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Foul Play

Foul PlayThere are two intertwining stories in this article.

One is about the botched vote of Fylde's Tourism and Leisure Committee regarding the capital funding of playground in Warton.

The other is the story about the process to correct that mistake. That process has revealed how the new committee system is not fit for purpose - because Fylde's emasculated Committees do not have responsibility for preparing the budgets for which their terms of reference appear to make them responsible.

And we think this problem might go even deeper.

So how did it all come about?

Well, back at Fylde's Tourism and Leisure Committee in November 2015 there was an item headed "Prioritisation of Capital Bids" and it was asking the committee to allocate priority for four proposed capital spending schemes.

Three of these were submitted by Fylde's officers. The fourth was from Bryning with Warton Parish Council concerning the redevelopment of a play area and other works on Bridges Playing Field.

Fylde seemed to have enough cash available for all of them, so it was expected that they would simply sort out a priority order in case there wasn't enough when the Council finally got to its budget.

Something we missed at the time - but should have spotted - was that, whilst the Committee was being asked to prioritise them, the officer's recommendation did not include a resolution that the bid should go forward to full Council.

It said the Committee was recommended:

"1. To consider and provide any feedback or comments on each of the capital bids relevant to this Committee's terms of reference as shown at Appendix A to this report; and

2. To provide a prioritised list of bids supported by the Committee for further consideration by the Budget Working Group."

As we said, we didn't spot the significance of this at the time, and we ask our readers to bear with us on this matter for the moment; all will shortly become clear ....

The three FBC bids slid through more or less 'on the nod' - but the one for Warton was different.

The total Warton scheme was estimated to cost around 300,000 over three phases, and the Tourism and Leisure Committee was being asked to provide a capital grant of 50,000 towards phase 1. 

It was also asked to make an advance payment of another 50,000 against an expected receipt that is due from a 'Section 106' payment from the developer of Riversleigh Farm.

With enough cash in the pot for the first 50k, we expected this to slide through as well.

But Cllr Sandra Pitman had other ideas.

This was a puzzle to us.

Whilst she is a Conservative who currently represents residents in Park Ward in Lytham St Anne's, she actually still lives in Warton, and until the last local election, she was a member of the Parish Council that was now applying for the funding.

Most Councillors of our acquaintance in this position would speak up for residents of 'their patch'

But she didn't.

In fact she did the opposite - and went to great lengths to persuade the Tourism and Leisure Committee NOT TO SUPPORT THE BID AT ALL.

We were quite amazed.

She did a thorough demolition job, using all manner of arguments to convince the committee not to support the bid.

She may have felt she had good justification for doing this, and it was apparent to us that inside her own head she was entirely convinced of the rightness of her position.

But we have to say the 'demolition effort' she put in did make us wonder if there was another agenda in play, and whether she was behaving as a 'woman scorned' by the Warton electorate in the Parish Elections who voted her 11th out of 12 candidates.

But at the Fylde Tourism and Leisure Committee (on which, since the last election, she has represented residents in Park Ward in Lytham St Annes), she began by saying she had experience of Warton and agreed that the playing field was in need of improvement BUT she has several issues about it.  It was an area of Warton that was difficult to access, it had only one point of access, and over decades it had not been used by the whole community, rather it had been used by those residents living in close proximity.

She said "Other groups, in different parts of Warton have not accessed it, either because it's too far away, or because, basically, parents don't believe their children will be safe accessing that particular playground."

(For our readers outside Warton, we might helpfully explain that the main entrance to the playing field is at one end of what would once have been called a council estate)

She continued "And I have had information from parents in new housing that says they don't particularly want their children going up to that particular playing field."

She went on to say that Warton has four toddler / small child playing areas, and whilst there was a need to update the equipment on Bridges "It is not a real community asset."

She continued in this tone, criticising the Parish Council, the figures that the Parish Council had put forward, and arguing that there was only one price on which the request had been based. She also said there were problems with establishing a 'Friends' group, and she didn't think that would change.

As we said, she did quite a demolition job.

Independent Councillor Maxine Chew was gobsmacked.

She said "I'm very disappointed that Cllr Pitman feels that she had to shred....., shred  [she said the word again for additional emphasis] their bid in such a comprehensive fashion, I'm sure the Parish Council and residents will be awfully disappointed to hear what she's had to say."

Some members (mostly Independent, if memory serves) did speak in support of the bid, but it was to no avail.

The upshot was that Cllr Pitman's colleagues in the Conservative majority on the Tourism and Leisure committee outvoted the others, and decided not to prioritise this bid at all - so no money was to be made available for Warton's scheme.

