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countering the spin and providing the balance


Snippets August 2013

Snippets August 2013 1). BATHING WATERS UPDATE 
The issue of bathing waters (which was given a full exposition by counterbalance in 'All Going Swimmingly?' on 8th May) has been considered again by Fylde's Scrutiny Committee and by Fylde's seven-man Cabinet.

Readers will recall that since we first published on this matter (see 'Sewage Sea Shore' in May 2012) we have repeatedly called for elected councillors to have a place on the powerful but clandestine 'Fylde Peninsula Water Management Group.'

In response, we were equally repeatedly told that it was an 'officer group' and had no elected members, even though 'Fylde Council' - along with other Councils - was said to be a 'member' of it. (The logic being used was that officers could - in effect - be 'the Council' using delegated powers. We fundamentally refute that way of thinking).

Well, it looks as though finally, our repeated calls have paid off. Cllr Mulholland's Scrutiny Committee and the Cabinet have been told that, subject to agreement of the commercial bodies on the group (United Utilities etc) places will be made for elected members to take part in their meetings. And thus (subject to the caveat) Fylde will become a proper 'Member' of the FPWMG.

We understand perhaps two or three of Fylde's Cabinet members might be able to attend, including Cllr Tommy Threlfall (Environment) and Cllr Susan Fazackerley (Leisure and Culture).

We'd still like to see it having a published agenda and minutes and also for the public to have public access to its deliberations (after all we're paying for it one way or another). But at least regularising proper formal membership for Councils is a start. We congratulate Cllr Mulholland on his achievement.

Furthermore, although Blackpool is now preparing to wind up its Scrutiny Committee that was established to deal with the Bathing Waters issue, (and to which Fylde and Wyre were latterly invited), we understand that a couple of members from each council sharing the coastline are going to meet occasionally to monitor progress.

Whilst, once again, we think this should all be done in the open, the fact that elected members are involved will have some impact, and it will mean that occasional reports to Fylde's Scrutiny Committee are likely. We hope it will be Cllr Mulholland at least who attends these monitoring meetings. We believe he understands the issues and will do what he can to firstly establish what is really going on.  (We - along with others locally - simply do not believe the press releases that are being churned out about seagulls, donkeys, dogs and horses. All these creatures are, in our opinion, red herrings). We also believe he will keep Fylde and thus the electorate, informed.

It's yet another success for his Committee.

Sadly, at this stage, we're pretty sure it isn't going to make any difference to the eventual outcome. We think pretty well all the beaches along the Fylde Coast will be declared unfit for bathing when the new *classification system* is applied from 2015 onward, but at least each of the councils involved will be able to pressure those who should be providing more treatment or, (even more likely) greater temporary storage capacity to address stormwater surcharges, and the refusal of planning permissions where new houses might exacerbate the situation.

We've not, as yet, had any further clarification from the Environment Agency or United Utilities about the dichotomy shown in their figures for discharges from just the Fairhaven Pumping Station - figures that could either have been either 14,910 cubic metres or (an incredible) 3,932,000 cubic metres depending on which of the sets of figures that were supplied to us should be believed. We'll bring further news on this when we get it.

Also on the agenda for the meetings of both Scrutiny and the Cabinet was an item about Lowther Gardens Trust.

We'd been concerned about goings on at Lowther for some time and said in one of our counterbalance newsflashes on 5th March "We're picking up stories about some worrying sounding issues at Lowther Pavilion. It sounds like there's a head of steam building. The hushed tones in which we're hearing about the matter put us in mind of the rumblings that later turned into the scandal of Melton Grove. There could be trouble ahead......"

The issues were to do with propriety. For example, we were hearing stories about quotations for building alterations and - instead of getting two or three quotes - the same builder was asked to get two other prices. Nothing unlawful, but perhaps it's not the cleverest way to get the most competitive price for spending that is, after all, chiefly funded by local taxpayers albeit via a charitable trust.

There were also stories about pavilion staff being given duties that seemed unconnected to their employer.

We checked that Fylde were aware of the concerns and they were. We were told their audit department was considering the matter.

That eventually led to Fylde's Head of Audit reporting to Scrutiny Committee on his findings. We know this officer of old. He is one of the few people in whom we would be happy to place absolute trust. He is an absolute fit to his job. Never rushed, always thorough, always detailed, intelligent and able. He also has a strong quotient of common sense, so we were sure he would have done a thorough job. And he did.

