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Snippets Sept 2016

Snippets September 2016A note of the smaller bits of news accumulated as at September 2016.

SYNOPSIS

We begin with the St Annes Town Council By-Election before giving a (probably unpopular) view on Library Closures.

We also came across what for us was some very surprising information about Affordable Housing.

We then look again at the supposedly 'Healthy New Town' scheme that's planned for Whyndyke Farm.

We then reproduce a reader submission about what constitutes Winning a majority, then look briefly at LCC's probable Council Tax increase and Blackpool's outsourcing of litter  enforcement and open space maintenance with volunteers, before a look at an issue with Fylde's accounts and two matters from the Audit and Standards Committee meeting

Finally we conclude with what we regard as Fylde's failure to have elected councillors debating two matters of significance before providing the Council's views to Government.

 ST ANNES TOWN COUNCIL BY-ELECTION

Sadly, we hear that nineteen year old Liberal Democrat Richard Bennett, who was elected as a Saint Annes on the Sea Town Councillor last May has had to step down because of his university commitments.

Fylde published a notice saying that if, within 14 days, ten or more electors of Central Ward called for it (which they did) then a by-election would be held to fill the vacancy on the Town Council.

Nomination papers had to be at the Town Hall by 4pm on 9 September 2016. They were, and we now know who is standing. They are:

  • Andrew Peter HOLLAND
    (Standing for the Liberal Democrats)
  • Gillian Rodgers OLIVER
    (Standing for the Labour Party)
  • Stanley Robert TRUDGILL
    (Standing as The Conservative Party Candidate)
  • Brook Dene Grant WIMBURY
    (Standing for the UK Independence Party (UKIP))

So the electors in Central Ward can go to the polls on 6 October 2016 and choose a new Town Councillor to represent them.

We're saddened that all those standing feel the need to stand under a party political banner - it's a process that brings party politics into Town and Parish Councils where - in our view - they are wholly unnecessary.

By-elections are never as well supported by the electorate as Borough or County elections of the whole council, (and a  Town/Parish council by-election is even less well supported), so it is almost impossible to draw any national party conclusions from who gets elected,

But it might be interesting to see what, if any, impact there is, especially in relation to Labour and UKIP, whose efforts and strategy at the Borough election saw sitting Conservative Councillor Fabian Craig-Wilson removed from the Borough Council by ONE vote when Labour's Jan Barker beat her, and where there were only 64 votes separating the first four candidates.

It was also an odd ward in the Borough election because it saw what looked to be a rather dubious strategy of a 'UKIP candidate trio'  standing -  (nominally) against each other in the same ward.

Each of them polled just over 300 Central Ward votes which was about half the winning number. Arithmetic logic suggested they would have taken (a winning) 900 or so votes if they had stood a single candidate rather than three. But this is probably not the case in real life.

Central Ward returns 3 borough councillors, and from our observations at the count, we noted that most people who voted for one UKIPper voted for all three.

None got in, but the UKIP strategy almost certainly took people's second or third preference votes, and they were votes that might otherwise have gone to a Conservative. This probably reduced the Conservative vote, creating a gap that a hardworking Labour candidate could slip through.

This time there's just one Town Council seat up for grabs, and we'll see what the folk in Central Ward decide on 6th October.

 LIBRARY CLOSURES

After the initial warning last spring, and the consultation period that just ended, County Hall has confirmed that Libraries in Lytham, Ansdell and Freckleton will be closed at the end of this month, and Kirkham will be moving to a new building.

Much has been made of the closures by the Conservative County Councillors (and some of their colleague Borough councillors) representing Fylde who have pledged to re-open the libraries if they are elected to a majority next spring. Also, 'support / friends' groups sprang up, first to fight the closures, and now to see whether they could take over providing the service on a volunteer basis.

It's always good to see local councillors supporting such groups in the press photos, but sometimes it's not altogether clear who's the real driving force.

We also struggle with the political ju-jitsu that saw those exceptionally large budget reductions that George Osborne forced onto (the Labour controlled) Lancashire County Council (whilst at the same time justifying increased grants to some prosperous councils - especially in the south east - who, by the way, also often seemed to turn out to be Conservative controlled) being criticised by politicians from the same party that caused Lancashire's enormous budget reduction in the first place.

