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Only Five More Cabinets

Only Five More CabinetsThere are now only five Cabinet meetings left before Fylde abandons the discredited Leader and Cabinet system that was introduced on an unwilling electorate in 2005 by former Commissar John Coombes and former Chief Executive Ken Lee.

Fylde will, from May 2015, restore the more democratic Committee-based system of operation.

We hear that consultants have recently been brought in to advise the Council on how to set about making the changes.

We know roughly what's going to happen because in the heady days when Leader David Eaves and his nominees in the Cabinet thought they were going to win the referendum and keep the Cabinet system, they reluctantly, and with very bad grace, agreed a framework for change in case the referendum vote went against what they wanted.

It did.

So now they have to implement what they reluctantly agreed, and what Fylde's electorate voted for in the referendum.

Readers can see follow this link to see the framework that was agreed back in February.

It's unusual for external specialists to be called in to advise on making changes in governance.

We see this as yet another sign that in-house staff feel unable to convey the messages that need to be said, and they have imported external advisors, either to deliver unpalatable news and take the pain of Conservative ire, or to make the messages appear more credible.

These meetings are taking place out of the public gaze.

Presumably, Fylde would argue that people would not be interested in the internal workings of the Council.

Wrong again.

Just as they were wrong about it being "a handful" of people who wanted the change to Committees.

But whether in public or in private, counterbalance is usually able to bring our readers the griff on what's going on, so here we are with it.

The folk giving advice to Fylde this time were

  • Councillor Glen Sanderson: Deputy leader of the Conservative Group on Northumberland County Council for the last four years, and Regional Lead Peer (in the sense of 'unrivalled' rather than 'noble') for the, Local Government Association.
  • Ed Hammond who is currently the Research and Information Manager at the Centre for Public Scrutiny (which involves "carrying out technical research accountability in the British public sector, leading on research projects and responses to government consultations, delivering training to elected politicians, planning, organising and delivering major events and conferences, researching, collating and disseminating best practice relating, in particular, to local government").
  • Ernest Opuni who is a Management Consultant and currently the Improvement Manager (previously Principal Consultant) at Local Government Association.

The meeting had two aims

  1. To build a wider and clearer understanding among councillors of the implications of the referendum result and the next steps in implementing the change, and
  2. To secure understanding and agreement among councillors on the key elements of the process and the timeline for the work.

The consultants seem to have been briefed on the likely battlefield they were entering, because the first thing they did after introducing themselves was to (sensibly) set down some 'rules of engagement' and get everyone's agreement to them.

They sought

  • HONESTY - with no fear of reprisal.
  • FEEDBACK - which must be constructive
  • CHATHAM HOUSE RULE - Those present would be free to use the information discussed without revealing the identity or the affiliation of the speakers. The aim was to learn without attributing.
  • CONFIDENTIALITY - respecting that sensitive information is likely to be discussed.
  • RESPECT - for each others opinions/positions irrespective of political difference. We agree to treat each other with understanding.
  • COMMITTING TO LISTEN TO EACH OTHER - in turn with no interruptions or competing for ‘air time’
  • MOBILES OFF or BE KEPT ON SILENT

The presentation then went on to rehearse the background to the referendum (with which our readers are familiar) concluding with the fact that the referendum was held on 22 May 2014, and voters in Fylde voted by 57.8% to 42.2% to require that the Council adopts a committee system by May 2015.

The next section looked at the main changes that would come about.

Accountability: Fylde's Full council will have the power to set policy parameters within which each committee will operate.

Functions: All functions (except planning policy) that are now executive functions would be divided between four committees. The broad remits for these Committees will be:

  1. Tourism and Leisure,
  2. Operational Management,
  3. Health and Housing and
  4. Finance.

As you were: According to the consultants, the following existing committees were expected to continue into the future with the same remits as now:

  1. Audit Committee,
  2. Chief Officers Employment Committee,
  3. Development Management,
  4. Licensing and
  5. Public Protection.

We're less sure about this.

We could see scope for cost savings if some of those were to be merged or to become sub-committees. For example Finance could have an Audit Sub-Committee if it feels it is needed.

There was concern from the presenters that time to get Fylde organised was short, and there were concerns about capacity within the officer class to make the necessary changes

The consultants also thought it needed councillor enthusiasm to keep up the pace and the focus on the change.