As our readers might imagine, and as we also imagine, Warton's Councillors would not be best pleased when this decision became known to them.

We understand they carefully analysed what she had said, and documented their rebuttal.

We also heard there was a fairly bloody private Conservative group meeting where this matter had been discussed.

Cllr Pitman appeared to have firm convictions, and to be willing to advance them, irrespective of their impact on others. In this regard we were put in mind of a speech by former US Presidential candidate and Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin, (who is also known to be forthright, and not to mince her words) in which she jokingly asked an audience what was the difference between a 'hockey mom and a pitbull' - before replying "Lipstick"

Two of the three Fylde Councillors representing Bryning with Warton are also members of Fylde's Conservative group, and we suspect they would have been expressing concern about how this decision would be seen by residents. We could therefore see a foundation for the gossip we heard that it had been a fractious Conservative group meeting.

We also heard on the bush telegraph after the group meeting, there was a prevailing view that the matter had been sorted, and the decision not to include it as a priority would be reversed.

The next thing we heard was at the Finance and Democracy Committee on 25th January, where Warton's Independent Councillor Julie Brickles had clearly been primed to ask for the matter to be reconsidered.

This puzzled us because Cllr Brickles is not a member of the committee, and although (quite properly) any member of the Council may speak at a committee meeting, and may ask for something to be considered and perhaps decided, there were others who were members of the Committee who could have asked for the change.

We were also puzzled that the matter was apparently being re-considered in the Finance and Democracy Meeting when it was the Tourism and Leisure Committee's original decision, and it was our view that ONLY the Tourism and Leisure Committee (as the originator of the decision), OR the meeting of the Full Council that could change a Committee decision.

As it turns out, we were wrong on this matter.

But we were only wrong because the Governance arrangements that Fylde has established for its new committee system are really a bastardised set of what we would consider to be proper arrangements, and it appears to us that these arrangements have been implemented with the specific purpose of not allowing the programme committees to devise their own budgets.

This has huge implications for the satisfactory working of the Council as we go forward, and we believe this governance matter is undoubtedly the most important aspect of this article, so we will return to it in depth shortly

But back to the Warton debate for the moment.

When the Finance and Democracy Committee considered the comments from other committees (including the Tourism and Leisure Committee), Cllr Buckley said "The bids coming forward from the Committees that made them are all in favour of taking these forward, apart from the one relating to Warton, that's my understanding of it. And I have...., just for members to be aware....., Cllr Brickles has put something before members tonight. "Cllr Brickles do you wish to speak"

When a fluent and articulate speaker like Cllr Buckley hesitates like this, you can be sure something is afoot.

Cllr Brickles said she would remain silent because she thought she had said enough in the report she had distributed to committee members that evening.

Cllr Mrs Buckley (who seemed to know what Cllr Brickles has provided) continued "Cllr Brickles is asking for the capital bid by the Parish Council at Warton to be considered again by this committee. If that was to happen it would have to be in February - [because] the next committee meets for the budget in February, before making the recommendation to full council."

We think Cllr Buckley's use of the term 'bids' here is quite specific.

It is now clear that the Conservatives have engineered a situation where each of the Committees has to 'bid' to the Finance and Democracy Committee. That means that Mrs Buckley's Committee control the purse strings - because the way things have been set up, it alone may make the budget recommendation to full Council.

In considering Cllr Brickles' written request for the matter to be reconsidered, the committee noted she had corrected Cllr Pitman's assertion that there was only one entrance - she said there were two at present and a third is being negotiated. She also made the point that the developments proposed for Warton will have their own open spaces, and she produced arguments to show that the allegation that the Council had failed was "very wrong"

She had also reproduced minutes to refute other claims that Cllr Pitman had made. Some of these minutes show Cllr Pitman as having been a Bryning with Warton Parish Councillor at the time decisions were taken and present at meetings that took them.

The debate began and Cllr Oades (who, like us, also remembers how things should be done properly and assumed they would be), asked: how did this get onto the Finance and Democracy Committee agenda before Cllr Brickles made the request for re-consideration tonight?

Like us, we imagine she would have expected it to have been a matter to be referred to Tourism and Leisure for them to reconsider.

Cllr Buckley said "All the capital bids that have gone before the other committees, the Programme Committees, come to this committee. They are recommendations. This committee will then make recommendations to Full Council, so we're not overturning..... [she hesitated here because that's exactly what they were about to propose], or we're not making a decision to overturn anything from another committee. We're making recommendations."

We might disagree with her here.