There are some services that councils have to provide by law, and others that are discretionary. Libraries, leisure, tourism and subsidies for bus services are examples of discretionary services.

The (not unexpected) outcome is that discretionary services have been hit disproportionately hard in Lack's budget cuts. Readers will remember there were to have been very serious cuts to bus services which would have seen people in rural parts of Fylde without a bus service at all to get to the hospital or to college or to work.

One of Lack's responses to the need for savings has been to change (enlarge) their 'unit of consideration' (that's our rather poor term to describe what they have done) as to what designates an 'area'.

Historically they have based their services on Boroughs and townships, but that has now changed.

The Government (we think through the Office of National Statistics) devised something called "Super Output Areas" (SOA) that were built up from smaller areas such as boroughs. (Part of the original logic was that postcodes, and borough and police and NHS and other agency districts didn't share the same boundary, to be able to compare statistics, so the SOA's were better able to give a broader picture).

Anyway the upshot is that the SOAs for Fylde are much bigger than a township and LCC has agreed that it will base its future service delivery on SOAs.

The effect (as the banks are doing at present) is to centralise the delivery of the service into fewer locations.

We know the SOA that includes Kirkham for example, stretches to include places outside Fylde Borough as far away as Broughton on the A6.

And we're guessing (couldn't find a simple map) that the SOA that includes Lytham and Ansdell will probably be from South Blackpool to Lytham. And if you consider that as a unit of service delivery, you arguably need one library in it, not the three that there are at present.

Our MP believes that LCC should be making savings in other areas, and that's always a good case. It's about how you divide up the cake that you have, so he and Cllr Tim Ashton (Lytham) and Cllr Richard Redcliffe (Ansdell) have been working with the Friends Groups that have arisen and driven a campaign against the Lack's Labour administration's closure decision - probably with one eye on next year's County Council elections.

But, it is undoubtedly correct that if you don't have as much money to run services as you did before, it's  no-brainer that you look at cuts to discretionary services before cutting those you are legally obliged to provide.

The second no-brainer is that, rather than withdrawing from discretionary services altogether, you rationalise them.

Admittedly, that makes them less convenient, but it keeps at least an embryo of the service in place, capable of being expanded again if the opportunity arises.

We're now going to upset the apple cart even more than we have done already with what's likely to be a less than popular view about the closures.

Historically, we have been one of the Library Service's strongest supporters, stemming from a poor educational experience when very young and the ability to research and learn from library books.

But that was before the Internet of course, and for the most part (excepting for local history documents), the Internet is now where most of us go for technical information. So we don't need the Library as much.

Furthermore, non-fiction 'books' can be downloaded and read on your tablet (or phone), so you don't need to go to the Library for pleasure reading either.

What we're arguing here is that although their role as repositories of  local history documentation is (at present) unique, and some have made (relatively timid) steps to embrace technology, there seems to be an unwillingness amongst librarians to see that the service they should be delivering is information rather than books, and their love of the printed object has clouded (and perhaps damaged) the role that they should have in society.

We ask: why has the library service not made 'books' available online as they did with printed ones in the first place. Why haven't all the local history documents been scanned and published online? Why are they not making academic research and other learned papers available online?

And yes, we realise that at present, there are still lot of people who don't have access to computers, but that diminishes daily (as those of us with grey hair see young people glued to their phones or tablets in the street, in pubs, in restaurants, in the cinema and theatre, and even round the dining table at home, in households where that now antiquated practice still takes place).

Furthermore, some Libraries are responding to the needs of the computer illiterate by having  volunteers who deliver books (only for the housebound at present, but set to expand) just as people deliver boxes of fresh veg to a pre-set indication of preference. So the importance of a physical presence for a library is diminishing.

And it seems to us that the Library Service's failure to adapt and embrace technology to a sufficient scale is at the root cause of why centralising the library service into fewer locations is actually probably the most sensible response to not having enough money to run it as you did before.

Of course we can all argue that the cuts should not have been made, and in a perfect world that will be the case, but the country is spending more than it earns and the debt grows bigger daily (and looks set to increase even faster with Mrs May in charge), so something has to give.

