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Not Fit For Purpose

Not Fit For PurposeDuring the recent campaign to restore the Committee system at Fylde, those wanting to keep the Leader and Cabinet system told the 'Express' that because Fylde had Scrutiny Committees, Cabinet decisions could be challenged and questioned by being 'called-in.'

So, they argued, democracy in Fylde was alive and well under the Leader and Cabinet model.

The underlying principle of scrutiny is that, if the Cabinet (or a single member of it), takes a 'bad' decision, and at least ten other councillors agree it is a bad decision, then the ten or more malcontents can, for up to six working days after the decision is taken, 'recover' it - and require a Scrutiny Committee to be held to consider whether to 'call it in'.

Last week, we saw one of the worst of such Scrutiny Committee meetings we've ever attended.

It ranks right up there with Princess Karen's 'Monty Python' proposition to Council  on the Heeley Road Hostel ('and now for something completely different') when she was a Scrutiny Chairman.

But last week's Scrutiny Meeting was probably the worst chairing we have ever seen, and the outcome was so logic-defying and party-politically biased, it perfectly illustrated why the Scrutiny Call-in system at Fylde simply cannot be trusted.

The toxic mix of incompetence and bigoted dogma that was evident at last week' Policy Development Scrutiny Meeting clearly shows how the present administration is not fit for purpose, and we invite our readers to agree.

To understand what's going on, we should probably first explain how a call-in scrutiny meeting *should* operate


First of all some terms...

'Recovery' of a decision means putting the decision on hold and not implementing it.  It takes ten councillors to sign a request to 'recover' a decision.

'Call-in' means that the ten councillors have, in fact, 'recovered' a decision, and the decision has been discussed and debated at the Scrutiny Committee, where a conclusion on what to do about the recovered decision has been reached.

The outcome of a 'Call-in' can be:

  • to let the decision stand as it was made;
  • to ask the decision-taker to reconsider the decision;
  • or to send it to a meeting of the full council for the whole council to debate, after which the decision would stand, or the decision taker would be asked to reconsider it.

For us, this process has a fundamental problem in principle - even when Scrutiny works as it should.

Under the Leader and Cabinet system, it is not lawful for a decision that has been taken by one councillor to be changed by the other 51 councillors, they can only ask for it to reconsidered.

We simply cannot accept that as being democratic when each councillor is elected equally. This is partly whey we campaigned so strongly for a change to the Committee-based system - it restores ultimate supremacy in decisions to all the 51 elected councillors.

But setting our disagreement in principle aside for the moment, Fylde's own summary of how its scrutiny system should work says:

"There are two overview and scrutiny committees, called Scrutiny committees, which support the work of the executive and the Council as a whole. They allow citizens to have a greater say in Council matters by holding public inquiries into matters of local concern. These can lead to reports and recommendations that advise the executive and the Council as a whole on its policies, budget and service delivery.

The Scrutiny committees also monitor the decisions of the executive. They can ‘call-in’ a decision that has been made by the executive but not yet implemented. This enables it to consider whether the decision is appropriate. It may recommend that the executive or full council reconsider the decision. Scrutiny committees also have an important role in developing policy."

So the Scrutiny Committees are supposed to provide both the checks and balances on the Executive, and provide the formal the interface between the Council, its work, and the public.

This is enshrined in Article 3 of Fylde's Constitution which grants rights to Fylde's Citizens.

These include "contributing to investigations by Scrutiny committees into any matters relating to the Council’s functions or its community leadership role where they invite the public to express views or comments."

In terms of Policy Development, amongst other things, the Scrutiny Committee is required to "(iii) help local people to be involved in policy development;"

Scrutiny Committees can actually invite members of the public to participate as committee members (although we can only ever recall one instance of this).

More usually, they provide something called a 'Public Platform' at the start of each meeting - where members of then public present at the meeting can address the committee on any item on its agenda.

It's a 'turn up if you'd like to say something' operation.

The conditions for this are set out in Fylde's Constitution as follows:

"10 Public Platform
Public Platform is an opportunity for people who live or work in the council’s district to put their point of view to a scrutiny committee about matters on its agenda. The first fifteen minutes of each meeting of the scrutiny committees will be available for Public Platform. Public Platform will be conducted as set out below.

  1. The chairman will begin the meeting by inviting any person (other than a councillor) who is present at the meeting and lives or works in the council’s district to address the committee about any item or items on the agenda for the meeting.
  2. No person may address the meeting for longer than three minutes, even if he wishes to talk about more than one item on the agenda.
  3. The committee will listen to a speaker in silence and may address any point raised by a speaker when the item to which it relates is discussed.
  4. The chairman may require a person addressing the meeting to stop speaking if he considers that the speaker is behaving in a manner that is insulting, offensive or inflammatory.
  5. The chairman may extend the time allocated for Public Platform if he considers that doing so would assist the committee in its deliberations."

