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Town Hall Refurbished

Town Hall RefurbishmentThe finale of Fylde's refurbishment of the Town Hall is St Annes was the commissioning of its revamped Council Chamber. The new arrangements are now beginning to bed in.

So to mark the 'end' of the refurbishment and the  'start' of the new Council Chamber, we're chronicling both.

It's a long saga, stretching way back to the 1990s. It has been a project that saw three Council Leaders come and go, and making this project happen has spawned some of the worst 'collateral damage' in Fylde's history.

Before considering the Chamber, we first take a look at the project's origins, and at some of the people and processes that set the course to change (in some cases, fundamentally and completely) the culture, and the physical administrative arrangements of the Council.

We then recount the saga of how a modest extension to the Town Hall became plans for its complete replacement elsewhere, then rebuilding on existing site, then refurbishment of the existing building, before our look at the public face of the Town Hall - the new Council Chamber.

SYNOPSIS
We begin with a look at The Old Council Chamber in the Town Hall, and consider the First Moves for Change - which were very simple ones.

But that idea seemed to lead to a period of Changing Chief Executives which eventually brought the first plan to Completely Replace the Town Hall Elsewhere.

Then, when this flopped, we look at some of The White Elephant Schemes that followed, before Cllr David Eaves Injected some Common Sense and changed the overall idea from Rebuild to Refurbish.

We then look at the first Overall Budget Costing that was prepared and the First Set of Refurbishment Estimates Report, which included the first recognition that they could not complete the job with money raised from asset sales.

Following this realisation the Cash Started to Flow into the  project. But then there are some More Revised Estimates and Fylde started to put big lumps of Left-over Cash into the Pot before Throwing more or less Everything Spare Into the PotThen, with costs going up all the time, they Even Found Some More Money.

Then we look at  what might be The Last Lap of the project before it Came to an End.

Finally we give our own take on the New Council Chamber and consider the Room Layout, the new Video Technology, the new Audio System and the arrangements in the Public Gallery before addressing our own view of the Overall Ambience of the new Chamber before, finally, adding a little humour in a Tailpiece which, if you share our perspective, might just make you smile.

 THE OLD CHAMBER

After more than 20 years of chopping and its changing plans (and wasting a lot of money), Fylde has a refurbished Town Hall and Council Chamber.

In the years up to 2000 we recall insiders planning a 'Millennium Chamber' as it became known (with more than a passing reference to Star Trek).

The old Council Chamber was a lovely, nostalgic affair.

It was not unlike the design of the County Hall Council Chamber. It had curved - almost semicircular seating. This layout created and supported a sense of 'togetherness' - everyone being and working together to solve shared problems.

Fylde's own Chamber had a magnificent English-oak bespoke desk-and-seating arrangement, with well worn red leather upholstery.

As you sat in it, you were enveloped by, and became steeped in, a long tradition and history of Victorio-Edwardian municipality.

Unlike Tony Blair's 'here today gone tomorrow' spinspeak - in that chamber, you really did feel the hand of history on your shoulder.

Mostly it accommodated the necessary number of councillors, but the main problem was that the public gallery was not big enough to cope with anything unusual.

There was a press bench designed for two. The Gazette and the Express each sent their own reporters to all the meetings, and sometimes - if there was a 'juicy' item, 'The Citizen' (free paper) would also appear and squeeze onto the bench at the back left corner of the room.

The back right corner of the room had about eight or ten loose plastic chairs as the public gallery, and that was it.

When a big planning matter brought in a crowd, The Chamber was well packed.

The most we ever saw arose from the ill-fated plan to 'modernise' 'Fairhaven Lake's' activities by introducing Jet Skis.

This was Fylde's well-intentioned but inevitably doomed plan to re-create the heyday of waterskiing displays and competitions that took place on the lake in the 1960s.

The jet ski project brought HOWLS of protest from local residents (with, it has to be said, quite a bit of justification).

They had become accustomed to the peace and quiet the Lake provided during the 60s to 80's period and didn't want the inevitable disturbance that the Jet Ski's brought.

At the most fraught meeting ever held in that Chamber in our memory, there were the usual the 50 or so councillors and, in the space all around them, were packed more than 80 residents (we counted them at the time), all very angry indeed about what had been done to 'their Lake'.

 THE FIRST MOVES FOR CHANGE

So it was that, in the pre-millennium period, some (comparatively) modest plans were prepared to improve the Chamber.

The most widely supported idea (chiefly promoted by Councillor - later Alderman - Miss Margaret Procopides) would have simply taken out the rear wall of the Council Chamber, and extended the chamber outward toward Lytham (onto the rear parking area), in order to create a disabled access and a bigger public gallery, and perhaps allow for a future expansion of seats for councillors were they to be needed.

