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Committees Campaign

Committees CampaignThis time, we bring you four stories in one, as the Fylde Civic Awareness Group embark on the final stage of their campaign that began back in 2008.

That campaign had its roots in a 2005 decision of Fylde Council.

Up to that time Fylde had conducted its business using the 'Committee System', but after 2005 it adopted what are known collectively as 'Executive Arrangements' - which, at Fylde, became the 'Strong Leader and Cabinet system'.

FCAG's campaign sets out to explain why a return to the tried and tested Committee system of decision-making at Fylde would be better for everyone, and the links below act as shortcuts to each of our mini-articles.

  1. FBC approves arrangements for committees
  2. Canterbury starts its own petition.
  3. St Annes Town Councillor Carol Lanyon exposes Fylde Leader's failure to finish the task of his 'Task and Finish Group' charged with considering a change to Fylde's governance
  4. We provide the opportunity for counterbalance readers to support the campaign for returning to the tried and tested Committee system.

As it was required to do by the Localism Act, Fylde Council responded to the 4,600 signature petition (calling for a return to Committees) by agreeing there should be a referendum to let the people of Fylde decide how their Council should conduct its business.

The referendum will take place alongside the European Elections on 22 May.

On that day, Fylde voters will be able to decide whether the Council should retain the Leader and Cabinet system (introduced by the Blair Government for the new Millennium), or whether to vote for change, and return to the tried and tested Committee System as proposed by the Conservative Party in opposition, as subsequently endorsed by the Conservative Lib Dem Coalition, and enacted via the Localism Act.

Fylde Council has started to prepare for a return to the Committee system - so the electorate will know roughly how it would work if they vote for change. The Council has (sort of) debated and published the arrangements they will use if the people of Fylde vote 'Yes' for change in the referendum.

Our readers can follow this link for the full report of how Fylde would run its Committee system.

In summary it entails:

  • The Full council having power to set the parameters within which each committees will to operate
  • Matters that are now 'executive functions' run by the Cabinet would be divided between four committees: (1) Tourism and Leisure, (2) Operational Management, (3) Health and Housing, and (4) Finance.
  • Most of the existing statutory committees like 'Planning' and 'Licensing' would remain as they do now, as Committees.
  • There would be no Scrutiny Committee (because scrutiny would be provided by the full Council meeting which would be able to challenge and, if necessary, could overturn decisions of individual Committees).

It is not set out exactly how this would happen, but - for example - it would be possible to do so if individual councillors had the right to challenge a decision that had been made by a committee.

Apart from that exceptional power, each committee would have delegated authority to make decisions within the parameters set by the full council.

Readers can see follow this link to see the webcast of the Extra Ordinary Council Meeting that agreed this committee framework

Introducing the item, (which is about 5 minutes into the webcast) the Council Leader opened the debate with a petulant statement that had little relevance to the agenda item.

He began "This referendum has been forced on this council by an external body, not the elected councillors of this borough ....."

We were surprised.

He was speaking as though it was not his own political party who had provided the legal right for local people to determine for themselves how THEIR council should conduct its business.

They say power corrupts. The beginning of his statement shows how he believes it should be up to elected councillors to decide what's best for us.

Clearly, for whatever reason, he has swallowed the Blair doctrine that underpinned the introduction of the Cabinet / Executive system - that a local council's job is to *lead* their community.

Most people want to be represented, not led.

It they'd have wanted to be *led* they'd have joined the Army. They would not have elected councillors.

We think the power of doing the 'Leading' has gone to his head, and he now appears to think the electorate should do what they are told.

Sadly, this sort of thing happens when Leaders are surrounded by those who tell them what they want to hear.

The perception we gained from what he said was that the electors have no right to say how their Council should conduct its business.

His tone suggests the idea of returning to a system where elected Councillors *represent* their electorate (as opposed to leading them by the nose) - is a step too far for him to stomach.

The Council meeting at which he spoke was supposed to be debating the arrangements for operating the Committee system, but the majority group were so implacably opposed to the idea of Committees in principle, that they couldn't get beyond arguing that they didn't want to discuss the arrangements they would use, at all.