He explained to the Scrutiny Committee that, at their request, he had looked at Governance matters in relation to the Charitable Trust that runs Lowther Gardens and the Pavilion. He had looked specifically at the Trustees, conflicts of interest, and procurement arrangements.

Overall we formed the view that he had found the situation to be less than satisfactory, but not unlawful. There were instances when the recruitment of Trustees could have been better, and there was an issue about attendance of Trustees at meetings of the Trust.

In the 'Conflicts of Interest' section of his report, he made the point that personal interests ought not to conflict with the duties of a Trustee, so a Trustee should not personally benefit from carrying out the role. There appear to have been instances where one or more Trustees had undertaken work for the Trust and been paid for it - over and above their normal Trustee duties. In these circumstances the Charity Commission suggests there should be clear written agreements, prior agreements on the amount to be paid, and removal of that Trustee from decisions made by the trustee board concerning that service.

Without his actually saying so, we gleaned the impression that to date, things had not been done in the best way.

There were also issues about requiring Trustees to make declarations of interest and precluding them from voting and so on.

The Head of Audit had made a whole sheaf of recommendations, including a bucketful about financial probity and procurement arrangements.

So you got the impression that a lot of change was needed from how things had been running.

Happily he was able to advise the Scrutiny Committee that one of the new Trustees was an expert on Governance and he felt there was now understanding of what was needed. He said he thought they were pushing at an open door, and he was confident that although the Trust was a separate body from Fylde, it would be prepared to implement the sort of governance changes he had suggested.

In the ensuing debate, Cllr Mrs Oades said she had had a great deal of concern and complaining from users of the Pavilion and from the Friends Group. She said she had heard about questionable tendering processes, allegations of the use of the premises for business purposes, and Trustees being involved in day to day management. She was very happy with the officers report, but wanted an assurance the trust would take its recommendations on board because she said she did not believe the governance had been as good as it should be.

And on that positive note, the Committee concluded the item. It was another example of Scrutiny doing a good job. We understand the recommendations from FBC are now being considered by the Lowther Gardens Trustees, and the Governance specialist in particular.

This was the first public meeting that Defend Lytham (DL) had held on the fracking debate. DL rose to fame when Kensington threatened to build what some Lythamites dubbed 'Disneyland' but Kensington called 'Lytham Quays' on the old bakery site. DL gained a fearsome reputation for accuracy; understanding, and being effective with the objection process. So it was with interest that we went along to their meeting on fracking.

It was at the Lytham Assembly Rooms and overall our reaction was mixed.

There were about 120 or so people there, and a few had to stand. We saw one or two 'regular' faces from fracking events, but most seemed to be ordinary members of the public who were concerned about the process.

Defend Lytham Fracking Meeting

Janet Lees of DL introduced the evening and explained the presence of a Dutch film crew who were filming the event, and had been about most of the day looking at sites and interviewing people. She explained the background to Defend Lytham and noted their past successes.

The first speaker was John Hobson who is a management consultant. We believe he's the chap who initiated the complaint that resulted in the Advertising Stand Authority's upholding of six complaints about claims made by Cuadrilla in its 'Community newsletter' (Follow this link for more details)

He looked at local issues and said he wanted to stimulate a 'fact based discussion and debate', then went on to talk about safety and threats from water pollution and wellbore integrity. Our overall impression was that that in order to maximise the potential problems, he set out to cover all the issues that *might* be a problem. We thought he would have been better focusing on just the more serious ones - with so much stuff to absorb, we thought it was difficult for listeners to distinguish the wheat from chaff.

That said, he was well received by the audience and given much applause.

The chap from Dutch TV confirmed that they had been told by Cuadrilla that day there would be 100 well pads within the license area

The second speaker was Mike Hill who is the nearest thing the public has to a technical expert. That's not to downgrade his status at all, its simply to illustrate that although he is moving into something that looks to us like full time work on fracking issues, historically he doesn't come from the fracking industry, although his previous work was linked to it.

He's always good to listen to, and we learned quite a bit of stuff that was new to us. But we didn't think it helped when he peppered what was a serious, technical, talk with throwaway lines that are plainly unsubstantiable (like the one related to the Government's proposed Community Benefit scheme which was "Your children are going to die but you'll get a swimming pool"). We understand comments like this do grab the headlines, and it is shorthand what he believes, but in our view, comments of this nature demeaned the quality of the important information he was conveying.

