www.counterbalance.org.uk

 

fylde counterbalance logo

search counterbalance

plain text / printout version of this article

countering the spin and providing the balance


 

Rocking The Boats

Rocking The BoatWe break another 'iceberg' story - with the greater part of it having been submerged from the public view up to now.

We were quite shocked by some information that came to us, and we don't believe the public interest is served by its remaining confidential, so we decided to publish our perspective of what we might call the 2015 failure of the boating service at Fairhaven Lake.

At the outset, we have to say his unfortunate saga does not appear to reflect badly on any of Fylde's individual elected councillors. We found no wrongdoing on their part - perhaps apart from failing to read between the lines of an officer's report to see what was really going on, and failing to apply sufficient pressure to have this matter investigated and resolved properly and quickly, once the problem did become apparent.

 INTRODUCTION 
The story begins with changes at Fairhaven Lake brought about by the need to reduce council spending, and it runs through a decision to 'modernise' the Lake's operation.

This train of events culminated late last year in a series of unusually rapid and choreographed reports to councillors suggesting they should abandon most of the old wooden motor boats and introduce a new motorboat fleet, fabricated from a moulded construction.

But Fylde's procurement process for these motorboats failed to deliver them in time for the 2015 season (resulting in the loss of significant income to the council, and a poor service being provided to lake visitors).

We also found procedural matters connected with the procurement process that were wholly inappropriate.

By the time our story starts, Fylde had already has sold off the eighteen wooden sailing yachts and decimated its fleet of wooden rowing boats, all of which had been regularly hired and earned income.

It ends with acrimony and very few motorboats being available for the summer of 2015.

It has resulted in a significant loss of income, and a potentially serious investigation involving at least one member of Fylde's staff.

That investigation ran for about 6 months. No proper exposition of the cause of the failure has been given. The matter has something approaching the sound and feel of yet another of Fylde's 'whitewashes'.

Readers will remember the Streetscene investigation that took 18 months to conclude and resulted in a member of staff leaving by 'mutual agreement' with a gagging clause attached to his (undisclosed) severance payment so as to minimise the risk to what the (then) Chief Executive called "Fylde's reputational integrity."

By the time that Streetscene investigation did eventually report, everyone had almost forgotten what had actually taken place.

Based on what has been made public in this case, a cynic might say this investigation seems to be heading along a similar route.

Around 6 months ago, a local source forwarded what we regarded as an explosive letter to us about the supply of boats, but because of the serious nature of the allegations made in that letter, we refrained from publishing anything about the story to give Fylde time to investigate it.

However, following a report to the Tourism and Leisure Committee on 10th September 2015 seeking approval to acquire boats from another source, we were told by an insider that Fylde believes this report, and the Committee's decision to buy boats from another supplier, has concluded the matter.

We don't believe that to be a satisfactory situation, and we believe the taxpayers of Fylde deserve a better explanation of what went wrong.

Although Fylde say the matter is now concluded, we're less sure about that, and we trust our readers will understand, and agree with our view that in such circumstances, it would be wrong for us to name the individuals involved in this matter at this time. We do have that data, but this article will not identify any of the individuals concerned.

 IN THE BEGINNING..... 
For 50 years or more, the lake had a staff of boatbuilding craftsmen who helped to operate the boats during the summer and repaired and refurbished them in the winter. These were skilled craftsmen using hardwood, rustproof copper nails, (and special waterproof glue that had to be melted in metal pots to use it).

They made new sections of boat, and spliced and pieced them into the traditional wooden motorboats, and into the lake's gaff-rigged, clinker built yachts and the rowing boats.

Excepting for Manchester, Fairhaven was the last place in the north of England where you could hire such a traditional wooden sailing yacht by the hour, and one of very few that still had traditional wooden motor boats. This was a key part of the Lake's appeal.

Just as the resort itself has survived better than most by retaining its traditional beach with sand dunes, and had (until recent years) avoided the catchpenny seaside tat of other seaside resorts. St Annes unique selling points were its classic Victorian/Edwardian traditions of cleanliness, beautiful gardens and flowers, natural sand dunes, and the peace and quiet that went with all of this.

In short, it's appeal was to the nostalgia and childhood memories of those people who first came here as youngsters, and who now yearned for a bygone age.