The Government required LCC has to lose more than some of the other councils in the UK.  We don't like it, but Lancashire has provided a logical response to this. No one (including one or two LCC members we know) likes it, but the 'fault' in this matter is not only down to LCC.

We noted with interest that one of Fylde's (Conservative) County Councillors was quoted in the paper as saying "Libraries provide so many services to our communities, including combating social isolation, providing safe places for those with learning disabilities and autism, providing computers to access essential services online...." etc

All laudable, but in truth, that description belongs not in the library budget, but in the social services budget.

We wish the Friend's groups well in their endeavours and expect to return to this topic in the future.

 SUBSIDISED HOUSING SURPRISES

Quick Primer: Fylde no longer has any 'council houses' but they do  have a statutory duty to assess housing need, and meet that housing need in Fylde.

They use Registered Social Landlords (RSL's) to provide what is known variously as 'Affordable housing' or 'social rented housing' The key point being that, unlike private sector landlords,  the rents payable to RSL's have an element of subsidy from the taxes we pay.

Until recently, all of this housing was operated under a scheme called 'MyHome Choice' - a choice-based letting scheme.  Some may see a certain incongruity in the idea of a system that was originally intended to provide a basic level of housing for those unable to pay commercial rents to private landlords being based on a system where people in need can 'bid' for properties, but that's currently how it works.

It's not actually as straightforward as our simplistic explanation above, because the individual or family 'need' is classified into bandings which limit the type of property that may be 'bid' for.

Furthermore, all such property within Fylde has to be let to people who have a 'Fylde [Borough] connection' (or some other specific criteria deemed appropriate).

But where an existing (as opposed to newly built) 'Affordable' property has no takers from people with a Fylde connection, it may then be offered to rent by people in Blackpool and Wyre.

It seems that Registered Social Landlords have frequently expressed concern over low demand for some properties. That's low demand both in certain areas of Fylde, and low demand for certain types of property, (notably sheltered housing it seems).

But Fylde's emerging Local Plan has made a great play of there being an enormous need for such 'Affordable Housing' and this perceived need contributes massively (in our view) to the grossly over-inflated number of houses Fylde says need to be built.

So we were surprised at a recent Environment Health and Housing Committee meeting to hear a housing officer from FBC tell the Committee  about a pilot scheme which had been operating (and which was to be extended for another year) that allowed 25% of 'hard to let properties' to be let outside the 'MyHome Choice' scheme because not enough people were coming forward for them.

Yes really.

So the idea was that Affordable Housing was going to be advertised better outside the MyHome Choice scheme, in order to attract more, or at least a greater range of,  applicants.

People would still have to have a local connection, but the issue seemed to be that not enough people were coming forward to ask for Affordable Housing.

We are horrified at this direction. 

And horrified for three reasons.

Firstly, it echoes the same foolishness we saw when Fylde's housing department was actually advertising for homeless people to come to Fylde so we could house them and improve the statistics Fylde sent to Government.

Secondly it puts the council in the role of seeking to increase the number of people in Affordable Housing - ie it is actively promoting the idea of subsidised housing, not meeting an established actual need, and

Thirdly, it absolutely flies in the face of the claimed 'need' for housing in Fylde's Local Plan.

We expect to look at this matter in some detail later, but we know several readers who share our view and who will be interested in these quotes from the officer at the meeting.....

"So there are issues with MyHome Choice, there are issues around marketing MyHome Choice, and the flexibility to let 25% as currently isn't the answer. The answer is for MyHome Choice to be more like 'Rightmove' where people can automatically register with it. The issue with MyHome Choice is that everybody in Fylde who has a household income of under 60,000 is eligible for affordable housing within the Fylde coast, but they may not necessarily feel that they would be eligible for Housing Association stock, so they would never register with MyHome Choice. So what being able to let properties outside the system does is advertise it more, and it encourages more people who are employed to access Affordable Housing that's being developed within the area."

