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Statement of Dissent

Statement of DissentOver our last few articles, we've spoken of the frustration and anger that we have sensed amongst the councillors who are not members of Fylde's Conservative group, and who are being denied full involvement in preparing important documents such as the annual budget and 'Corporate Plan'.

That anger blew up again at the Finance and Democracy Meeting last Monday when Conservative Chairman Cllr Karen Buckley brazened it out with Cllr Liz Oades, as Cllr Buckley used the Conservative majority on her committee to re-create a 'One Party State' Budget Working Group for NEXT year's budget.

She proposed that, once again, only Conservative councillors should be chosen as members of the Working Group to prepare the draft budget for next year - which they will do in secret, behind closed doors.

And her voting fodder on the committee voted her proposal through.

Readers should note that our use of the term 'voting fodder' here is not intended to be taken in a pejorative sense, but in a factual one. If a Conservative committee Chairman proposes a particular matter, the other Conservatives on that committee are required - by virtue of their party instructions - to 'follow the lead' of the Chairman and vote in the same way. So in that sense they are - literally - required to be voting fodder to the Chairman's proposition.

The decision about creating the 2017 the Budget Working Group boiled over, and both ladies subsequently became self-evidently furious when the matter of working group composition became personal.

Cllr Buckley noted that for the Town Hall Accommodation Working Group (on which the Conservatives have allowed some councillors from other groups) Cllr Mrs Oades had missed some of the meetings - and in her best 'butter wouldn't melt' look, she smiled as she queried whether Cllr Mrs Oades thought she wanted to continue as a member of it.

An angry Cllr Oades snapped back that Conservative Cllr Trevor Fiddler had also missed some of the meetings, and she demanded to know whether Cllr Buckley intended to suggest he should be removed from the group as well.

For the first time we can recall, we saw Princess Karen's 'butter wouldn't melt' look turn into a visible snarl as she dismissed the item and moved on quickly.

The issue which underlies this spat is the anger and frustration that exists amongst those councillors who are being excluded by the Conservative group.

Despite having a voting majority on every committee, the Conservatives - who seem strongly influenced by the overtly party-political opinion-formers in their midst - have once again chosen not to work together with other councillors on preparing next year's budget.

If they had called these groups 'Sub-Committees' - which, in fact, is what they are - then their composition would have to reflect the overall political balance of the Council.

But the Conservatives are sidestepping this legal requirement by calling them "Working Parties" or "Working Groups."

Such groups are not defined in the legislation that governs political balance and therefore - it is argued - they can be made up of councillors from only one political party, and their discussions are never reported or published.

Only their conclusion appears. And that is phrased as a recommendation - to a politically balanced committee which then 'launders' it by applying a wrapper of democracy.

Just like 'money laundering' is intended to clean up ill-gotten gains, this process could equally be called  'decision laundering'.

But a cyclone of civic change is gradually building pressure as a result of this deepening depression in Fylde. And just as a meteorological cyclone brings destruction in its wake, the developing anger and frustration at Fylde is a political fact that is going to have repercussions.

Its circling winds are already drawing together and concentrating those outside the Conservative tent into closer collaboration.

This process is likely to embolden such members into more demonstrable forms of action, and that, itself, is likely to make life much less comfortable for some of Fylde's officers.

It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that this wind of change could also leave a trail of destruction in its wake if, as we suspect, the pressure continues to intensify over time.

Readers will have noted that, in several recent articles we have been predicting this sort of reaction to the way Fylde Conservatives are implementing the Committee system.

Well, we've just seen what we believe is the first hailstone of the storm that is to come.

It's a Statement issued by members of five groups or parties who are not within the Conservative 'command and control' system (Independents, Fylde Ratepayers, Liberal Democrats, Labour, and Individually non-aligned members). Together, they represent around 35% of Fylde Council, and the Statement concerns Fylde's 'Corporate Plan'

They have jointly issued a 'Statement of Dissent' from the plan, setting out why they do not consider themselves bound by its aims and actions.

They were excluded from the process to prepare this 'Corporate Plan', just as they had also been excluded from the process to prepare the annual budget - but in this case it was even worse, because the 'Corporate Plan' was prepared by the Conservatives in so much secrecy that other members of the Council didn't even know it was being prepared!

(Yes, really).

From what we can establish, the publishers seem to have sent copies of the Statement of Dissent to external organisations with which Fylde deals.

We wonder if the intention here is to show the extent to which disagreement exists within Fylde over the aims and actions of the Conservative's Corporate Plan, and perhaps to embody a hope that the external bodies will recognise it does not enjoy the support of all Fylde's Councillors.

If that is the case, we think this must be an embarrassment for senior officers at Fylde.