It was an almost perfect example of why power that is concentrated in the hands of a seven-person executive is so dangerous.

It was ABSOLUTELY clear they had no intention of following the - mostly sensible - proposals their expert consultant from the Centre for Policy Studies had told them, (and as we had reported in "Back to Committees?")

It was really just 'open season' on the idea of having Committees at all, and most (but happily not all) of the Leader's majority-party faithful, dutifully closed their brains down, and parroted from the local party script.

There was support for Committees though. Non-aligned Councillor Kiran Mulholland said he could understand the Leader not being happy, adding "...However, if anybody tries to tell me this [the Cabinet system] is a democratic system, they must be dreaming."

He criticised the process by which the Leader and Cabinet system had usurped the power of the Council to take decisions, and how the power and authority of 'The Council' was now vested in the Cabinet - or sometimes in just a single person.

He said "I have to say, when I led the Scrutiny on Melton Grove, that was one of the aspects I found was horrendous. It didn't matter what it was, the whole body of the Council - all the other Councillors - had a completely Non-Executive role. They couldn't make a decision.

[I found that] 'The Council' *meant* Councillor Fiddler".

He said when any individual Cabinet member took a decision, that decision then *became* the decision *of the Council*, adding "I'm sorry, but I think that's just fundamentally wrong"

Cllr Duffy - a man we always like to hear - said he usually planned very carefully for a council meeting to decide whether there were things he wanted to speak about or not, but he went on to say "But I think I must have had a different agenda to everyone else. To me, this report we're looking at now, isn't about *whether* we have a Cabinet system or a Committee system, and I think everybody knows that. This debate that we're supposed to be having tonight is about whether we agree that, should we have to have one (whether you want one or not), this model [set out in the report] is one we can all work under."

Sadly, the debate continued as though he had not spoken - with petulant irrelevances from those who were unwilling to consider the principle of a change to Committees.

Several times the Mayor had to bring them back to the agenda item as individuals sought to promote their opposition to the referendum in principle.

However, the vote was eventually unavoidable and, because the law requires the Council to publish a statement of the arrangements it would use for a Committee System - in the end, they did just that.

Readers can follow this link to download a copy of that report.

We think the report is a bit on the woolly side, and could lead to too much delegation, but the devil will be in the detail, and at this time the painting is broad brush.

Fylde was the first council in the UK where residents and community groups came together to use the Localism Act to petition for a change in the way their Council conducts its business.

And up to last month it was also the only one.

Sure, there were a dozen or so councils that had already voted to change back to Committees, and another forty or so were considering the idea -Including Lancashire County Council where the Conservative Group has *proposed* the change to Committees - and this was despite Fylde BC Conservatives opposing it here!, (and Dim Tim and possibly others voting one way at County and the opposite way at Fylde).

But last month, Canterbury residents set out to follow Fylde on the same route, and they are now the second Council to petition for a referendum.

We understand they have been in touch with the Fylde Civic Awareness Group to compare notes.

Readers can follow this link to see what's happening with the Campaign for Democracy in Canterbury District.

Having heard the petulant arguments from Conservative members at the previous Council meeting, (including irrelevant arguments about how much it would cost to hold the referendum to allow local people to vote), St Annes Town Councillor Carol Lanyon asked a personal question in the public Question Time section of the following Council meeting (which was on 31 March).

She wanted to know what the Council had done over the last four years to comply with the unanimous decisions of two previous full council meetings which had resolved to examine and report on the potential for change to a more democratic governance system at Fylde.

Her question asked:

"At Council in July 2010 I heard Cllr Mrs Chew say: "The Leader and Cabinet System excludes many Councillors and isolates those at the top".

She went on: "In light of recent government pronouncements with regard to the committee system in local government, we would move that this council forms a cross party working group to return the committee system of local governance at Fylde Borough Council."

I heard Cllr Eaves say he thought a group to consider this matter was a good idea and the Conservatives should support it.

The meeting unanimously resolved to set up a working group - as requested in the motion.

In January 2011's Council agenda, I read that "A cross-party working group has been established to investigate this alternative" and I noted that work was in progress.

At Council in November 2011, I heard a proposition that:

1. "This Council continue to look at alternative Governance options with a view to adopting more democratic processes, as and when the Localism Bill becomes law.