So that's how scrutiny is supposed to work. And (apart from the principle of not being able to change the decision made by the Cabinet or a Portfolio Holder), it sounds fine and dandy. Like motherhood and apple pie it sounds like a self-evidently good thing.

But, as usual, even when you have the best system in place, unless those involved understand its purpose and their role in it, and unless they sign up to supporting the underlying principles, the process can go disastrously wrong.

We saw this famously happen at a council meeting in 2009 with Princess Karen Buckley, who had chaired a Scrutiny Committee that came to a conclusion and made a recommendation to the full Council - only to have her disregard her own Committee's resolution, and to propose one of her own invention instead. At the Council meeting, she simply noted the decision of her committee, and then proposed an entirely different and conflicting resolution.

For that action, she had to apologise to the Council, and also undergo re-training.

We didn't believe her failing in that instance was anything to do with ignorance or a need for re-training. We saw it as wilful intent to subvert an inconvenient decision of her committee.

When people subvert the scrutiny process for their own (or a political party's) ends, the whole thing falls down.

And it fell down on 4th June 2014, where the chairing of the Policy Development Scrutiny Committee was not fit for purpose, and the eventual resolution proposed an unreasonable outcome that defied logic in order to implement a bigoted party-political agenda.

The issue that had caused the 4th June Scrutiny meeting to be held was an 'Individual Portfolio Holder Decision' by Cllr Trevor Fiddler.

He had in fact made three decisions - all of them about a thick document called the 'Blackpool Fylde and Wyre Strategic Housing Market Assessment'. (shortened to SHMA and pronounced 'Shmaar')

This is an important report that sets out to assess how many people want houses, how many houses there are, how many homeless people there are and so on.

For Fylde, it concludes that we need between minus 64 and plus 436 houses a year.

At first sight such a big range looks stupid - but it isn't.

Once you have gazed into your crystal ball (and, depending on which of the 220 or so alternative combinations of factors you select as being the most likely conditions that will apply over the next 15 years), you come up with a probable number that is within in this range.

At the lower end, the report says that, because more people in Fylde are dying than are being born, if you based the level of projected household growth only on the natural change that prevails in Fylde at present, you would find you needed 64 houses a year *less* than the number of houses that exist in Fylde at present.

At the other end, if you assumed the most optimistic forecasts for inward resident migration, and an employment boom in Fylde that will hugely increase the jobs that need to be filled by people moving to live here, you would need an extra 436 houses a year

The report also says that within this range, the number of 'Affordable' houses that are needed ranges from plus 4 to plus 207. ('Affordable' houses are socially subsidised houses. These are chiefly rental properties, but they also include shared equity schemes and so on). The range here is, again, dependent on which of the combination of factors you believe will apply over the next 15 years.

We don't take particular issue with either range as quoted.

What we do take serious issue with are the assumptions used about what combination of conditions will apply in Fylde over the next 15 years.

Steered by Fylde's 'Vision' for the future, and by other information provided by council officers who directed, and set the Terms of Reference for the consultant's work, (and remember, these officers are famously planners, not prophets or clairvoyants - as chap at Warton pointed out in that big Parish meeting), the report concludes that "Overall, there is an estimated need for 207 affordable homes per year in Fylde, with an objectively assessed need for between 300 and 420 dwellings per annum"

Readers will see straight away that this is based on the more optimistic assumptions regarding migration, growth and employment.

We intend to look at this matter in more detail in a future article, but for the moment, suffice to say that crystal balls - however bright and shiny - are anything but 'objective'

But what had happened was that Cllr Fiddler had taken the numbers recommended by the clairvoyants and he wanted to embrace them warmly.

If this was allowed to go unchecked the impact would see more vast acres of Fylde's farmland disappear under housing.

His decisions (as Portfolio Holder for Planning and Development) regarding the SHMA report were:

  1. "The Portfolio Holder accepts the SHMA as a robust piece of evidence and that it is published as part of the evidence base for the Local Plan."
  2. "The Portfolio Holder accepts the objectively assessed need will fall within the range of 300-420 dwellings per annum and there will be an estimated need of 207 affordable dwellings per annum and that these figures will be used to develop a local housing requirement figure for Fylde."
  3.  "The Portfolio Holder accepts that the affordable housing figure and the remainder of the document is a material consideration for the purposes of Development Management."

If it was allowed to stand, his decision would have constrained the range of credible numbers for future decisions on the local plan.

