdrawn. We are concerned as to the potential impact that the further reductions required to fund this would have on our service. As such the Authority does not support amending the scheme to qualify for the one off grant unless the additional cost is offset by amendments to the level of council tax discounts and exemptions that are currently provided.’

The new Police & Crime Commissioner Clive Grunshaw said:  "Even though the government is making grant funding available this would not be sufficient to cover the cost of the scheme and therefore to accept the grant will create additional funding pressures on the Police and Crime budget....." and he concluded "....I am therefore of the opinion that Fylde Borough Council should not accept the government's offer of a one off transitional grant.’

We've never before known anything like this - where one precepting authority (Fylde) can impact on the precepts of other authorities.

It's also unusual that councils up and down the Country will all be making different decisions - some will pass on the whole cut to claimants.  Others (like Bristol) will absorb the whole cut (leaving claimants no worse off), and others will use the transitional scheme.

In future, it will depend where you live how much Council Tax Benefit you get - even if your circumstances are the same as someone in another Council area. So in reality, this is the end of a national Council Tax benefit scheme with equality across the country.

So what did Fylde BC decide do? Well they did what is probably the decent thing for claimants and adopted the transitional arrangements scheme.

It will cost us another £45,000 on local taxes and the Government chipping in the same amount from national taxation as a softener for the first year. What happens after that is anyone's guess. Maybe they hope that if people get used to paying an 8.5% increase this year, they will be less unhappy about another increase in the future.

But Fylde is going to take an awful lot of flak. Firstly for making some working age people whose circumstances have not changed, pay Council Tax when they have never had to pay it before. Secondly, by increasing the Council tax payable by other claimants of working age. These groups do tend to be lower income households and barring the few who intentionally set out to defraud, they will feel the pain of an 8.5% loss.

Thirdly FBC will take flak for - in effect - cutting the budgets of the other precepting authorities. It will be interesting to see if the (Labour Party member) Police Commissioner we (sort of) elected finds himself unable to resist laying the blame for any policing failures at the door of (Conservative) FBC who cut his budget by what he claims will be £215,000 in 2013/14. and an estimated £385,000 in 2014/15 (depending on what happens with the transitional arrangements next year), or whether he is able to keep ''Party politics' out of such discussions. Mind you, according to some Wyre Councillors (where he is still a Wyre BC councillor alongside them), his plan to appoint four Assistant Commissioners and a Deputy Commissioner at a reputed cost of £100,000 is about half the cost he might lose anyway.


SUPPORTING HOMEBUYERS
As we reported in 'Homebuyer Support' Fylde is embarked on a scheme to help people onto the housing ladder. They had one concern, and it was whether the scheme could be limited to local people. The answer give at Council last Monday was (a rather long report) which concluded the scheme could not be limited to local people.

So Fylde voted - almost unanimously to approve the scheme anyway.

Readers will recall we were very supportive of this scheme. If it works as everyone hopes it will undoubtedly be a good thing.

But after we published our supportive article, we were contacted by a professional in the financial word who told us he had grave reservations about it. His concern was that after the five years is up, and the guarantee that Fylde gave the bank is repaid, he believes the bank will not do as we all hope and say 'well done, you've met all the payments and shown you are a good customer, carry on'. He believes they will say. 'That's fine, but we no longer have the guarantee, so the risk is greater, and the amount you have to pay must also increase.'

He believes we are sowing the seeds of our own small-scale sub-prime mortgage scheme, and he forecast repossessions after the five years of the guarantee runs out.

Were it to happen, that would be a bitter blow. We hope he is wrong, but we are in the process of tempering our enthusiasm for the scheme based on what we have now been told.


ETHNIC CLEANSING FOR PLANTS
A mostly unnoticed little regulation slipped out of Government this week. In itself it's so insignificant that few will even notice it, but the underlying logic and principle are potentially very significant.

The sale of five "invasive non-native aquatic plant species" is to be banned.