But in the way that other councils have gone, and with pressure from Government to reduce public spending, Fylde eventually lost its appetite to pay the cost of employing specialised craftsmen at the lake as it sought to make cash savings. And over time, the craftsmen at the lake were replaced by multi-skilled general workers.

There followed a corresponding reduction in the numbers of traditional boats available for hire as the scrappage rate for the timber ones increased, and it appears that recently, a decision was made to modernise the motorboat fleet.
 

 MOVING UP TO DATE 
A report on this matter headed 'Replacement of Motorised Boats at Fairhaven Lake' went to Council on 1 December 2014.

It was the last item on a 16 item agenda.

Our readers who follow these things will be aware that sometimes, officers will put difficult or sensitive items as the last item on a long agenda in the hope that by the time councillors get to it, they will be tired from earlier debates and wanting to go home. So difficult or sensitive items as a late item often slide quietly through without as much scrutiny as earlier ones. Whether that was the case here or not we don't know, but as readers will see as our story unfolds, there were a number of unusual aspects to the process.

The report said " The existing motorised boats at Fairhaven Lake are no longer in a suitable condition to be used. The report proposes the replacement of the existing motorised boats with new electric boats funded from the capital investment reserve. Members are requested to note the urgency of the request if the council is to be able to provide a boat service to visitors to Fairhaven Lake from next Easter."

This has the feel of what we might call an 'Oh My God we've nearly missed a deadline' report, and it pushed councillors into urgent action. That's rarely a good thing. As one councillor famously told us: 'Quick decisions are not always good decisions.'

It's something that should probably have been considered and decided 12 months earlier, and a sum of money built into the Council's routine estimates of expenditure to fund the replacement. That would have been the normal way to do things.

But that hadn't happened, so officers were proposing to take the money out of Fylde's Capital Reserve Account.

That's another 'modernisation' move by Fylde.

In the past, any spending on capital items would have been funded by a combination of capital receipts, grants, or new borrowing. But in March 2013 Fylde approved the creation of a 'Capital Investment Reserve' to finance future capital expenditure additions.

This is now the preferred source of finance for additions to the Capital Programme and, having not previously prepared funding from any other source, officers recommended dibbing into it for the £55,000 they said they needed to buy the new boats.

The motorboats are the main craft in the Fairhaven fleet. They bring in around 80% of the boating income. But the report said " many of these vessels are decades old and have been constantly repaired, altered and maintained by FBC staff through each winter period. Many are now unrepairable and will not be in a suitable condition to be used at the start of the next ‘boating season’ in spring 2015."

So it seemed like something of an emergency was going on in early December 2014 in order to get new boats provided in time.

This situation arose because in August 2014 the teak motorboats had been inspected by the Health and Safety Team from Blackpool Council. (Quite who invited them in to inspect the boats at this time is unclear - but readers will recognise that if you want a new fleet, it's helpful to have the present one condemned).

This inspection concluded that to ensure user safety, the air cooled engines on the teak motorboats needed to be set into 'secure housings'. (As far as we know there has been no great problem with issues such as people burning themselves on the engines throughout the entire history of the lake, but you know what it's like these days when 'Elfin Safety' get involved).

These modifications were carried out the week beginning 18th August 2014 by staff at the lake. It subsequently resulted in one of the engines catching fire 'due to overheating'

Blackpool's Health & Safety advisor also recommended Fylde should carry out a full condition survey of the motorised fleet. (What a surprise!).

At the time of the report to Council, this had been completed, and it had said that only 4 of the original teak motorboats could be made ‘sea worthy’ for the 2015 season.

With reference to the engine catching fire, the report to Council said " There was no injury to service users or staff, but a management decision was made to suspend the motorised boating service as user safety could not be guaranteed. The motorised boat service has not been operative since. None of the current motorboats meet any British or European engineering standard."

We think that's probably because they pre-date the British or European standards. And last time we checked, there was no requirement to have, for example, all the houses in the UK rewired because a new electrical standard had been introduced. New houses have to comply, yes, but the regulations are not usually retrospective to existing equipment.

If we ever saw a constructed justification to replace something, we're sure it would look just like this report, and we're a bit surprised that councillors didn't spot the prospect of this in what they were being told.

It looked to us as though someone had decided it would be a good idea to replace the old motor boats with modern, fibreglass ones, and had constructed a 'Health and Safety' based justification for doing so.