Reversing a decision of the Tourism and Leisure Committee is exactly what they were debating (albeit that they actually put off taking that specific decision until their next meeting)

Cllr Richard Taylor (who currently chairs Bryning with Warton Parish Council as well as being a member of FBC) thanked Cllr Brickles for the comprehensive document. He suggested information that had been presented as fact to Tourism and Leisure Committee was perhaps out of date information, before going on to express support for the bid his Parish Council had submitted.

Cllr Buckley said they would not be able to consider Cllr Brickles' request at that night's meeting because they didn't have the information before them, but if the committee were minded to support the idea that they did have a look at it again, they would have to do that with what she called "a proper presentation" with all the papers, and also the opportunity for other members to come and talk for or against, but that could only be at the next committee.

The Finance and Democracy was recommended to note the bids, but it actually resolved:

1. To note the recommendations of the Council's programme committees in respect of the capital bids for 2016/17; and

2. That the capital bid from Warton with Westby Parish Council be re-considered at the next meeting of the Finance and Democracy meeting, with full presentation

What she said, and what this and the subsequent Committee meeting did, is completely preposterous.

She turned this, and the following Finance and Democracy Committee (which actually took the decision), into the Tourism and Leisure Committee, as it discussed and debated the merits and demerits of the proposal from Warton.

It has absolutely no locus to do this.

Its terms of reference do not include acting in the stead of another committee (that prerogative is reserved to the Full Council). Nor do they permit the consideration of matters pertaining to tourism or leisure.

When it acted in this way, the Finance and Democracy Committee acted 'Ultra Vires' - that is to say it acted without lawful authority to take this decision. We are shocked that Fylde's officers seem to have been prepared to allowed this to happen.

The Tourism and Leisure Committee is the Council's appointed specialist Programme Committee for matters concerned with tourism, and with leisure provision in Fylde. It was established specifically for this purpose.

The idea that Finance and Democracy Committee should (or even could) usurp the consideration of any programme committee about what it believes to be the correct level of provision (or not) is completely ludicrous. And it denies the programme committee its very purpose.

Finance and Democracy's role in this matter should be limited to considering the overall budget levels (i.e. whether the proposed spending of a programme committee is within or without the sum that the Council should be recommended to spend on that service).

It should absolutely not delve into the individual items in a Programme Committee's budget.

It is not - or at least should not be - their role to deal with trivial and individual budget items from another Programme Committee, save for the ones that fall within the control of the Finance and Democracy Committee itself (such as elections, mayoral expenses and other democracy costs).

We left the meeting shaking our head at what we thought was an absolutely ridiculous state of affairs.

We suspect others thought so too and may have made their concerns known more widely, because we have since heard an attempt to justify the process and position which the Chief Executive felt it necessary to make. He said:

"The Finance & Democracy (F&D) Committee considered capital bids put forward by the council's committees, including those from Tourism & Leisure (T&L), and agreed to note them. It did not agree to include them in its budget proposals: the decision whether or not to include them would be expected to be taken at the February meeting of F&D.

As well as this, F&D decided to 'reconsider' a further capital bid ('the Warton Bid'), which fell within the work area of T&L, but had not been supported for recommendation by T&L, having considered the Warton Bid they decided not to put it forward."

He then went on to explain what Fylde's Constitution says. (Having been re-written last January to accommodate the change wrought by the implementation of the Committee system).

He said:

"The constitution does not set out the budget setting process in the same depth as the previous executive constitution did. This is to be expected, as the Executive [i.e. the former Cabinet] constitution needed to balance the different statutory roles of the council and the cabinet.

In the present constitution, the relevant text is in the Terms of Reference of the Finance and Democracy Committee which states: 'To lead the budget setting process, in consultation with the other programme committees, and to put forward a draft budget package for the Council for approval'

This gives F&D two responsibilities.

The first is to 'lead the budget setting process', and the second is to 'put forward a draft budget package for the council for approval'.

The first responsibility, but not the second, is to be carried out 'in consultation with the other programme committees'.

The terms of reference for the other programme committees - including T&L - do not have any express reference to the budget process, this could be something that is considered when the new arrangements are reviewed.

The item considered by F&D was fulfilling both of its budget responsibilities,
[outlined above], in that it was part of the budget setting process and it was a preliminary step towards formulating a draft budget package that would, in due course, be put forward to the council."

He went further to say

"The constitution places F&D in control of the budget-setting process, with the final approval / decision made by the Full Council.

The only fetter on F&Ds control of the budget-setting process is the requirement that it consult the other programme committees in leading the process.