Anyone trying to put forward a number outside that which the Portfolio Holder had decided, would simply be dismissed as not being in accordance with Council policy and not credible. (Readers need to remember here that under this soon-to-be-gone, but currently dreadful Leader and Cabinet system, the decision of a Portfolio Holder *is* actually, the decision of the Council).

And sadly, that's exactly what happened.

'The Council' (for which read Cllr Trevor Fiddler in this instance) had decided to set the range of housing numbers for the whole of Fylde for the next 15 years.

Thankfully, his decisions were challenged - by Queen Elizabeth Oades.

She and 12 other councillors thought his decisions were not in the best interests of the inhabitants of the borough, and they each signed a request to recover his decision.

Queen Elizabeth Oades led the call for his resolutions to be reconsidered. She proposed a change for each of them

For His Resolution No.1:
She said the Portfolio Holder should be asked delete Resolution 1 because it was unnecessary, and by endorsing the SHMA in such terms, the Portfolio Holder was setting a tone that made it more difficult to argue for a different outcome if the full Council wanted to do that.

She said if that was not acceptable, and the Portfolio Holder was convinced of the need for a resolution to receive the SHMA, then it should be more neutral in its tone, such as "The Portfolio Holder has received the SHMA and will consider it along with other evidence to inform the Local Plan."

She argued that

  • He has not felt the need to express support in this way for *any* of the other 80 or so documents in the evidence base for the local plan.
  • To do so with the SHMA could compromise the validity of future consultation.
  • Councillors on the Local Plan Steering Group, and local groups, had already challenged the validity of assumptions made and conclusions drawn in the Preferred Options Draft of the Local Plan, claiming the consultation to be unsound and calling for the Preferred Options document withdrawn.
  • Not changing the Portfolio Holder's decision risked intensifying public opposition to the emerging Local Plan and narrowing the range of options available to the Portfolio Holder in the future.

She concluded that Resolution 1 was therefore not in the interests of the residents of the Borough and should be reconsidered by the Portfolio Holder.

For His Resolution No.2
She argued that the Portfolio Holder should be requested to either delete this recommendation in its entirety, or to replace his words "300-420" with "-64 to +436" and replace the words "207" with "between 4 and 207"

In other words she was seeking to preserve the wider range of numbers set out in the SHMA evidence document (rather than the narrower range that it recommended and Cllr Fiddler had endorsed) in order not to constrain decisions made by the Council when it considered what number it should use.

She argued that

  • The range depended on which of many scenarios was adopted.
  • The Portfolio Holder's decision to set a narrower range unnecessarily restricted the options from which the Council could select, and upon which the public could make comments that will be regarded as valid, cogent and relevant.
  • The resolution made assumptions in respect of future economic growth and migration, none of which have yet been properly tested or established.

And she concluded that restricting the options to these numbers was not in the interests of the residents of the Borough, especially when further consultation was planned.

For His Resolution No. 3
She said that resolution 3 should be deleted altogether.

She argued that

  • The resolution sought to make 207 Affordable Houses a year the figure they would use when considering future planning applications, and that, like the Interim Housing policy before it, has not been subject to due process and public consultation so, like the IHP, would be shown to have no policy validity without being subject to the rigours of proper process.
  • It incorrectly assumes the need is 207 when the SHMA shows it to be between 4 and 207
  • It unreasonably constrains the Development Management Committee in its decision making.

She concluded that this was not in the interests of the residents of the borough.

So those were her arguments as to why his decisions ought not to stand.

We're first going to look at what happened procedurally - where the chairing of this meeting was a complete disaster - after that, we'll look at the content of the meeting

It was evident to any normal person present that Cllr Fabian Craig-Wilson simply did not understand the purpose of the meeting.

She continually managed to mislead and misdirect her committee.

And she spectacularly failed to hold the Public Platform, even when asked twice during the meeting to do so.

We therefore judge that she is not fit for purpose as Chairman of the Policy Development Scrutiny Committee.

The disaster began with her introduction.

She said :

"The reason for having a request for recovery of a decision is because, the, (pause), the feeling would be, by a certain amount of members that the *procedures* used to make the decision, were, erm…, weren't all… correct, or were not in keeping with the things that would be helpful to the borough."

She went on:

We can't have call-ins just because we don't *like* a decision; it is because, erm, something in the procedures may have been flawed, erm…, members believe that something in the procedures to make that decision were flawed.

And that's why a decision can be…., a request for recovery of a decision can be made."

This, of course, is quite wrong. It is nothing to do with the procedures of decision-making, it is the decision itself which must be challenged.

She then went on to clarify whether people ought to declare interests and said:

"On prejudicial, non-prejudicial interests, the only prejudicial interest is actually the Portfolio Holder who is requested to remain while questions are asked by the Committee  but once debate takes place, the Portfolio Holder is asked to please leave the meeting."