In answer to a question from a councillor, we heard this: ".....what this is doing is allowing 25% of stock, in areas where they struggle to let them previously, or are a type they have struggled to let previously, to advertise on Rightmove, or McDonalds, or on the Housing Association Website, to attract a new customer. A new type of customer who wouldn't think 'Oh, I'll be eligible for Housing Association accommodation', and people don't. People don't necessarily...."

At this point the officer was interrupted by the councillor who asked "But they still have to have the local connection?"

The answer was "Absolutely. It's about getting more of those households whose income is up to 60,000 a year onto 'MyHome Choice', so advertising on Rightmove, you're raising awareness of it anyway.

I mean ideally, you'd want all stock to go through MyHome Choice, but the issue is that the RSL's are saying that they're struggling to let their properties, but the demand is there in Fylde, so therefore why aren't these people registering"

Yes, really that's a verbatim comment.

Later the officer said "There is huge demand because there's huge demand within the private rented sector for MyHome Choice, you know, the majority of households are in private sector accommodation, who want to register for, you know, Housing Association accommodation. The demand's there, it's just that we're not capturing everybody currently in the system as it is."

Now, it seems to us that if Registered Social Landlords are complaining they have properties they find hard to let, then it's either because there is too much of that property available, or because not enough people need it.

Affordable Housing should be need, (not desire) based. It should provide housing for people in need who are unable to afford commercial rents, not an alternative and desirable lifestyle choice funded by taxpayers and promoted by local authorities.

We expect to cover this matter in more depth in a future article.
 

 HEALTHY NEW TOWN SCHEME

We nailed our colours on the mast of this idea very clearly in A few Fracking Notes where we said:

"We're really pleased about the plan for 1960s-themed cafes to help elderly people with dementia feel more at home - it's just what counterbalance has been waiting for all along, ever since our towns were taken over by those horrid American style Costa's and Starbucks who tried to persuade us to live like the mind-numbing American soap opera "Friends".

And we're especially pleased that one of these Healthy New Towns will be right on our own doorstep at Whyndyke Farm, so we hope we will easily be able to get to the 1960s dementia friendly cafe, (and that we will be able to remember how to get back).

One blot on the horizon that did cross our mind was the prospect of Cuadrilla's proposed fracking site at Preston New Road being just across the Motorway from Whyndyke Farm, and the irony of the serious public health worries that are being outlined at the inquiry being in such close proximity to what will be a Healthy New Town was not lost to us."

We concluded the article by saying "In the meantime, can we have a new Chief Executive for NHS England please?"

No doubt some will disagree with our taste in humour and our stance in this matter, but at a time when health authorities are talking about rationing hospital services, and when only yesterday NHS leaders in England were all over out television screens saying they "have reached a "tipping point" and cannot maintain standards for patients on the funding they are getting.", we ask what sort of lunacy it is that  is prepared to spend public money on such frippery as we have outlined above.

So we also have to ask how on earth Fylde's Environment Health and Housing committee could even consider approving the following recommendations from 'The office of the Chief Executive' (Yes really, as though he was a European Bureaucrat ) - which proposed that the committee should

  • "....consider the Healthy New Town initiative, as described in this report, and then to recommend to the Finance & Democracy Committee the approval of a fully funded revenue budget increase in the sum of 150,000 in 2016/17 in relation to the initiative, fully funded by a grant from NHS England in the same sum; and

  • to recommend to the Finance & Democracy Committee that the Council act as the accountable body for the Healthy New Town initiative."

But not only did they consider it, they approved it.

Madness reigns supreme in Fylde.

  WINNING A MAJORITY?

A document recently came into our hands that challenged an assertion it claims was made by our Dear Leader, that she and her Conservative colleagues had "won the election with an overwhelming majority" having secured 32 seats of the 51 seats available from 21 wards, each of which had between one and three seats available.

Our correspondent (signing themselves The Loose Cannon) wanted to refute her claim that her party had a mandate to implement the proposals they saw fit to introduce.  (because they had a majority)

In order to do this, our reader undertook an analysis of the election results  published by FBC, and has produced some evidence which claims the contrary.