They will have consulted a number of organisations about the plan the Conservatives had prepared, and have probably circulated copies of it to them. But they now find the plan they have presented as a 'Corporate' Plan is absolutely not what it claims to be!

See what we mean about life getting less comfortable?

The Statement itself pulls no punches, saying it is neither corporate nor a plan.

The main issue is not so much to do with the content of the plan because (as we have said before) it is so vaguely worded that unless you compare the wording of the three drafts and the 'feedback' on them, it's difficult to see what the wording actually means, and even then, some of the concepts are so broad that most folk won't see what's behind them anyway.

But it does give examples of the Plan's specific policy failures - such as the Corporate Plan saying Fylde will 'assess the benefits of becoming a member of the Combined Authority' when the disbenefits also need to be considered and evaluated.

Another quote says "Equally, we believe the proposal which commits the Council to 'Channel business rates funding opportunities to economic development' before alternative needs or competing priorities are considered also ought to have received more scrutiny before such support was committed.

This is particularly so given the very large income reduction expected in Government grants, and the shortfall (which in Fylde's case is expected to be £700,000) that is widely expected to affect district councils when the County Council withdraws its financial support for waste recycling within the plan period."

And as we have just seen, that £700,000 shortfall is now reported likely to result in a new £30 a year charge for the collection of green waste in Fylde from this August.

The Statement of Dissent is also critical of omissions from the Corporate Plan, notably the absence of public consultation,  and the lack of timetabling, resource implications, and measurable outcomes for the plan.

We could go into more detail about what the Statement of Dissent says in this regard, but we imagine our readers would like to hear it first hand, and we've managed to obtain a copy of it, so please follow this link to download a copy of the 'Statement of Dissent' and see for yourself.

Regular readers will already know something of the background to this matter - from our previous article 'Corporate?? Plan??' published about 6 weeks ago.

Since then, it was clear to us that this matter was going to develop into something bigger, and we expected there would be trouble.

So for a while now, we have been digging into the depths of how this plan actually came into being using the Freedom of Information Act to request information held by the Council, but not previously made public on this matter.

Our own particular interest (as usual) is mostly about the use or failure of proper procedure.

And we have found quite serious procedural failings.

They include what we regard as a serious (although admittedly modest in value) failure to conform with the Council's Financial Regulations.

So what's the full story on this Corporate Plan's gestation?  What was it that we discovered?

Well, it appears that sometime before 20th July 2015, an arrangement was made with the 'Local Government Association' (LGA) whose headquarters are in Smith Square, London, to lead, or at least to 'facilitate' a meeting in St Annes, with the objective of considering the potential content for Fylde's Corporate Plan.

The LGA is a sort of 'Trade Body' for all Councils. It has paid officers who run things, but most of its 'support work' for Councils is done by councillors from other authorities.

The LGA itself is politically neutral and (rightly) prides itself on using political balance in it operations.

But councils (who have paid their annual membership subscription - and we think this costs Fylde in the region of £8,000 a year) can request advice from a so-called 'peer' councillor. And that's what happened here.

We understand it is possible for member councils such as Fylde, to request support from an advisor who represents a particular political party viewpoint.

We do not know whether Fylde's Conservatives requested the services of a Conservative councillor to help them because it has not been possible to identify who came to Fylde.

But we do know the LGA were made aware they would only be speaking to a single political group, and they undertook the job, so it might have been the case that a Conservative councillor from elsewhere was requested.

In the world of Cabinets of course, this would not be exceptional. It would be the norm.

Nearly all Cabinets are single political party entities.

That is no doubt why Fylde's senior officers and the Council Leader were able to say in all honesty (as she did at the Council meeting) words to the effect of 'the advisor said it was perfectly normal for a single party to run things, it's what happens in almost all the other council's in the UK'

It's quite true, but only because most of them are still run by single-party Cabinets.

However, Fylde is different.

 It is not run by a single party Cabinet, it is (or at least should be) run by all councillors using the Committee system of decision taking, and we don't think the LGA took this sufficiently into account.

And we absolutely don't think Fylde's officers dealt with this matter properly either.

Deciding the process by which elected members might prepare a corporate plan should have been initiated - or at least approved by - a Committee or by the Council.

But that did not happen

It was Fylde's Leader who actually decided on the process that would produce the 'Corporate Plan'.

She decided that "the leading group should start the process of formulating the corporate plan rather than just Chairs and herself."

The main issue seems to have been only about whether the Corporate Plan would be devised by the (Conservative) Leader and the (Conservative) Chairmen of the Committees, or whether an invitation should be extended to the whole of the Conservative group.

She decided the latter.