At this point Cllr Fiddler interjected "Not to return"

The Chairman continued (laughing) "on penalty of.....

The order, what we will do this evening is first, spokesperson for the call…, for the request for recovery will speak, and then the Portfolio Holder will speak, and then the Committee will be allowed to ask questions of both of them, and then, after that, when the debate begins, Councillor Fiddler will leave and we'll debate and make our recommendations."

Couple of points here, firstly the rule with declaring interests is that it is up to individual members to declare whether or not they have an interest to declare, and what type of interest it is. What she was confusing here was the 'Declarations of Interest' regulations and the 'Scrutiny Procedure' that Fylde has (rightly) adopted which says that a Portfolio Holder may not remain in the room when the committee debates his decision.

The purpose here is to make justice blind and to prevent intimidation and recrimination by the Portfolio Holder being visited upon committee members who disagree with the decision.

Secondly, we were not impressed with the 'matey' atmosphere that prevailed. A call-in meeting should be conducted in a quasi-judicial way (and for our part we would have the Portfolio Holder waiting outside the meeting to be called in to answer questions, before being dismissed).

But this chairman evidently doesn't see it that way, as can be seen from her phrasing that "....the Committee will be *allowed* to ask questions...." [Our emphasis here]. 

This indicates a mindset which sees her committee in the role of a supplicant to the Portfolio Holder, rather than its proper role as an investigative jury.

By now, Cllr Charlie Duffy had heard enough of the twaddle. He said:

"Chairman, can I just ask a question because I don't believe what you said is, is correct. So according to the Constitution, call-ins should be used where members consider that an executive decision is not in the interests of the interests if the inhabitants…."

At this point he was interrupted by the Chairman "It needs to be the procedures that made that decision not that you just don't like a decision."

Wrong again.

The Chairman compounded the mistake even after she has it pointed out to her (very gently) by a more able committee member.

What she should have done, if she was not sure, was to turn to the Committee Clerk on her right, who would quickly have put her right.

Cllr Duffy responded "But that's not in the Constitution"

The Chairman said: "No, but that was...., that's the advice given to me about call-ins from a very very long time ago, and so I am just repeating what has always been the information that I have always been as the Scrutiny Chairperson where call-ins are requested"

Oh Dear!

At this point Cllr Duffy quite properly noted that he would like his dissent recording in the minutes of the meeting.

He said: "I would like to officially have it noted in the minutes that I believe that's wrong. I'm quoting direct from the Constitution. It says Call-ins should be…, ten point one, call-in's should only be used where the appropriate scrutiny committee, after due deliberation, consider that the Executive Decision is not in the interests of the inhabitants of the borough and ought to be reconsidered. No mention of procedure or anything else, just whether we consider the decision is in the interests of the borough."

Having had the constitutional position set out to her, you'd think she would seek advice from the clerk. But no. She retaliated to Cllr Duffy with "But it also says members of the scrutiny committee. Members of the scrutiny committee. Some of the people signing the call in request, are not members of the scrutiny committee, so…"

At this point there was such an outpouring of disbelief from other members of the committee at what she had just said, we couldn't hear anyone for a few seconds.

She seemed to be saying that because some people who signed the recovery request were not actually members of the Scrutiny Committee the request was, in some way, procedurally flawed.

This is utter nonsense. Any ten members of the council can sign it to make it valid, and in this case thirteen did.

Undeterred, the Chairman continued: "So I'm saying they've not been members of the scrutiny committee"

Cllr Duffy said: "I think there should be some clarification of this, because the reasons for the call in are the decision and not the way the decision was made."

At this point, Cllr Fiddler (who was the 'witness' there to be questioned) intervened in the debate.

We regard it as a yet another failure of the chairing of the meeting that she allowed the witness to join the cacophony of debate that her incompetence had generated.

Cllr Elaine Silverwood was quick to challenge Cllr Fiddler. She said: "But if the Chair doesn't understand why we're doing the call in in the first place I think it's very...."

Cllr Fiddler started to interrupt again.

Not one to be intimidated, Cllr Silverwood spoke over him again, saying "No I don't think she does. She hasn't expressed it very well.

Cllr Fiddler again tried to interrupt.

Cllr Silverwood, now in an exasperated and forceful tone spoke over him again and said "No! If the Chair doesn't understand, I understand why one of our colleagues is quoting from the constitution. I think that's very important"

A faint voice in the background (the Chairman) said "I perfectly do understand, I perfectly well understand. I'm going to ask now for Councillor Oades who I think is speaking for the…."

And at this point she was interrupted by the clerk who spoke to the Chairman who then said "I'm sorry, yes, are there any declarations of interest? [There were none] Any Substitute members?"

