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Fylde Considers Committees

Fylde Considers CommitteesIn November in our article "Democracy To Be Restored?" we were pleased to announce that the petition organised by the Fylde Civic Awareness Group had been verified by the Council, and the process was now under way to hold a local referendum that would let Fylde residents decide whether they wanted their Council to be run using a 'Leader and Cabinet' or a 'Committee' system of governance. (Go here to understand the dIfference)

Fylde is the first council in the UK with a resident initiative to decide how it should operate.

Nationwide, 40 Councils are considering the change to committees, and 13 have already volunteered to do so, but Fylde is the first to hold a referendum at the behest of its electorate.

Our readers already know the disaster that the Leader and Cabinet System has brought to Fylde, so we're not going over that ground again here. If you want to see more on that, have a look at this page the Fylde Civic Awareness Website.

But we thought our readers would like bringing up to date with governance arrangements that are going on behind the scenes.

Firstly, Fylde Council has prepared a timetable running up to the referendum.

It begins with the publication of a notice sometime before 28th February, giving basic information about the referendum and the question to be asked in it.

That referendum question is now known, and it will be:
How would you like Fylde Borough Council to be run?
By a leader who is an elected councillor chosen by a vote of the other elected councillors. This is how the council is run now.      
Or
By one or more committees made up of elected councillors. This would be a change from how the council is run now.    

Then, in April, the formal notice of the referendum will be published, and the final Notice of poll will be published around 14th May.

The referendum itself will be on 22 May and will be held at the same time as the European Elections.

So sometime before 28 February, Fylde Council will have to hold a special meeting of the Full Council to consider the arrangements they will adopt, if the referendum vote is for a change to the Committee System.

And before that, the political groups and the independent councillors are informally discussing how they think it should work.

We understand these discussions are going on at present, and there is considerable disagreement. We're told that the Independent and Ratepayer councillors are keen to see something like the Committee system currently used at Conservative-controlled Ribble Valley Council (or for that matter, Conservative controlled St Annes Town Council which also operates on a committee system).

Both these systems are very close to the one Fylde had before it was led into the wilderness years of the 'Leader and Cabinet' by former Commissar John Coombes and former Chief Executive Ken Lee.

But at present, Fylde's current Conservative group does not want the system that their Conservative colleagues in Ribble Valley are operating. They are arguing for a Committee system that is as close to the present Cabinet system as they can get.

We're puzzled by this.

We know the leadership in Fylde's Conservative group has set its face against a change to the Committee system. That's despite the call from 4,600 people who petitioned for that change, and despite a perfectly good Committee system that is being operated by their colleagues and political stalemates at Ribble Valley.

We're also puzzled because the Conservatives on Lancashire County Council - including Fylde Councillors like Tim Ashton, Fabian Craig Wilson, Paul Rigby, and Peter Buckley, all voted in December to begin a process at Lancashire County Council to abandon the Leader and Cabinet system there, and to adopt the Committee system as their way of operating.

So why would Fylde's Conservatives support it at Lancashire County Council and oppose it at Fylde?

We suspect the answer is that the Leader and Cabinet system as presently run at Fylde, allows a very small number of people to keep a tight control of the decisions made in the name of our Council, and the Committee system would make those decisions more open and transparent.

If that happens, it would be harder for the few to get their own way, so they're not keen.

But we're really surprised at their confused attitude, because a change to the Committee system still won't affect their ability to control a vote at Fylde.

Whatever system is in place, and at least until the next election, the present Conservative majority will remain, so they will always be able to out-vote other Councillors - (They can even out-vote a complete combination of ALL the other Councillors). That position will stay the same whichever operating system the Council uses.

If there's something they think is important enough, they will be able to vote it through, whether it's a Leader and Cabinet or a Committee system.

Secondly, we're puzzled by the stance of some members of the group.

It's plain as a pikestaff that there are ambitious - and indeed able - councillors in the Conservative group at Fylde who would relish the prospect of chairing a Committee of their own, where they would find more autonomy, a considerably higher profile, and more freedom than the Cabinet system allows or affords them now.

It's no secret that some of the Borough Councillors look enviously on the freedom to speak out in public that is afforded to their colleagues on Town and Parish Councils.

For example, in St Annes alone, we have Councillors like Ed Nash who until very recently chaired the St Annes Town Council Policy Committee, and Cllr Viv Willder the St Annes Mayor, Cheryl Little who Chairs the St Annes Leisure and Community Committee, and Cllr Tony Ford who Chairs the Planning Committee. These folk - although most are relatively new to St Annes Council - are now household names locally because of the frequency with which they are quoted and photographed in the local paper. They are seen as the local experts, and because they chair committees, the media make for them as spokesmen for the town.

That sort of profile makes it much easier to be re-elected.

At Fylde Borough, the presence of a 'media policy' operated (in practical terms) by the leading group, restricts anyone in the Conservative Group except the Leader or Cabinet members from speaking out to the press, and even when they do, comments are usually made through the Press officer who can vet them for content (and can also prepare them as the bland statements they often are).

Under the old Committee system, ordinary committee members were free to speak out in Committee.

In fact they often had to do so as part of the process. Because of this, they became better known. That's because they would express their support for or against issues in debate, and they would do this openly in the meetings of the committee, not through bland and sanitised press releases.

The Committee system also gave less experienced councillors the seedbed in which to grow their skills - because they took an active part in the running of the committee.

Again, we're surprised such Councillors are not privately agitating FOR the change (rather than against it) because as they gain experience they too would gain exposure in the media, and they could have a much greater influence on decisions the Council takes, giving even 'backbench' councillors the ability to make a real difference to the way Fylde works, and to the decisions it takes.

