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The New Committees: Finance and Democracy

The New Committees: Finance and DemocracyEncouraging (well at least at the start).

That was our impression of the first couple of meetings under the new committee system which is now in operation at Fylde.

Sadly, it went downhill rapidly, and by the end of the cycle of meetings, we were much less hopeful.

We couldn't get to all the meetings, but we did manage most of the 'new' Committees, and it's those we now report vis:

This was a week or so after the first committees, and it is chaired by Cllr Karen Buckley, with Cllr Roger Small as Vice Chairman.

Cllr Buckley has a very polished and confident style of operating; a bit reminiscent of an experienced primary school teacher explaining things to her class in the simplest of terms.

The advantage of this is that committee members do usually understand what they are debating and deciding, and the velvet gloves handling, and the honeyed, slightly lilting tones she uses, lull you into a false sense of security - which helps her to get her own way.

The disadvantage is that the sharper members will probably feel it is rather patronising and, as we were to see later on in the meeting, there is a decidedly heavy Iron Fist covered by the velvet glove.

This Committee had two items for decison, (Approval of the Medium Term Financial Strategy - General Fund Revenue, Capital Programme & Treasury Management Outturn Position for 2014/15, and the Appointments to Outside Bodies), and one item for information (Year-end performance).

Fylde has it's finances well in order these days, and we have previously credited Cllr Buckly and the present and former officers for doing a first class job in turning round what used to be a financial basket case in the days when the Commissar and Cllr Small were running the show togther with a different finance officer.

So there was little to be concerned about regarding the closure of the accounts for last year.

On the revenue side Fylde had originally forecast a budget need of around 9.8million. This was periodically adjusted through the year according to changes that happened (which is the way things are done these days), and by March this year the budgeted need had been revised down to around 8.9m for the year.

The outturn position as reported to this meeting was, in fact, a requirement of only 8.5m, resulting in an overall saving of around 0.5 million on the final month or so, some of which was one-off windfall income, and others were underspends. Some might criticise a varience on this scale from an original budget as poor management, but no councillors raised this as an issue.

The variences giving rise to the savings were explained, one of which concerned the issue of the order for new boats at Fairhaven Lake which were not now going to be provided in time for this season, so the money for them had been carried forward for when they did arrive.

Cllr Mulholland wanted to know whether the loss of income from having a lot less boats operating at Fairhaven over this season had been factored into the Lake's expected income for this year.

The officer said "No it isn't, because that position was materialising as we were setting the budget, so the budget assumes a continuing level of income at the same level as it's been in the previous few years" Cllr Mulholland noted that would probabay not be the case.

The officer said they were about to report the first quarterly monitoring. He understood that some of the boats were operating, but not at the level expected by the budget, and he expected to advise more on this in the next monitoring report.

Readers will recall seeing a report in the 'LSA Expess' that the new boats (worth about 55,000) that had been ordered would not now be delivered in time for this season.

Cllr Mrs Oades also had a question about this matter. She said "... About the boats at Fairhaven. A number of Councillors received a letter of complaint during the election period, and I know you can't go into that here, however, I'm just wondering has there been an investigation, and have Internal Audit been involved in that."

Cllr Buckley asked the Chief Executive to respond. He said "Councillor Oades is correct. There is an investigation ongoing at the moment, and that hasn't been concluded, for various reasons that are private an confidential with regard to the individuals involved, but the audit team and the Director of Development Services are involved in that investigation."

Cllr Oades wanted to know if that information would be provided to members eventually. The Chairman said she expected it would go to Audit or the other committee.

The Chief Executive said "The nature of the investigation is private and confidential to individuals concerned, and so therefore it will be... it could be tied very much to their terms and conditions of contract. But in terms of the outcome, all members will be informed as to what the outcome of the investigation is. There may be details that we can't share, because they're private and confidential to the individual, either an individual in our organisation, or an individual in the organisation that failed to deliver the contract."

Hmmmmmmm. We hope this isn't going to be another 'Streetscene whitewash style of investigation

We heard quite a bit of detail about this problem as it arose many weeks ago, but we're not reporting it at present because if Fylde is doing a proper job of the investigation, we wouldn't want to prejudice that, but we do expect to report further at a future date.

Suffice to say at the moment that it appears to involve one or more members of Fylde's staff, and does not appear to involve or reflect badly on any of the elected members.

The next agenda item was about representation on outside bodies (as all the previous committees had considered). This one had four outside bodies which the Chairman dealt with in her usual sweetness and light mode, and everyone was happy.

But then we got to the "Budget Working Group"

And here we got into very unsatisfactory waters.

