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22 May 2014: Fylde's Democracy Day

22 May 2014: Democracy DayNo. This is not a wartime anniversary. Its Fylde's Democracy Day.

The day that voters in Fylde made history.

It's not often that Fylde has its own special place in the history of our country, but it did on the 22 May 2014.

This was the day Fylde's voters went to the polls and cast a vote that would decide for at least the next ten years whether Fylde would keep the present Leader and Cabinet system of operation, or change the way our council conducts its business to the Committee system - where ultimate authority is vested in the full Council, not a sub-set of seven of them.

The importance of this decision should not be underestimated.

It will have direct and far-reaching implications on the decision-making process in Fylde

It will also impact indirectly on the mindset of both the electorate and the present councillors.

Fylde is the first Local Authority in the UK to be required to change to the Committee system by its residents.

It is a show of 'people power' the like of which is rarely seen.

Historically it ranks alongside and is probably of equal or greater importance than the financial incompetence that caused the closure of our swimming pools, and the awful plan to sell of a quarter of Ashton Gardens for a supermarket.

News of the change has made the news pages of national websites and professional journals such as LocalGov, which reaches over 25,000 local government professionals every day and is published by Hemming Information Services, whose public sector portfolio includes The Municipal Journal, Local Government News, the Municipal Year Book, Transport Network and Surveyor and The Local Government Chronicle. It was also carried by the Local Government Chronicle Plus, and  the Local Government Executive.

Publications as diverse as the Local Government Lawyer and Harringay Online have carried reports and comment.

And where Fylde had led, others now follow.

Canterbury district has people collecting signatures on their own petition for change, and we understand two other areas have been in touch with the Fylde Civic Awareness Group (FCAG) for advice and information.

Given the importance of the change, we thought we'd take an overview of some of the steps along the way, then look at what the decision means for Fylde residents and the Council.

Throughout the campaign by FCAG, the Council has been reluctant to give information about what was happening.

They seem to have worked on the 'mushroom' principle of keeping people in the dark.

Public notices about the referendum were unobtrusively published only on their website and not in newspapers. The Council refused to circulate an information leaflet about this momentous change - claiming "not to have the budget" to include a leaflet to each household in the same envelope in which the council tax demands were delivered.

By law, the Council must be impartial in the information it provided, so it would have had to set out the pros and cons of *both* systems, and it is our view that the ruling group at Fylde - who had argued strongly against the change to Committees - influenced Fylde's officers to keep the whole thing low-key, in the hope that, if the electorate were kept in ignorance, it would all fizzle out and die away.

But it didn't.

So the Conservative group mounted an opposing campaign of its own.

The first move from the ruling group was to try to neutralise the petition.

As we reported in 'Petition for Change' David Eaves put an open letter on the counter next to the petition in at least one of the shops that was holding it for signatures. The letter urged people not to sign the petition.

We also know that one Cabinet member went into some of the shops that had agreed to hold the petition - to try to persuade them not to do so.- and was successful with one shop. Less so with others.

Then, postcard flyers with a similar 'don't sign the petition' message, and a photograph of the Town Hall were widely distributed in Fylde. They were from "David Eaves, Leader, Fylde Borough Council' . This made it appear that the flyer was from Cllr Eaves as Leader of the Council, not from him as a member of the Fylde Conservative Association.

If it *had* come from him as 'the Council', his flyer would have broken the law.

Readers might be confused by this.

But what many people don't realise is that under the Leader and Cabinet system, once a Leader is elected, it is that Leader, and not the Council that carries ultimate power.

All decision-making power vests in the Leader once they are chosen by the Council, so he de-facto becomes 'the Council', as do decisions of his appointed Cabinet and Portfolio Holders. Each decision taken by them is classed as though it was taken by all 51 councillors and - (amazingly to many people who don't follow local government) - the full 51 councillors acting in concert, are legally powerless to override such decisions in the Executive governance models.

So when David Eaves speaks, it's difficult to tell if he's speaking as

  • Mr David Eaves (a resident),
  • Cllr David Eaves (a councillor),
  • Cllr David Eaves (Leader of the Conservative Group on the Council),
  • Cllr David Eaves (Leader of Fylde Borough Council), or
  • Cllr David Eaves ('The Council')

Now our readers will be able to see just how his flyers straddled the fine line between legality and illegality, and our readers can form their own views on whether he intended them to convey the impression that the flyers were from 'the Council'.

Fylde's Chief Executive told the petition organisers "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."

He could do nothing else. To do so would have broken the law preventing 'the Council' from promoting or detracting from either perspective.

