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Snippets: November 2015

Snippets: November 2015In this article we're playing catch-up with articles we've intended to do for a while, but not had time to research and write.

We're covering several varied topics with our usual mix of commentary, opinions and views inspired by news and current affairs in and around Fylde.

The quick links below will take you straight to the topic of interest:

 ANGER IN WREA GREEN

CAPOW StatementWrea Green is in an angry mood with FBC. We've had a copy of a press statement framed in what (at least for Weary Greeners) is unusually strong language. Readers can follow this link to see the full statement from 'CAPOW'. (Community Association for the Protection of Wrea Green)

We're told their statement was also been seen and agreed pre-publication by the chairman of the Parish Council, and others who had attended a Fylde Development Control Committee meeting on 2 September 2015.

In essence those who were present at that meeting believe the Chairman dismissed all opposition to what appeared to be something he had already decided - namely that the application before them for up to 49 dwellings on land off Willow Drive in Wrea Green should be approved.

That's despite the fact that two previous planning applications on the same land (one for up to 100 dwellings and another for 49) had been REFUSED by a 10 to 1 majority in the recent past, and which are currently the subject of appeals by the developer which will be heard this December.

It's an echo of what Fylde did at Wesham when a developer submitted multiple applications there.

And this is what Fylde calls 'planning' these days.

CAPOW claim that when an independent councillor told the meeting that they intended oppose the application at Wrea Green, the Chairman made "an undignified verbal assault" on someone he thought had the temerity to challenge his view. CAPOW argue the Chairman's action was an attempt at brow-beating and, significantly, they note that not one of the other Conservative Councillors on the committee spoke a single word during the debate.

That's not so surprising to us, because we've been told that at a recent Group meeting, Fylde's Conservative councillors were told they must follow the lead of the chairman of a Committee when it comes to voting.

If a Committee Chairman makes a proposition during a meeting, all the Conservative councillors on that committee are required to follow his lead. (Conservatives chair all the committees and have an overall majority on all the committees)

If it were a formal whip, (a written instruction to vote in a particular way), this would probably be unlawful so far as the regulatory committees are concerned, but this practice appears to offer an 'invisible' way around the requirement for good governance.

This approach to decision-taking effectively reconstitutes the former Cabinet System - with its individual member decisions - but operates it wearing a cloak that covers and hides the process that is being employed. We think a move like this demonstrates contempt for the will of the Fylde electorate - who only last year voted for a return to the more broadly based Committee system of decision taking.
 

 BY ELECTION IN LYTHAM

The 400 or so counterbalance readers who are signed up to receive notification emails when we publish a new article were the first to hear that former Cllr Len Davies (who - just - topped the poll in Clifton Ward in Lytham at the last election), had resigned from the Council.

We understand that the official reason being put out is that his resignation is related to health grounds, and he has told the press he has problems with his knee. If that is the case we hope it soon improves. But we find it a bit of a difficult line to take.

The most appropriate time for him to have left, would have been at the election last May, where he could simply have not stood for election again. But he didn't do that. He allowed himself to be nominated and was re-elected. And he's obviously a popular chap because he did top the poll in Clifton Ward.

He has always seemed to us to be someone who was outside the ruling cabal within the Conservative group and he seemed to be one of the less ideologically driven, more 'ironically detached' Conservatives with an easygoing, jovial and very polite manner. A nice man. In our experience councillors displaying these traits are usually those who welcome the esteem that comes with the role, and within this cadre of councillors, those like former Cllr Davies - who are able to keep their feet rooted firmly on the ground - usually make good, solid reliable councillors, even if they don't become especially famous for something. So we're sad at his going.

But it is a bit of a puzzle for us. We heard nothing in the lead up to what to us seems to be his rather sudden departure. We did hear that he did not welcome the bickering and in-fighting that goes on within group meetings, and there may have been something specific in that area that got to be too much for someone who tried to work from common sense rather than party dogma.

Whatever the reason, we're sorry he's gone, and wish him well for the future.

His leaving creates a vacancy for which there will be a by-election. Fylde wanted to delay this until next May - to coincide with the re-election of the Police and Crime Commissioner for Lancashire (Don't get us started on that!). If the two events did coincide, it would reduce Fylde's cost of holding the by-election (shared use of polling stations and counting costs etc in that one ward).

But the savings for one ward are not that great, and if two electors who are registered to vote in Fylde Borough Elections formally call for the election to be held, FBC are obliged to hold that election between 26 and 35 days from the date of receiving that call.

We understand that has happened, and the by-election in Clifton Ward in Lytham will now be held on 10th December.

We thought that this might give a chance for some of those unseated at the last Council elections to stand again.

We initially thought that it might be of interest to former local councillors Ken Hopwood, Kevin Eastham, and of course especially to Conservatives Brenda Ackers and Fabian Craig-Wilson.

