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Back to Committees?

Back to Committees?On Monday 24th February, at the United Reformed Church Hall in St George's Road, St Annes, starting at 7:00pm, Fylde will hold an extra-ordinary Full Council Meeting to prepare the way for the Committee system to be re-introduced if there is a 'change' vote in Fylde's local referendum, which itself will be held in May.

This comes about because 4,600 people signed a petition calling for a referendum to decide whether Fylde Council's Operating System should continue as the present Leader and Cabinet system or whether the Committee System should be reinstated.

We've covered the history of what we believe to be the awful and undemocratic operating system that is the Leader and Cabinet system since our 'Death of Democracy'. article heralded its introduction back in October 2005.

Over those eight years the pages of counterbalance have catalogued the disastrous decisions that the Cabinet has made.

We agree with the late David Meldrum. He said those bad decisions were but symptoms of the underlying pernicious and undemocratic Leader and Cabinet system, whose shallow and narrow vision limits day-to-day decision-making power to only 7 of Fylde's 51 Councillors.

It was Mr Meldrum who proposed the resolution to change back to Committees at a large public meeting back in 2008

Those eight years also saw Saint Barbara Pagett suspended from the Conservative group for voting according to her conscience and against the introduction of the Cabinet. She resigned her party membership in protest, and to wide public acclaim. They saw the Council run improperly for almost two years because it forgot to elect a Leader at all. 

They saw the Streetscene debacle where a loss of £700,000 was reported. They saw the Heeley Road Hostel scheme where the Cabinet was going to sell the former Vehicle Maintenance Depot site for £250,000 (and give the Hostel developer a grant of £250,000 so they really would have got the site for nothing) when the site was actually worth - and (after huge public pressure) sold for - £400,000.

They saw St Annes Swimming Pool closed because of administrative and financial incompetence only to re-open again after big costs to repair the property after deterioration whilst it was empty. They saw a scheme introduced to build a new Town Hall that has already cost us over £1 million in wasted and aborted plans and consultants fees, and there is STILL no credible solution in sight.

And those are only some of the bigger issues. There are a host of smaller ones as well.

So we firmly believe the people of Fylde would be better served if their Council operated the traditional Committee system again.

That system could broaden the vision and deepen the experience going into decisions, and enable the Councillor you elect having the right to speak and the right to vote on day-to-day matters that affect you.

The Leader and Cabinet system denies them this right.

After Mr Meldrum's 2008 resolution called for a campaign seeking a change back to the Committee system, the Fylde Civic Awareness Group accepted that as its mandate, and has pursued that call since then.

When it became clear they were unable to convince FBC to change voluntarily, they held a seminar last year to see if local people still wanted to change, and asked those attending whether they should use the new Localism Act to bring a referendum about.

The answer from those at the seminar was 'yes'. So FCAG has asked if local residents supported change, and if they would sign a petition calling for a local referendum.

4,600 people did sign the petition.

That petition was handed in during October last year, and between then and 28th February this year, Fylde had to devise a committee system that it will use if the vote in the referendum is - as we hope - to change Fylde back to the Committee operating system.

And the extra-ordinary Council meeting on Monday 24th is the next step before the public referendum vote in May.

Monday's meeting will decide the broad parameters of how that Committee system would work.

Readers might remember that, as we reported in Considering Committees?  Fylde imported a specialist Governance consultant from 'The Centre for Policy Studies..

His presentation was called "Governance change following referendum: practical issues" and delivered in a private training meeting for Fylde Councillors on 15 January 2014.

The advice he provided included:

"Form must follow function - In other words, the structure must be based on some core principles which together form a settled view of what 'good governance'  looks like"

He also said the process to design a system would need to take account of :

  • "The forward plan and corporate work programme;
  • Financial systems and procedures;
  • Delegations;
  • How the council works with partners;
  • Arrangements for scrutiny."

And only then should the Council finally come up with a committee structure.

He drew attention to the need for balance, saying the Council should provide "enough information for the public to make an informed choice, but not so much that it ties the council into putting in place a system which it has only had a couple of months to design"

He asked Councillors to consider how the fact that it was a referendum would affect their thinking in preparing for change.

He said they needed to set out details of the new structure and arrangements quickly - arguably, quicker than was ideal, and, because the change was being implemented after a public petition, and in advance of a public referendum. He said there was a need for councillors to buy into the change themselves, and there was also a need for them to consider:

  • The views of petition organisers
  • The views of the public at large.

But sadly, after the training on 15 January, neither Fylde's Leader and Cabinet nor its officers made any comment on their approach to the referendum.

So at the last Council meeting, we attended and asked a question. It's conveniently reproduced in the minutes that are attached to the agenda for the Extra Ordinary Council Meeting on 24th Feb, but we've reproduced the question, together with the answer given by Council Leader David Eaves below.

As you read both, bear in mind what the Councillors were advised by the consultant at their Training Session


FBC Council 27 January 2014
QUESTIONS FROM THE PUBLIC
Q3. FROM FRED MOOR
========================
"In 2001, the Council distributed 34,000 leaflets to Fylde households seeking views about alternative governance systems. 2,648 responses were received, with 65% indicating support for a streamlined committee system, 9% opting for Leader and Cabinet, and the remainder for an elected Mayor.