Having analysed the number of votes cast in each ward for each of the political groups and for those of no political grouping, and taking account of the spoilt papers etc, the analysis concludes:

"Although history has defined that Fylde Conservatives won the May 2015 local elections in terms of acquiring a majority of 32 seats from the 51 available with the remaining 19 being split between the other groups commonly referred to as the opposition members, it would be wrong to claim to have the overall support of the majority of voting residents of Fylde.

The figures clearly show that the Conservatives won 32 seats with only 44.11% of the total votes cast across Fylde. Therefore, it is clear they do not have the blessing of the majority of voters in Fylde.

However, the remaining 19 seats, won by the opposition group members do have the support of 55.87% of the Fylde voters, 11.76% more than the Conservatives, not including the 416 spoilt ballot papers recorded.

In terms of proportional representation, it is clear that Fylde Conservatives did not win the 2015 May elections with the overall majority they claim."

Whilst some readers will no doubt argue this analysis shows that more or less anything can be proved with statistics, we thought it was worth an airing and are happy to reproduce it. (And we have seen the data that backs up the claim).

 COUNCIL TAX RISE

Ouch! will probably be one of the lesser responses to Lack's news that for the next four years they will be implementing a 3.99% Council Tax rise in each of those years.

With interest rates at less than 2%, and inflation - measured using the real, 'old money' (RPI rate) - is 1.9%, anyone on a fixed income from savings or investments is in trouble.

We're told that even this 3.99% increase is not enough to balance the books even after the cuts we've seen this year from LCC, so it ain't going to get better anytime soon.

Lack's is the most noticeable increase we feel because it accounts for around 80% of the Council tax demand we receive.

 BLACKPOOL'S OUTSOURCING

We spotted a couple of issues our neighbour authority is privatising one way or another.

Privatised Litter Enforcement:

Heralded in June, Blackpool Council gave notice that it was considering appointing an outside company under a one  year pilot scheme to enforce 80 fines for littering or dog fouling.

And sure enough, at the end of last month, the scheme became a reality. The company won't be paid for the enforcement, but they will retain the fines that they issue.

We have some serious problems with this idea.  Not so much with the principle of a private company doing it, but we don't believe that income from fines should be used to fund it. As we have seen in Fylde, when a service such as parking enforcement is linked to the income paid to the company or to the staff, it inevitably damages the relationship the town has with its visitors.

The reason any company exists is to cover its costs, and most also need to make a profit either for shareholders, owners, or staff,  and however much it is denied, that is inevitably where the effort will be directed.

The UK has a curious double-headed approach to litter.  We (mostly) agree that it shouldn't be dropped in public places but we threaten prosecutions and, at the same time, provide a clearing service with bins and sweeping.

This sends out somewhat mixed messages and, as a nation, we are confused whether we should take it home or bin it (or as in the case of those less socially aware - drop it for someone else to clean up).

We suspect moving from this deeply ingrained position will take a long time if, as it seems, that Blackpool and elsewhere are making tentative moves to remove the sweeping and bin emptying service in favour of a longer term policy of 'take it home or be fined.'

We also struggle with some of the aspects Blackpool seems willing to enforce.

For example they seem to be saying that anything dropped accidentally will still be liable to a fine, and an offer to pick it up when it is drawn to your attention will not remove the fine either. That's about as fair as getting a parking ticket when you drive off as the warden approaches. It's plainly wrong-headed

Neither is there to be an appeal process, and it is now - apparently - a criminal offence to feed birds with anything other than 'bird feed' though how that is defined remains unclear. (we wonder if the maggot and worm staple diet of some birds will be allowed). And we also struggle with the heath fascists lobby that classifies cigarette butts as 'litter' we simply (even as a non-smoker) cannot agree that this is right.

We also fundamentally disagree with there being a *requirement* to give your name and address to an 'Enforcement Officer.(and we can imagine a few folk we've seen who seem to live in shop doorways in Blackpool might have a problem with that anyway)

That option (if it exists at all, and we're not at all sure it should) should be reserved for the police.

So whilst all but the blind can see that measures need to be taken to decrease - and if possible stop - litter being deposited on our streets, we cannot see that a process as draconian as Blackpool seem willing to introduce is the answer.