We half expected the Conservative machine to rally strongly behind one of these two, and pull out all the stops to get them elected, because former Cllr Ken Hopwood (who until last May was one of the three councillors elected for this ward)  only just lost out to the Conservatives last time around.

At the May election, Conservative Ray Thomas polled 1,087, votes and Independent Ken Hopwood polled 1,081 votes. That's a very close result, and the seat must be seen as vulnerable to the Conservatives. Furthermore, both Brenda Ackers and Fabian Craig-Wilson had been solidly loyal to, and hardworking for, the local party, so we thought one of them would be a shoo-in for Clifton this time.

But in what we regard as an unexpected move, we understand that Fylde's Conservatives have already selected a chap called Peter Anthony as their candidate, and we first read that news in Mark Menzies' column in the LSA Express. Mr Anthony seems keen to enter local politics, having stood unsuccessfully against Labour's Gordon Marsden in the Blackpool South Parliamentary elections last May.

We think his selection as a candidate represents an interesting and thought provoking choice. It seems to us that a sea-change may be taking place within the Fylde Conservative group.

 TIME TO CHANGE

Speaking of change, we understand a recent meeting of the Conservative Group of councillors was asked to consider changing the start time of Fylde's Committee meetings - which used to start at 6:15pm

The fact that a group meeting was considering it is relevant, because the group imposes a strict discipline on its members - and if the group comes to a decision, all the Conservative councillors are expected to support it. When this happens, whatever decision has been agreed in private nearly always becomes voted through at Full Council because the Conservatives have an overall majority. (Hence the claims that the real decisions are taken behind the closed doors of the majority party).

We have a problem with decisions made in this way by any party.

If the real decisions are taken outside the Council chamber with its transparent voting system, there is no opportunity for electors to hear the viewpoints and positions taken by the councillors they elect as they speak in favour or against the item being discussed. As a result, it's really difficult for electors to know whether they agree with the views and beliefs of the councillor they elected - and thus whether to vote for them next time. (Some might no doubt argue that ignorance is bliss, and the best way to get elected is NOT to let the public hear what views their councillors hold, of course).

And we absolutely have a problem with a political party who feel it necessary to control something as insignificant as what time committee meetings should start - by making it an enforceable group decision.

In the more civilised 'old days', all committee meetings all started at 7pm. That time let families have a meal after work, and get small children sorted for bedtime, and enough time for the relevant parent to get to the meeting. But on the other hand, officers generally don't like 7pm starts because they nominally finish at 5or 6 ish and have some hanging about to do for a 7pm meeting.

We understand the Conservative group meeting considering this matter was fractious.

The plan they were considering was to start the meetings at 5:30. That would likely have pleased officers, but upset those councillors who are employees and especially those employees without access to flexible working hours. It would have been even worse for those with small children. We heard that there was a lot of disquiet about a 5:30 start within the group, and a counter proposal of changing to 7pm was put forward.

We're told that the 7pm option received the majority of votes in the group meeting when a vote on the start time was taken, but we're also told that the vote wasn't the end of the matter because group leader Cllr Fazackerley (in the best traditions of the EU referendums) allowed the debate and further votes to continue until the group produced what she thought was an acceptable result, and eventually, as a strange sort of 'compromise', the start time was changed to 6:30pm.

That change has now been incorporated into Fylde's timetable without - so far as we can see at the present time - a vote on that change by a Committee or the full council.

None of this is crucial to the running of Fylde of course, but it offers readers an insight into the way decisions are being taken and implemented at Fylde.
 

 SETTLING IN ?

Some fractiousness amongst councillors (as in the above meeting) should probably be expected about this time after an election where a lot of seats have changed hands.

As we've told our readers before, in the aftermath of all Council elections - starting about six months into the operation of a new Council, the new intake of councillors will be getting the hang of how things work, and the more able amongst them will start to want to make their presence felt.

It's quite a crucial time because this 6 to 12 month period after an election often ends up giving new councillors a stark choice.

If they're happy to become 'voting fodder' in council meetings - by following and voting with the group (irrespective of their own personal views), and they are content to have had the debate in private party Group Meetings - they can have a quiet ongoing council life.

But for those whose personal integrity is so strong they can't accept being seen to support things which are not what they believe, (particularly in public meetings - and sometimes in a recorded vote), then the new intake of Councillors will start to wonder just what they have got themselves into by being elected, and it is typically the time for disillusionment to come to the fore, and for some to exit the party - or in some cases to exit the council altogether.

If that doesn't happen, then for those who have strong personal integrity, their relationship with the party usually becomes a running sore, with neither side being happy.

