www.counterbalance.org.uk

 

fylde counterbalance logo

search counterbalance

plain text / printout version of this article

countering the spin and providing the balance


 

True or False?

True or False?We promised readers an explanation of what a change to the 'Committee system' is all about, but  the Fylde Civic Awareness Group has already done so.

We suggest readers follow this link www.fylde.biz and use the 'More Information' button to see details.

FCAG's call for a change has stirred Fylde's Leader, Cabinet, and their colleagues into making statements supporting the status quo.

It's interesting to note that those supporting the status quo have not chosen to argue the substance of change (the pros and cons of each way of running a council), rather, they have sought to change the argument to peripheral matters such as the cost of making a change, the quality of current services (as opposed to the quality of governance) and so on.

We think some of their arguments here are at best misleading or incomplete, and at worst, an attempt to intimidate the electorate to accept the status quo.

So we've provided readers with our own personal take on what's been said so far.

We've grouped the comments we've heard under some broad headings.

Argument 1
 ONLY A VERY SMALL GROUP WANT CHANGE 

Well, it depends what you call small. The Fylde Civic Awareness Group is not enormous. We're told it has about 180 registered members. (Mind you, that's still 25 times the size of Fylde's Leader and Cabinet). But they claim to be reflecting the views of a public meeting they organised on behalf of 14 community groups and attended by around 200 people. (All the details of this are in the report FCAG sent to the Localism Public Bill Committee).

Those 200 people voted without dissent to support a vote of 'No Confidence' in Fylde's Cabinet System and called for more transparency and democracy through a return to decision making by a majority of councillors in full Council. Speaker after speaker lambasted the Cabinet system that was said to be the underlying cause of what everyone was upset about. Twice as many complained about the process by which bad decisions were being made as complained about the closure of the swimming pools.

The public meeting also called on Fylde's Town and Parish Councils to confirm and endorse the call for change. Those representing more than half Fylde's electorate did support a change of governance. Follow this link for more details.

Also, a few days after the seminar, we understand more than 400 Fylde residents had signed the petition calling for change.

We think it's inaccurate to dismiss all this as just "a few people"  Furthermore, we think that listening to what residents call for - and acting on it - is a practice that some councillors would do well to emulate.


Argument 2:
 ALMOST EVERYONE ELSE HAS A CABINET 

This is typified by quotes like:

"Across the Political Spectrum of the North West there are thirty organisations such as Metros, Districts Unitaries etc, and out of that thirty, twenty-eight of them operate a leader and cabinet system So it's nothing unusual, we're just the same as almost everyone else".

This is factually true. But it's not the whole story.

Labour's Local Government Act of 2000 *REQUIRED* all except the smallest councils (like Fylde and Ribble Valley) to become an Executive System (such as Leader and Cabinet). They passed legislation that said any Council with a population of more than 85,000 *MUST* change to an Executive system.

This legislation also fundamentally changed the PURPOSE of councils. Up to then they have been elected to REPRESENT the electorate they served.

That changed.

From 2000 onward, the were required to LEAD their communities.

Fylde's Constitution now begins "Article 1 of the Constitution commits the Council to providing clear leadership to the community"

Admittedly, it then goes on to pay lip service to representation, but that's how the Constitution opens. The aim is now to LEAD THE COMMUNITY

There is a world of difference between being led (having people tell you what to do) and being represented (delivering what you want to happen) and, at a subconscious level, we believe this is the fundamental reason why Fylde's Cabinet system is unpopular. Most people don't want to be led, they want to be represented.

So, how many other Councils are changing back to the Committee system?

Well, it was only last year that the Conservative Lib Dem Coalition Government changed the rules that allowed Councils to return to the Committee system.

But four Councils (Brighton and Hove, London Borough of Sutton, Nottinghamshire County Council and Gloucestershire Council) all voted to change back to the Committee system voluntarily. They were so keen to do so, that they passed resolutions to make the change BEFORE the Regulations allowing them to do so were published by Government.

And according to the Centre for Public Scrutiny, another 40 councils are currently considering changing back to the Committee system. But Fylde is not amongst them of course.

In Lancashire, Ribble Valley Council did not adopt the Cabinet System and remains much like Fylde in pre-Cabinet days.

Fylde itself was also under the minimum population size, and could have stayed like Ribble Valley - but their consideration of the matter was not straightforward.

Under former Chief Executive Ken Lee, Fylde conducted a weak sort of public consultation on whether to change or not, and when the agenda report for the decision meeting was prepared, a small majority had said they were in favour of moving to the Cabinet system.