2. That regular cross party T & F meetings take place, as soon as possible, to investigate the most suitable and successful systems and report back to Council when this work is complete."

The minutes for that item say: "After the debate, a vote was taken, and the motion was carried unanimously."

However, I don't think this unanimous decision of the Council has ever been discharged. I can find no such report to Council on the important issue of a return to `one councillor one voteŽ.

But at the Extra-Ordinary Full Council in February 2014 - I did hear criticism of the Committee system from Conservative councillors, most notably Cllrs Armit and Eaves - and I wondered about the basis for this view, when the Council has not yet received its evidence from the Task and Finish Group it established in July 2010.

So I would like to take the Task and Finish group to task, to ask:

Qa. Why its report has not been presented to Council before now?

Qb. Whether the group still meets to consider this matter after almost four years of deliberation?

Qc. Whether Cllr Eaves - who has been so critical of the referendum cost - agrees that he could have avoided this cost altogether by ensuring that the resolution of this council had been properly discharged before the governance petition was delivered?"

The Leader, Cllr David Eaves answered the question and said:

"The cross-party working group met on a couple of occasions to discuss the different governance models. It was not possible to reach a consensus on any of the proposals put forward by the groups, so the work of the group was in stalemate for some considerable time.

The announcement of a petition for the referendum overtook the governance debate, and the Task and Finish Group never met again.

A report has not been presented to full Council primarily because the Task and Finish group never reached a consensus, and the petition led to an alternative solution.

In answer to question (b) the group no longer meets.

And in answer to question (c), unfortunately, the cross party working group could not reach consensus on governance arrangements, and as such, it was not possible to predict the outcome or cost of the alternative governance solutions that were never proposed. I would personally have preferred the cross party working group to have been able to propose an alternative that would have been acceptable to all groups, but this, unfortunately, was not possible."

What a stunning response!

It certainly stunned Queen Elizabeth, who was on her feet immediately.

Although councillors aren't normally allowed to speak in response to the Leader's answer to a public question, she said it was a point of clarification (which she is allowed to make). She said "I have to really, because that's not my recollection of events, so [as the mayor was looking hesitant] if you're telling me I can't speak now, I think its something we need to take up after the meeting"

Her protest seemed to us to be a very civilised way of saying that the answer given by Cllr Eaves was a fabrication.

The point is that the T&F group *was never intended* (nor indeed was it mandated) to make *a decision* or reach a consensus on this matter. They are prevented in law from doing so anyway. Only the Leader, Cabinet, or Full Council may make decisions. The role of the T&F group was (as instructed in the resolution) "to investigate the most suitable and successful systems and report back to Council when this work is complete"

It was never intended to determine a preferred system. That was beyond its remit.

But even their investigations have never been reported to Fylde Council - as they were required to do

Doesn't it just exemplify what is wrong at Fylde, dear reader.

The new (supposedly) 'fast and efficient' Leader and Cabinet system at Fylde has allowed it to take four years for their Task and Finish group to decide they can't agree which of the three governance models set out in the Localism Act should be used at Fylde.

But instead of reporting to the full Council on the available options - as instructed - they simply didn't do anything.

And then Cllr Eaves and Cllr Armit have the nerve to complain when the electorate take the matter into their own hands (as Conservative inspired policy now empowers them to do).

After four wasted years and no result at all, who could blame people for getting restless!

The point being missed in all of this, is that the abuse of power that is corrupting the processes at Fylde and allowing Blue Peter (Here's one I made earlier) decisions to run riot, has also been applied to the Task and Finish group which, according to Cllr Eaves couldn't reach a decision so it simply faded away. It has never "finished"

If you look at the timings, Cllr Eaves' answer simply doesn't hold water.

The first (unanimous) instruction from Council was in July 2010. That was reinforced with another resolution in 2011. Cllr Eaves says the Task and Finish Group "met a couple of times", but events were overtaken by the Fylde Civic Awareness Group's petition.

That petition did not start until February 2013, and the petition itself was not presented to FBC until October 2013 - so it's difficult to see how the Task and Finish Group was "overtaken" by this.