The first point to address is whether F&D could properly refer the Warton bid to itself for future consideration, despite T&L having considered not to make it a recommendation. The second is whether, as a matter of policy, F&D ought to have the control over the budget-setting process that it has been given in the new constitution adopted by Council last year.

The advice on the first point is that the decision would be improper if by taking forward the Warton Bid the F&D had failed to meet the constitutional requirement to consult the other committees based on how the constitution and terms of reference for the committee are set out.

The purpose of the agenda item at F&D was to consider the capital bids.

Apart from the Warton Bid, nothing had come before the F&D committee except by recommendation of the other committees.

On the second point the role of F&D in the budget-setting process was discussed in detail in the meetings of the Governance Working Group, which considered the constitutional arrangements for the move to a committee system last year.

The arrangements adopted by the council, which include a coordinating role for the Budget Working Group and the controlling role of the Finance and Democracy Committee, were those recommended by the Governance Working Group.

Because the F&D committee has the responsibility of recommending the budget to Full Council, including any capital projects, they are required to consider the bigger picture that includes all the capital bids. In doing that there cannot be guarantees that the recommendations from each committee can always be included and supported e.g. the capital bids recommended by the various committees could come to a value far higher than the budget available and in order to propose a financially sound budget priority would have to be given to the bids recommended by the committees.

It was this scenario that the Governance Working Group considered when agreeing a budget setting process that allows for the F&D committee to recommend a balanced and deliverable budget to Full Council. In the case of the Warton bid it seemed that the recommendation from T&L would have been supported if further information had not been brought to the attention of the committee."

Readers who have managed to stay with this explanation might be forgiven for thinking that 'he doth protest too much' and that the devising of such a system must be down to the Council's officers. Indeed, it is difficult to envisage that it was not done by them to accommodate the expressed preference of the Conservative majority on the Council and the Governance Working group.

It is our view that Fylde's officers have failed to protect the political neutrality required of their office.

So we therefore argue that the Chief Executive is both right, and he is wrong.

Procedurally, he and the committees are following what has been set out.

But the real issue is that the procedures that Fylde has established are themselves, undoubtedly wrong. And in our view they are also dangerous.

This is very much like the MPs expenses scandal - where the MPs were working within the rules they had established - but it was shown to be the case that the rules themselves were plain wrong.

What this arrangement does in practice at Fylde is to remove responsibility for budget setting from individual programme committees.

Instead of having ownership of the topics set out in their Terms of Reference, they are become passive clients of another Programme Committee (Finance and Democracy) for their policy decisions and for their finance.

They have been neutered

The arrangements putting this in place have undoubtedly been drafted by Fylde's officers at the behest of the Conservative controlled Governance Working Group. They place control of all budget preparation into the hands of the Finance and Democracy Committee - which, as readers will remember, housed the Conservative majority who forced the consideration and drafting of the entire budget to a 'Working Party'.

This was quite clearly a crude and blunt device to get around governance legislation which requires Committees (and their sub-committees) to be politically balanced. (That is to say they must reflect the spectrum of opinion that voters elect to form their council. They may not be composed only of a single political party).

But Fylde's Conservatives are circumventing that legislation by calling it a 'Working Party' (rather than a sub-committee) because 'Working Parties' - unlike a committee or a sub-committee - are not defined in the legislation, and so they do not have to be politically balanced; they are not required to publish agenda or minutes, and they may refuse access to other members of the Council to their meetings where matters are discussed.

In fact, Fylde's Conservative group has done all of these things - as we explained in 'The New Committees: Finance and Democracy' where in proposing the 'Working Group', Cllr Buckley said

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

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

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

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

That Finance and Democracy meeting of 22 June last year was the first instance of this anti-consensual approach which is now being widely reflected and replicated across the work of the Council.

In recent weeks, we have seen that the budget; the corporate plan; and the powers of committees, have all been shown to have been implemented in a way that circumvents the requirement for political balance, it denies those outside the Conservative group the knowledge of detailed information and options from which they should responsibly hold the majority party's proposals to account - on behalf of residents.

The approach also denies the proper transparency - which itself is the very foundation of accountability and thus our democracy.

What we have here is a process specifically designed to enable decisions to be taken in closed rooms, without public scrutiny, and then announced as a recommendation in a public committee. (They call it a 'recommendation' because the law forbids the construction of a decision by a single political party group meeting).

However, once that 'recommendation' has been announced to a politically balanced Committee, the Conservative majority can easily vote the private Working Group's 'recommendation' through, because other councillors - who have been elected with equal status - have been denied the ability to properly scrutinise the proposals following the deliberate withholding of the information they need to do this.