(For plant anoraks and the incredibly curious with no real life, that's Water Fern, Parrot’s Feather, Floating Pennywort, Australian Swamp Stone-crop (aka New Zealand Pygmyweed), and Water Primrose).

Government says it's in order to protect wildlife.

These plants are also wildlife of course, but that seems not to matter.

Environment minister Richard Benyon was at least more honest about the reasoning, he said: "Tough laws to curb the sale of these plants could save the country millions of pounds as well as protecting wildlife such as fish and native plants. But as well as saving money and protecting wildlife the ban will also help maintain access to rivers and lakes for anglers and watersport fans.”

The ban on selling them means that all retailers who sell these plants face a fine of up to £5,000 and possibly up to six months in prison. They have a year to adjust to the ban.

We absolutely disagree with the prohibition on sales. The fact that these plants might be more successful at living here than existing native plants is a form of environmental protectionism that accords greater importance to one species than another in law, and it flies in the face of evolution and survival of the fittest - so it will not endure anyway.

But if you extend the underlying logic, you come up with some curious parallels -  If it is Government's job to decide which plants may not be allowed to live here based on how successful they are, how long will it be before the same logic is applied to people, and those human species from abroad who are more successful than indigenous Britons in one way or another will be precluded from staying here?

Will we hear a minister saying "Tough laws to curb these people could save the country millions of pounds as well as protecting the native population ? Of course we won't.

Nor should we hear it regarding other forms of life.


BROADER VISION?
We hear that changes are proposed to siting of broadband cabinets and overhead lines for superfast broadband networks, and the Government is consulting on them now.

The idea is that for five years, broadband street cabinets and new poles should be installed under permitted development rights in any location other than a Site of Special Scientific Interest without the need for prior approval from local planning authorities.

In other words, they won't need planning permission to stick up a cabinet or a pole outside your house, because the introduction of superfast broadband is more important than what you think about it.

If you don't agree, use the link above and tell them so!


PLANNING STILL IN THE NEWS
According to Planning Magazine, only one council with an adopted local plan has managed to update it so that it is in line with the Mad Anti-Planning Minister Nick Boles' National Planning Policy Framework (which is really a developer's charter).

From 27 March, the new NPPF will, for the most part, have greater weight than anyone's local plan because most plans will be 'out of date' because of the NPPF.

Gone are those heady days when Government promised us localism and control over our environments, and that everyone's Local Plan would reign supreme over all other planning regulations.

Thing is, we can't remember if that was just a promise before the last election, or whether it came afterwards. Either way, it's not the case now. The pre-election promise of "no top down re-organisations" has morphed into - guess what -  why, top down re-organisations of course.

Would you buy a used car from Mr Boles?


EVEN MORE PLANNING
We hope to be off to see our friends in Wesham once again on Wednesday evening. The Wesham Action Group is having another Public Meeting at Wesham Community Centre starting at 7:30 in anticipation of an Inquiry which well be held on 19, 20 and 21 February.

There has been what we regard as truly awful behaviour by some people at FBC over this issue, and if we can get to the full story we will bring it to our readers. At present there is a lot of smoke hiding what went on, but we're working our way through it and piecing together what various people have told us.

The upshot of it is that we believe we might expect to see Fylde to 'pull its punches' in the public inquiry in the hope of not having to pay costs if they lose.

Given the absolutely solid support for Wesham Action Group from the people of Wesham, and given the number of times the development of this land has been refused, we are of the firm opinion that Fylde Council would be neglecting its electorate if it failed to support them fully.

But then, we might say that since Fylde changed from representing its electorate, and started to 'Lead' it with a Cabinet, why should we expect anything different?

HOUSING PROBLEMS
In a rare bout of realism that Nick Boles should have his nose rubbed in, Nationwide Building Society has explained why there are now only 20,000 first-time buyers a month now compared with 32,000 before 2008.

They say that first-time buyers are the "lifeblood" of the housing market, and account for 40% of all transactions. They also say that that the average first time buyer now needs a deposit of 20% of the home's value, compared with 10% or less prior to 2008.