It was just 12 months after the 2011 election when what had been a bright Conservative newcomer (Peter Wood) resigned from the Council. Officially his resignation letter cited his having to work away and not having enough time to do the council work properly, but as we said at the time "We've not heard directly from him but the word on the streets seems to be that he works away a lot, and is struggling with the concept of being required to come back to take part in meetings only to vote as he is told. Words like 'frustrated' and 'disillusioned' are (unsurprisingly in our view) falling from the lips of some of his colleagues."

Although we didn't always agree with his views, we were sad at the time that a bright and able young chap like him chose to jump ship to avoid the constraints of unacceptable party discipline, rather than to throw off the shackles of party dogma and become an independent councillor who was able to speak and vote according to conscience and the perceived wishes of his electorate.

That course of action did absolutely no harm to the electoral prospects of former Cllr Barbara Pagett who continued to be not only elected time after time, but was also cherished for her independence by her electorate until she decided to stand down.

We're just entering that 6 to 12 month post-election period again with this new administration, so we're entering the 'danger period' for change.

This is quite possibly being made worse at present because (it looks to us as though) two factions might be developing within the Conservative group. Again this sort of thing often happens after a large new intake when the 'old guard' expect to continue as they always have, and a new intake band together, unified by their common experiences and a shared camaraderie. There's nothing firm enough on this matter for us to write about as yet, but seasoned watchers of councils like ourselves can sometimes read the small signs (like body language, and who sits with whom in meetings), as indicators of potential differences developing, and we think we see the early signs of it at Fylde.

So we suspect there might be choppy waters ahead if a sea-change is taking place within the group. We hope to keep our readers in the picture if it develops further.

 THREE BITS OF FRACKING NEWS

The mainstream media now cover fracking pretty well, so we're content to cover some of the less well known issues in this arena.

The first was a thought that recently occurred to us about the topic of 'self regulation.'

This is what the Environment Agency (and other supposed 'regulators') say is quite fine, because you can trust someone as competent a Cuadrilla to do a proper job with the environment and health and safety.

And before the writ arrives, we should make it clear that we're making no comment about Cuadrilla's competence in this arena. We're simply not knowledgeable enough to pronounce either way on such an issue.

But we do feel competent to say that if the mostly self-regulating body known as 'United Utilities' can manage to let what Cllr Paul Hayhurst described in a recent FBC meeting as - a partridge or a pheasant crawl up one of its pipes and die, thus infecting the supply of clean drinking water and leaving hundreds of thousands of people without fresh water for weeks on end - we wonder about whether self regulation - even by big and supposedly reliable companies - can actually be relied on to be safe?

No doubt some will say we're not being fair here, and our gainsayers may argue that 'It wasn't altogether their fault that the game bird committed hari-kari up an inlet pipe, so you can't really say that's a failure of regulation.'

To that postulation, we'd argue that we think you can. In a self-regulatory environment, who else should it be that assesses and regulates the risk to us all?

But in any event, you only have to look at an even bigger outfit to see not only the complete failure of self-regulation, but a deliberate attempt to circumvent externally imposed regulation.

We're thinking here about Volkswagen and their fiddling of the in-car software to fool the regulator's emissions test equipment into believing that the exhaust pollution reading from vehicles they had made was lower than it actually was.

If a 'very reliable, very tough as old boot' company like WV (to quote an old advert of theirs) can deliberately set out to falsify the results provided to an *independent external regulator*, we wonder what on earth hope can there be for 'self-regulation' to be reliably undertaken by any company?

The second bit of news was a recent experience we had.

Twice in one week, and enclosed in two separate publications that come to counterbalance towers, we received the same letter .

Pat Davies

With a picture of local hero Pat Davies of the Preston New Road campaign group on the front of the envelope, the letter was officially from Friends of the Earth, soliciting funds for the campaign to oppose the planning appeal by Cuadrilla.

We think the local campaign groups are going about their campaign in exactly the right way. There will be big-gun barristers ranged against them in the appeal inquiry, and the campaigners need equally good brains - barristers who understand the appeal processes and the laws around them - to put the case on our behalf. The only way that's going to happen is if they raise the money to hire the expert barristers in the first place.

The inquiry date is approaching. Statements of case (a summary of what each side will be saying) have to be in about now, and a preliminary pre-inquiry hearing is to be held on 19 November 2015 starting at 10.00am at Blackpool FC Hotel and Conference Centre, Bloomfield Road, Seasiders Way. This inquiry is simply set the legal and administrative arrangements for the Inquiry itself rather than to argue the issues, so there's unlikely to be much passion invoked.

The main inquiry proper is provisionally scheduled for 9th February 2016. Those interested can follow this link to download a copy of the Planning Inspectorate's bespoke timetable

We were very impressed that the campaign for funds managed to get two letters on our doorstep in one week, and that both were via national publications. That sort of coverage is really difficult to achieve, and if we got two letters, you can bet lots of other people received the solicitation as well.