Fylde spectacularly failed to do this after its previous presentation on Governance change (which was also by Mr Hammond, though we attribute no blame to him for Fylde's intransigence and disregard for what he suggested to them before the referendum).

The consultants' proposed timetable for the change was

July – September 2014: A paper would to go to full council on 28 July updating all councillors on the cross party working group and its programme of work. It was argued that Fylde should also use this period to secure community input to gain ownership from Fylde’s communities and Partners.

We think that if they manage to do that it will be the first time in a generation that Fylde has genuinely consulted rather than having what it nearly always calls a 'consultation exercise' (the results of which it promptly disregards).

By late 2014 (November/December): the Cross Party group is expected to have presented clearer proposals on the structures (including recommended size and make-up of committees). These proposals would be taken to full council for adoption/endorsement, and will include the Terms of Reference for committees and clear procedural guidelines (e.g. on 'call in' arrangements).

January to March 2015: The majority of this period would focus on fine-tuning the systems and processes and implementing the constitutional change (eg adopting a revised constitution) required for the new system to go live post May 2015.

The (optimistic) presenters said all the right things. They said this was:

  • A chance to engage all of Fylde’s communities in the change.
  • A force for the council to work differently and more effectively.
  • An opportunity for members to lead Fylde’s communities and Fylde Borough Council through the change by setting the right tone.

(although, as regulars will know, we're not at all keen on being led. We prefer and, indeed, expect, to be *represented* by our councillors)

Going deeper into troubled waters, the presenters went on to say....

  • Changing governance arrangements has to be seen as an opportunity, not an obligation;
  • It is not just an internal issue – it will affect how Fylde delivers services, and how they work with partners and the community;
  • Change is as much, or more, about culture than about structures;
  • Councils who have “got” this have succeeded in embedding a democratic and transparent committee system – those who haven’t have seen more mixed results.

We absolutely couldn't agree more, but unless the road to Damascus flows through Fylde Conservative Party's HQ (and last time we looked it didn't), we suspect Fylde's culture won't change enough.

So we think it remains likely to be seen as an obligation - as a punishment by voters - not an opportunity to represent them.

We believe that although there is evidence that some members of the Conservative group are willing to accept the public will from the vote with good grace, there will be an attempt by others to minimise the impact of the change, and keep it as close to the former Cabinet system as they possibly can, and thus the change risks only being about structure.

Furthermore, Fylde's Conservative group's leading Councillors - and some ordinary members- like Cllr Armit, Ackers and others, have ably demonstrated before the referendum that they didn't want the change.

They may now pay lip-service to it, but many of the key players don't really want transparency.

And as for democracy, they thought the former Cabinet system was the epitome of democracy, so we can't see a lot of hope as far as they are concerned.

The salvation for all this could be the election results in 2015.

A result that returns a balanced Council (with no group having an overall majority) would stand a half decent chance of making it work.

It is just possible that the majority of Conservatives will become persuaded of the benefits of the Committee system as they begin to understand it, and will embrace the change against the wishes of the die-hards.

They almost did just that before the last election when they thought they might not have a majority after it, and they imagined that it would be harder for them if a Cabinet comprised of non-conservatives held sway.

That's probably right.

And it's exactly why the awful Cabinet system should never have been implemented in Fylde.

We suspect there will not be a lot of confidence amongst Conservatives going into the 2015 election, so the same situation might apply once more.

But we've digressed into speculation - as usual!

Back to the presentation.

It went on to try to clarify some key questions.

  • What outcomes did Fylde want from the process?
  • What improvement opportunities could Fylde's councillors identify in the governance change process?
  • How did the councillors view the process of implementation - bearing in mind the possibility of changes in the make-up of the authority in May 2015?
  • What concerns (if any) did they have about the process of change?
  • Did they think the outline timetable for the next 9 months looked about right?

And after this, those  present broke up into working groups to discuss each of those questions

The views emanating from those working groups were varied.

Some we have spoken to say they were cautiously optimistic, others said they were still expecting difficulties and were not holding their breath. We hope to bring a more detailed look at what happened shortly.

In the meantime, there is an item on the Council agenda for Monday evening which proposes setting up a cross-party group comprising Councillors Eaves, Fazackerley, Buckley, Singleton, Oades, Chedd, Duffy and Howard Henshaw.

That's an interesting combination and looks to us to have a pretty fine balance when it comes to votes.

One name we're especially encouraged to see there is Cllr John Singleton.