Blackpool Grasscutting

The second 'privatisation' issue is the madcap scheme to stop paying for the grass to be cut in Blackpool, and to 'privatise' this and other public area cleaning services, by persuading residents to undertake it with 'in kind' vouchers for attractions.

This is foolishness of the first order, and the concept brings with it all sorts of lateral consequences that no-one will have though through. We have seen this sort of thing happen elsewhere before.

The  first unintended consequence is that of depriving children of areas to play with a football or whatever. The nature of the surface dictates the use to which an area may be put. Just as, to be a bowling green, grass needs mowing probably 3 times a week, so a grass area intended to serve as an informal kickabout area cannot do so if it is not mown. Long grass also increases the problems for suffers of grass-pollen-based hay fever very significantly - especially when it is an open space in a housing area from which there is no escape, and closed windows all the time only reduce the problem slightly.

The second unintended consequence is that once the grass becomes tall, all manner of objects disappear into it. From bricks to trolleys to carpets (yes really, we have seen them) the waving sea of grass harbours them unseen. This means that when you do come to cut it, the process takes probably as long and costs just as much as it would have done to keep it mown short. That's because of the time taken to walk and feel the area for obstacles before it can be mown, and also in repairs to (expensive) damaged machinery that hits the housebrick you missed on the walkthrough.

The third unintended consequence is that those taking decisions without the experience to do so fail to understand that the nature of the vegetation is entirely dependent on the environment and the maintenance regime it receives.

When a wealthy Mancunian wants a new lawn, he may well be persuaded to buy the highest quality Pilling sea washed, sheep grazed turf for his lawn.

What he does not realise is that when his very expensive lawn is no longer grazed by the sheep, washed by the sea, and growing in a soil that is an acid clay, not sand and marine silt with a pH and sodium level that is light years away from his acid Mancunian clay, then within a few short years, (even if he gives it the most tender care possible), he will have a lawn that is nothing like seawashed turf. It will be closer to the other grass areas receiving the same sort of maintenance regime around Manchester.

Just so it will be with Blackpool's now unmown (or annually mown) areas. They will undergo a change in their vegetation. The relatively fine grasses of a weekly or fortnightly mowing regime will die out and be replaced by more vigorous, coarser, and invasive grass species. In time, nettles and brambles will establish, and when these become filled with fly-tipped rubbish, they will remain uncut areas in which trees and scrubland will quickly develop.

In quite a short time, it will become a wasteland.

Unless of course, some local people volunteer to look after it themselves.

Now, apart from the obvious health and safety issues of untrained and unskilled people using machinery, and the unavailability of chemicals to non-professional gardeners, and the matter of the legal minefield that this situation creates,  this approach also  brings another unintended consequence. Volunteers maintaining an area develop a sense of ownership of the areas they look after. It is inevitable. But these are public spaces, and what happens is that conflict arises as to who can do what on them, and who has the right to stop such activity. This can get very serious and unpleasant. We have seen it happen.

Blackpool's case for introducing the grasscutting moratorium is that they don't have the money to do it.

We saw one letter to the paper suggesting the costs of grasscutting should be shown alongside Blackpool's current management structure and staffing costs and published. The letter concluded if that was done,  "I think you will find why the grass is not being cut"

This is a tongue in cheek response, but close to the mark. When Blackpool bid to, and became, a Unitary Authority, it opted out of the services formerly provided by Lancashire County Council and assumed responsibility for HUGE ticket services such as social services and education and to a lesser extent highways in Blackpool.

These behemoth services utterly dwarfed the budgets spent on services such as parks or tourism. Small time services like them became regarded as less than petty cash in terms of spending levels - and in terms of pay grades and staff numbers. The outcome of that is that the focus and effort of councillors shifts to the big ticket items and smaller services fall off the edge of the desk.

And you get to a situation where the council loses touch with reality, and does something like stopping cutting the grass.

 FYLDE'S ACCOUNTS

 Of Interest:

Readers will know we've a lot of time for Fylde's finance officers, and for Cllr Buckley's pretty impressive grasp of this difficult subject. She understand it better than any of her party colleagues who have had charge of it that we can recall in the recent past.