We hope it generates lots of cash for the appeal fund, and we think their approach must be working - because we saw that nice Mr Egan on the television the other night protesting far too much about what the campaign groups were doing to argue against what he - and the North & Western Lancashire Chamber of Commerce - wanted to happen.

Readers will know we're singularly unimpressed with that outfit (we showed why under the heading 'Managing The Flow Of Information' in our article January 2015: Fracking Update - and found in the right-hand column on that page)

Whilst, like everyone else, they're welcome to their opinion, (however wrong it may be), their behaviour toward several people (including cb) over that speech by Lord Browne shows just how dangerous it is for government to confuse the aims and purpose of business with the aims and purpose of governance, and we can all be grateful that - however unpalatable elected councillor's decisions are to us sometimes - our governance would be considerably worse if commercial organisations like the Chamber of Commerce were running things.

So, partly as a mild gesture of defiance to them in respect of our entirely unwarranted exclusion from the talk by Lord Browne, and partly because we were impressed with the effort being put into the Public Inquiry funding appeal by local people, we put our 2d worth into an envelope and sent it off to Pat to help the cause.

We hope some of our readers might do likewise.

The third bit of (good) news for those opposed to shale gas at the two locations proposed for Fylde arrived when campaigners won the right to have a High Court Judicial review of LCC's decision to allow the installation of monitoring equipment on one of the sites even though LCC had turned the actual application itself down.

The Judge who was considering whether to allow the campaigners to challenge the decision in court gave consent (at least in part) because the they thought LCC might have erred in law when they granted permission for monitoring equipment to be installed. That view seemed to arise because the monitoring equipment for which permission was sought was supposed to be part of the mitigation measures associated with the main fracking proposal - which itself had been refused by the same council! And to the Judge, that seemed to be an incongruous position to adopt.

Permission to hold a Judicial Review isn't a final decision in the matter of course, it simply says an experienced Judge believes there are grounds that the decision should be tested by subjecting it to a full review of its lawfulness.

But for those opposed to the application it's definitely another step in the right direction.

 WHAT GOES AROUND COMES AROUND

The very first counterbalance article, back in 2004 was a response to Fylde's then Leader 'Commissar' John Coombes' plan to develop a 'Night Time Economy' in St Annes. This involved granting late night drinking licenses for nightclubs that wanted to disgorge their contents onto the street at 4am and lead to those who had been disgorged to the fresh air often repeating that process with their bodily contents; their used containers of alcohol; and boxes from pizza parlours up and down the highway and into people's gardens as they noisily staggered home, disturbing the sleep of residents in the process.

It was always going to be a stupid idea to encourage a 'night time' (as opposed to 'evening') economy in an area known for being a retirement haven.

Sure enough it produced problems, and the first ever counterbalance was a report arguing that nightclubs should pay for whatever the police felt was needed to deal with the unruly elements that they ejected onto our streets.

We likened the problems caused by rowdy nightclubs to rowdy football fans arriving for a match, and noted that the police already had powers to require football clubs to meet the cost of policing their visitors and their matches. We said "This cost is reflected in higher admission charges and other income streams from supporters. So in the end, as with the rather elegant strategy adopted with pollution, it is the "polluter" who pays." And we argued there should be no difference between night clubs and football clubs in this regard.

That article concluded with a call made at the 'police and community together' meeting for

1). The Chief Constable be asked to identify how best to separate and quantify the cost of policing these night time activities, and that he report back to this meeting with his findings.

2). That the Lancashire Police Authority ask the Home Secretary to support, and introduce if necessary, legislation that would enable the police to recover the costs of policing the adverse effects that night clubs have on the local community, in a similar manner to existing legislation covering the adverse effects of football clubs.


We know that this call was taken up and supported by both Lancashire Police and by LCC, but it was blocked by the Blair Government who were close to the drinks industry, and that was that.

At least for a while

Now we see East Yorkshire might be having a go again, but this time using powers introduced by the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011, aimed at 'changing the balance of the night time economy in favour of the general community.'

It's proposing a Late Night Levy, which would cover the whole of the East Riding (chiefly Bridlington and similar areas) and require late-opening premises to pay a contribution towards policing the night-time economy.

Picking up on that earlier theme from counterbalance, a report to the East Riding of Yorkshire Council said: "..... the concept being that ‘the polluter pays’. The Government consider it right that businesses which profit by selling alcohol in the nighttime economy should contribute towards these costs incurred to the public purse."

There's nothing new under the sun of course, and we're delighted if a different Government has now seen the light we shone into this matter a few years back!