In 2005, the Council again consulted on changing governance arrangements. This time indirectly - via The Fylde LSP newspaper, a press release, resident focus groups, parish councils, and the Council's website. This produced a narrow majority in favour of the Committee system, but only about 400 people responded. This was held to be an inadequate public response, so the change away from committees was implemented, irrespective of the small adverse public majority.

Given that 4,600 people have recently signed a petition supporting a change back to the committee system, and that number is ten times the council's survey result from 2005 and almost twice the 2001 response when all Fylde households were invited to comment:

1). does the Council intend to consult the public, the petition organisers, and Fylde's parish councils before finalising its view on the governance arrangements that should be proposed for implementation in the event of a 'change' vote in the referendum?

2). what steps does the Council expect to take to advise all its residents of the pros and cons of both the Committee System and the Leader and Cabinet system in order that they may make an informed referendum choice from balanced official information provided by the Council?"

=================================

The minutes of that meeting summarise Cllr Eaves reply as being

"Councillor Eaves, Leader of the Council, responded. He stated the present system of governance represented good value for money, whereas the referendum would cost £54,000 to hold and there would be additional costs to the Council, if a committee system had to be instigated. Councillor Eaves stated that full Council would meet on 24 February to agree a preferred option for any committee system, as required under electoral legislation. He advised that due to the legislative timescales there would be no opportunity to consult with stakeholders prior to the referendum, but if a yes vote was returned, the Council would consult with stakeholders regarding the implementation of a committee system. Any information publicising the referendum would be in line with legislation, be factual and contained within existing resources."

What he actually said (check out the webcast 13 mins and 20 seconds into the video for the question and answer) was.....

ACTUAL REPLY BY CLLR DAVID EAVES
===============================
"I thank Mr Moor for his history lesson, which gives me the opportunity to relate a little history myself before replying to his two questions. During the period on which Mr Moor comments, the electorate of Fylde have gone to the polls on three occasions and elected a Conservative administration at each election.

In the past 12 years this Conservative administration has dragged Fylde Borough Council up by its bootlaces. Having been described as a poorly operated Council in 2003, thus running the very risk of Government officers putting the council into administration, Fylde Borough Council is now held up as a model council and one of the best operating councils in Lancashire.

Under this Conservative Cabinet System Fylde Council finances are the best ever. The administration has been overhauled into a lean efficient unit, Council Tax has been frozen for each of the past 3 years and the results of the last Satisfaction Survey show that 97% of the residents think Fylde is a great place to live.

This makes it even more incredible that this is the only authority in the country where a referendum has been requested by other than councillors within that authority. I leave you to draw your own conclusions. However this referendum will now take place at a cost of £54,000 to the residents of Fylde, there will be additional costs, annual costs, to Fylde council, and therefore Fylde residents in staff resources, if the proposed referendum is successful and the Committee System proposed requires more than the Cabinet and eight committees that Fylde currently operates in its day to day delivery of the council.

(cont......)

The council has a special meeting in February to consider and agree the broad shape of how we will organise the Committee System of governance should the referendum deliver a 'Yes' vote. Due to limitations in complying with legislative timeframes the will be no opportunity to consult in advance of February. However, if a Yes vote is the outcome of the referendum, the Council will then consult with stakeholders regarding the implementation of the Committee system, for example, terms of reference etc, and any information released by the council will be in line with regulations, and any information will be factual."
========================

So - as we've seen this Leader and Cabinet do so often - Fylde is still planning to ignore best practice and the advice it paid its consultant for.

Assuming Cllr Eaves' reply remains the case, it's clear that Fylde Council did not set out to consult either the public, or the petition organisers (or parish councils) before it set the framework of the Committee system it proposed (as they had been advised to do).

There was ample time to do so from when the petition was submitted last October, and even time to do so after the January Training session.

We believe it's not time they were short of; it was the will to do it.

More crucially, and significantly, (and assuming Cllr Eaves statement holds good), the Council does not intend to issue a leaflet or other information that will help people understand the issues involved, and thus help them make an informed choice when voting in the referendum on 22 May.

This is quite disgraceful.

We suspect we know why, though.

If the Council were to issue a leaflet or information about the referendum, it is legally obliged to provide factual, accurate and unbiased information.

We would welcome such a leaflet.

But (despite the fact that Fylde managed to distribute an information leaflet to all Fylde homes in the 2001 consultation) we would not be surprised to find that officers have been prevailed upon *not* to do this now - in order to leave the field clear for a party-political leaflet *opposing* the change to the Committee System to be distributed by Fylde's ruling group - who are also all Cabinet Members - and have a vested interest in retaining their narrow Cabinet powerbase (and retaining the Special Responsibility Allowance of between £4,000 and £6,000 a year that each of them receives from the Council tax payments we make).

The Council could - with comparatively low cost - easily distribute a proper unbiased information leaflet in the same envelope as the Council Tax Demands that will go to every Fylde home in April - six weeks or so before the referendum.