He's probably there because the usual process would be for the Audit Committee that he chairs to look at the detail of this, but the plan now (probably because of the short timescale) is to have the working group report direct to Council.

We have been impressed with Cllr Singleton's independence and his considered contributions to debates in the recent past.

We're just as pleased to see David Chedd and Charlie Duffy on the group - even if we might occasionally disagree with what Cllr Duffy has to say, he is a clear and strategic thinker, and Cllr Chedd is equally one of the more able thinkers on the Council as well.

We're also pleased it's a cross-party group. But there are two 'groups' that are not represented at all. They are Fylde Ratepayers, and the two people that are labelled by officers as 'Individually non-aligned' councillors - Kiran Mulholland and Paul Hayhurst who are part of no group. Both are amongst the most able members of the Council. Both have deep experience of the Committee system, and either could make a solid contribution We would hope that one or other would also be invited to join the group, together with Cllr John Davies, the leader of the Ratepayer Group who did so much work to bring this change about.

We'd be happy to see a commensurate increase in the Conservative representatives to maintain the present balance if they were included.

The purpose of the Group is to 'agree the broad principles of the remit and purpose of the Working Group set out within the report'.

Readers can follow this link to see the full Governance Working Group Report

The change to the council’s system of governance will require a root and branch review and reform of the council’s constitution.

There will be detailed technical changes needed to facilitate the committee system, but there will also be an opportunity to consider how it should work best for the benefit of the community.

We understand Councillor Glen Sanderson, Regional Peer Lead Member, from the Local Government Association who led the presentations to Fylde has agreed to attend some of the initial meetings of the Working Group to 'support its work' and the most senior officers in the Council will also 'work alongside members to advise, support and carry out the background work as requested by members. The Section 151 officer will advise and support on financial matters.'

We had to give a wry smile at this description. Whilst it's exactly right, it's also very "Yes Minister" isn't it ?

The group will have to look at and propose:

  • Terms of reference of committees
  • Consultation arrangements
  • Role of the Leader
  • How the interface with partner organisations will fit into the new governance structure
  • Size of committees
  • Scheme of delegation
  • Operation of the budgetary framework

One thing we thought was missing from all of this was a period of voluntary shadow working so that in the run up to the change next May, councillors would have the chance to 'practice' under the new system.

Had we been in charge we would have set up an incremental transfer of decison taking so the committees gradually took up the reins of debate and made recommendations to the Cabinet (who, by law, must take the final decison until the change is legally effected from May 2015).

We heard tell that an officer at Fylde had recommended something similar (which, for those who undersand the administration of such things is an entirely proper and logical suggestion to make), but we heard the response from Leader David Eaves was something like 'Over my dead body'

Whether that's right or not we don't know, but we would have expected the consultants to have suggested it and they didn't - so maybe it has a ring of truth about it.

We think the following should also get a dose of looking at

1). Special Responsibility Payments. These are paid typically to chairmen and vice chairmen of the committees and are entirely at the discretion of the Full Council. We'd like to see these abolished and have instead the ability to claim actual expenses incurred. But that idea probably involves a whole drove of airborne pigs as well - so much as we think it's a good idea, we know it's not going to happen.

We're old fashioned enough to believe that whilst councillors should not be out of pocket for the duties they need to perform, we don't support the idea of paying them. We believe it should be done for the honour of serving the community for those who have benefited from it. 'Putting something back' is the popular term.

If it worked that way, we think there would be a lot less aspirant and combative politicians fighting for airtime, and a great many more local councillors looking for consensus working.

2). A significant reduction in the decisions delegated to Officers. We don't elect them, and can't remove them. They should only have delegated power where no discretion or judgement is to be exercised. For example, Planning officers currently enjoy a delegation to respond to consultations. Where this is a matter of parroting policy it's fine, but where for example Fylde is being consulted on the Cuadrilla applications by LCC, we regard it as wholly inappropriate for officers to respond without reference to Councillors.

3). We'd also like to see the restoration of the former Committee Style budget book. Perhaps not in quite as much detail as before, but we regard it as ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL that committees of elected councillors take FULL OWNERSHIP of all the spending that is approved in the Council's name.

It's fine for officers to prepare estimates of likely spend for the relevant committees to consider, and to execute whatever spending is agreed after the estimates are eventually approved by the relevant programme committees.