And at the end of September, the Gazette's Shelagh Parkinson reported that following Blackpool Council's rejection of the Early Morning Restriction Order (EMRO) to restrict anti-social behaviour, a task force has now suggested that late opening bars could be asked to pay in a bid to improve Blackpool's town centre at night.

Thankfully the problems in St Annes are much reduced now, but we will watch with interest how this matter develops.

 BIN IN TROUBLE

We've mentioned before that there's a big problem heading our way to do with waste collection and disposal costs.

Essentially, in order to make savings, Lancashire County Council are withdrawing the grant/subsidy they paid to Fylde (and other local councils) to get them to do loads more recycling of household 'waste' on a voluntary basis.

We think it's come about now partly because LCC are on a big cost cutting drive, but also because of a legislative change that now *requires* local councils to do what LCC were using those payments to encourage us to do.

We now have EU regulations that require local councils (as waste collectors), to separate recyclable household waste and so on

So what was previously the LCC carrot has morphed into the EU stick.

This probably isn't the right time to go into the rights and wrongs of taxes that are imposed in an attempt to change our behaviour rather than to provide our public services. Nor is it the time to moan about yet another stupid EU green tax imposition that's costing a fortune to operate and, like the one destroying the livelihoods of thousands of potentially redundant steelworkers, it is very damaging to the UK's competitive position in the world. So we won't go into those matters here. Regular readers will know our views on such matters anyway.

But because of the LCC change, Fylde is currently staring into a potential £700,000 black hole when the cash is removed by LCC in 2018/19.

To help to find the best way out of this, all the Lancashire district Local Authorities have combined and banded together to look at ways of minimising the loss each of them will suffer.

We can see there could be marginal savings to be had from a collective approach - for example, to reduce the loss from things like assembling much bigger pan-Lancashire contracts to produce keener prices, but in our experience moves such as this will probably be offset by reduced efficiency attributable to reduced local knowledge by the bigger operations, and we don't think it will go anywhere near meeting the £700k shortfall anyway, so we think we can expect to start hearing about unpalatable measures as the 2018 deadline approaches.

We've no inside knowledge on this matter as yet, and it may be that Fylde is only just beginning to look at the alternative measures that may be needed. But simply from having a grasp of how things in local government work, we can imagine it could well involve less frequent household collections or limits on the amount that will be taken from each household, or additional charges for certain volumes or classes of waste.

Measures like that are going to be incredibly unpopular, because collecting the bins if probably the most fundamental service that people expect their local council to deliver from the taxes they pay. And everyone has a bin, so the upset is likely to be widespread.

It's a real headache for those concerned. One consolation we can take from it is that David Eaves is chairing the committee looking into this matter, and (unlike some councillors of our acquaintance), he has a grip on his brief. Furthermore, Fylde's main officer in this matter seems to have a good grasp of the issue as well.

We'd like to see the relevant Committee more involved in the details of what's going on and what should be done about it though.

Failing to do that will bring division and recrimination further down the line at a time when we will be in greatest need of the best assembly of brains we can muster to resolve this matter.

 CHRISTMAS IS COMING

Fylde had a think about arrangements for the disposal of redundant Christmas trees this year. It had been suggested that the popular initiative - which has historically been run chiefly by two of the Fylde's Lib Dem councillors (Tony Ford and Carol Lanyon) who get a trailer and offer a 'call and collect' service in the coastal area - could go Fylde-wide if the Council itself took on the role.

Fylde's Operational Management Committee heard a report from their officers about the pros and cons of offering such a service throughout Fylde. Reading the report you could identify a shortage of enthusiasm to adopt such an idea, but to be fair, the report did provide a balance of the information necessary for the Committee to come to a decision.

Listening to the debate, we were struck by one particular aspect.

We're often told about the economies of scale, and that by combining service providers you get cheaper services.

That may be true in some cases, but in others it's most definitely not.

This was a perfect example of 'small being beautiful' because the principal argument against the extension of the service to the whole of Fylde was that it would be costly and inefficient for lorries to cruise the streets to make the collections.

They would have to be separate from the lorries from those that are geared up to take wheelie bins, and the way the staff were organised meant the service could not adapt to repeat visits to different streets on different days to respond to resident requests for clearance within a reasonable cost.

In short, Fylde's collection service was thought not to be sufficiently flexible to cope with such a scheme.

The Committee (somewhat predictably) voted not to implement it Fylde-wide.

They did agree to increase the number of temporary deposit points where people across the Borough could take their own redundant trees, (and from where FBC would collect and dispose of them). But as we know, there will be a limited take up of such an option because the key benefit of the service offered by the two councillors in St Annes and its environs is that it collects the tree from your garden or driveway, and crucially, that means you don't get needles deposited all over the back seat or in the boot of your car whilst you're taking them to a collection point.