But sadly, it looks as thought there will be no proper independent advice or information distributed by the Council itself.

We regard that as a dereliction of duty by those officers concerned.

We will have to see if the position with a Council-published leaflet changes before the referendum.

But before then, the committee structure will be considered. And given that the agenda for Fylde's Extra-Ordinary Council meeting has just been published, readers might well want to know what's being proposed as the broad parameters for Committees?

Well, readers can follow this link to download the full report - but our take on it is:

The proposals are not underpinned by the core principles the Consultant said were necessary to form a settled view of what 'good governance' would look like.

Nor have they yet taken account of financial procedures, delegations, or partnership working as they were recommended to.

They do not seem to have addressed the financial savings that could come from a change to Committees either.

Equally they have not sought the views of either the public, the petition organisers, or Fylde's parish Councils.

So 'impressive' isn't a word we'd be happy to use.

But they're not all bad either, so its really something of a 'Curate's egg'.

They represent something of a policy fudge in our view.

Given that half the Council don't want to change, and the other half do, perhaps that's the best that can be achieved at this time.

There is a commitment to give committees "full delegated authority to make decisions within the parameters set by full council."

That word 'full' implies that Committees can make irreversible decisions which in turn implies 'autonomous committees' that are supported by only 25% of those asked about governance systems by the Petition Organisers. (By way of comparison, committees making decisions that were recommendations to the Full Council enjoyed the support of 88% of those asked).

That said, there is a suggested provision under which a committee would be barred from exercising delegated authority in a particular matter - i.e. they would only be permitted to make a recommendation to Council, rather than take a decision themselves (although how this would work is not specified), and another where a Committee could voluntarily give up a (contentious) decision to a meeting of the Full Council.

How this 'barring' might work is not set out, but if it were to be based on the present principles of the 'call-in' procedure, it might be sufficient.

So it's not at all clear what the procedures would be.

The report also sets out the proposals for committee topics.

Instead of the seven-man Leader and Cabinet there would probably be:

  • A Tourism and Leisure Committee
  • An Operational Management Committee
  • A Health and Housing Committee, and
  • A Finance Committee.

In addition, the proposals envisage

  • An Audit Committee, (as at present)
  • A Chief Officers Employment Committee (as at present)
  •  Development Management Committee (as at present)
  • A Licensing Committee (as at present) and
  • A Public Protection Committee (as at present).

They would also see the removal of the two Scrutiny Committees that presently exist, because alternative arrangements for scrutiny would exist within the structure. (Typically by full council meetings)

So the proposal as set out in the report would see nine committees in total (Ten if you include the Full Council meetings) That's one less than at present if you were to count the Cabinet as one committee.

In 2005 when the change to executive arrangements was implemented there were 8 committees, and since then, responsibilities for housing and other areas have declined, so we had hoped to see a bigger reduction.

One of the dangers here is that if, as expected, the Conservative majority group campaign against the change, they will no doubt argue that it will cost more to implement, and will argue that people should not vote for Committees.

It's therefore in their interest to have a larger than necessary number of committees shown in the proposal.

This is already hinted at in the report which says "Members should be mindful that if an option is chosen that requires more committees than the existing arrangements, it is more likely that the costs of operating the new arrangements would be higher than the existing costs."

At this point, we'd like to remind readers of the view of arch-Conservative and no nonsense Government Minister St Eric Pickles (who is responsible for Communities and Local Government), and whose report into the costs of changing to Committees said

"The Government does not envisage that those councils choosing to operate the committee system will be subject to any additional operational or administrative costs to those operating one of the executive models (save for transitional costs)"

He added "Analysis of the broader operational costs measure referred to in local government as ‘corporate and democratic core expenditure’ has been carried out to see if there are any significant differences between the governance models.

Corporate and democratic core expenditure refers to the costs associated with democratic representation and management, such as councillors’ allowances and expenses; as well as the costs of internal reorganisation and corporate management.

An analysis of 11 councils which, whilst not presently required to operate executive governance arrangements, have chosen to adopt an executive model demonstrates that there were no significant cost changes associated with the change in governance mode.

This estimate of costs is therefore based on the assumption that there will, save for transitional costs, be no significant additional operational or administrative costs for those councils who choose to operate the committee system."

Fylde was one of those 11 councils, and is listed as such in St Eric's Impact assessment (pdf download, see p7)

So we believe any increase in costs would be either financial incompetence and profligacy, or an attempt to make the Committee system appear less attractive to voters in the referendum.

There are some proposals in the Extra-Ordinary Council report for that we welcome, and others that we do not - hence the 'Curate's Egg' description.

Whatever the view, this matter is the most fundamentally important decision affecting the Council for a decade.

And the referendum will decide how our Borough is governed for at least the next decade.

So Monday's Council meeting  is an important event.

There will be a public gallery where anyone can simply walk in, sit down, and listen to the debate that takes place on this important topic.

We'll be there, and will bring our readers a report of proceedings as quickly as possible, but if you've a free evening, you might like to join us and hear the debates at first hand.

Monday 24th February,  Starting at 7:00pm
United Reformed Church Hall,  St George's Road, St Annes,

Dated:   19 February 2014


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