The report said the plan was to replace the 17 teak motor boats with 10 fibre glass, electric boats. A potential supplier had been contacted and the plan was to buy 10 electric, fibre glass boats of a similar size to the existing craft that would meet European CE certification. (DON'T get us started on blaming the EU or we might be here all night). The overall estimated cost of £55,000 was said to include a battery pack, charger and delivery.

The officer report also said " If the request for replacement is not approved the council would only be able to run a non-motorised boat service in 2015 which will result in a dramatic reduction in income, and a poor public perception of this service. The reduction of income would be approximately in the region of between £30,000 and £40,000 per annum as some lost income would be replaced by the additional hire of rowing boats."

So they expected to spend a one off sum of £55k and that spending would avoid the loss of something like £30 to £40k a year thereafter.

Councillors might be forgiven for thinking this was a no-brainer. That is, if they hadn't read between the lines of the report.

Also, it wasn't clear to us whether this 'loss avoidance' scheme had been calculated on the 17 former boats or the 10 proposed new ones, but we assume it had been adjusted for reducing the number of motorboats that would be provided under the new scheme.

The report also said " In order to ensure that value for money is achieved a procurement exercise is underway and written tenders have been sought in accordance with the Council’s contract procedure rules. Selection of the successful tenderer will be on the basis that value for money is a key consideration as well as the suitability of the goods provided and an update will be provided at the Cabinet meeting."

So officers had in fact, presumed an approval would be forthcoming, and structured their arguments to persuade the Council not to repair the wooden boats, but to change to electric/fibreglass ones, and they were already in the process of inviting tenders for that work anyway.

As it later turned out, the tender process had been almost completed when the Council was asked to approve the plan to replace the boats.

Although they didn't mention that to the Council, the priced tender was actually due to back the following day.

We don't think this was ultra efficiency, it has more the smell of manipulation and the induction of a panic decision by members.

The 'Risk Assessment' (which accompanied the report, and is now a required part of Fylde's purchasing procedure for certain tendered items) noted that there were three risks with the proposal.

The first was that the new boats would not be ready for start of the season leading to a postponed service. To mitigate this, officers proposed " Early decision required. Orders placed before Christmas 2014. Close communication with supplier."

Another high risk was thought to be " New boats not fit for purpose" and this was to be mitigated by an " Agreed detailed specification."

And the third main risk was " New craft not suitable for Fairhaven" and mitigation of this risk was proposed by having a " pre-order demonstration on lake.".

The sense of panic we think we detected in the reporting was further re-inforced by the fact that Council's decision was orally reported to Fylde's cabinet the following day.

Nothing less than an Extra-Ordinary Cabinet meeting had been called, with just this one item on its agenda.

It reproduced exactly the same report that had been to full Council the previous evening (by law, Full Council had to approve the additional Capital spending).

Time was when this could not have happened.

Historically, it would not have been possible to put an item onto an agenda if the earlier committee (in this case full council) had not made the decision at the time the agenda for the Cabinet meeting had to be published. The document properties show the Cabinet Agenda was prepared on 21 November, and the Council's decision was 2nd December, so using historic standards, it should not have been possible to have the Council decision included in the Cabinet agenda.

That's probably why this requirement was sidestepped by having the identical report placed on both Council and Cabinet agendas, and the making of an oral report to Cabinet.

This shows both the rushing of the decision, and that it had all been pre-choreographed by the Council's officers.

An experienced councillor should see this sort of thing as a warning sign.

The Cabinet meeting was at 5pm on 2nd December. Cllr Fazackerley opened it saying "This is likely to be one of the shortest meetings ever at Fylde"

A very senior officer opened the report and set out the background.

Another officer then explained the details, saying there were numerous benefits in changing to electric craft (Lower running costs, environmental benefits from electricity over combustion engines, less noise, and one of the new boats will be made suitable for disabled people).

The senior officer then said " Since this report was produced, there has been a tender exercise running which concluded today"

He added " The best tender that we had back was £57,405 and that's over the estimate that we've included in the report" (The report had £50,650 for the boats and the rest up to £55,000 was to remove the petrol tank and install the electricity recharging equipment).

What he failed to say was that the 'best tender' was also the ONLY tender Fylde received.

No-one else has submitted a price for the work.