So it's unusual for us to be critical, but we did spot one matter that cause us to blink. It was on the agenda of the Finance and Democracy Committee of 20th June 2016, where, buried in the detail of the report, was this nugget:

"During the year, cash sums managed internally by the Council have been invested with approved banks, money market funds, Lancashire County Council and a number of other Local Authorities. The Council held an average cash balance of 18.6m of internally managed funds. The overall performance was a gross return of 0.38%,....."

That doesn't seem much. Even we can get around 1% without too much trouble. The next sentence didn't improve things for us very much. It said "The level of interest from investments was in excess of the revised budget as the actual level of external investments was higher than was anticipated due to the Council benefitting from a more favourable cash-flow position."

We suspect the problem is likely to be that, (as they are hampering so many businesses and organisations in the UK), regulations which have the best of intentions to ensure the security of the investment are so draconian that they limit the investment opportunities to those so safe that they give you nothing, by way of interest, and on whichever measure you take it, even the 'seasonally adjusted' 0.6% CPI rate of inflation that is beloved of government (because it's a lot lower than the real (RPI) rate of inflation at 1.9%) means that Fylde's 18.6 million average balance is actually losing money in real terms.

We make it  a real terms average loss of about 40,000 on our investment of 18.6 million.....

Accounting Challenge

Fylde's Audit & Standards Committee of 8th July 2016 heard from the Council's external auditors that all was more or less well with the accounts that had just closed for the last year (It takes a while to get everything sorted out even thought they actually closed in March).

There was just one little fly in the ointment because someone had made a challenge to the accounts and it would take a while for the Auditors to investigate and bottom it. The chap from KPMG said it wasn't a significant sum in terms of the overall accounts (which are around 8million for the year)

We think we heard him say it was about 7,000 that was under consideration, but his  worry was that the accounts should be signed off by (we think he said) the end of this month, and he thought there was a possibility they would not have this matter sorted out in time.

He didn't say what the matter was, but we heard a while ago that it was about people in a parished area being charged for highway grasscutting services when they already paid for their highway grass to be cut themselves.

We think it might turn out to be that highway grasscutting in some areas (perhaps Lytham and St Annes?) is being charged over the whole of Fylde's taxpayers when (if it is Lytham and St Annes) it probably ought  to be charged as a Special Expense over just the residents in Lytham and St Annes.

The reasoning is complicated, and we're not sure who is right (The challenger or FBC), but if we get to hear the result, we'll let our readers know.

Stifling Democracy

We went to that same Audit and Standards meeting with the intention of addressing the committee in the Public Platform, only to be told that there was none.

That surprised us because at a previous meeting we'd heard the Chairman ask whether anyone in the public gallery had anything to say, so we quizzed the matter and the Chairman was good enough to explain to us that there was no formal provision for a Public Platform at his committee, but he sometimes used his discretion and allowed people to speak, However he was not prepared to extend that discretion to us on that night.

That's his prerogative of course, but we were singularly unimpressed.

We had wanted to speak to ask if someone would explain why there was an item on the agenda headed 'Governance Review' (which had clearly concluded), but the item did not attach or reproduce a copy of the report from the people who had undertaken the Governance Review.

So the Committee (and the public) could not see what their findings were with regarding the change of Governance at Fylde.

In fact, there was only one oblique reference to such a document - in what appeared to be a single cherry-picked recommendation, and that was to ask someone else to undertake another review.

Yes really. From the report of a Governance Review undertaken by a team of supposed peer experts from elsewhere, the only published recommendation was to ask someone else to do another one.

To us (and perhaps others?) outside the Council, what was being proposed here sounded disappointingly like "We didn't like the first results so we're asking someone else"

There were a couple of other aspects that we wanted to address as well, but the unwillingness of the Chairman to hear our comments in a Public Platform means we couldn't do so.

Given that the agenda item was about governance and democracy, we thought that was a bit rich.

But like Arnie, we will be back.

 NOTHING TO SAY?

Finally for this edition of Snippets, we're grateful to a reader who alerted us to another denial of the opportunity for people to make comments. Only this time it was elected councillors that don't appear to have been given the opportunity.

The Government issued a consultation on its proposals for what it calls a 'Shale Wealth Fund' (which others describe as an attempt to bribe local people to accept and perhaps even welcome shale gas exploitation in their areas).