But when the decision meeting was held, that majority had reversed and a small majority was in favour of staying with the Committee system.

In a taste of what was to come, Cllr Coombes (as Leader) declared the number of people who expressed an opinion to be insignificant in relation to the electorate of Fylde. He ignored the consultation result and imposed the Cabinet System on an unwilling electorate. He had no mandate to do so, other than the arrogance of executive office.

So yes, it is true that at present, the other Councils in the North West that were required to adopt executive governance have not yet changed back to the Committee system.


Argument 3:
 THE COUNCIL IS WELL RUN 

This is typified by quotes such as

"Prior to the Cabinet System Fylde Borough Council was classed as being a poorly run Council and was running the risk of being taken over by Government officials to look after their finances."

This is both true and false.

The first part of the statement is true (but it needs a bit more explanation). The second part is incorrect in that it was not bad financial management that almost brought Government agents to take over the running of Fylde. It was housing.

That situation arose because at the time, the Labour Government was pressing all councils to build more socially subsidised housing. The consultations Fylde had undertaken showed that local people did not agree with the Government of the day. Fylde's electorate did not want social housing to be a priority so far as Fylde's spending of their Council Tax was concerned.

So Fylde, in a way, defied Government by listening to its electorate. It did what it was elected to do. This was not an uncommon trait of 'Committee system' councils which were more representative in style.

As a result, Government was preparing to send Commissioners into Fylde to take control and ensure Fylde did what Government wanted and provided more social housing.

But before they came there was an election and the new administration of Commissar Coombes implemented the Government's requirement for increased spending on social (sometimes now called 'Affordable' housing).

This ultimately led to a huge increase in applications by homeless people as Fylde advertised its social housing provision to attract new 'customers' to justify the increased spending. It led to the Heeley Road Hostel debacle. And it led to the completely ridiculous statement in Fylde's Local Plan that says, in effect, there was a planning need for 155 dwellings a year to be built in Fylde, and of those 155 dwellings, 420 of them need to be 'affordable' houses. Yes really! You couldn't make it up, could you.

And that's partly what's causing the great planning debate raging in Fylde as developers latch on to the need for housing and are winning planning permissions on the back of the former Commissars dodgy 'affordable housing' demand numbers.

It was a Committee system listening to its electorate that almost brought commissioners into Fylde, not financial mismanagement.

So whether Fylde was 'poorly run' under the Committee system is a perception that - rather like beauty - is in the eye of the beholder (or maybe that should be the eye of the electorate)

Another Leader/Cabinet quote says things like

"Since then, Fylde Council has re-organised. It has finances that are the best it has ever had and it is championed as one of the best led and controlled councils in Lancashire"

This is mostly true as far as it goes, but it's not the whole story.

Fylde has undoubtedly re-organised - several times - since the Cabinet System was introduced.

And apart from some quite significant debt levels, Fylde's finances are much better now than they have been. (They couldn't have been much worse).

But in all conscience it cannot be said that any of this is attributable to the operation of the Cabinet system.

We say that because, under the Cabinet system, Fylde has also been closer to being insolvent than it had ever been.  After the Streetscene debacle - where a loss of around £700,000 was reported - something approaching a financial state of emergency was introduced by John Coombes and Chief Executive Philip Woodward.

That loss was caused by incompetent financial management from a Cabinet that did not have enough experience to see what was going wrong when a new accounting computer installation was botched. No one knew how much had been spent, so they kept on spending.

So we can see that the Cabinet System of operation cannot shoulder the credit for prudence and financial competence.

Furthermore it is right to say that with its Cabinet system in place, Fylde was also officially classed as "poorly performing".

In 2010, The Cabinet was told that under the Audit Commission's 'OnePlace' assessment of Councils, Fylde has the lowest score in all councils in Lancashire. Out of the five criteria measured, Fylde only met the "minimum requirements" on four of them and they "did not meet minimum requirements" on the fifth.

That performance was under the Cabinet System

So the Cabinet System doesn't guarantee competent performance either.

Fylde's finances were put back into order by a new and capable Finance Officer (Bernard Hayes), who came on secondment from Preston Council, and did a first class job in resurrecting Fylde's finances from oblivion.

So it can't be claimed that the Cabinet system is responsible for good financial results. It isn't.

Nor can it be claimed that the Cabinet system has a monopoly on good performance. It doesn't.

We don't take issue with Cllr Eaves' comments that Fylde might be known as the best controlled council in Lancashire though.