That said, we figure most folk there were grown up enough to discriminate.

His key points included: regulation is still inadequate; there is a need for monitoring of the wellsite for around 30 years, and there are potential issues if a company is sold or went bankrupt - who would then do the monitoring? He said we might expect to see 300 gas flares burning 24 hours a day, seven days a week between here and Kirkham; there needed to be a study of current methane levels as a baseline so we could see if the process causes increases of methane in the groundwater and so on.

He bombarded the audience with facts and detail, before concluding that the main benefit will be on a national scale and the local benefits will be small.

There were a lot of people with questions at the end of the presentations - Had he been invited to make a presentation to the Lancashire Enterprise Partnership? Other questions were about waste and flowback water, another about damage to houses, and another about water contamination.

Finally, and we thought to his credit, a chap at the back stood up and thanked the presenters for their talks. He then said he was the new County Councillor for St Annes North and had come to learn more about fracking because the County was responsible for mineral planning. It was County Cllr Peter Buckley (husband of Princess Karen) of course. We thought most people there were pleased he had attended and made himself known. Fylde's Cllr Ken Hopwood also attended. He's perhaps a bit more retiring and didn't speak publicly, but we could see he had taken it all in.

Since this meeting there have been other developments on Fracking and we'll shortly  be doing articles about them.

So overall? Well, quite good, but could have done better. As we've said before, public opinion is now moving steadily against the use of fracking. (In our view it's not yet anywhere near making a political difference, but there's still a way to go).

This Defend Lytham meeting was a further marker along that way, and it has added another credible and respected name to the list of those who are concerned about the process.

This issue is now a bit 'old hat'. The decision to approve the application was made by Development Management Committee back on 26 June. So we're not going to do a full report of that particular meeting, suffice to say that a lot of very unhappy residents went home to Staining with something other than a warm fuzzy feeling in their hearts after Fylde approved the planning application for 42 dwellings tacked onto an existing building site in Staining. We will, however, be looking at the decision-making process that caused the result.

Residents had divided up the issues they wanted to object about and made a good job of allocating topics to individuals who presented them for 3 minutes each. One of the best of these was, as you might hope, Malcolm Hyland, Chairman of the Parish Council, who said he had lived in the village for 45 years and seen an idyllic village destroyed. The flooding had become worse, ditches and dykes had been filled in with, and following, new development. He said Staining had been isolated five times by flooding (literally all roads in and out cut off) and he showed many photographs which ably illustrated the point. He also said the ditches shown on the Ordnance Survey maps were not all shown on the applicants details. He said Staining was about to become a small atoll in Lancashire.

Others took issue with roads and transport, the need for housing, school availability, medical provision, policing, environment. Speaking for Marcus Hill who could not be present, Alan Blakely said that drainage had deteriorated. There was now flooding at every storm, and sewage in people's gardens. He said dykes had been piped - with changes in water flow direction - and not all were connected properly to facilities. Heavy duty manhole covers in Chain lane and Eddleston Close were being lifted up by water pressure from the combined sewer system. He concluded by saying that disposal capability is limited by the capacity of pumps to remove wastewater, and this development will only make things worse.

Cllr John Singleton spoke exceptionally well. He took the practical angle and told the meeting he had conducted a survey on properties affected by the development. This showed that 90% have had submersible pumps installed to remove water from their property when flooding occurs. 3% have continual flooding. 4% have paid to have the level of their gardens raised to alleviate flooding problems and 11% have had land drainage installed.

He said that 60,000 had been spent by residents to have flood alleviation measures installed over and above the payments that they made to the authorities whose role was to prevent flooding. He said Blackpool had recently refused a planning application within Staining but just outside the Fylde boundary because it have a detrimental effect on the open rural character of the area. He hoped Fylde's Committee would take a similar view and stop turning Fylde into a building site "Enough is enough" he said with conviction.

There were clearly enough arguments available for the Committee to refuse this application should they have chosen to do so, but it was not to be the case.

In our view, this was because there appeared to be several agenda being brought into play. Firstly, the meeting was notable for the failure to second a proposition to refuse the application; secondly for the number of people who abstained in the decision, and thirdly something we thought we saw that we have not seen for a long time at Fylde. It looked to us as though several Independent councillors who were hurting over decisions that had adversely affected them in other planning applications, were lashing out in pain and letting that hurt cloud their judgement on this and other decisions.