The consultation poses 18 questions on which the Government is seeking views and opinions, and the survey document says "Responses are invited by 25 October when this consultation will close. Responses are welcomed online, by post, or by email"

It also says "Responses are welcomed from individuals or from organisations, such as charities, businesses, local authorities and community groups."

It asks questions about:

  •  the split it should make between local and regional allocations,
  • how to define what is a local community,
  • whether local people should have a say in its distribution,
  • whether it should be ring-fenced 
  • whether payments should be made direct to householders, and
  • how communities should be able to influence or decide which body should distribute such funds as may be allocated.

These are all questions we would have expected to be debated and a response decided by the Councillors we elected to represent us.

Our correspondent tells us this was not to be. Fylde's councillors were not being given the opportunity to  consider and debate the issues raised in the consultation.

Given that Fylde is the only place in the UK where onshore hydraulic fracturing has taken place, we would have expected Fylde Council to be at the forefront of making such comments on behalf of their residents. Not only that, but we would have expected the Government would actually want to hear the views our elected representatives present to them on our behalf.

Even tiny Westby Parish Council and Warton Parish Council have items on their agenda to debate this proposal and send their comments to Government on behalf of the communities they represent.

Perhaps shamed by these pathfinders, we have since heard that Fylde's officers will determine a response on behalf of the Council, and submit it after the date the actual decision on Fracking in Fylde is taken by the Government.

That's not the point though.

It should not be the place of officers to speak on our behalf.

That role belongs to the councillors we elect (and can unelect at the next election if we are unhappy with what they do).  But we can't unelect officers. We have no say in how they speak on our behalf, and that is wrong.

To us, this arrangement feels very much like a policy of covert support for fracking from Fylde's ruling Conservative group who want this matter kept off agendas to avoid an open debate for fear of exposing their support, and a Chief Executive who is badly letting down the people of this area by allowing it  to happen.

It is simply not good enough.

Residents who would like to respond directly to government can follow this link to download a copy of the consultation document in pdf format.


And (believe it or not) there's more

There was also a 'consultation'  from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRA) who are conducting an Inquiry into Rural Tourism in England. They note that Rural Tourism provides around 17 billion a year to the English economy and they want opinions on it..

We would have thought that this would EXACTLY be the sort of issue that Fylde's councillors would wish to debate and respond to, not only about the potential impact of fracking, but also about rural tourism more generally.

Tourism is a key industry in Fylde and, since Fylde's expansion to include rural tourism in its offer in the 1990s, (when the strapline became 'Lytham St Annes and the Fylde Countryside') we have seen first class facilities opening up in the rural parts of Fylde. Notably the best of these is Ribby Hall.

Giving his own evidence to the Fracking Inquiry in March, we reported Ribby Hall's owner,  Paul Harrison as saying it was "one of just seven five star holiday villages in the UK. It is located between the two sites employing 850 people directly and another 200 indirectly He is a significant local employer and has over 600 businesses in his own supply chain. He has a 25m turnover and an annual 1.5 million footfall. Said his business had good capacity to grow and had an enormous positive impact in the local community. Plans to continue investment, but if fracking goes ahead that will have to be re-thought. Eventual development could involve 100 pads and be damaging to his, and other tourism businesses."

When a business of that stature is concerned for its future and the future of tourism in Fylde it is not only right that Fylde's councillors should provide evidence to the EFRA Committee , we would argue they have a duty to do so.

None of Fylde's officers were at the Public Inquiry to hear what he said, but several of the Councillors were.

But yet again Fylde has not allowed the matter to be debated and considered by the Councillors we elected.

The submissions for that inquiry closed on 6th September, and we understand the plan was to have had  comments devised and submitted on Fylde's behalf by  "Marketing Lancashire", (formerly Lancashire and Blackpool Tourist Board).

We did later hear that Fylde's officers had submitted written evidence  to Marketing Lancashire for forwarding to the EFRA Committee, but again, that's not the point.

The point is that Officers should formulate the evidence for submission AFTER the matter has been considered and debated by elected councillors.

Dated:  12 September 2016

   

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