We note that history is littered with commissars, tyrants, and dictators for whom control, (rather than working together), was a desirable state of affairs.


Argument 4:
 THE CABINET DOES NOT MAKE ALL THE DECISIONS 

This produces quotes like

"We've got various committees that operate and run the daily running of this council"

That's true, but it's stretching things a bit to say it in that way - as we'll show

Another quote was

"Under this Cabinet System there are opportunities for all councillors within FBC to be involved, to criticise, to comment, to take part in debate in full council, or at any of these other committees"

Literally this is true - but you have to read the words carefully. They're not necessarily what they seem.

For example, at Cabinet meetings, any councillor can submit an advance written question (be involved?) which could include criticism (to criticise) or make observation as part of the question (to comment), BUT they cannot take part in the debates of Cabinet. That's because only Cabinet Members can speak at Cabinet meeting as of right. Questions from other councillors are usually heard in silence by Cabinet Members, and often answered within a non-specific broader statement made by the Portfolio Holder.

And, of course, only the six Cabinet Members and Leader can vote on the decisions the Cabinet makes. None of the other 44 Councillors is allowed to vote at a Cabinet meeting.

Another quote in this vein said something like

"Within Fylde's Leader and Cabinet system there are also committees that run day to day working of FBC - Licensing, Public Protection, Audit Committee, Standards Committee, Development Management Committee, and two Scrutiny Committees"

This is true. Fylde is obliged to run some of its specific functions as Committees. The best example is probably the Development Management Committee (Planning) which has always been something of a separate animal, both under the Committee and Cabinet Systems.

These committees are mostly the statutory committees - ones that have a quasi-judicial operation and limited specific functions. For example Licensing Committee assumed the responsibility of the former Magistrates Court in respect of granting alcohol licenses. There is limited room for personal discretion in such committees. They are not 'running the council' in deciding how our money is spent for example.

You might wonder why Government required councils to keep these services operating as committees. We suspect it is because it ensures a locally representative wide range of opinion is reflected in their votes.

Over the years following the introduction of the Cabinet system, the number of these specific-function committees has indeed grown - to the extent that, if you count the Cabinet as a committee, there are now more 'committees' at Fylde than there were under the Committee system, but it is still the case that the day to day decisions - including spending discretion to vary spending within the overall budget up to £250,000, and to approve one-off new spending of up to £100,000 each year - are taken by the Leader and Cabinet

Another quote was

"The myth that 7 councillors make all the decisions is totally untrue."

That's correct if you take the word 'ALL' in a literal sense. But most of the day-to-day decisions *are* taken by the seven-person Leader and Cabinet.

This is a direct quote from Fylde Council's current Constitution

"How Decisions Are Made: The Executive is the part of the Council that is responsible for most day-to-day decisions. The Executive is made up of the Executive Leader and a Cabinet of a number of other Councillors appointed by the Leader, known as Executive Members."

So whilst it's technically accurate to say not *all* the decisions are taken by the seven person Cabinet, it's disingenuous when most of the day-to-day ones are.

Other quotes in this group concerned the scrutiny function eg

"If anything is passed at a Cabinet meeting it can be challenged, the Scrutiny Committee could make a decision not to accept the decision made by those seven councillors, and turn it back to Cabinet."

Again, this is literally true.

But just study what it means. It says that one of the Day To Day decisions made by Cabinet can be challenged by a Scrutiny Committee. By law, the Scrutiny Committee has to reflect the political makeup of the Council, so the ruling party that formed the Cabinet and made the decision also has a majority vote when it is asked to scrutinise what was decided. This often results in a party vote of no change to the Cabinet decision.

However, on occasions, things have been different (for example if a ruling group member is unexpectedly absent from a Scrutiny meeting) and Scrutiny has disagreed with a Cabinet decision.

They then have two options, they can send it back to the seven person Cabinet - who made the decision in the first place (and who can make exactly the same decision again - except Scrutiny Committee can not call it in for a second time) or they can send it to full council (see below) for them to consider.

Argument 5
 THE ROLE OF SCRUTINY COMMITTEES 

Typical quote:

"The two scrutiny committees are there simply to hold the Cabinet system to book."

We'd say they have a wider role, but we're not going to quibble over semantics. Highlighting where Cabinet has made a bad decision is absolutely what Scrutiny Committee SHOULD do.

If Scrutiny Committee call-in a decision, those supporting the status quo say that:

"it can be sent for consideration by the Full Council, where the whole Council of 51 councillors can debate it for as long as they wish until a resolution is achieved."