From what we have been able to establish, the tenderer was not a multi-national, but a smallish, family based business with a passion for designing boats.

The more senior officer continued " We've got two options with this Chairman. One is to try and work with the lowest tenderer to make that price a bit more keen, and see if we can get that price down a bit, and if there is a margin that we can fund from revenue then try and do that, or the alternative is to reduce the order by one boat. It's too early tonight Chairman to say which of those two options we'll go with, but safe to say that we will contain the budget within the Capital budget."

Cllr Fazackerley said it was quite a disappointment adding " I would have thought on an order of this size, there is a bit of what is known as wriggle room, room for negotiation on that. However, as you say, it's early days to be talking about that and I'm sure you will pursue that line of enquiry."

We thought her fellow Cabinet member Cllr Threlfall was a bit uncomfortable about what he was being told because he said he would have liked to have seen the officers produce a more robust business plan setting out the case for costs and savings. He also wanted to know if the officers had trialled any of the boats.

The officer responded: " Yes, good point on that one. My biggest fear was that we ordered one of these boats and they're not suitable for Fairhaven - which can be quite challenging at times. What we've done to pre-empt that is that we've had a couple of people up who manufacture these, to talk us through the mechanics and the battery power... they are bespokely made.. so we've had one or two up to show us the power pack and demonstrate certain things on those, and one of the officers - in his own time I hasten to add - has actually seen one of these on the Thames as a demonstration."

He added " Before we award the tender officially, we have put in the tender document that we need to see an on-site demonstration with a very similar vessel. It wouldn't be an exact one because it's like buying a new car. If you buy a Mondeo it will be a Mondeo and look like that, but it would be bespokely made to your specification, which these will be. Before we award that tender we have put in that we have a demonstration and we're hoping to do that next week, so again, I'm happy to invite people to come down and have a look and sit in and see how it feels."

Cllr Fazackerley proposed the recommendation and Cllr Little seconded it. Cabinet voted it through.

So at this point, as far as the councillors were concerned, it was all looking OK.

But like Cllr Threlfall, we would have been more cautious.

In practice, it wasn't all OK.

 IT STARTS TO GO WRONG 
We'd heard unconfirmed gossip from one councillor known to us that there was something wrong with the replacement of boats at Fairhaven at the turn of 2015, but there was nothing specific for us to go on at that time.

The first public warning that something wasn't right came on 13 April, when Fylde published a news item on its website saying " Due to the need to upgrade the motorboat fleet, Fylde Council will be running a non motorised boat service at Fairhaven Lake from Saturday 28th March until Thursday 2nd April. A limited motorboat service will then be available from Friday 3rd April (Good Friday) until Sunday 12th April. All other services and facilities will be open as usual."

By Friday 24th April, the LSA Express had picked this up and ran with the headline "Lake Boats Bombshell."  They reported that boats which had been ordered for Fairhaven Lake would not be supplied in time, and there would be almost no motor boats available for hire over the summer.


The 'Express' report said "....issues with the supplier now mean the boats won’t arrive until September at the earliest. And with the boats often raking in £2,000 per day for the council in the past, the council is set to lose out on a huge chunk of cash.

The council withdrew its fleet of 17 motor boats at Christmas after they were declared unsafe on health and safety grounds, announcing the £55,000 investment.

Just three plastic boats remain, and it is hoped a couple of the older motor boats can be revamped.

Tourism bosses today reacted with dismay to the bombshell ahead of the summer season.

Barbara Mackenzie, president of the Holiday Association of Lytham St Annes (HALSA) said: “This is a real blow and especially disappointing because so much effort is being made to increase the number of visitors with more and more events taking place in St Annes and Lytham."

A Fylde spokesman told the LSA Express "Our old style motorboats were declared unsafe on health and safety grounds. The council made the decision to spend £55,000 on buying a fleet of electrical boats, 10 of them.

To date we have failed to secure any replacements. We have three plastic boats at present. We should have one of the older boats converted into electric in one or two weeks. If that is converted successfully, we will then do another three. It is looking like it will be a reduced presence on the lake until late summer.

We can only appeal for people to be patient. Long-term we will have a service. We are just asking for people to be understanding. They may have to row rather than going on a motor boat."