What we see in action here is a process of 'decision laundering' by Fylde's Conservatives.

We would expect officers to have prevented this situation from arising, but it seems to be the case at Fylde that they have not, and are not, doing so.

On the contrary, and very worrying for our democracy, we are hearing views expressed that officers seem to have been complicit in designing a system that excludes those who are not members of the majority party.

And before we are accused of Conservative-bashing in this and other recent governance-related articles, we make our position very clear. We would argue exactly the same if it were another political party operating this system and holding an overall majority.

The foolish and myopic view of the present majority party - who seem to believe they are electorally invincible and need take no account of the views of other elected councillors - fails to recognise the lessons of history.  It is only 3 elections since they regained control of the Council (in 2003), having previously lost it through their arrogant disregard of the electorate.

History is now set to repeat itself because, most offensively of all, Fylde's Conservative group is arrogantly disregarding the expressed will of Fylde's electorate - as declared in the referendum.

The Conservatives opposed the change to the committee system of operating, and they have set about creating the nearest thing they can have to their former discredited, and electorally unacceptable, cabinet system.

This is why in respect of the budget setting process, Cllr Mrs Oades told the June 2015 Finance and Democracy Committee "It's a retrograde step, it's the Cabinet by any other word, and we're going to have meetings behind closed doors. We'll get the resolutions - hopefully - minuted, but that will not give us any detail of the discussions. I think it's appalling. I don't think it's transparent, and I really do believe that if you want consensuality which, lets face it, that's what we should be doing, the election is over and we should be working together. You have a majority and you can force through what you want anyway, but if you want to show any kind of transparency and working together, you should at least have some of the opposition on there.

I certainly will not vote for the people you are putting forward
[for the Working Group]. I think it is appalling and it's a very, very bad start."

She also said:

"We will not be aware of what you're discussing at those meetings, so we will be denied the opportunity to have a full and frank discussion on all those items because they'll be held behind closed doors, and as I've said, if they're minuted, we'll just get a recommendation, we won't get the flavour of the debate, we won't know what the options have been, and we will be denied those rights. So I do think it is a really really poor start as I've already said, and I just feel that it's Jackboot Politics."

So that's why we think the present direction is wrong.

But we also said it was dangerous.

We believe it is dangerous for our democracy because:

The process to create and nurture this environment has drawn what should be (and formerly were) neutral, independent officers into appearing to support one political party on the Council. The Chief Executive's explanation of the present situation (above) serves only to strengthen this perception.

It politicises the decisions of the Council. That means it is now impossible to disagree with, or argue against, a policy or budget decision of the Council without also arguing against the political party that implemented it.

It follows that Council decisions (especially the unpopular ones) - which were formerly shared between all councillors - will now focus the electorate's attention on the Conservative majority that has seized control of the agenda and decisions - with all the consequent political risk that brings.

Thirdly it is dangerous because it fails to use the broad spectrum of talents and experience available to the whole council. That situation risks decisions being taken by a subset of (chiefly resort-centric) councillors whose perspective cannot be as wide as the whole council, and whose perspective of rural areas and their needs is less well informed. Opening up the running sore of the rural / urban divide in Fylde is a very foolish and dangerous step

It increases the prospect of re-establishing the urban/rural divide that has been SO damaging historically for Fylde, and was so damaging last time there was a change of political power. It disadvantages and effectively disenfranchises those in the rural area (from which only a small number of Conservatives are elected).

Fourthly, it is damaging to decision-taking itself. The approach being adopted concentrates power into few hands and denies the Committees a sense of ownership of the decisions they should be taking, the budgets they should be establishing and the spending they should control. It has created 'illusory committees', not real ones.

We were frequently critical of the Cabinet when it was led by former Councillor John Coombes, and we dubbed him the 'Commissar' because his style of operation was akin to the Politburo system operated in the former USSR or China.

But this administration is just as bad and, if it is possible, it is even more secretive - more like North Korea, so counterbalance has decided to 'christen' the Leader on whose watch this has come about (and whose embryonic wannabe acolyte led to our first use of the term) 'The Dear Leader Kim Jong-Sue'

Sadly, we can't see it improving if the next generation were to take over. From our observations, Princess Karen might even be worse than the present incumbent.

So unless more moderate, sensible members inside the Conservative group can rapidly bring about a change from within, we can't see the situation improving anytime soon.

That's why we are predicting turbulent times for Fylde Council in the future.

Dated:  28 February 2016


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