So it looks as though the 'Dynamic Duo' will have to continue their popular service in the areas around St Annes on their own again this year.

If they do, then at least they can do it in the knowledge that they are small and efficient enough to be able to offer a more flexible service than FBC can.

 WASTE ON THE HIGHWAY

Unfortunately, as the Government looks to reduce the scale and scope of what we should expect from our public services, waste on the highway looks to be set to increase.

It did when LCC closed St Annes 'tip' (properly 'Recycling Centre'), and now a legislative change looks set to exacerbate the problems with unlawfully deposited waste on the highway.

Parts of the 1990 Environmental Protection Act have been 'decriminalised'

That means it's no longer a criminal offence to deposit household waste on the highway.

Instead it becomes a 'civil offence'.

Previously, any 'Fixed Penalty Notices' (which Fylde have issued for waste deposited unlawfully on the highway) which were unpaid after 14 days would result in Fylde commencing legal action through the Magistrates Court, and the Court could empower the collection of the debt as a criminal matter.

But on 15 June 2015 the offence was decriminalised.

So now, if a resident fails to pay the Fixed Penalty, the sum will be recoverable as a civil debt, and it's FBC who become responsible for the cost of chasing the payment.

In effect the 'fixed penalty' becomes an invoice like any other payment request.

Worse (from Fylde's point of view), is that in order to be able to chase the payment, a whole plethora of new requirements fall on the Council before they can proceed.

First, they have to write explaining what part of the regulations the resident has failed to comply with and how this has (or is likely to) cause a nuisance or have a detrimental impact on the local amenity. The letter must also specify a timescale for correction and warn that a fixed penalty notice may be issued in the event of failure.

If there is further evidence of illegally deposited waste, Fylde will now also have to provide a ‘Notice of Intent’ - to advise the resident that the Council intends to issue a fixed penalty notice, and of the grounds for doing so, the size of the fine (£60). This second letter must also advise the resident of their right to make representations within 28 days.

If representations are made, they must be considered, and further progress by Fylde is suspended whilst this goes on.

But if no representations are made, then after 28 days the Council can issue a fixed penalty notice. This must repeat the grounds for payment, fine amount of £60, the arrangements for payment, the payment deadline date, the consequences of non-payment and details of the right of appeal.

Offenders can appeal to what's called the First Tier Tribunal, (which is now a part of the UK court system). The tribunal will decide if the penalty should be withdrawn or confirm the requirement to pay it. During this time the payment of the penalty is suspended.

If the decision is to confirm the penalty, and the offender still doesn't pay, it will be recoverable as a civil debt and Fylde Council will be responsible for the full costs in chasing payment.

So the change would mean sending 2 letters before a penalty notice, delays, and giving the right of challenge and of appeal, and even then, Fylde will have the cost of chasing the penalty payment if it is unpaid.

Understandably this wasn't a popular avenue to go down.

Fylde's Operational Management Committee considered the options available which were broadly:

  • Follow the new process (lengthy, resource intensive, and costly)
  • Rely on a purely educational approach, (without taking enforcement action).
  • Re-focus staff on littering and trade waste offences (ie not on illegally deposited waste).
  • Investigate whether other legislation could be used (eg the Anti-Social Behaviour Crime and Policing Act).

The Committee (glumly) concluded that a look at alternative ways that might let them still go through the courts would be the best approach if any such way exists, but if not, FBC should revert simply an educational role and accept that prosecution was no longer a viable option.

We suspect the latter will be the approach adopted.

 BUSINESS RATES

Business rates are in the news at the moment.

There are two reasons for this. Firstly, some earlier legislation has allowed businesses to undertake an appeal against the Business Rates they have to pay if they think they're too much - and from what we heard Fylde's very able Finance Officer say recently, when he saw the list of those business in Fylde who have registered an appeal, he first thought it was just a list of all the businesses in Fylde , not just the ones that have actually appealed (because it was so long).

The upshot is that there must be potential for reductions in what Fylde's businesses pay (and thus what cash Fylde draws from them).

The second reason is that Government has announced it intends to let local councils 'keep' the business rates they collect.

This has (understandably) excited folk who don't altogether understand how the system works. As one reader told us recently, 'Fylde collects about £12 million in business rates so when they keep that it will make a big difference.'

Sadly, it won't.

The present arrangement came into play after what Government of the day saw as the deliberate targeting of businesses as cash cows by Labour controlled Councils in the 1970's, and in particular the Robin Hood policies adopted by Derek Hatton and his supporters in the 'Militant Tendency' who, it was argued at the time, had raised the business rates in Liverpool to disproportionately high levels on businesses (who didn't get a proportionate vote in Council elections), so as to be able to fund generous social provision for unfortunate residents, who did get a vote, (and who had helped Cllr Hatton into - and kept him in - power).