A sorry story. Literally

The public comments on the 'Express' story include one that said " I used to work on the boats at Fairhaven during the late 70s and early 80s. Even then, the council sent in the "time and motion" men to watch and document our every move to see where they could save and cut! I remember one of the yachts celebrating her 50th birthday, what was needed was investment, we patched and repaired, remade where possible. The plastic boats weren't a patch on the wooden ones. What was needed was investment and an application to business! It is sad to see what has happened there in the years since I left! "

In March, we heard more unconfirmed gossip that there was a potentially serious problem regarding the supply of boats, and we began to assemble the background documentation that was publicly available in anticipation of this article

 AN EXPLOSIVE DOCUMENT ARRIVES 
By mid May, an explosive document came into our possession. It was a copy of a letter that the boat supplier had sent to FBC. It contained serious allegations about irregularities in the procurement and tendering process, and about one Fylde employee in particular.

We heard that Fylde was preparing to investigate the issue. The word reaching us at the start suggested that the investigation didn't seem to be a very serious one, but we subsequently heard it had been 'beefed up', and we hoped it would get to the bottom of things quickly.

At the first of the new Finance and Democracy Committees on 22nd June, Cllr Mulholland asked about the loss of income from not having the boats to hire out.


Our article about that meeting - called "The New Committees: Finance and Democracy" also said:

"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."

Our previous article then said "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."


 FYLDE'S MOST RECENT REPORT 
The next public statement on this matter by Fylde was in an agenda report of the Tourism and Leisure Committee of 10th September 2015. In an agenda item headed "Boat Replacement at Fairhaven Lake" officers rehearsed the background to the matter by pasting in chunks of their earlier report.

But there was new information to bring the committee up to date about the failed supply process. It said.....

"6. A comprehensive tender document was prepared and advertised in November 2014, in accordance with the council’s procurement regulations, via the CHEST Procurement system. Three suppliers were alerted to the tender advert, but due to the specialist nature of the tender, the Council only received one tender submission. After a quality and cost evaluation, the tender submission was recommended to be accepted by Cabinet, on the condition of a demonstration by the supplier of a similar craft on Fairhaven Lake. Two demonstrations took place on 8th January and 9th January 2015 after which the craft was deemed acceptable. The contract was awarded on 19th January 2015, with the supplier agreeing that 3 new boats would be completed and tested by the 3rd April 2015 and then another 2 boats provided each month until the order had been fulfilled. A separate order was issued to the same supplier to fit electric motors to 3 teak motorboats. The supplier confirmed that these conversions would also be complete by the 3rd April 2015. An order was also given to a separate local contractor to upgrade the electrical infrastructure to allow the charging of batteries for the electric motors.

7. During late January and early February 2015, communication between officers and the supplier took place regularly to confirm the details of the order and to ensure the supplier fully understood the requirements of the council. However during February communications became strained and started to break down. It soon became evident to officers that the company were struggling to fulfil the order, in regard to specification, quality and timescales. After protracted negotiations with the supplier, it was decided to terminate the contract for the manufacture and delivery of the 10 new boats in the best interests of the Council. The contract was terminated on the 10th March 2015, and the order for the electric conversion of the 3 teak boats was also cancelled on the 18th March 2015. Officers were careful to ensure no liability arose from this termination for Fylde Council."

8. The boat service was due to open on the 3rd April 2015. Officers had to act quickly to source alternative craft to enable the provision of some form of motorised ‘boating offer’ at Fairhaven Lake. As a result, 5 used fibre glass motorboats were purchased from 2 separate suppliers. These boats were urgently purchased from the Capital Grant, in consultation with the Portfolio Holder, to allow Fylde to get a small number of boats in operation for the start of the season. The nonmotorised fleet and the ‘launch’ were also available and marketing information was updated to reflect the reduced service."


The report then goes on to explain that officers have been in discussion with two other boat fabricating companies to "assess purchase opportunities", and they came to the view that one of them is the better option. The report concluded that "if an order is placed in September [for these new boats], the hulls should be ready to have the engines installed in January" and it goes on to explain the financing, and so on.

Readers will note there is a lot of detail here about the dates of the events that led to non-fulfilment of the original order.

That, just like the lady who doth protest too much, might turn out to be an important clue, because what this officer report says conflicts quite considerably with the letter that had come into our possession about six months earlier.