So we hope those in the majority Conservative group will come to see the benefits of operating under a Committee system and argue for it to their colleagues.

It will be a strange situation if the Conservative group on the council argues for, (and uses its majority to vote through), a particular type of Committee system, and then immediately turns round and campaigns AGAINST that same decision they have just made in the run up to the referendum!

And at the same time, at Lancashire County Council, they are promoting a vote FOR a Committee system to operate there.

What on earth sort of credibility could be attached to that position?

The arguments on such matters are currently batting backwards and forwards in the Town Hall.

To help councillors better understand the issues, Fylde's officers arranged a training session using an external facilitator from the Centre for Policy Studies (who have pontificated nationally on the change to Committee system).

To be honest we're not that enamoured of the CfPS. They come with the baggage of a particular view, especially about retaining costly and unnecessary Scrutiny Committees, a function (and cost) which - under a proper Committee System - is not needed, because the scrutiny is provided by the ultimate ability of any member of the Full Council to challenge any matter made lower down the line before it is implemented.

But we understand that using CfPS can make the delivery of unpalatable messages to councillors less unpleasant for Fylde's officers.

For example, there was a meeting last week at which Councillors (several of whom we believe had already made up their mind which system they wanted) were told that, before doing so, they would need to consider....

  • The changes that would become necessary to financial systems and procedures under a committee system;
  • The changes that would be needed to the scheme that delegates power to officers - for example, under a committee system there may be less justification to delegate decisions to unelected officers;
  • The changes that would be needed in how a council works with partners such as the Police, and Health services, as well as its involvement to provide councillors requested to sit on the bodies of external organisations, and the way it relates to people it supports like the Citizen's Advice Bureau and Lowther Trust and so on;
  • The changes affecting the Scrutiny Committees and, indeed whether Scrutiny Committees would be needed at all

And only then, after decisions on all these matters, should they begin consider the actual Committee structure they will need.

In short, instead of a one-size-fits-all nationally designed Leader and Cabinet system, Fylde will need to devise a bespoke system of committees that will recognise and respond to the particular needs and circumstances of the Fylde.

Members were also told that:

  • They needed to buy in to the process of change;
  • There should be consensus and cross-party agreement on the arrangements and a structure - because only then could people be confident of what they are voting for in the referendum;
  • They also needed to consider the of views of petition organisers and public at large.

We are surprised Fylde haven't already made plans for a large scale public consultation.

Given that 3,077 residents were needed to trigger the referendum and 4,600 signatures were delivered, there's obviously some concern, and we'd want to do our own professional poll to assess public opinion, rather than have to use anecdotal references.

The petition organisers have been doing their own - albeit unscientific - opinion poll, where people from local community groups were asked to rank their preferences for the various systems. (Note that none add up to 100% because people were not asked to choose just one, but to rate the strength of their support for each, so the result is a more accurate and graded measure of how much support each system has amongst Fylde residents).

This produced statistics showing the support for various options of running the Council. The results are pretty clear, albeit from a small sample (we're told it is currently a bit less than 100 people).

Public  support for different options

You can click on the graphic to enlarge it.

From our knowledge of polling, we know this is too small a sample to be considered statistically representative, but we also know that even after 30 or so results, a decision that is this clear isn't usually going to change that much as more results come in - so we leave our readers to make of it what they will.

CfPS also told councillors that popular experience in a referendum tends to favour support for the status quo rather than for change, but this is not always the case as had been seen at

  • Bristol where residents removed the Leader and Cabinet system in favour of a Directly Elected Mayor, and at
  • Hartlepool where the exact opposite happened, and a local referendum - arranged after a decision by Councillors to hold another governance referendum - removed a directly elected Mayor who had campaigned and won in a previous referendum as H'Angus the Monkey - a local football mascot, and has decided to return to the Committee system.

So, as the machinations are now going on behind the scenes at Fylde, we are moving slowly toward the final stage.

As we approach the referendum on 22 May, there will no doubt be campaigning from both points of view.

The town hall itself will remain strictly neutral. It is legally obliged to do so.

We have been told the majority party would like to keep the whole matter as low key as possible. We heard the quote "the fewer people who know about what's going on the better" and we're saddened if that is really how those in the majority group feel about the people that elected them.

We've also heard it will be "open season" against the change to Committees in literature that the Conservative Party will publish as we near the referendum. * 21.01.14 This paragraph has been replaced and extended below - hopefully to make the meaning more clear. Thanks to readers who drew attention to it.

We understand that what the Conservatives really want is to keep the Cabinet system.

But the petition and referendum means the council has to put forward arrangements for a Committee system before 28th February (so that people voting in the referendum know what they are voting for!)

In order to design a committee system that is as close to the Cabinet as they can get, the Conservative group is likely to have to out-vote other councillors who want the traditional one-man-one-vote committee system.

However, once they have designed and approved a committee system, we're told it's likely that the Conservatives are then expected to turn round and say - in effect - don't vote for the Committee system we have just designed.

And they are expected to campaign vigorously to oppose the implementation of the Committee system at Fylde.

That's a daft enough a position to be seen to adopt, but it gets even worse when you see that the Conservative group at Lancashire County Council has just initiated a move to VOLUNTARILY change to committees, and  the Conservative County Councillors from Fylde (who oppose the change to committees at Fylde) all voted FOR the change to committees at Lancashire County Council.

No wonder it's difficult to understand.

Its plain daft trying to go in two directions at once.

As we said, that is indeed a strange position to take.

Dated:   20 January 2014


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