Unless, of course, he's seriously asking us to believe that the T&F group only met twice from July 2010 to October 2013 - averaging about one meeting every 18 months.

So much for the 'faster and more efficient' Cabinet way of doing things!

But it gets even better. Cllr Eaves explicitly said it was a "Cross Party working group".

We know at least three of the five groups at Fylde who were not included, or were not even invited to be included, to that supposed 'cross-party' working party, and at least one of them is, to our knowledge, furious at being excluded because they did not even know the meetings were taking place.

So we don't think we've heard the last of this matter by any means, and we think there will be more to follow.

We suspect what really happened is that just before the last elections in 2011, the majority group were fearful of not having a majority after the election - and in 2010, knowing how easily they had been able to exclude other councillors by using the Cabinet system to their advantage, they didn't want to be on the receiving end of that treatment themselves if they lost control of the Council at the election.

So they took up the working party idea to provide a route back to Committees if they were no longer in a majority after the election.

As we have seen, the election result was initially very close, but after some 'crossings of the floor' by Freckleton Councillors who returned to being Conservative Party Councillors when they had stood as Independent candidates, and were rewarded for their efforts by being restored to their former Cabinet positions after becoming Conservatives again, it made a greater conservative majority.

And after this majority was achieved, we believe the Conservative group simply lost interest in changing to Committees, as they wanted to continue to use the Leader and Cabinet system to their advantage, and simply deny audibility as of right to opposing voices.

As a result, and in an almost perfect example of the Executive's abuse of power, the voices of other Councillors in this matter have been neutered.

There is more to come on the matter of the Task and Finish Group's omissions, and we will bring it as we get it.

As things start to build toward the Referendum on 22 May, the Fylde Civic Awareness Group had today officially launched its campaign to promote the cause of changing back to Committees.

Full details of the history of how this came about, about why a return to Committees is a good idea, together with a schedule of some of the major failings since the Cabinet was introduced, will be found under the 'More Information' button on their website at www.fylde.biz.

There is also a button to book a free 20 minute presentation of the options the Localism Act allows Councils to operate, and the pros and cons of each.

But counterbalance readers can also get more involved.

In 'Time to Restore Democracy?' we promised readers a rare opportunity to help in a practical way to bring about this grassroots change of governance in Fylde.

We can now expand that opportunity.

The FCAG website LINK has a 'Downloads' button where readers can download A4 posters, and car stickers to help publicise the campaign to change back to Committees, and we urge our readers to download and display a poster and car window stickers, but more than that, we urge our readers to email the poster to friends living in Fylde and ask them to do the same.

Those readers with facebook and tweeting facilities can help too - by publishing and tweeting and re-tweeting about the campaign.

The downloads button also has a wealth of information to help readers understand what's going on, and to be informed about the referendum. Downloadable documents include the latest public opinion survey results that FCAG have undertaken, a Government assessment showing that a change to Committees should bring no additional costs to operating the Council, and lots of other useful data.

Finally, we're told that FCAG will shortly be offering garden stakes (like estate agents boards but a bit smaller) to go against a gatepost in gardens or against field boundaries alongside roads.

FCAG tell us they would be very pleased to hear from any counterbalance reader who lives on a busy road or where there is a lot of vehicle or pedestrian traffic, and they will make arrangements and agree a position with you to put up and later remove a garden stake and sign (like the one at the top of this page). All FCAG need is your permission and your support.

So please do drop them an email to info@fylde.biz if you support their aims and are willing to have a garden (or field) stake.

The Council's Chief Executive said FBC have 'no budget' to produce a leaflet explaining the pros and cons of each system. So sadly, people will not be well informed for the referendum by FBC.

We also expect the Conservative Party to conduct a vigorous political campaign to oppose the change to Committees, and it's tempting to wonder how much connection there might be between this, and the lack of explanation from the Council as a whole.

We believe it's really important that both sides of the story are heard, so we are supporting the FCAG campaign.

In this David and Goliath contest, the big money muscles are with the Conservative Party. But we ought to remember that it was David who won, and working together, the community can make a difference, as indeed it has already by triggering the referendum.

Dated:  2 April 2014


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