But these new Committees are to be programme committees and will need to take responsibility for devising, securing funding, and delivering the programme of activity they have agreed. That means monitoring the progress that *their* officers are making to deliver *their* programme as the year goes on.

When Councillors once again feel they can make a difference, when they feel ownership of the decisions, when they feel ownership of the spending, much of the malaise that has affected, divided and becalmed Fylde over the last 10 years will evaporate, and there is a real chance that common sense could prevail.

4) The area likely to cause most of the problems is that of delegation to committees.

Under the old system, only quite minor matters were delegated decisions, and even then, the Council could require a delegated decision to be taken by the whole Council.

This matter goes to the heart of what the people of Fylde voted for.

They want the Councillor they elect to have the absolute right to speak, and to require, and to participate in, a vote on any matter to be determined.

Previously this worked by having Committees come to provisional decisions that were subject to confirmation by the full Council meeting before they could be implemented.

This sounds laborious, but it need not be. There was a committee week in which all the committees met. The following week the Policy and Finance Committee (which included the chairman and vice chairman of all the programme committees) met to consider any council wide policy issues and any requests arising from the committee meetings the previous week that were over and above the approved spending.

In other words they dealt with the big cross-cutting issues and the detail of requests for urgent additional spending.

And the following week the Full Council met.

Mostly it was a rubber stamping exercise - because all the detail and the controversial items had been resolved before it reached full Council.

We recall one Full Council meeting that took just 12 minutes.

But this system and timetable also provided another important safeguard.

If a Committee made a decision that was controversial, or that caused public concern, there were two weeks during which members of the Council could be lobbied by constituents, and if they were concerned at what they heard, they had the right to propose a change or reconsideration of the matter at the Full Council meeting if one other councillor supported their call.

Essentially this is the cultural difference between Cabinets and Committees. Under the Cabinet, the select few are supposed to LEAD the community.

Under Committees, all councillors are supposed to REPRESENT them

The difference in approach is huge.

We believe Fylde is most likely going to try something between the two.

The good news about that is that if it doesn't suit, it can be changed at will (but not back to the Cabinet for at least 10 years), so in some ways, whatever they decide now doesn't matter that much. It can be adjusted.

That said, it would be better to get it right first time.

We suspect there will be much more delegation to committees than we would consider ideal, but there will be a sort of 'call in' safeguard where, if 'x' number of councillors assent, the decision would be recovered and put on hold for the Full Council to take the decision.

In theory this is workable, but it depends on the 'x' - ie how many councillors are required to recover the decision.

The former system required two assenters, a proposer and a seconder. That arrangement is widely understood and respected. It has served committees well throughout history.

Perhaps three or four would be acceptable? But would ten or fifteen?

And what if the number were to be set to be at least 51% of the whole council?

This is why we say we think this will be the most contentious area.

We simply can't get away from the idea that every councillor is elected equally, and for democracy to function properly, every individual councillor ought to have the right to speak, and the right to vote on decisions that are taken in their name.

That said, we don't expect much debate on Monday. That's going to happen behind the scenes via a working group whose agenda and minutes are unlikely to be public, and whose meetings are not likely to be open to the public.

Not a good start for transparency is it?

But we'll have to wait and see what transpires.

Finally...... we can report what appears to be one piece of good news for friends elsewhere.

We've been watching what happens at Canterbury District - where a volunteer group had started collection signatures on petition sheets calling for governance change.

They'd got up to 2,000 signatures when it was proposed at a meeting of councillors that the Council accept the inevitable and make the change to Committees from May 2015.

The plan is to appoint a Commission with a completely independent Chairman chosen by the Chief Executive, and it is expected that all the meetings of the Commission will be open to the public to attend and hear the debate.

Assuming Canterbury's Full Council meeting agrees this recommendation, it will happen. 

We think Fylde could learn something from this.

Firstly, they could learn they could have avoided the (reported) £54,000 cost of the referendum on Fylde's taxpayers if they too had bowed to the inevitable, and secondly, the group revising the arrangements for committees should have proper pre-published agendas and subsequent minutes of the meetings, and those meetings should be open,  transparent meetings that the press and public can attend.

Readers can follow this link for the report that led to the change, and this link for the minutes of the meeting that formed the resolution to Council.

We also understand that thinks are moving along the petition route in Thanet District as well.

Where the Fylde Civic Awareness Group led, others now follow.

Dated:     26 July 2014


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