That letter was sent to all Fylde Councillors by the original boat supplier to explain why they were withdrawing from the tender.

But it does not appear to have been received by all Fylde's councillors......

 THE EXPLOSIVE LETTER IS CIRCULATED (OR IS IT?) 
We recognise that others may view the matter of this 'missing letter' for some councillors differently, but to us, this is potentially the most worrying aspect of all in this sorry story. And that's because it could indicate an attempted cover-up at quite a senior level.

It has been suggested to us that the supplier's letter (which is very clearly addressed to "All Council Members") was received at the Town Hall, reproduced, and sent to all Councillors by email.

That part rings true, because it would be normal practice for any letter addressed to all members of the council to be routinely circulated by email, perhaps even by a relatively junior clerical officer. Fylde has a specific email address that can direct email to all councillors by sending to a single address.

But it has also been suggested to us that, subsequent to its being sent to all councillors, the email (and the reproduced letter from the supplier) was retrieved and removed from the mailboxes of Councillors who had not opened it.

If that is true (and we have no way of being able to establish whether it is or not), we find it a shocking practice (as, we suspect, would many of those councillors who did not receive it, and currently know nothing about it).

It's probably not unlawful though because, as the supplier of the email addresses attached to the Fylde domain name, and as the administrator of the email system that uses the @fylde.gov.uk address, control of electronic communications transmitted on that domain probably resides with the officers who administer FBC, and certainly, the capacity would exist to retract or delete an email from any specific councillor's email boxes.

If the suggestion made to us IS true, and the letter was removed or deleted from councillor's email boxes, it raises all sorts of questions about the confidentiality of emails sent to, from, and by councillors using the .gov address. It also helps explain why the more technically savvy councillors do not use their official 'council address' for all their correspondence.

It may be lawful, but if it happened, we regard it as a completely unacceptable practice, so we have now reproduced the letter ourselves so all Fylde's councillors can read it, but - for reasons that we have explained - we have redacted the name of the supplier and the individual Fylde employees named within it.

Readers can follow this link to  see the supplier's letter declining the order. 

That letter is dated 26th March, and that appears to be after the date at which Fylde's officers say they terminated the contract.

Readers will see for themselves the very serious nature of the allegations that were made in that letter. They will also see there are discrepancies in the versions of events reported to FBC by officers, and alleged by the prospective boat supplier.

 OTHER INFORMATION ARRIVES 
As it became known we were building a story, other information (in addition to the letter), was made known to us. We have now seen information which appears to corroborate some of the more serious allegations in the supplier's letter

We should say at this point that we have seen no evidence or suggestion at all of any intention by any employee to seek a payment from the prospective tenderer. It seems to us that the alleged impropriety is more about an employee's hope to create a future business opportunity for themselves. It is nevertheless wholly inappropriate conduct.

This further information includes an offer by a FBC employee who, when the tender documents were advertised in November 2014, advised the potential supplier in a personal communication (before the Council even knew they were going to be replacing their boats) ".... I know its not politically correct but if you need any help or info regarding the tender ring me at home [NUMBER DELETED] There are a couple of things in there that might surprise you but I have the answers on how to get around things. I have managed to get another 2 suppliers on the chest but they will struggle with the product, time scales and price."

In early December, the same employee said  "I did not tell you this before but if things did not go how I expected I had a plan B and C, I was quite prepared to take out a businesses loan purchase the boats my self and run the place, the other option would invite the private sector to run it on a pepper corn rent. As the lake just on motor boats pulls in 40K on a bad year with crap boats. I know this contract is a business contract to you but I'm looking at this as a long term Partnership!"

We also have other information about the matter, and from what we have been able to piece together, it appears to us that the claims made in the supplier's letter to all councillors are credible, and the tone of their letter - whilst perhaps not as cogent and well phrased as some we have seen - is that of an injured party who has suffered and feels they have been abused.

We suspect that, based on the dates they have published in their latest report to the Tourism and Leisure Committee, Fylde has grounds to assert that the supplier letter of 26 March declining Fylde's tender is dated after they say they had terminated the contract, and the matter is simply 'sour grapes' from someone who was not awarded a supply contract.