The Clerk then read out the list of substitutions, and an apology from one Cllr was given.

Then Cllr Peter Collins said "Chair, can we just clarify that we're looking at what the decision was and not how it was made"

And the Chairman said "I understand what you're....(pause), why you requested the call in. Can we just proceed please?"

Cllr Collins: "But what are we…"

Chairman "You're..... You think it's not inkeeping, erm..., it's not, erm...., in the best interests of the borough.

Even now, the Chairman couldn't bring herself to give the correct information.

Finally, some sanity was restored when the Committee Clerk intervened and said "Can I just refer members to the report which says that members of the committee are asked to consider whether the decision has been made in the best interests of the inhabitants of the borough and whether it ought to be reconsidered"

The Chairman said "Can we please proceed? Cllr Oades"

Cllr Oades said "thank you…" and began the presentation of her arguments as we have set out above.

But because of the wholly incompetent chairing of the meeting - (which had seen the Chairman both mislead the committee, and demonstrate with her own mouth that she did not understand the procedures she was supposed to be implementing) - the Public Platform, which is the first part of every scrutiny meeting, had not been held at all, and Cllr Fiddler - who was there to be questioned - was allowed to become a participant in the procedural debates of the Committee, interrupting members of the committee as they spoke.

There were something like 8 or 10 people in the public gallery (as well as some officers and one or two 'non-combatant' councillors) and it wasn't clear whether anyone would have wanted to speak or not, because they had not been asked.

Typically what happens (at a Scrutiny meeting that is well organised), is that the Committee Clerk usually approaches the public gallery just before the meeting starts and asks if anyone wishes to speak. That didn't happen this time because the Chairman called the meeting to order and then went straight into the incorrect and misleading description of why they were there.

The ensuing contretemps put paid to proper procedure altogether, and Cllr Mrs Oades was now in the middle of advancing here arguments.

We had gone to the meeting hoping to speak in support of the matter being called-in during the 'Public Platform'

But there was no opportunity to do so.

At one point - probably halfway into the meeting, as one of the officers was sorting though some papers looking for some information, the Chairman said "While we're waiting for Julie, can I ask if anyone has a question?"

Readers might guess what happened next.

We said: "I'd like to ask Chairman if you're going to have a public platform or not in this meeting"

The Chairman said "No, I'm sorry", adding as an afterthought "Not at this time"

Later still, she asked "Are there any other comments in the debate?"

Unsurprisingly, up went a hand.

Chairman: "I'm sorry it is not a public forum to speak"

Us: "It's the first item on your agenda, chairman."

Chairman "The first item on my agenda tonight is declarations of interest"

Us: "Before that Chairman, it says Public Platform"

The Clerk pointed out the public platform heading to her.

Chairman: "I was not informed ahead of time if there was anyone who wished to speak on the public platform. It is always before. It isn't on the night, I get prior notification, and I had no prior notification as such"

Wrong again.

There is absolutely no requirement to give advance notice of a wish to speak. Fylde's constitution tries to make it as easy as possible for people to contribute to Scrutiny because Scrutiny is the method the Council has chosen to be the interface between it and the public.

Fat chance of that happening at this meeting.

Cllr Duffy then pointed out the Public Platform heading on the order paper, but the Chairman dismissed this saying "I saw that, but I had no prior notification of a desire to speak and had no prior notification."

She continued "Now, are there any other members of the committee who wish to make a comment or add to the debate before we vote on whether to call in the decision or not"

And with that, any contribution that might have come from the public the public, was dismissed.

At this point we will recall the Council's own summary of what Scrutiny is for, which includes the role to "allow citizens to have a greater say in Council matters by holding public inquiries into matters of local concern"

We will recall that this Policy Development Scrutiny Committee amongst other things, is required to "(iii) help local people to be involved in policy development"

And we will be mindful of Fylde's Constitution which says

"Public Platform is an opportunity for people who live or work in the council’s district to put their point of view to a scrutiny committee about matters on its agenda. The first fifteen minutes of each meeting of the scrutiny committees will be available for Public Platform. Public Platform will be conducted as set out below.

  1. The chairman will begin the meeting by inviting any person (other than a councillor) who is present at the meeting and lives or works in the council’s district to address the committee about any item or items on the agenda for the meeting.
  2. No person may address the meeting for longer than three minutes, even if he wishes to talk about more than one item on the agenda.
  3. The committee will listen to a speaker in silence and may address any point raised by a speaker when the item to which it relates is discussed.
  4. The chairman may require a person addressing the meeting to stop speaking if he considers that the speaker is behaving in a manner that is insulting, offensive or inflammatory.
  5. The chairman may extend the time allocated for Public Platform if he considers that doing so would assist the committee in its deliberations."