But the Chief Executive refused to dissociate the Council from Mr Eaves' comments (which Mr Eaves said were made by him as a member of his political party).

This was the Chief Executive's position even though he had previously set the precedent of dissociating the Council from comments made a person in connection with a stadium development at Wrea Green, and from comments made by a person they chose to advise them on shale gas exploration.

And it wasn't just the Leader and Cabinet members who tried to rubbish the petition.

Rank and file members of the Conservative group spoke out strongly against the change.

We reported comments made by them in 'Fylde Council Budget Meeting 2013/14.' Readers will see there that Cllrs Nash (both), Redcliffe, and others spoke against using the Committee system.

But after the petition was completed and handed in, the invective against it intensified, although Cabinet members took a less active role.

We suspect that Cabinet members were less vociferous because they stood to be shot at for the 'Special Responsibility Allowance' payments of 4,000 a year they receive for being Cabinet members (On top of the 3,500 Basic Allowance that the law requires to be paid to every Councillor each year).

So the mantle of 'Cabinet Champions' was assumed mostly by Cllr Tim Armit and Cllr Brenda Ackers who became spokespeople for the Leader and Cabinet system in the media.

These two nailed their colours firmly to the mast of retaining the Cabinet system.

History has shown that was the wrong mast.

Once the petition had been validated, the Council was legally obliged to draw up arrangements that would become the framework for the committee system if the referendum vote was for change.

That meeting - reported in 'Committees Campaign' was a travesty of what it should have been.

It was supposed to be an intelligent debate about the structure and operation of the council under a committee system.

Instead, it mostly became a rant from Conservative councillors against the principle of moving back to the Committee system at all, and an opportunity try to land punches on the campaign for change.

The protagonists in the Conservative group simply could not believe that FCAG (what they called 'this handful of people') could have - as they saw it - conned 4,600 members of the public into signing the petition when FBC was doing such a good job.

And they were angry they were being forced to even consider the change.

We're put in mind of the saying "There are none so blind as those who will not see"

Those 4,600 people were not conned. Nor were the 200 members of the public at the meeting in 2008 who had first called for the change. These were not ' a handful of people' nor were those who attended the FCAG seminar that launched the petition in 2013.

 
David Meldrum David Meldrum - who proposed the call for a return to Committees at a large public meeting in 2008. He described himself as 'Amicus Humani Generis' - a friend of the human race.

David was also the first signature on the first sheet of the petition but, sadly, he died before the referendum result was announced.  We are proud to salute his friendhip and his instigation of the change.


In the event, the result (as readers who registered for notifications of new articles will know from the newsflash we sent out) was a convincing call from the Fylde electorate for the change that David Meld rum had proposed, and FCAG had espoused.

RESULT

"How Would you like Fylde Council to be run?"

By a Leader elected by other councillors8,706 votes41.7%
By one or more committees of elected councillors11,934 votes57.2%
MAJORITY FOR COMMITTEES3,228 votes 
invalid or rejected ballot papers243 papers 
Turnout34.16% 

Fylde, and its conservative politicians, are playing down the change here in Fylde. But as we showed at the outset, in municipal circles, it is considered very significant.

However, the Conservative Group Leader failed to understand from the outset (or at least what he failed to convince elements within his own party from the outset) was that, insulated from reality, and surrounded by acolytes and aspirants seeking power, the Conservatives had completely mis-read the mood of the electorate on this matter.

Such is the arrogance of absolute power when it is placed in so few hands.

Those wielding power become addicted to it, and driven by the thrill they enjoy from the exercise of such power, they lose absolutely, the ethos of public service which ought to be their driver.

As we have reported so often, the Conservative majority in Fylde now acts like a steamroller, often visibly so, demolishing alternative views simply to demonstrate their power.

And because they are the majority party (and thus have a majority of seats on the decision taking bodies), they can carry the vote in all the Council's meetings.

But what they cannot do, and what they have been forced to suffer, is a reminder that Fylde Council belongs to the people of Fylde, not to political parties and not to the power hungry.

Nor does it belong to the aspirant MPs, that took over the soul of Fylde's conservative party when the counsel of former 'one nation' moderates was rejected.

In effect those exercising power have been given a bloody nose by the electorate and, like any bloody nose, it hurts.

So what will be the impact of this milestone in Fylde's history.

Well, the first and most obvious change is that at its next Annual Meeting in May 2015, Fylde will abandon the Leader and Cabinet model of Executive Governance and return to the Committee based system.

The exact details of how this will work will be devised in the coming months, but the framework within which those decision will be made can be found in this document.

