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Committees Referendum

Committees ReferendumOn 22 May, as well as having an opportunity to vote in the European Elections, everyone on the Fylde Borough Electoral Roll will be offered the chance to decide how their council should conduct its business.

Specifically they will be asked whether Fylde should use the Leader and Cabinet system (where most of the day-to-day decisions are taken by a Cabinet of six individuals handpicked by the Leader of the Council), or whether to return to the tried and tested Committees-based system (which allows all councillors to speak and vote on behalf of their electorate).

The genteel resort of Lytham St Annes and the rolling Fylde countryside is the unlikely setting for this latter-day (but slightly more civilised) peasants revolt, with the Fylde Civic Awareness Group cast in the role of Wat Tyler, and David Eaves as King Richard II seeking to contain their demands, and to maintain the status quo.

The contest will be settled on the battlefield of Lytham's YMCA sports hall where the votes in the referendum will be counted on Friday 23 May.

We expect to deliver a newsflash (to those of our readers who are registered to receive notifications when we produce a new article), shortly after the result is announced.

Since 'Death of Democracy' back in October 2005, we have consistently opposed the introduction and use of the Leader and Cabinet system which we see as being completely against the spirit of democracy, and a pernicious attempt by a former government to change the style of local governance in the UK from one where elected councillors *represent* their electorate (responding to their needs) to one where they *lead* their electorate (and tell them what's best for them).

So it's no surprise that our colours are nailed firmly to the mast that wants to change back to the Committee system.

Mr Eaves is leading the other perspective and wants to keep the Cabinet system.

He's put out a letter which looks to be from the Council but - when you look carefully at the small print at the bottom of the letter - it is actually from a political party attempting to masquerade as the Council

He makes a number of points in the letter.

So we thought we'd provide our take on what he has said - and why we think he's wrong.

Readers can follow this link to download a copy of Cllr Eaves letter in which he sets out his arguments to stay as we are.

Here's our take on them.

He alleges a waste of 54,000 on the referendum. First, it won't actually cost anything like 54,000.

FBC has to hold the European Elections vote, so all the electoral infrastructure (voting booths, staffing etc) would be needed anyway, and if there was no referendum the cost of that could be about 108,000.

The addition of a local referendum will, in reality, only add the extra cost of the extra ballot papers and some extra time for counting them.

We know that Fylde estimate this to be 7,000 to 8,000. However under European electoral law, Fylde does have to split the charge they make equally between the two votes, so the nominal cost of 50% must be applied to the referendum.

But there was no need to have this cost at all !

Firstly, Fylde Conservatives *could* have done what their Lancashire County Conservative colleagues are doing, and moved back to the Committee system without it costing a penny.

Secondly, as local resident Carol Lanyon has shown, Fylde was planning to return to the Committee system itself, but the ruling party ditched the idea.

That change to Committees would not have needed a referendum and thus would have cost nothing.

So any cost for the referendum, lies entirely at the door of David Eaves and his colleagues for refusing to complete what they agreed to do four years ago.

Whilst there is a basis of fact in this, it is a travesty of the whole story. Fylde was not in dire financial trouble as was claimed.

At the time Mr Eaves is speaking of, Fylde Council was debt free.

Under his leadership, they currently have a General Reserve (savings) of 4.2 million.

But they also have current year debts of 6.8 million and have set themselves a maximum debt ceiling of 12.9 million for this year.

The claim of Fylde being a weak council arose because the Council of the day was listening to, and acting on, the wishes of residents and not to the instructions of Government.

How things change.

It seems the other way round today.

Back then, Mr Blair's government told councils to make social housing its highest priority. But survey after survey in Fylde showed that residents accorded social housing a lower priority.

As a result of doing what their electorate wanted, and not focusing on building council houses, Fylde BC incurred the wrath of Government who were ready to send inspectors in to change Fylde's approach.

Following a change of power in a routine election, Fylde under John Coombes changed to the Cabinet system and embarked on an appalling crusade to attract homeless people to Fylde in order to increase the proportion of social housing and please Mr Blair's Government.

They actually advertised for homeless people to come to Fylde.

This led to the ridiculous situation, running from 2002, where Fylde's local plan said it needed more 'affordable' (social housing) than it needed for the all the housing said to be needed in the borough.

The Joint Lancashire Structure Plan said Fylde needed  to build 155 houses of all types each year. But based on its social engineering plan to make the character of Fylde more egalitarian, Fylde's Cabinet decided they needed to build 420 'Affordable Houses' a year.

This was plainly preposterous, and was shown to be so at a Public Inquiry where it was admitted the real need was about 42 'affordable' houses a year.

We're still living with the echo of this disastrous decision.

Furthermore, whilst working under the Cabinet system, it's also true to say that Fylde BC has also been classed as "poorly performing".

In 2010, The Cabinet was told that under the Audit Commission's 'OnePlace' assessment of Councils, that 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.