That's right. They can debate all day and all night. BUT they cannot change it, nor can they overturn the Cabinet Decision.

The legislation that governs Leader and Cabinet systems says the most they can do is send it back to the Cabinet with a recommendation to change it. Cabinet ALWAYS gets the final decision. And Cabinet can simply ignore the recommendation of the full Council.

The full council is (intentionally) emasculated by any of the Executive Governance systems, because the intention is that the Leader should have control, and the Council should not - except for setting the overall broad budget and the Policy Framework.

We don't call that democracy. We don't even call it holding Cabinet to book.


Argument 6
 A REFERENDUM AND ITS COST 

Cllr Eaves told BBC Radio Lancashire

"I think that Fylde Council could be forced to hold a referendum"

This is true - but it is only true if FBC continue to refuse to recognise the strength of feeling of their electorate

Another quote trotted out with increasing regularity is that

"A referendum would cost in excess of £120,000"

There has been no published analysis of this cost so it might simply be an assumed cost, such as that of organising a local election.

With the clear lack of reasoned argument against change, we think FBC are obviously resorting to scaremongering. It looks to us as though the aim here is an attempt to intimidate people, to frighten them into not signing the petition.

Worse still is the one - being frequently repeated - that says

"The funding for any referendum can only be met by one group of people, the Council Tax payers of Fylde"

This is False

It's false for two reasons

Firstly, FBC could have voluntarily changed back to the Committee System at any time since the Localism Act became law - but they have chosen not to do so.

The Council can still change back to the Committee system without it costing taxpayers a penny in referendum costs.

All they need to do is pass a resolution saying that's what they will do.

We hope that once the 4,000 signature petition is close to being assembled, they will change their mind before it needs to be delivered.

Secondly it's false because FBC currently has General Reserves of around £4.7 million. (These are reserves that are not allocated for any specific spending purpose) and the Reserve is expected to be at that sort of level for the next year or two.

So even if the cost of £120,000 is right, it would only take 2.6% of the available reserves.

The minimum recommended level for General Reserves at Fylde is about £800,000 (ie to provide immediate cash for emergencies like flooding) so even allowing for that, a referendum would only take 3% of the SURPLUS cash that is sitting in the General Reserve. That's a small price to pay for the restoration of democracy.

Finally, it might be worth noting that if FBC's Cabinet run true to form and fail to act on the concerns of the electorate, and they refuse to part with some of OUR spare cash in their General Reserve for a referendum,  the alleged cost of £120,000 could be recouped in four years or so.

That's because we would no longer need a Cabinet

And that means we would save the £4,000 a year that is currently paid to each of the six Cabinet members as a 'Special Responsibility Allowance' (on top of their allowance of £3,500 for being a Councillor). And we wouldn't need as many (or maybe any) Scrutiny Committees (because that function would be performed by Full Council's ability to test the decisions of individual committees), so there's another few thousand in Special Responsibility Payments that could be saved. And when you add to that the savings in expenses claims and officer time and so on, you quickly get to a 'Cabinet Cost' of around £30,000 a year that would no longer be needed.

Inside one election term, we'd be in pocket. Even if we had to pay.

And that's apart from not us having to bear the cost of bad decisions like the £800,000 wasted on abandoned plans and consultants fees for the former Commissar's wholly unaffordable new White Elephant Town Hall scheme, and the Streetscene reported losses of £700,000 and so on

Argument 7
 COMMITTEES COST MORE TO OPERATE 

This comes wrapped in quotes like

"If a Committee system was introduced there would not be the resources available to support it because of cuts to meet a reduction in Government funding"

This is false

For all new legislation, the Government has to assess the cost implications of implementing it. In this case the 'Impact Assessment' of the operating costs produced by St Eric in the Communities and Local Government department says: "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.

We also can't see how the ten committees that operated when the Committee System was in place, should cost more than the eleven committees that operate today. - Unless, of course, you're scaremongering again.

Argument 8
 FULL COUNCIL DECIDES SPENDING 

As per the quote:

"Any financial decisions made by Cabinet MUST go to the full Council for all councillors to debate"

This is also false.

The Cabinet has discretion to change up to £250,000 of spending from one budget to another. It has discretion to increase spending by new or increased external funding of up to £250,000. In addition, Cabinet may approve a budget increase for one-off unforeseen expenditure (with no implication for future years) not envisaged at the time the Council’s budget was agreed up to a total of £100,000 a year.