There will be scope for the majority party to throw spanners into the works as this goes along, and it remains to be seen whether they have accepted the electorate's decision with good grace and go back exactly to 'one man one vote' or whether they try to subvert the decision - for example by extensive delegation of powers within the committee system.

But whichever details are agreed, the fundamental point is that the supremacy of decisions taken by all the councillors acting as the Full Council has been restored from May 2015.

We think it would have been better to have set it up from May 2014. This could have been done if FBC had the will to have done so. That way an experienced council would have been the one who bedded in the new system. As it is, it will be a newly elected Council, (possibly with a different electoral result), who bed in the new arrangement unless FBC effects some sort of 'shadow' Committee system later this year, and the Cabinet tacitly agrees to implementing the decisions of that Committee system.

It's early days yet, but we expect the new system to bring a greater depth of experience and a broader vision to decisions made in the name of the Council, and that can only be a good thing.

The second change is that there will be a shift in the relationship between the Council and the public. The Local Government Act 2000 which introduced Executive Governance also expected a change in the style of local government. It expected councillors to *LEAD* their electorate whereas previously they had expected to *REPRESENT* them.

The change means that we will slowly go back to a more representative style of council, rather than having one that tells us it knows best what we need.

We can only see that as a good thing as well.

Indirectly, the change has also broadened public awareness. It has made many more people aware of what system of governance was in use at Fylde, and this surprised almost everyone when they found out. We think they will be less trusting of what they hear in the future as a result of this.

Those 12,000 people who voted for change will expect to see it, and they will have to feel that they are being better represented. They will expect their councillors to regard their electorate more, and their political party less. It had driven a wedge into people's consciousness and they will now expect their councillor not to follow political party diktat with blind obedience. They expect improved accountability.

The conservative group on Fylde Council also know that the electorate expects them to deliver the change they have called for, and they also know that, having had their arguments rejected by their own electorate in the referendum they are at greater electoral risk when Fylde chooses its councillors in the Local Government Elections next May. They also know they have handed a strong campaigning tool to the non-conservatives who will all claim (with some justification) the part they have played in restoring democracy to Fylde.

After the new council is formed it will make life more difficult for all rank and file councillors (who will have to work harder), but it will be especially difficult for the Conservative ones because, if they are committee members and they are, for example, discouraged from speaking in debates so as to leave the talking to the Chairman, they will not generate the oxygen of publicity that will get them elected next time. That publicity will go to other councillors who do speak.

And if the conservative members do speak in committees, they will have to be prepared to debate issues properly with those holding differing views. Gone will be the requirement for dissenting views to be submitted in writing to Cabinet at least four days before the meeting (enabling officers to prepare the response to be read out by the Cabinet member). Councillors who speak will have to understand the issue and defend the position they adopt on it. It is a process that will test their competence.

We expect this to result in some members being unwilling to stand again next May.

From the perspective of the Conservative group who opposed the re-introduction of the Committee system, there may be several and mixed outcomes.

They will know this has damaged their electoral prospects for next year and they are more at risk of losing control at the next election.

In its own way, that could mean the referendum has done them a favour and created the perverse effect of uniting them closer together.

But that pre-supposes those who have been leading the charge against committees are prepared not to implement a campaign of lobbing grenades as they retreat from their former positions and those who have all along secretly supported the change to committees will now be able to 'come out' and say so.

It will also probably require those who spoke out against the change to embrace it and accept the public's view.

That's the positive side.

But people like Cllr Susan Fazackerley will probably find this more difficult - having been on the radio the day the result was declared she said "...I, personally, am disappointed that people have voted to move away from a winning formula...." and "...I just hope that the people pf Fylde don't regret the decision they made yesterday."

Individually, the referendum result for councillors who argued to keep the Leader and Cabinet system will have called their judgement into question.

And for some individuals it will mean the loss of income from being a Cabinet member or Scrutiny Chair or Vice Chairman who has received significant 'Special Responsibility Allowances'. That's never comfortable, just like the redundancy that has hit so many in recent years.

The negative side for councillors corporately includes the risk of retribution for Independent, Ratepayer, and Liberal Democrat councillors who campaigned for change.

Having been given a bloody nose and been reminded that they run an increased risk of losing control at the next election, those Conservatives who misjudged the mood of the electorate (in the same way that foxhunting was - in effect - the Labour Party's payback for the Conservative Party's destruction of the mining industry in Labour heartlands), might just embark on in some form of local payback against those who supported the change to committees.

Only time will tell, and we'll keep an eye out for anything significant and bring it to our readers.

Dated:     8 June 2014


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