Readers will see here a clear indication to exclude elected councillors from outside the Conservative "Leading Group"

When all councillors are elected with an equal mandate to represent their electorate we simply cannot agree that such a process is right.

In our opinion, Fylde's officers should have insisted that the process to devise the Corporate Plan be considered and debated by a committee or by the Council.  By failing to insist on this, we think they have allowed the Leader to take a decision that is actually outside her powers.

We believe that because at its meeting of 1 December 2014 - in a report to consider the new Committee Governance Arrangements - the Council's solicitor had advised the Council.......

"13. In the Leader and Cabinet (England) form of Executive arrangements currently operated by the Council, the leader of the Council has a range of formal powers. These include appointing and removing Cabinet members and taking decisions relating to any Executive function. The Leader can also determine the extent to which decision-making powers are given to the cabinet and individual cabinet members.

14. Those formal powers do not exist in a committee system. The formal powers of the Leader would be limited to matters including which member of the council should answer questions at a Council meeting."

But he then went on to say that the working group - (which had considered what the detailed governance arrangements should be) - had "recommended that the role of the Leader should be as follows:

  • To act as principal spokesman for the Council
  • To take political responsibility for proposing and directing corporate strategy, the budget, and policy
  • To facilitate effective communication with all those engaged in the decision making process of the Council and provide feedback to all members, with suggestions for effective communication and information sharing such as via a weekly email update; group leaders briefing or statement at each Council.
  • To work effectively with the Chair on each of the Councilís Committees
  • To promote the democratic working of the Council, in accordance with the Councilís Constitution with due regard for any statutory provisions set out in legislation
  • To promote and uphold the 10 principles of public life in the Code of Conduct for Members
  • As the principal community leader, promote the Councilís vision for Fylde and lead the Council and its partners to achieve that vision"

And indeed, the Council did approve that recommendation.

However, whilst we regard this wording as a sort of "Job Description" for the Leader, it does not, and cannot, grant her general decision-taking powers.

It is notable that the wording of the resolution speaks of a 'role' for the Leader. It does not prescribe the 'powers' of the Leader.

Under a committee system, it can not give her a general executive authority, because to empower a Leader with executive authority (as the former Cabinet system did) would deny the lawful operation of the Committee system.

Furthermore, even within that December 2014 resolution, her responsibility in these matters is specifically limited to 'political responsibility.'

If the word political were not part of that phrase, the resolution would have granted the Leader sweeping formal powers that she may not have in Law. But by incorporating the word 'political' it constrains her authority to act in a non-executive role, and she stays within the law.

And in any event, Fylde must operate within the law and its Constitution.

The Constitution contains no powers for the Leader to take decisions. Nor does it contain the wording of Council's resolution of 1 December 2014, even though it was specifically updated 3 months later (March 2015) to incorporate the change to a Committee Governance system.

Whilst the absence of the December resolution could be an omission, we suspect it is absent because under the committee system, the Constitution could not lawfully grant such generalised decision-taking powers to a Leader, and it looks to us as though the Council resolution of December is acting as a 'fudge' to make it look as though she can, when in law, she cannot.

So for those reasons, we believe her decision to hold what became 'de-facto' a single political party meeting to draft the 'Corporate Plan' was plain wrong. It was:

  • a process where Fylde's officers - who should be beacons of political neutrality - were required to act in support of, and as a secretariat to, a single political party group meeting, and
  • a single political party meeting that was paid for using taxpayers money

and we regard both of those as being wrong.

But not only was it wrong, it has put Fylde's officers on what we consider to be a really slippery and dangerous slope. In our view, their political neutrality has been badly compromised by the Chief Executive's compliance in allowing this process to take place as it did.

So how did the booking itself actually come about?

Well, the arrangements for the meeting were undertaken by a member of Fylde's administrative support staff whose services are said to be 'shared' between the Chief Executive, the Directors and the Leader.

One of those services was booking the room in the Palace buildings on Garden Street for what was (literally) described as an "awayday" for the Conservative councillors.

This room was booked by the officer in their "capacity as the administrative support to the Leader."

We attach no blame to this officer for following instructions, but we do not believe the Leader had authority to require the booking to be made. The Leader may not issue orders for the supply of goods and services, nor should she have compromised the neutrality and independence of the officer concerned by requiring the booking to be made for a single political party event

But the room was booked, and eventually paid for.

The invoice for it says "Re FBC AWAY DAY. To the provision of facilities at St Annes Palace, buffet supply and refreshments for 33 people at £10 per head on 20 July 2015" and it is in the sum of £330.00

For some companies with whom they deal, Fylde uses an electronic ordering and payment system. But for occasional suppliers, orders must be placed manually using an official order book.