Government put a stop to that by requiring all business rates to be *collected* by local councils, but then they had to be sent off to London where the Government's officials (using a complicated formula based on need and alchemy - which is almost as bad in principle as the calculations they use now in the 'Five Year Housing Supply' figure), re-distributed the 'national' pot of business rates, back to Borough and County councils according to 'need'.

In this way, they stopped councils like Cllr Hatton's administration in Liverpool from robbing Peter's business to pay Paul's benefits.

But the side-effect was, of course, that the perceived link between the local business community and the taxes they paid locally, was broken. And without that link, Councils had less motivation and incentive to implement business-friendly policies to attract and support business in their local area.

Enter George ('Render unto Caesar') Osborne's wizard idea to put it back to the way it was, but to put a cap on the scale of the increases that councils can charge in business rates.

So that's where we are now. Business rates are to be retained by Local Councils.

We also hear that the district councils in Lancashire were discussing amongst themselves whether they should create their own pool of Business Rate money, so all the business rates in Lancashire would be pooled together and re-distributed according to some agreed formula (Need? Population? Electorate? or whatever). We're told that some (notably those who stood to gain), were quite keen on the idea. But others, including we believe, Fylde (thankfully), Preston, and Lancaster are not opting into this arrangement.

As our reader told us, when Fylde gets it's £12 million back we'll all be much better. And if that were the case, we probably would. But the thing to remember is that the present arrangement redistributes Business Rate receipts between both Borough and County Councils, and that's not going to change any time soon.

If, as we expect, it follows the established pattern for Council Tax, it's likely that Fylde will get to keep about 12% of the business rates it collects. The rest will be handed to LCC for highways and transport and social services and education and the rest of the big ticket services the County provides.

And, of course Fylde will also have its 'Government Grant' reduced - we suspect by an amount that is similar to what it is expected to 'gain' from the business rates it keeps. So overall, we don't expect much of a change.

More glum faces from those who had hoped for change.......

 POWERFUL ARGUMENTS?

There was a lot of interest in a planning application for a solar energy farm a week or two back. Lots of folk in the public gallery registered to speak.

Unusually however, the public speakers at the meeting all spoke in favour of the application, and asked Councillors to support it and grant the permission. We recognised one or two amongst their number from the anti fracking organisations.

To be honest, we couldn't see a lot wrong with what was being proposed in that application. The land would still be in agricultural use, albeit perhaps limited to sheep or smaller livestock, but it would have solar panels on stands. However, a majority on the Development Management Committee voted it down and refused permission.

That said, they had approved similar solar energy applications before, and did approve another one later on the agenda of this same meeting.

We hoped the answer to this apparent decision-taking dichotomy would be that the application we listened to was refused because it was on an area that was more visible - or some other such 'visual impact' reason that was specific to that site.

But our hope in that regard was tempered somewhat by a reader who recognised us at the meeting and told us they were worried that some applications for solar farms (which would likely attract popular support from anti-frackers and those on the 'green' end of the political spectrum) would appear on greenfield sites in Fylde that were subsequently intended for fracking.

They thought it might make getting planning permissions for gas extraction sites easier if they were on 'brownfield' (previously developed) land - such as land which had an existing planning permission for, lets say, a solar farm.

Our reader thought some of the applications for solar panels in Fylde (though not the one that was turned down at the meeting we attended) could well be Trojan horses for future fracking sites.

They also said we should keep our eyes open for Chinese investment appearing behind some of the applications. So we will.

 TOWN HALL CHANGES

Thirteen years ago, in 2002, a plan was hatched by the then Chief Executive and Leader to close the Town Hall in St Annes and move most of the staff to a new 'back office' facility on land next to the Wesham Offices site. Civic functions (such as meetings etc) were going to take place in an enlarged Lowther Pavilion, which would house a pretentiously named 'Civic Suite'

The first stage of this plan was the closing of most public access to the Town Hall and the opening of two "On Stop Shops" in Kirkham and at the former Public Offices in St Annes, where the public could go to make inquiries and pay bills etc.

In 2005, a feasibility study suggested there was a very narrow margin between the cost of the new building and the forecast revenue from the sale of land. There was also a successful move to stop the Civic Suite development by invoking restrictive covenants that applied to Lowther Gardens.

So instead, the Council turned to refurbishing the existing Victorian Town Hall building to incorporate a Civic Suite, and developing the upper floors into residential apartments for sale together with the redevelopment of the adjoining Chasely Building to accommodate the Council’s ‘back office’ functions.