And in the last couple of months Fylde has only narrowly escaped from being put in 'Special Measures' for its planning performance

So there have been varying qualitative performance assessments under both systems.

Both have seen reports saying Fylde is good and both have seen reports saying Fylde is awful.

That said, we would prefer to have a council that listens to its residents rather than its majority political party or the government, and we'd prefer to have a committee system in place where our Councillors represent us, not a Cabinet whose aim is to lead us.

There's a huge difference between those two approaches.

Mr Eaves' letter is correct, the vast majority of councils use it. But this is only because Mr Blair's Government passed laws that required them to do so.

Since the Conservative / Lib-Dem coalition came to power they saw the folly of a one-size fits all Leader and Cabinet system, and Eric Pickles changed the law to allow councils to return to the Committee - based system.

As a result, councils throughout the country are in various stages of changing. We know of 14 that have changed (the most recent being Nottingham County Council who announced their decision last week).

Canterbury Council is petitioning for change as Fylde has done, and something like 40 councils are considering changing back to committees.

Locally, Ribble Valley doesn't need to change back.

Like Fylde it was under the minimum size for the legislation to apply to it, but unlike Fylde (who adopted the Cabinet System anyway) Ribble Valley retained its committee system.

And of course, at Lancashire County Council the Conservative Group introduced a proposal to consider returning to the Committee system. We understand a motion from them is imminent and it would propose that the County Council does return to using the committee system.

This has produced the unusual situation of Cllr Peter Buckley voting in favour of considering committees at the County Council, and putting out an 'In Touch' leaflet arguing against having the committee system at Fylde.

We also see the spectre of Conservative Councillors like Dim Tim Ashton and Fabian Craig Wilson voting to support a change to Committees at Lancashire County Council and voting against committees at Fylde.

It's difficult for us to see how such two faced consideration can be justified.

Carol Lanyon has already shown how decisions under the Leader and Cabinet system can be slow and expensive.

Other examples might include the New Town Hall scheme introduced by the first incarnation of the Cabinet under John Coombes where over 1m was wasted on aborted plans and architects and consultants fees. This was spending which, after five years of trying, was simply abandoned.

The second incarnation of the Cabinet under David Eaves dropped the idea of a new town hall in favour of a refurbishment of the existing one.

Five years later, after yet more consultants and architects costs, we're still waiting, but there's no sign of anything starting because they can't sell the old Public Offices site for what they need to fund the work.

The Town Hall scheme is another example of a slow and expensive series of decisions under the Cabinet system.

Mr Eaves letter makes great play of a recent 'satisfaction survey' - suggesting this proves Fylde is making good decisions. It speaks of public satisfaction levels of 90 to 97%.

We struggle with this, given the uproar the draft local plan has caused as it has upset thousands of residents in Wesham, Warton Wrea Green and elsewhere.

Perhaps it depends what questions people are asked to answer.

We make two points about the survey results.

Many of the questions asked related not to the work of Fylde Council, but to the work of the police or health and social services etc, so the satisfaction levels are not specific to FBC.

Secondly, to reduce its costs, Fylde has done the survey itself rather than using a statistically representative sample survey undertaken by professionals. It acknowledges this in the small print of its survey, and also says this change may give rise to the differences between these and previous survey results.

But in any event, the FBC survey is based on around a thousand views.

That's only about one third of the number of people who signed the petition calling for change when 4,000 people said they were dissatisfied enough to call for a local referendum on changing back to the Committee-based system.

Scrutiny is 'supposed' to be a safety valve, but the worst sanction a Scrutiny Committee can bring is a reference for the matter to be considered by full Council.

But when it gets there, the greatest sanction that may be imposed by full Council is to ask the Cabinet to reconsider their decision.

This is even worse when the decision is taken by an individual Cabinet Portfolio Holder to whom a request for reconsideration is addressed.

Most people (including us) find it incredible that under the Cabinet System - The full council (comprising all the councillors we elect) cannot overrule a single councillor taking a decision on his own.

That would not be the case under a Committee system.

The nearest thing to an 'Exit Poll' that we can find comes from the 'Petition Organisers' - the Fylde Civic Awareness Group themselves. It is the cumulation of presentations to local community groups where the various options were explained, and the audience asked to score their preference for each system.

This was then translated to become a percentage of support for each system and the results averaged.

It's not a statistically accurate sample of Fylde electors, it's done  in house by one of the sides in the campaign, and it involves only a hundred of so individual views, so it's not something we'd call entirely reliable.

But it is the only publicly available opinion survey on this matter.

It shows that of those sampled, more than 80% favour the Committee-based system, and less than 15% favour the Leader and Cabinet system.

Readers can click the thumbnail graphic to see the full result as a pdf file from the FCAG website.

Opinion Poll

The FCAG Website also has

So for the reasons outlined above, we urge people not to support the Leader and Cabinet as Cllr Eaves asks, and to support a return to the Committee system where it is 'one man one vote' - and the Councillor you elect has the right to speak and vote on any decision made in the Council's name.

Dated:  20 May 2014


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