The process to place, check and authorise payment on such orders is set out in time-honoured detail that has been honed over years of purchasing and accounting.  It is a model of how things need to be done, and it is prescriptive in nature because it is dealing with public funds. It is all set out within Fylde's 'Financial Procedure Rules'

Regulation 1.5 requires "All directors [a term which includes even the Chief Executive himself] shall be responsible for ensuring that all staff in their directorates comply with these regulations and guidance at all times."

Regulation 17.4 requires that "Verbal orders shall only be given in emergencies and must be confirmed by an authorised official order on the same or next working day"

Regulation 19.1 requires that "All orders for goods or services shall be issued on official order forms in a manner and form agreed by the Chief Financial Officer. All directors shall be responsible for the issuing and safe custody of order books"

Regulation 19.3 says "A further appropriate officer shall initial the certification grid on each account as evidence that:

(i) each account has been checked against an official order and has not been previously passed to the Chief Financial Officer and that the order has been properly complied with"

As can be seen from the source document (follow this link for a copy of the invoice and voucher), the payment voucher attached to the Invoice for this meeting shows, and our subsequent inquiries have confirmed, that:

  1. No official order was raised for this booking. This contravenes regulation 19.1
  2. The voucher has not been completed to show whether or not an order was raised. This contravenes Regulation 1.5
  3. It has been authorised by the Chief Executive personally, with this failing in place. This contravenes Regulation 1.5 and regulation 19.3

And adding insult to injury, the expenditure appears to have been charged to a Cost Centre known as "2117/46927 Organisational Improvement Costs"

We're told this is used "for various initiatives including support for training & development etc. including room hire for events that cannot be accommodated in existing facilities"

We were puzzled why it was not charged to what we would have imagined to be the more appropriate cost centre of"2000/44402 Members Meeting Costs"

But it seems this anomaly was not picked up by the accountants.

Furthermore, the finance people (who should have provided a second independent compliance check about regulatory conformity) also failed to see that the procedure had *not* been complied with in this instance because (although the bottom of the voucher is not visible) the Invoice has been paid, even when the regulations had been contravened.

So:

  • The purchase of this service did not comply with Fylde's own Financial Regulations.
  • An order was not issued, and therefore the supply could not be checked against it for authorisation of payment.
  • There is no record of who actually attended the event, and thus there can be no proof how many '£10 per heads' should have been accepted and agreed for payment on the invoice.
  • There is thus no audit trail proof of the service being properly charged, and
  • because of that, the invoice should not have been authorised for payment, and the payment should not have been made.

But it was.

We recognise that in the great scheme of things at Fylde, £330 is quite a small sum.

But that's not the point.

The point is that there has been a systemic - a multiple systemic - failure of the procurement process, and that same systemic failure could just as easily apply to £3,000 or more.

We see this as symptomatic of a wider systemic failure at Fylde, and that is the failure to require the implementation the committee system that the majority of Fylde's electorate called for in the referendum.

But we (and others) can make that call as much as we like because it will fall on deaf ears and change nothing. We confidently expect no formal action taken over this matter.

It will be brazened out by both officers and by the Conservatives who seem to believe they can make it up as they go along with impunity in order to protect what they call the 'reputational integrity' of the Council.

That's the same reason we see failures like Streetscene, and complaints about councillors  taking payments for the use of land without properly declaring an interest swept under the carpet in official 'whitewash' reports,  and we see gagging clauses introduced - for example into the golden handshake contract made with the former Streetscene manager in order to secure his silence, and because it "....was felt to be the most pragmatic option which exposed the Council to the least amount of additional financial and reputational risk ...." (actual words of a former FBC Chief Executive).

Sooner or later, the procedural failures that now abound at Fylde will produce a really serious matter that will bring the house of cards - that this lax procedure is become - tumbling down.

In the meantime, the councillors outside the Conservative group have reaching their tipping point, and we think this heralds a new era at FBC. It will be one that the more rampant party-political members of the Conservative group will have brought upon themselves with their arrogant exercise of power.

Reaction to that arrogance is now stirring in other councillors who stood ready to work consensually, and expected to have open and transparent debate of all the issues and options that lead to the decisions the Council needs to take, but who now feel marginalised, frustrated and angry.

We predicted this trouble brewing, and it is.

We suspect the publication of this Statement of Dissent is only the beginning of what might well become a difficult period at Fylde.

It might be the case that, by implementing their hard line unwillingness to work consensually, the ruling Conservatives have now destroyed all hope of collective working amongst the 35% or so of non-conservative councillors who, like cornered animals, now have only one option - to come out fighting.

And we can't help wondering if this Statement of Dissent is the first step in what we could see developing into something more within the Council.

Please follow this link to download the Statement of Dissent.

Dated:     28 March 2016


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