Fylde's Officers had recommended approval of the application and, as we reported in Planning News May 2013, the village was strongly opposed to it. Cllr Albert Pounder had told Fylde's Development Management Committee there was a permanent 'Flooding' road sign at Staining that was opened up when it flooded. He said there had been good presentations from the villagers and there was not a lot more he could add.

He proposed refusal of the application.

The part that we found absolutely amazing was that not one member of the Committee seconded his proposition to refuse. Given that Cllr Pounder is a Conservative, (and until recently we understand he was their party Whip) and the Conservatives nearly always vote together as a block, we would have thought the seconding would have been a foregone conclusion by another Conservative. At the previous meeting on 24 May (when Cllr Pounder successfully moved it's deferment for more information), fellow Conservative Cllr Nigel Goodrich showed special concern about the wet conditions and said he was intrigued that Blackpool had refused a similar application.

There had been a unanimous vote to defer last time at Fylde, so we thought a Conservative - if no-one other than Cllr Goodrich - would have seconded a refusal.

We were amazed no-one seconded Cllr Pounder for refusal, and we have to ask why this might have been?

It's a well know fact that ward councillors in a difficult position are sometimes 'understood' if they vote against something in support of their electorate, knowing that other councillors van be relied on to vote the other way. Something like that could explain this situation, but we didn't think that was what was going on here. We did hear of threatened consequences for Conservatives who supported a refusal on this application, and we think that's a more likely situation - especially as we were later told that Cllr Pounder is no longer the Whip for Fylde Conservatives.

It's quite possible a sub-agenda that could have seen Fylde going into 'Special Measures' as far as planning is concerned was also coming in play here.

It's our view that Fylde has been passing application after application in order to ensure the survival of it's planning department ion its present form. This Special Measures threat to Fylde was reported in several leading newspapers and by us in 'Special Measures for Planning?'

Basically, eighteen months into a two year assessment period, Fylde was on a trajectory to be put into Planning 'Special Measures' by the Government, and only a shedload of approved applications in the last three months could save it. That's what has happened of course. It's our view that Staining was one of the casualties of this policy.

But most amazing of all was the fact that (even if the Conservatives toed a party line) none of the Independent councillors seconded Cllr Pounder's proposition.

Many of them spoke against the application and they spoke even more vehemently against the Government policy that was forcing them to make decisions against the wishes of residents. So we were shocked when they didn't support a refusal.

We spoke with some of them afterwards to ask why this was, and the excuses given to us were, frankly, very lame. "He chose the wrong reasons for refusal" being the reply - and when we asked "why did you not propose amendments to them", we were told in effect 'we couldn't find a good reason quickly enough'.

That's simply not a good enough answer. These are experienced planning councillors who are quite capable of producing reasoned justifications for refusing an application. They have done so several times.

It felt to us as though we were seeing the planning equivalent of the actions of spurned lovers here.

There has undoubtedly been some awful behaviour by Fylde's officers and by the Planning Portfolio Holder toward planning matters in the areas outside Lytham St Annes in the recent past - we set out some of it in Local Plan Rift.

It is obvious that Councillors from the rural area are furious about the treatment meted out to them, and we have to say it felt to us very much as though what we were seeing at this Development management Committee meeting was a situation of the 'biter being bit'.

The Portfolio Holder for Planning summed it up when he said "At appeal the Inspectors have said we must listen to the statutory bodies not local people. This Committee is tearing itself apart. Morale is the worst I have ever known. The consequences of not listening to Government are horrendous. An appeal will overturn our refusal. There is no concept of localism any more. The planning system is centralised"

And with that, and because Cllr Pounder's proposition was not seconded, Cllr Fiddler proposed approval of the application, which was put to a vote.

There were 8 votes for approval of the application. They were: Councillors Ben Aitken, Kevin Eastham, Fabian Craig Wilson, Trevor Fiddler, Nigel Goodrich, Angela Jacques, Richard Redcliffe, Vivienne M Willder.

There were 4 votes against approval, vis: Councillors Peter Collins, Peter Hardy, Albert Pounder, Heather Speak.

And there were 4 abstentions: Councillors Julie Brickles, Maxine Chew, Charlie Duffy, Elizabeth Oades.