We therefore assert that the Chairing of this meeting was not fit for purpose.

The Chairman spectacularly failed to understand what her role was and, indeed what the role of her Committee was! She chaired the meeting incompetently, and we argue that her behaviour during the meeting was so unacceptable that it brought both her office, and the Council, into disrepute.

That carries the penalty of censure if it were found to be so after a formal complaint.

But based on historic evidence of the party-political rank-closing that we have previously seen (and reported on these pages) in the past, we see little prospect of a complaint being treated properly, so making one would probably be a waste of time.

We have heard that following the meeting, committee-facing officers have been reminded of the need to highlight procedural rules relevant to the meeting in question when the Chairman is briefed before the meeting - and that's a good thing.

But as with all policies and procedures, (and as we have seen so often in the party political steamroller that the present administration at Fylde can deploy at times) if the person implementing then either wilfully disregards procedure, or is administratively incompetent, then however good the are, policies and procedures will never work.

The Committee Clerk did as good a job as she could under the circumstances, but we understand her reluctance to show up the Chairman's ignorance by contradicting her in front of her committee.

Mind you, it's not as though it's the first time Cllr Craig-Wilson has been in hot water over Scrutiny.

The lady has 'previous' as they say.

In 2007, she was removed as Chair of the Policy and Service Review Scrutiny Committee, and Councillor Karen Buckley was installed in her place.

We reported this in 'A Shambles' of 29 November 2007

On that occasion, Cllr Craig-Wilson had chaired the call-in meeting for the implementation of charges for parking at Lowther Gardens (see Call-in For Lowther Parking Fees) and the withdrawal of the bus service that took children swimming in the rural area.

But both she and the Mayor of the day abstained in the Scrutiny vote, (when it appeared to us there had been a 'done deal' amongst the Conservatives to vote against a call-in) and the Conservative majority to oppose the 'call-in' ended up being two votes less than it might otherwise have been.

The former Commissar was (improperly in our view) at the Scrutiny Meeting to watch what was said by his foot-soldiers on the Scrutiny Committee, and she was removed as Chairman shortly afterwards. We understood at the time that it had not been her desire to relinquish the chairmanship.

That experience would remind her about the need to toe the party line in future.

A few years later, we saw and reported something that looked awfully like line-toeing in practice 'Still a Shambles' in 2011

By now Princess Karen had moved on, and Cllr Craig-Wilson had been restored to chairing a Scrutiny committee - the meeting we're thinking of here is the one that considered the intention to sell the Clifton (Lytham) Housing Association.

The decision had been found wanting at Scrutiny, and had been called-in and sent to full Council for consideration.

At Council, Cllr Craig-Wilson introduced the Scrutiny report, (at which she had voted to refer the item to full Council) but, having introduced the result of her committee's deliberation, she simply got up and left the meeting.

She had proposed the item but did not stay for the debate or the vote.

We reported this in 'Still a Shambles' in April 2011,and said "We could go through a whole series of 'what if's' at this point but we'll highlight only one. If Cllr Fabian Wilson had not have walked out of the meeting after introducing the item, but had stayed and voted as she had at her committee, the result would have been a tied vote with the Mayor's casting vote to decide the matter. Given that the Mayor had voted against the sale at this time, the decision would probably have been the reverse of what it was."

Given her previous experience running scrutiny meetings, you would at least have thought she would know what she was doing when she chaired last week's Scrutiny meeting - but she didn't.

And there was still more ignorance to come - as we shall show.

Having set the scene and addressed the awful chairing of the meeting, readers might want to know what the Scrutiny Committee actually decided.

Well, during the questioning phase, Cllr Fiddler mostly stonewalled. He spent a long time providing answers that mostly didn't address the questions he was asked, but instead, gave an outline of the process to produce the local plan.

He also brought out the 'Well, Blackpool and Wyre have adopted this same document and we'll be out of step if we don't' argument - in an attempt to bluster his way out of making changes.

At one point he had to call on officers to provide information because he seemed not to remember, or had not understood, how some of the calculations for the number of houses worked.

Sadly, as happens so often these days, the officers seemed to be working to their own agenda, and provided answers that appeared to support the case Cllr Fiddler had made.

(That's unsurprising to us, because it was, in fact, their recommendations that he had proposed as his decision!)

Cllr Duffy saw through all of this, and he and others kept bringing the questions back to the issue of his narrowing of the range of options.

Then, is a surprising and unexpected move, Cllr Fiddler changed his mind and stopped defending the indefensible.

He said that as far as the overall housing numbers went, he could see the argument that was being made about using the wider range. He said he was prepared to accept one of the call in changes, and he was happy to widen the range of numbers in Resolution 2 to the wider range set out in the SHMA.