This is a new working group. It did not previously exist in the Cabinet System, (because its role was previously carried out by the Cabinet). But that wasn't expressly made clear by the Chairman. An astute Agenda reader should have spotted it though.

Now, we think the right way to approach this would have been to ask the Committee if they wanted to create a new sub-commitee for this purpose.

But that's not what happened. Again, (as in the Planning Policy meeting), officers had 'assumed' (and in which we would not be surprised to find that one or more members of the majority party had persuaded them of the need to do so) the need to create one, and had included the proposal as an agenda item which, the new Committee took as being the right thing to do.

Again, that's not the way to do it - at least not our opinion.

The function of this proposed Working Group is likely to be to deal with the preparing the overall budget level around November/December each year.

We suspect, it will hear all the options and possibilities, the threats and opportunities at a macro level. It will then filter out which of those it does not want to consider or adopt, before presenting a more limited series of options (or perhaps only one single option) for consideration by the full committee.

In past times, (and in the former Commitee system), this role of overall budget consideration would have been undertaken by the Chairmen and Vice Chairmen of each programme committee coming together to consider the likely Government grant for that year, and the overall sum likely to be available to the Council for spending.

But that was in the days of a more sensible majority party that was confident it could carry the argument by convincement, so (mostly) they had not felt the need to assume both the Chairmanships and Vice Chairmanships of each Committee, but had allocated the Vice Chairmanships to councillors who were from other parties and groups.

That approach had all sorts of benefits, not least the fostering of a feeling of inclusion and the sharing of the responsibility for the resolution of problems, and consensus-based decison making.

But this adminsitration has retained both Chairmanships and Vice-Chairmanships to the majority party (none of the other parties or groups gets a look in).

That's not improper. The majority party has a majority, and im most circumstances cant set its own rules in this matter.

We regard it as a poor and shortsighted way to proceed, but they may be entitled to do it this way if they so choose. - Which is what they did.

For the most part, the early items on representation on outside bodies had gone very smoothly. Everyone was happy, representations wre being shared around, and there was even some humour. Everyone was participating and working together. There actually was proper consensus.

At this point, we would have have given the conduct of the meeting 9 or 10 out of 10.

But it was not to last.

The honeyed tones and apparent willingness to share, had indeed brought about a false sense of security.

But when we got to this Budget Working Group item, the velvet glove came off, and Cllr Mrs Buckley said "The Budget Working Group is suggested be drawn from the Chairman of the main Programme Committees, That's five committees I believe. Five main Programme Committees. Of course I would propose the Leader be on the Budget Working Group as well.

Now, above and beyond that, my proposal would be that we have a few members from this Committee in order to have, that they are involved in that as well, so it's not just the Chairmen who is
[sic] involved in the Budget Working Group, and it comes back to this committee for consideration.

I would like to propose, that the people we put forward are those that also have positions on, Vice positions, on other Committees as well, My proposal would therefore be that the Chairman of the five main Programme Committees, the Leader, plus three, and that would be my Vice Chairman Cllr Roger Small, Cllr David Donaldson, who is Vice Chairman of Standards, and Cllr Richard Redcliffe who is Vice Chairman of Development.

Now it's very clear from that, that I'm not proposing that it be a cross-party Working Group, and I make no bones about that. It's a budget setting....
[Then she corrected herself] It's a budget planning working group. I do not propose - I might get disagreement - but I do not propose that it be cross-party."

The measured, honeyed tones were still there, but velvet gove had come off, and the iron fist was showing. It was holding a dagger. And there was a sweet smile on her face as Princess Karen slid it effortlessly - and without a shred of of hesitation or remorse - between the ribs of the non conservative members of the Committee and killed off any prospect of there being consensus when preparing the budget decisons.

That's not a good way to run a Committee either.

This was the assumption of party political command and control that we had all hoped would not be a feature of the new Committee system.

If she gets away with it, and at present we're struggling to see who might be able to stop her, what she will have done is to sidestep the legal requirement for decison-taking to be politically balanced. She is using the 'Working Group' to step outside the legal framework that governs Councils which run under the Committee system of governance.

If you think about it, there is absolutely no need to do this to arrive at the budget decisons that the majority Conservative Group wished to make. They have a clear and overwhelming majority on each Committee, and on the Council.

They can simply outvote any alternative to what they, as the majority group, decide is what they want, either at the Commitee meeting, or at the Full Council meeting.

So the only reason for this approach must be an attempt to limit the information that is presented by officers to non-conservative members of the Committee.

It thus seeks to restrict information on the options being given to all committee members, and it thus seeks to prevent arguments being rehearsed by non-Conservative councillors.