The work was to be funded from the sale of the :

  • Town Hall 1st and 2nd floors
  • Public Offices site
  • St David’s Road depot (former adult training)
  • St David’s Road depot (former CVMU)
  • North Beach car park
  • Derby Road Wesham

These were all described at the time as being "surplus council assets"

There were other conceptually disastrous 'side effect'  plans along the way, including moving back office staff to a tin shed on the Whitehills Industrial Estate because a surveyor's report had said the Town Hall was no longer safe to use and was falling down, the public anger generated by the plan to sell the car park for housing, and letting the 'Muir Group' have the former CVMU site to build a homeless hostel.

The pages of counterbalance are littered with the disaster that this White Elephant Town Hall scheme became. Its estimated cost grew from £2.5m to £3m, then to £5m, then finally, after having wasting something like £1m on aborted plans and fees, it hit a whopping and completely unrealistic £7m.

So much for the Cabinet system producing good decisions.

So much for them being quick decisions.

But that position changed when David Eaves assumed leadership of the Conservative Group and the Council.

We welcomed his refreshingly common-sense view in our article 'Town Hall: Plan C ?' of September 2010. In effect, he had said that £7m and upwards was a ridiculous figure and it was way outside the affordability range of the Fylde taxbase.

He told a Council meeting "We need some responsibility and reality, in that Plan 'A' - which was quoted at some £7million; and Plan 'B' was £6.5 million is generally pie in the sky. This Council can't afford that sort of money"

And he set an absolute limit of £5m as being the total sum available for all the costs of making a change. Further, he said that NONE of this would come from taxation, it must ALL be achieved through the sale of council land and assets to fund the change.

After reporting a 'priceless' quotation we once heard from a former Chief Executive,  counterbalance said at the time:

"Our most recently favoured quote was from Paul Walker - Director of Strategic Development, who said of Plan 'C' : "....The schemes that we've worked-up to date, have looked at what is required, and not what we can afford - and what we're coming round to Chairman, is an option whereby we look at this building with a completely fresh pair of eyes and we look in a more pragmatic, cost-limited way, at what we absolutely have to do to stay here to make this building more fit for us in the future....."

Translated to a more simple version, this says - Previously we looked at and designed want the Commissar wanted. This time we've deigned what we can afford.

Also priceless.

It shows the absolute folly of letting the former Commissar loose on public money.

He adopted the former Chief Exec's approach and swallowed it - hook line and sinker.

In council-speak this approach is summed up by the immortal phrase "Finance is a tool of policy"

Whenever you hear that, be very afraid.

What it means is that we'll decide our priorities, and what we want to do, irrespective of what they will cost, then we'll find a way of raising or borrowing the money to fund them.

It's the path that inevitably leads to financial ruin and deliberately throws common sense out of the window.

Thank God Cllr David Eaves is now in charge."

There can be no greater indictment of the Cabinet System's inability to properly direct policy than that admission by officers that the aim was to achieve what they wanted, not what we could afford.

Although, as our readers will know from our other articles, we have issues with Cllr Eaves' in relation to other matters, but true to his word on this matter, he did not flinch or waver from that promise during the whole of his term of office as Leader.

However, what this meant, was that having sold some of the sites, those assets remaining for sale (notably the former Public Offices and Tourism and Leisure Offices opposite the end of Wood Street) were insufficient to fund the remaining changes - even when the scheme became a much more simplified operation to do not much more than repair the Town Hall and enlarge the old Council Chamber.

So that left Fylde in a sort of 'stalemate' situation. Some of the assets they sold were used to repair the roof, windows and to do other structural work on the Town Hall building, but there wasn't going to be enough cash to do the alterations to the former Council Chamber.

To be honest, we were quite pleased about this, because the plans to change the Town Hall will destroy the room known as the Mayor's Parlour (and the internal walls that enclose it) which have Minton tiles and an architectural and heritage value far in excess of what we suspect was set become a soul-less modern meeting room.

But we don't think our pleasure in this regard is going to last much longer.

There are ominous signs emanating from the Finance and Democracy Committee chaired by Cllr Karen Buckley, and we think we're about to be told that the scheme can't be completed within the original £5m budget, so they will be dibbing into the big reserves they have built up over the last few years to fund the shortfall.

In a time of austerity for many residents, we suspect Cllr Eaves' promise of fiscal responsibility on this matter is about to be abandoned by Cllr Buckley.

We've no doubt it will be sold to an unsuspecting public as a scheme that is not using any taxpayers money, and - in the doublespeak so favoured of Fylde since it took on a spin doctor - that is likely to have an element of truth at the bottom of it.

But if our prediction is right, it will be far from the whole truth, because the money *will* have come from Fylde's taxpayers. The money that Fylde has squirreled away in its reserve account represents money that could have been returned as lower council tax precepts, or alternatively as better services for local people. So it all comes from the pockets of taxpayers.

We think readers can expect to see announcements about this matter later this month and we will be watching the developments.

Dated:   5 November 2015


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