This of course is the real reason that builders are not building-out even on their existing planning permissions. There's simply no-one to buy them if they did build, and no amount of planning permissions is going to change the size of deposit needed by purchasers, or the number of first time buyers going into a home.

Maybe Mr Boles might like to ask himself why that might be? Could it be to do with the abundance of credit that successive Governments have encouraged as a feelgood factor, with equity release and the rest of the live-today-pay-tomorrow logic that persuaded foolish consumers into hire purchase agreements (and later into maxed-out credit cards with ready made insolvency packages when you can't pay). Could it have been when financial probity was abandoned in the de-regulated free-for-all rush to populate Canary Wharf with aggressive foreign banks, who believed that ethics was somewhere north east of them, and who started the process of lending THE SAME £1,000 deposit to 35 other people by magicking £34,000 out of thin air for every £1,000 deposited. Might it have been the fact that since the abandonment of social housing operated by local authorities rents are now so high that couples waiting to get on the ladder CAN'T AFFORD to save up the deposit for a home of their own.

He can't see any of this. He thinks its simply because developers aren't being granted enough planning permissions by Councils, so he's taking control away from the Councils.

Yes, we are angry, you can tell that from the prose.

We were promised localism and what we have got is a load of Boles.


STAINING APPLICATION SUBMITTED
Readers will recall we went to Staining to see the exhibition by Jones Homes who were planning to build  homes there. We reported our perceptions in More Planning News (2) on 2 November.

We concluded that "the big fear amongst those objecting seemed to be that this plan was simply one more step in a salami-slice scheme that they believe would eventually see up to 300 additional homes built in Staining.

Locals argued to us that last year - and also against local sentiment - Jones Homes won planning permission to build 28 houses on land outside the settlement boundary just off Chain Lane - in what local people claim was sold to them as a tidying-up and squaring-off exercise for the settlement boundary.

This plan blows that argument out of the water, because it extends onward from last year's permission that 'squared-off' the settlement boundary.

And when you look at the plans you can see exactly what's worrying them."

That's because the 28 home development that won permission left a ready-to-use road connection into this site, and this site will leave a ready-to use- road connection into a future site of unknown size, but which local think will end up at 600 new homes altogether.

We expressed great concern about the drainage, and that's a key worry for local people as well.

Jones Homes have produced a 'Statement of Community Involvement' which we have read. It identifies that the Localism Act exhorts “all applicants are advised to involve the community at an early stage in the development of a scheme” The tricky bit in this is working out what "Involve" means. In this case it mostly seems to mean going through the motions. For the most part, it explains why people are worried, and says there was nothing to worry about in the first place so that's all right then.

They say they have reduced the number of houses in this application from an initial 100 dwellings to 54 dwelling as shown at the public consultation and now to the current proposal of 42 dwellings. And whilst that might be considered 'something' - when you're leaving ready-made road connections to the next phase of development, it's a bitter pill to swallow and simply kicks the can further down the road.

The Company also report responses to consultations, both via a leaflet to 960 households, via a website and from the Public exhibition. We're told that 110 people attended the exhibition producing 48 feedback forms and 5 emails/letters sent directly to Jones Homes.

From those the main concerns were

  • Flooding/Drainage (20)
  • Traffic/Transport (20)
  • School over subscribed (19)
  • Inappropriate Development (20)

The response to these flooding concerns from the developer is not atypical of the response to other aspects. They said "In respect of the drainage and flooding issues, Jones Homes have demonstrated to residents that the proposed development would not increase potential for flooding in the village due to restrictions placed on them by the Environment Agency and United Utilities in terms of permitted discharge rates into the existing drainage networks"

What this doesn't say of course is that the Environment Agency is specifically prevented in law from using flooding potential as a reason for recommending refusal. Nor does it usually regard 'flooding' as anything except inundation by either rivers or the sea,. The accumulation of groundwater resulting from ineffective ditch clearance lower down the line is not regarded as flooding, and cannot (at present) be considered as a reason for refusal.

But the water is just as wet, and just as deep, and just as damaging when it comes into your property, or on the highway - as folk is Staining know all too well.