We think that by resorting to such tactics, in effect, it shows the Conservative group appears to be afraid of proper and informed challenges being made to its proposals, because it fears it cannot win arguments by convincement, only by keeping people in the dark.

The real reason for it is betrayed by that slight faux-pas that Cllr Buckley made in the proposition where, before correcting herself, she was going to say that the Working Group was a 'budget setting' meeting.

That's what it will be of course if she gets away with it. It means the budget decisions will be made and agreed by the majority party out of the gaze of others. They will be taken oustide the political balance which  is a requirement of the Committee System.

It is a device, a mechanism, an attempt at a Con trick (perhaps in more ways than one sense of the term) to bypass both legal requirements, and the expressed will of the Fylde electorate in the referendum.

First to speak was Cllr Mulholland. Using his not inconsiderable intellect and his ability to grasp significant items quickly, and in a tone of black humour he laughed, then said "Yes, well, no, I don't agree with you. I do understand where you're coming from, and that you don't want to apologise for your stance, but I think if you really want to make healthy progress, I think consensus is prefereable. My feeling is that those three should include people from other groups" He urged consensus working.

Queen Elizabeth spoke next. She said she totally agreed with Cllr Mulholland and said "It's a retrograde step, it's the Cabinet by any other word, and we're going to have meetings behind closed doors. We'll get the resolutions - hopefully - minuted, but that will not give us any detail of the discussions. I think it's appaling. I don't think it's transparent, and I really do believe that if you want consensuality which, lets face it, that's what we should be doing, the election is over and we should be working together. You have a majority and you can force through what you want anayway, but if you want to show any kind of transparency and working together, you should at least have some of the opposition on there.

I certainly not vote for the people you are putting forward. I think it is appaling and it's a very, very bad start."

She also said the other Council in Lancashire that operated the Committee system (Ribble Valley), used a cross-party group and it was her understanding that Fylde's Governance Working Group had expected or indicated this would be the case at Fylde, and this decison would go against that. She added "... We will not be aware of what you're discussing at those meetings, so we will be denied the opportunity to have a full and frank discussion on all those items because the'yll be held behind closed doors, and as I've said, if they're minuted, we'll just get a recommendation, we won't get the flavour of the debate, we won't know what the options have been, and we will be denied those rights. So I do think it is a really really poor start as I've already said, and I just feel that it's 'Jackboot Politics.'

Other independent members echoed the sentiments expressed by Cllr Mulholland and Mrs Oades, but the Chairman and the conservative members knew that all they had to do was sit quietly and suffer the slings and arrows for a short time before voting it through as what appeared to us to be a pretty clear example of a Blue Peter (Here's one I made earlier) decison.

In response to Cllr Roger Small's suggestion that they try it and see how it goes, Cllr Ford argued they could try it with a cross party group and see how it goes, there was nothing better or worse in choosing one way or the other at ther outset - except the chosen way would antagonise and exclude other groups and parties, and he thought the proposal represented a missed opportunity.

Cllr Mrs Buckley said "I make no apologies for putting forward a budget working group made up of Conservatives, we have a democratic mandate, we will be looking at the budget for the forseeable future, those discussions will come to this committee. The other Programme Committees will also have discussions about the budget. It will be very different from previously under the Cabinet system."

She then restated her proposition, which was seconded by Cllr Roger Small and - entirely predictably - we watched a 'steamroller vote' as all the Conservatives voted for the proposition.

The velvet glove and honeyed toned came back into evidence for the last appointment, where nominations from the Committee were genuinely sought for the pre-existing 'Accommodation Working Party' and a cross party group was formed, and with that the meeting closed.

Deciding a score out of 10 for this meeting is one of the more difficult of the meetings we could attend.

Apart from the Budget Working Group issue, we'd be happy to score it 9 out of 10. But the issue of the Working Group issue is so cardinal, so calculated, so divisive and so lacking in transparency as it intentionally sets out to create a device to evade both Fylde's legal requirement for political balance, and to blatently sidestep the democratic decison of the Fylde electorate in the referendum, that we cannot but say that in our view it ranks on a par along Cllr Fiddler's meeting, and we score it 1 out of 10

We hope that readers will now see how important the choice of a Committee Chairman is, and why we say that - at Fylde at least - the performance, success or failure of the Commitee system will have more to do with the personality anf culture of the individuals occupying those roles than it will have to do with the administrative processes.

We're not sure we've heard the last of this awful Budget Group decison though, and we'll bring readers more information if and when it arises.

As far as the newly formed commitees are concerned, that was it for the first cycle of Committee meetings.

We plan to keep track of the way the committees and the arrangements evolve, and we expect to bring readers further news from time to time.

Dated:  20 July 2015


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