The number of abstentions is exceptionally high for a planning meeting. Each will no doubt have had their own reason for abstaining - some might have been concerned about a threat of costs against the council - but did not feel they could vote for the application.

Others may have differing reasons. For example, Cllr Duffy told the Gazette ".... this committee is a quasi-judicial committee. We are there to apply the law as laid down by central government, not simply to express the wishes of the community we have been elected to represent.

There were two potential valid planning reasons that could have been used to refuse this application flooding, and the loss of land designated as countryside.

With regard to flooding, I asked why there was such a difference between local opinion and that of the relevant statutory bodies. Specifically, I asked whose opinion we were obliged to accept. The answer was we had to take the advice of the statutory bodies.

As for the loss of countryside, central government has made it clear this is not currently a valid reason for us to refuse applications, as we have not given permission for the number of dwellings they say we need in the next five years.

Given these facts, there were no defendable grounds on which to refuse the application.

My abstention therefore reflects the fact Fylde Council is, in effect, no longer the Local Planning Authority.

Central government has removed our ability to make decisions on behalf of Fylde residents.

Planning, particularly for large applications, is now directed by central government."

As we said, reasons for abstaining were individual, and to be fair, voting against, rather than abstaining wouldn't have made any difference. An 8:8 split would have given the Chairman (Cllr Ben Aitken) the casting vote and, as he voted for approval of the application, he would most likely have done so again with his casting vote had he been required to use it.

But we have to say the proceedings of the Committee on this item left a very bad taste in the mouth.

And that wasn't improved when they considered the next item - which was to build an awful block of flats on the promenade next to the Dalmeny, on the currently vacant site that's opposite the entrance to Pleasure Island and the Swimming Pool.

Proposed flats

Possibly the most clear policy in the whole of Fylde's Local Plan is called 'TREC 1.'   It's about resisting change from tourism use in a designated area of St Annes called the primary tourism area. It says

"The provision of new hotels, guest houses, holiday flats and extensions of existing facilities will be permitted in the primary holiday areas. The development of and change of use to new non-tourism related uses including rest homes, nursing homes, residential flats and offices will not be permitted in order to maintain the character and appearance of this predominantly tourist area."

There are no ifs and buts as most of the other planning policies have as getout clauses. This one is unambiguous. It says the change of use to residential WILL NOT BE permitted.

Officers skirted round it by saying that the proposed residential use would not adversely affect the character and appearance. When members debated the application, almost to a man they said it was ugly, bland, characterless and like a prison block. But when it came to the vote it was 11 in favour and 4 against.

This made us think of the bad old days when a former administration of independent councillors held sway and to us it felt very much as though the coastal area was going to be taught a lesson with the same stick that rural councillors felt they had been beaten with for years.

None of this produced good government, and we were very sad to see what we thought looked very much like its re-emergence at this planning meeting.

What we risk seeing now is an escalating Bosnia-style civil war in planning with, chiefly, the Conservatives, the Planning Portfolio Holder and officers supporting the Government on one side and, chiefly, councillors in the more rural area trying to support the people that elected them on the other.

Sadly, we think it's going to get ever more bloody before it gets better.

On a lighter note to finish this edition, there has been a storm in a teacup and recalcitrant ructions over refreshments at Fylde.

Afternoon TeaIt seems that when informal Cabinet meetings or Cabinet briefings were taking place at around teatime, refreshments - in the form of tea and sandwiches - have been provided. (We understand this was without charge to those Cabinet members who were consuming the cucumbers).

However, other groups using the town hall for their group meetings have been told they could not have free refreshments.

It was definitely a case of 'jam tomorrow' as far as they were concerned.

This two tier trouble was too big a mouthful for Coun Julie Brickles of Warton to swallow. Egged on by the thought of unfairness, she thought it simply took the biscuit that groups of independent councillors would have to pay, whilst some councillors were fairy-cake freeloaders.

We think she could have argued that because Portfolio Holders get an extra 3,000 a year allowance just for being Cabinet members, they couldn't claim they needed the dough. So it was unfair that others - who needed to earn a crust to pay for butties - were currently charged for their civic coffees.

After the skirmishes over sandwiches (and, we hear, some bad feeling from at least one member of the Cabinet) we understand that in future, no refreshments will be provided free of charge for anyone.

In an age of austerity that's probably not a bad approach.

Dated:  2 August 2013


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