Interestingly we spotted that the leaflets delivered to houses were considered a bit of a flop, with 'only' 10% response rate relative to the number of leaflets distributed, and whilst comments relating to 15 different points were received the three most frequently mentioned concerns were: serious highway congestion; serious flooding and drainage issues, and the primary school is oversubscribed.

When we looked at the form that had been issued to households, we noted it had questions like: "Have you any offspring that have wanted to stay in Staining but have struggled to find a home in the area and if so why?"  and "Are you in support of any further development around Staining be it in this location or not?

What we didn't see were any figures or responses from these sort of questions reported in the 'Statement of Community Involvement'  Maybe it's thought that a 10% return is too low to take sensible account of (although Direct Marketing campaigns with their 0.5 to 2% return rates would regard it as a huge triumph to get a 10 % return). Or maybe they're going to come out later.

We doubt most of the concerned residents will be satisfied with what they have seen, so the stage is probably set for another hotly contested application through Fylde's Development Control Committee.


BAMBERS LANE WORRIES
We've heard from some residents of Bambers Lane - a quite country lane running off to the left as you go up School Lane toward Cropper Road and the little Windmill. It's a byeway most notable to us in the past for a sign advertising logs for sale.

Well it seems that there is an ongoing application for an extension to the existing 6 pitch Traveller site on Bambers Lane that Fylde gave retrospective planning permission for 5 years ago - despite the pressure to refuse that application by the local residents at the time.

Bambers Lane itself is a small community of 12 or so  houses on a rural cul-de-sac. It had a small Caravan Club touring site for many years. But we're told that has now been bought by Travellers, and Fylde has allowed it to be expanded considerably, so it now contains at least 5 residential pitches, as well as facilities for touring vans. 

The traveller site at 'The Conifers' with it's 6 pitches has become well established, and a new application (12/0609) to extend the site to 12 pitches using a neighbouring grazing field which we're told has been bought by the Travellers, is to be heard by FBC on 13th February.

We'll try and keep an eye on what goes on here.


POOR CONSULTATION
Maybe its because so many people get the feeling that "consultation" and "exercise" seem to go hand in hand so often, or maybe it is a weariness of responding to consultations only to find your views are ignored, but we were saddened to see that the consultation to the awful arguments we rehearsed in 'Crackpot Prosecution Service' attracted what we thought was a poor response.

We can't make too much fuss because we didn't manage to make a response in time ourselves, but the issues were so big that we really thought it should have more consideration and attention.

As it is, what we saw as contentious changes will now mostly fall into practice. Readers will recall this ill-conceived change involves cost effective justice and trying to limit prosecutions to ringleaders.

The official line is that it "is intended to help the CPS take a more focused, proportionate and effective approach to bringing criminals to justice."

Like brushing dirt under a carpet, all this does is move the cost elsewhere.

So sadly, the new code advises

"f) Is prosecution a proportionate response?
Prosecutors should also consider whether prosecution is proportionate to the likely outcome, and in so doing the following may be relevant to the case under consideration:

  • The cost to the CPS and the wider criminal justice system, especially where it could be regarded as excessive when weighed against any likely penalty. (Prosecutors should not decide the public interest on the basis of this factor alone. It is essential that regard is also given to the public interest factors identified when considering the other questions in paragraphs 4.12 a) to g), but cost is a relevant factor when making an overall assessment of the public interest.)
  • Cases should be capable of being prosecuted in a way that is consistent with principles of effective case management. For example, in a case involving multiple suspects, prosecution might be reserved for the main participants in order to avoid excessively long and complex proceedings."

And slowly and quietly, like a well worn slipper going on, this code has slipped into being and will further constrain the ability of officials to prosecute and bring miscreants to book. And that, of course leads to deeper worries and problems for society - but at least we won't be paying through the courts system.

They will appear 'More Efficient', more 'Cost Effective'

But rest assured, we'll be paying in other ways, and it might well be a higher cost in the end.