So it's clear that not all financial decisions MUST go to Full Council. (Details are in Fylde's Constitution section 4d)

Argument 9
 THE CABINET IS EFFICIENT 


This is the worst quote of all

"The Cabinet system works, it is fast and efficient and that is why the Committee system has almost disappeared."

It is wholly and completely false.

1). The Cabinet doesn't work. Think of the Cabinet's decision - personally proposed by the present Leader - to sell property so as to give a grant to Lytham Hall.  His own 'Task and Finish Inquiry' found that this scandal was down to "a failure of Corporate Governance". If there was one single decision justifying why the Leader and Cabinet system should be disbanded, this was it.

2). The Cabinet is not fast. The Cabinet wasted more than £800,000 on plans that were eventually abandoned for a grandiose new Town Hall. The Cabinet took nearly nine years to make that decision. By no stretch of the imagination can that be called fast.

3) The Cabinet is not efficient. They closed the swimming pool then later re-opened it - spending over £100,000 to bring it back into use. As one of our readers told us "The Cabinet System can make bad decisions more quickly"

4). The Cabinet is not democratic. The Cabinet has introduced private briefings by officials that other councillors are not even allowed to attend and listen to.

5). The Cabinet is not even competent. Think the Streetscene loss that was reported as £700,000 - with (former Cabinet Member and having responsibility for Streetscene at the time) Cllr Ashton's famous quote of "It was unfortunate it happened, I regret it...... that it happened..... but I don't think anybody acted in a way, deliberately, to act wrongly in what happened,    and at the end of the day, nobody died"

It may be that it wasn't deliberate fraud, and it was fortunate that nobody died. But it *was* gross incompetence on the part of the Cabinet.

6). Finally, it's a factually false statement because the Committee system did not disappear as a result of the popularity of the Leader and Cabinet System. It disappeared because the former Labour government made it unlawful for all but the smallest councils to retain the Committee system.

This awful Cabinet system - as we have repeatedly chronicled in these pages which are littered with its failings and incompetence, is not fit for purpose. The people of Fylde now have the means to change it for the better. We sincerely hope everyone helps to make FCAG's petition a success.

If you haven't already been, do visit www.fylde.biz and have a look around.

And if you're passing one of the local shops holding the petition - who are doing a public service to their community by doing so - it wouldn't hurt to call in and say thank-you to them (There's a list below). Doing that would at least help to counteract the effect of at least one Cabinet Member who called in to criticise a shopkeeper for having the petition available for people to sign.

Participating premises where people can ask to sign the petition are:

  • ANSDELL 'The Shoe Box' at 56 Woodlands Road
  • CLIFTON VILLAGE 'Smithy Off Licence' on Preston Old Road.
  • ELSWICK ‘Bonds of Elswick’ Bonds Lane
  • FRECKLETON ‘Freckleton Post Office’ at 22 Preston Old Road.
  • FRECKLETON ‘SPAR shop' at 29 Lytham Road.
  • KIRKHAM ‘SilverDell Books & Ice Cream Shop’ at 61 Poulton Street.
  • LYTHAM ‘News and Magazine Shop' at 70 Clifton Street (opp. Pleasant St)
  • LYTHAM ‘Fancy That’ at 53-55 Clifton Street
  • LYTHAM ‘Warton Street Post Office’ at 65 Warton Street.
  • STAINING 'Co-Operative Local Store' at 67 Chain Lane
  • ST ANNES ‘Semples Newsagent and Art Shop’. 15 The Crescent (Top of bridge)
  • ST ANNES 'Barnett's Hair Design' at 49 St Albans Road.
  • ST ANNES 'KJ's Newsagents' 137 St Albans Road.
  • ST ANNES 'Alexandria News Limited' at 16 Alexandria Drive.
  • ST ANNES ‘Scruples Hair Salon‘ at 192 St. David’s Road North
  • WARTON 'Monroe’s Hair and Beauty' at 67 Hathaway Court, Lytham Road
  • WESHAM ‘The Post Office’ at 74 Garstang Road South
  • WREA GREEN ‘SPAR shop and Sub Post Office’ on The Green
  • WREA GREEN ‘Wrea Green Institute’ Station Road

Finally, if you want to help bring about change, you can download a seven signature petition form, print it off and see if you can find six of your friends and family to sign it as well, then drop it off at one of the shops.

Dated:    28 February 2013


info@counterbalance.org.uk

To be notified when a new article is published, please email 
notify@counterbalance.org.uk