He said "I have no problem with that".

Cllr Duffy sought immediate confirmation and said " So Trevor, were you saying that you will change your recommendation to, to say 'minus 64 to 436'?"

Cllr Fiddler agreed to do this.

After Cllr Fiddler had left the room and the debate took place, the discussion was heading toward the conclusion to change his Resolution 2, but leaving the other decisions as they were.

Cllr Duffy said "In the course of the debate tonight, Cllr Fiddler has indicated that he would be willing to change at least resolution 2, to change the range from 300 to 420. He did say he would be willing to change that to a different range.

So, he has already said that he is willing to change that resolution, so in terms of calling in the decision, do we need to call-in the decision for him to be able to change…."

At which point the Chairman interrupted him, saying "No. No, he's agreed to do that so you don't need to call in the decision"

Cllr Duffy "So he'd have to remake his decision then, because if we don't call it in, what he's already said will be ratified."

Chairman: "No he's said he's more than willing to do that, so we don't need to call in the decision."

She was absolutely wrong again here, and this time the Committee Clerk could not fail to intervene.

She said "if this committee decides that they are not going to call the decision in, that would mean the decision stands as it is. so if you want to accept Cllr Fiddler's offer to alter that range, it will, in fact, have to be, called in."

The Chairman - going from bad to worse - said : "But then that means the other things [Cllr Fiddler's other two decisions] about robust and so on will also be called in"

The clerk said "Well, that has to be subject to a motion. Somebody's going to have to propose a motion, have it seconded, as to what they would like of the changes to be called in, and those recommendations would have to go forward to the portfolio holder to be considered"

(At this point we were hoping someone would propose that the committee clerk took over the chairing of the meeting altogether!).

Chairman: "So it could be you could say you're not calling in 1 and 3 but you're calling in 2?"

The Clerk, trying to be helpful, and sensing what she thought to be the mood of the committee to be, said "The proposal could be that this committee asks the Portfolio Holder to reconsider his decision re amending the range to the range that is suggested in minus sixty-four to whatever it was and the rest of it would stand. It would need to be subject to a proposal and being seconded"

There was a bit more debate about what to do, then Conservative Cllr Brenda Ackers made a startling proposition.

Quite unbelievably to us, she brazenly said "I'm sorry chairman I don't agree. I think we should vote on the full recommendations, and disregard what the Portfolio Holder agreed to change".

She was utterly that blatant.

If you can't win the argument, resort  to forcing through the decision you want.

She had made up her mind and didn't appear to want to be confused by what she had heard at the meeting

And she was immediately seconded by a Conservative colleague.

We've no doubt our readers will take the same view of this as we do. What on earth is the point of having a scrutiny meeting to discuss a decision if it is populated with people who make decisions irrespective of what happens at the meeting?

For the second time in one meeting, we were treated to behaviour that was not fit for purpose.

Mind you, this lady is already famous for not understanding what she is voting on.

Readers will remember our ('Consequences' of Jan 2012) report of the devastating critique of her ability that was offered by Cllr Mulholland in respect of her role as a director of the Clifton (Lytham) Housing Association.

(Cllr Mulholland chairs Fylde's other Scrutiny Committee and is someone who absolutely does understand how Scrutiny should work)

At that time, Cllr Ackers had been proposed to represent FBC on another body - and Cllr Mulholland (referring to her former role as a Director of Clifton (Lytham) Housing Association) opposed this, saying

"It was in 2011 when we asked Cllr Ackers to come before the Task and Finish Group, which she did voluntarily and in a very cheerful and articulate way, and was more than willing to help us with our questions.

But, as you're all aware, the report of the Task and Finish Group was very critical of the Directors of the Board, very critical of the Trustees, and made some recommendations.

There were members of the Task and Finish Group that wanted to go further. They felt that nobody who had been a trustee should be allowed to hold any position at all on any outside body - or in the Council.

There were those of us that felt this was going too far, but you all saw the recommendations. I hope you've considered what's in that report, and the inferences in it.

The member who's now been proposed to represent us
[Cllr Mrs Ackers], when asked about the issue of the disposal of Melton Grove, openly told us that she had no idea about RSL's [Registered Social Landlords], what they were, what the differences were between RSL's and private developers. It wasn't her field and she knew nothing about it.

Now, that's coming from somebody who's a Director, who's making a decision to dispose of that company and dispose of Melton Grove.

I would like to think that anybody acting and nominated by the Council to sit on an outside body, albeit a private company, as a Director would have made it an absolute point to find out exactly what RSL's were.

The whole history of the disposal was peppered with references to RSL's, disposal to RSL's, the difference between RSL's and non-RSL's.

So I'm sorry but I'm horrified.