If this was offered as a rationale, we would reject it, not least because the other information demonstrates to us that there was a clear intention to circumvent the procedural requirements of Fylde's approved tendering process, and also because inappropriate informal contact outside the formal tendering process was proposed by a Fylde employee, and this happened as far back as November 2014, which was BEFORE the need to replace the boats had been reported to the Council, and four months or so before the order had been cancelled.

 SO WHAT REALLY HAPPENED? 
If you ask yourself  'who's telling the truth here?' the answer is not clear - because whilst we have seen a lot of information, we don't have it all, so we believe Fylde should undertake a full cross-party inquiry, conducted by elected Councillors - similar to the way the Melton Grove inquiry was conducted, and preferably by someone with equal experience, ability, mental capacity and independence of mind as Cllr Mulholland who conducted the Melton Grove inquiry - to establish the full facts about what went wrong and why.

We say that for the following reasons:

The sequence of events seems to have been that:

a) A Fylde employee approached the 'first' boat supplier in August 2014 to discuss the possibility using this particular supplier's boats on Fairhaven lake.

b) On 14 August, after advice regarding enclosure of the motorboat engines, officers commissioned a full Health and Safety inspection of its motorboats which resulted in their condemnation. The circumstances under which the wooden boats were condemned raises a question as to whether this was a pre-planned exercise to justify a new type of boat being used on the lake.

c) The reporting of the matter to Councillors was choreographed, with a report to Council one day, tenders arriving the following day, and Cabinet approval to proceed at an extra-ordinary meeting that same day.

d) One employee had showed a particular interest in these boats. As another officer told the Special Cabinet meeting - " ...and one of the officers - in his own time I hasten to add - has actually seen one of these on the Thames as a demonstration." It may have been this same employee who had engaged in what appears to be to be inappropriate personal contacts outside the work environment with the prospective tenderer.

This tends to support the supplier's assertion that there may have been an ulterior motive behind their being approached to the supply the boats originally, and their discomfort at what they were being asked to do to submit their tender.

e) The supplier that Fylde's staff appeared to have in mind from the beginning was asked to produce the design and specification of the boats that were to be tendered, and the two other companies Fylde invited onto their tender list did not specialise in electric craft and did not submit any tenders. We believe there were other suppliers on the market.

f) The tenderer's letter said he had told Fylde the order must be placed by the beginning of December for delivery in time for Easter. The officers report to Council and Cabinet of 1 December 2014 confirmed this, stating: "The Orders will need to be placed by early December to ensure delivery before 31st March 2015."

But in the event, the order for the supply was not placed (according to FBC) until  a month or so later, on 19th January. The supplier says it was not received until in mid-February. Both dates are well after Fylde's identified deadline of 'early December'. Again, this appears to support the supplier's assertions.

g) Fylde assert that the order was placed on 19 January. But the report to Tourism and Leisure Committee noted that "During late January and early February 2015, communication between officers and the supplier took place regularly to confirm the details of the order and to ensure the supplier fully understood the requirements of the council."

This is an incredible statement given that the business had been asked to provide, and had prepared, the very design and the specification that Fylde had advertised for tender. Yet in January and February, (after the December deadline had passed and after the order had been placed - according to Fylde itself - in mid January), here was Fylde still apparently confirming details of its order and specifying its requirements.

Again, to us, this tends toward support for the argument advanced by the supplier that it was mid-February before he had confidence to proceed. But given that the lead-time for constructing the boats was approximately four months, it was never going to be possible for any of them to be delivered in one and a half months.

Furthermore, given a clause in Fylde's supply contract which required liquidated damages from the boat supplier in respect of ongoing loss of 'assumed income' from hire fees if the boats were not available for hire by 3 April 2015, it would not be surprising if any small family business supplier baulked at accepting the work within that timescale.

We would also not be surprised if, having invested time and (as they allege) money, into preparatory works regarding the tender to meet Fylde's needs, the supplier would be unhappy to find this money and effort had been wasted.

Nor would we be surprised if they were disenchanted enough with the way they had been treated to draw the matter to the attention of those responsible for decisions made in the Council's name.

To us that sounds less like sour grapes and more like the reaction of someone wrongly scorned.

But it's not just that the decision is made in the Council's name. The Council itself takes these decisions on behalf of the people of Fylde, and it is they who are wronged if some of the allegations in the letter have substance, and it appears to us that they might have.