TOWN CLERK'S VACANCY
We've seen some hoo-ha this week about an advert that St Anne's on the Sea Town Council has placed for a new Clerk to replace the one leaving at the end of March. Readers can follow this link for more details.

The main upset seems to be about the salary. This derives from a standard national scale for such posts, and is related to the income of the Parish or Town Council - which in turn is related to the taxbase (the number of people paying a precept and the scale of the work the Town or Parish council undertakes).

 When the Town Council was formed it was the second largest Town Council in the UK (only Weston Super Mare was bigger) but we think it is probably about number 3 or 4 now, as new large Town and Parish Councils (not least Fleetwood) have been created .

The pay scale range for St Annes (pop around 25,000)  is called Spinal Column Points 33 to 38 and that translates to a full time salary of £29,236 to £31,754.  (The extremities run from around £16,000 to around £70,000)

It compares with, say, Fylde's Chief Executive's salary (pop 77,000) of £83,934 to £93,699, so it is at least roughly proportionate in terms of population levels.

From what we understand, it is the same scale that almost all Parish and Town Clerks use, but of course it is modified by the size and scale of the place they serve and the work undertaken.

So to be honest, we don't have a problem with the pay scale.

Where we do have an issue is the way the Town Council is developing.

Under the present Clerk's tenure, the style of the Council has changed dramatically. We have watched it's style change from being a 'large parish council' mentality into a 'small borough council' one, and there's a world of difference between the styles.

In a typical parish council the councillors chiefly act as advocates for their area to other organisations, and very often you find them roll up their sleeves and undertake practical activities like litter picks and environmental improvements, pulling in other volunteers from the community. In a Borough Council - with it's complement of officers to do the managing, Councillors mostly make decision on things, leaving the officers to advise them what to do, and then to carry out whatever is decided.

It will be immediately obvious that the latter is a much more costly system to implement - because instead of voluntary labour from parish councillors, you're having to pay staff and contractors.

In the system St Annes TC first operated, the Clerk was only part time and employed for a day or two a week. The change in style to what we call a 'Borough Council' mode of operation has led to the post being made full time (so costing 3 or 4 times as much in cash terms).

Having criticised the change in style, there are some very notable exceptions amongst the St Annes Town Councillors. The ones we've noted in particular (and there may be others that we haven't seen) are Cllr Carol Lanyon who has put blood and sweat into developing the allotments scheme at Blundell Road.  Likewise Cllr Tony Ford. And both have also been practically active in St Annes in Bloom (where, for example, we have seen Cllr Ford changing the plant troughs on the Crescent early in the morning when few people are about)). Cllr Ford is also very active in the South Fylde Railway line project and, again with Cllr Lanyon in the collection and recycling of redundant Christmas trees. We (and no doubt other St Annes residents will) know of several full days they spent with cars and trailers collecting trees in early January and taking them to help stabilise St Annes sand dunes.

We've also seen Cllr Vince Settle taking on the practical tasks of developing the new St Annes Flag and running that as a project himself. But perhaps not everyone seems as enthusiastic to roll up sleeves and get stuck in. So the style of the Town Council changed from its origins shortly after the present Clerk was appointed, and it is largely officer-led at the present time. We hope that might change.

We only have ourselves to blame for that change in style of course. It is a majority vote of St Annes Town Councillors that decides the style the Council will have. It is a majority vote that decides how the Town Council will work, and how many hours they will need the Clerk to work.

We (as St Annes residents) determine who will be elected to take such decisions, (because we vote them into office). So at the end of the day, we've no-one to blame but ourselves if we're not happy. Maybe greater care, and better scrutiny of potential future Town Council candidates at election time is needed - rather than a complaint about the pay grade now.

Dated:  4 February 2013

UPDATE 5 FEB 2013
Thanks to our sharp-eyed reader has pointed out that Bognor Regis Town Council will no doubt be flattered that their person specification has been  followed - but wonders why our Town Council didn't have the brains to change the file name before publishing it? They also wonder why they've excluded most local people by insisting they already have a qualification of dubious necessity.


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