I was horrified by that response, as were other members, but I can assure you, I'm not saying this with any pleasure. I'm not making it up. That was the response.

The Task and Finish Group were also asking questions about the actual final decision that was taken for the disposal, and Cllr Ackers replied to us in a very pleasant manner that she'd really got on board with the Directors at quite a late stage, and basically she'd gone with the flow.

They aren't my words Mr Mayor, they aren't my words, they are her words.

So I'm sorry but how anybody can be particularly happy that that is our chosen representative somewhat defeats me.

And I shall certainly be voting against it. "

Since that time, Cllr Mulholland has always voted with his conscience as far as Cllr Ackers is concerned.

This time she was making what we thought were illogical, bigoted, party-political propositions that had nothing to do with the content of the meeting of which she was a part. The Portfolio Holder of her own party hade agreed to the change, but she had decided he should not have done so.

Councillor Duffy had said during the debate that there was no point in narrowing the range of numbers that would be considered, especially if the eventual figure was to go out to public consultation.

The absolute logic of this position is inescapable unless your are operating from a different agenda, and any right minded person would have agreed with him.

Even Cllr Fiddler agreed with him.

But the bigoted party-political steamroller view that defied this logic was espoused by Cllr Ackers who disagreed with both of them and, together with her Conservative colleagues she voted (on what appeared to be strict party lines) not to call in any of Cllr Fiddler's decisions, and the result was 7 votes from the Conservative members of the Scrutiny Committee not to call-in the decision, and 6 votes of the others for calling it in.

Readers will now understand why we have consistently sad that Scrutiny at Fylde will never work properly.

Excepting for some of the work Cllr Mulholland's Scrutiny committee does, Scrutiny at Fylde is simply a sham.

You can't avoid the impression that as far as some councillors are concerned it is not intended be anything other.

For them, the intent seems to be to give the illusion of scrutiny whilst at the same time maintaining the party political line that has, in all probability, been agreed before the meeting started.

We said at the outset, "The toxic mix of incompetence and bigoted dogma that was evident at this Policy Development Scrutiny Meeting clearly shows how the present administration is not fit for purpose, and we invite our readers to agree."

Thank heaven the Scrutiny system will be abolished when Fylde moves back to the Committee system next May.

But there's scope for a lot damage to be done before then, and we are going to make two predictions for the future as a result of last week's scrutiny meeting.

Firstly, we predict that no action will be taken against the incompetent chairing of the meeting, the misleading of the committee, and the denial of the public's right to speak at a Scrutiny meeting.

Fylde is no longer sufficiently concerned about proper procedure and propriety, and the majority party is only interested in the exercise of party-political power, so, the - literally - incredible Chairmanship will pass without censure.

Secondly, we predict that the decision that was allowed to stand will constrain the decisions that Fylde may take in the future, and that will make it harder for those of us who claim to be able to see beyond the officer's obfuscation with smoke and mirrors, to recognise that the selective and twisted interpretation of the 'evidence' prepared for the Local Plan (evidence that has already been rigged in its direction) is plain wrong.

The outcome of this will be 'loadsamoney' for FBC as they cash in on the 'New Homes Bonus' bribe that the Government is giving councils who disregard local objection and 'go for growth' in housebuilding.

Fylde can spend its New Homes Bonus however it likes, and the bonus forms an increasing part of Fylde's finances as is shown with their own figures:
FBC New Homes Bonus income as a proportion of total forecast income
Year 2013/14 2014/15 2015/16 2016/17 2017/18

FBC Forecast funding from New Homes Bonus

£907,000 £1,269,000 £1,519,000 £1,769,000 £1,740,000

FBC Forecast total financing (including NHB)

£10,126,000 £10,096,000 £9,880,000 £9,816,000 £9,667,000

NHB as a % of total forecast financing

9.0% 12.6%  15.4%   18.0% 18.0%

People wonder why so many planning permissions are being pushed through against an unwilling electorate. Government is applying pressure, but really, you only need to look at how Fylde is projecting to replace income it is losing from central Government with New Homes Bonus Money.

In four years time they expect to double the percentage of their income that comes from having delivered planning permissions in Fylde. Just imagine what percentage that will be in 15 years - at the end of the Local Plan Period.

It's 'meercat simple' as they say - they've simply decided to go for 'growth' which will destroy more great areas of Fylde's green land under concrete and tarmac.

But when you think about it, this is a Leader and an administration that's already well versed in betraying both its principles and its electorate to squirrel away its thirty pieces of silver.

The very name of the Council - Fylde - means "green field"

Perhaps - in view of this majority party being in self-destruct mode - Fylde should change its name.

Reader's suggestions are invited.

Dated:  15 June 2014


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