 THE 'ABOUT FACE' ON ELECTRIC BOATS 
We also argue there needs to be a more detailed look at why, (especially after the great play made by officers about changing to electric power as the principal reason to abandon internal combustion engines that were said to be unsafe, environmentally polluting and expensive to run), Fylde's Tourism & Leisure Committee were (just six months later), recommended, and agreed, to do an 'about face', and use non-electric outboard motors on boats from a new supplier.

We hope these new outboard engines will be less noisy than the Jet Skis that caused so much trouble on Fairhaven a few years ago.

The report proposing this reversal of the previous plan, and the return to internal combustion engines said "Various boats and power sources have been explored and tested over the last 3 months including a more powerful electric option. However, even this more advanced electric option is not convincing, in terms of running a regular boat hire service."

Yes, really.

And that's after having tendered for (and ordered) all-electric boats. And it's after having spent £3,145 upgrading the electricity infrastructure with a new feeder pillar and column, upgrade lanterns, new wiring, ducting and sockets (which will now only be used to charge the multi-passenger launch rather than the 10 electric boats that were originally envisaged).

And after all of this saga, Fylde will have a total of 12 fibre glass and 3 timber motorboats compared with the 17 classic teak motorboats that operated on the lake for decades.

 WE CALL FOR AN INQUIRY BY ELECTED COUNCILLORS 
Something really does not sit right in all of these matters, and we believe Fylde's councillors ought to undertake their own detailed inquiry.

We suspect that whilst the essence of this matter could turn out to involve nothing more than a failure by a single member of FBC staff, it is a serious concern to us that Fylde's detailed and voluminous procurement policy, and its internal management procedures, appear once again to have failed to provide the checks and balances necessary to show up such a failure before it was exposed by outside sources.

That alone warrants a detailed investigation and recommendations for change to be made by members.

It is even more worrying to us that, when it was exposed, suspicions exist that there might have been an attempt to prevent the supplier's letter being drawn to the attention of the elected councillors to whom it was addressed, and the guise of 'supplier and employee confidentiality' was used to stop the real story reaching the public arena.

There has been no proper exposition of the veracity of the allegations that were made in that letter back in March, nor of the changes that should be made to reduce the prospect of this sort of thing happening in the future. Hence our call for a cross-party inquiry into the matter.

If there is to be an inquiry conducted by members, and that inquiry were to find that even some of the allegations made by the supplier (and addressed to all councillors) have substance, then we don't think it would be out of order for the supplier to receive an official apology for the way they have been treated, and the way that their reputation has been tarnished in Fylde's reports to its members.

But underlying all of this, are two much broader points.

Firstly, we should note that the introduction of a competitive environment for what were once 'council services' operated by direct labour workforces has, of necessity, brought into local government a more commercially minded genre of individual, and along with that has come the opportunity for commercially driven behaviour that was once alien to the culture of local government.

So perhaps we ought not to be so surprised when commercial behaviour appears amongst employed officers.

Secondly, as we have said before, Fylde's Councillors have sleepwalked into delegating far too much decision-taking and responsibility to its officers. There is emerging a 'knowledge chasm' that disconnects members from the detail of decisions for which they are ultimately responsible, and which leads to bad decisions being made. This incident with the boats may become the latest example, but you only have to scan these pages to see the evidence - Heeley Road, Streetscene, and Melton Grove - to mention just the most significant of them.

Both these matters wouldn't hurt for a dose of looking at either.

To close; we're mindful of Fylde's Finance officer's comments on the boating reports which said: "Revenue Income for motorised boats is in the region of £30k - £40k per annum which over the 5 year forecast would equate to £150k - £200k. A loss of income of this scale would be detrimental to the Council’s revenue budget."

Quite so.

The reduction in the overall number of boats at the lake for next year onward probably won't improve that prospect either.
 

 TAILPIECE 
We were recently at a totally unconnected meeting held in the Ribble Cruising Club's premises. Whilst there, we were informally told that Fylde own the building and lease it to the club. We were also told that Fylde is presently looking for a substantial increase in the rent that the club has to pay for the use of the building. We don't know if either of these is true, but if they are, perhaps Fylde would not be so needy if it had managed issues like the supply of boats at Fairhaven better.

Dated:   13 October 2015


info@counterbalance.org.uk

To be notified when a new article is published, please email 
notify@counterbalance.org.uk