This was just the sort of down-to-earth practical, common sense, that 'Miss Proc' exuded. No sledge-hammers cracking walnuts around her.

But, perhaps sparked by the exuberance of an approaching millennium, and the idea of a new Council Chamber, Fylde flirted with a series of new and 'dynamic' Chief Executives to take it forward.

These were all, sadly, destined to end in failure of one sort or another.

What Fylde was really looking for (but probably did not realise or articulate) was a Chief Executive who would update the technology and productivity whilst preserving a culture of the 17th century!

Well, that's probably stretching the truth somewhat to be honest, but it paints a picture - in the same way that the very able MP Jacob Rees-Mogg has been described as being "the honourable member for the 17th century".

He's not of course but, like Fylde, he does appear to have the values and style of an age that younger UK residents have long since left behind.

The simple demographic fact is that in Fylde, and especially in the coastal strip, (and for the next decade or so at least, and we suspect a lot longer) the great predominance of Fylde's electors are over 65 and are always going to warm toward, and usually elect, councillors who appear to share their beliefs, attitudes and values.

And it's mostly the same silver-haired generation that we import as new houses are built. Retiring to the seaside still remains a dream for lots of folk in places like Manchester and East Lancashire.

So - in our view - Fylde's best Chief Executives have always been like, (if not actually), 'home grown' folk. People who have moved up the ladder from local government 'tea-boy' so to speak, and especially those who have absorbed the Fylde culture into their DNA over the years.

But, perhaps because the grass always appears greener on the other side of the fence, and after losing a couple of very able and long-serving Chief Executives, in the late 1990's a mood for change developed.

 CHANGING CHIEF EXECUTIVES

The first big change was Peter Johnson. Youthful, and with sparking humorous eyes, he came in with much promise about modernising systems rather than culture. It sounded good.

But, his occasional appearances in public (even when 'out of hours' so to speak) in very brightly coloured attire (shorts, t-shirts, dark glasses and so on) rather than in the obligatory beige or light-check tweed jacket shirt and tie, meant that his personal style and youthful informality probably did not gel well enough with the older, and particularly small (and big) 'C' conservative culture that Fylde espoused.

That said, we thought that, professionally, he was a very able and intelligent chap. He understood how to achieve change without making too many waves amongst politicians.

But the changes he sought to make did however, rub uncomfortably against some of the 'old guard' amongst his senior colleagues. And in the end, we suspect professional abrasion, coupled with his inability to make the changes he believed were necessary as quickly as he thought necessary, proved too much for him, and he took his talent elsewhere.

Others were even less successful.

One interloper occupied the post for less than 3 months if we remember correctly. The problem with him, and his ilk, was that they came from the ranks of what we now refer to as the 'Metropolitan Elite'

He had no idea that places like Lytham St Annes still existed. He simply could not handle what he saw as the outdated beliefs attitudes and values that an electorate comprising an absolutely massively skewed demographic bias toward the retired urban professionals that made up most of the coastal population - and which, of course, elected councillors - who (unsurprisingly) most likely shared their beliefs and values.

The culture clash when a 'modern' CE like this one came in to Fylde was often painful to watch.

But then we had the worst of all.

In what we have been told was a deliberate attempt to 'shake Fylde up' after a change of overall political control, a chap called Ken Lee was appointed Chief Executive in the early years of the new Millennium.

He had the same sort of problem as the others.

An insider told us "His problem is that he sees no difference between St Annes and Skelmersdale. He simply doesn't understand why people in St Annes don't want to go and live in Skelmersdale."

For the geographically challenged, one of the more polite descriptions of Skelmersdale in this regard would probably be ' as a New Town for Liverpool's overspill.'

But the bigger problem for Fylde was that this CE was made of sterner stuff than his modernising predecessors, and he was hell-bent on making his mark.

After he 'removed' (and that's the most polite term we can use) the established ranks of senior, and vastly experienced officers - in order to weaken resistance to change amongst the troops, he set about a wholesale reformation of Fylde which, in local civic terms, probably equalled something as big as the Reformation or the English Civil War.

Here was a man who clearly believed that the good people of Fylde were far too privileged and comfortable, and his mission in life became the egalitarianism of Fylde. He wanted the area to have what he described as a 'more balanced' population.

This was the man who, without any political consent, or even a second thought, ripped out the oak and leather seating from the Council chamber and turned it into staff offices thus making the Council 'homeless' and he began the dreadful period of peripatetic perambulations around the Fylde whenever a Council meeting needed to be held.

Ribby Hall, Lowther Pavilion, Elswick Village Hall, Kirkham Grammar School Assembly Hall, King Edward (and later AKS) Schools were all used to hold meetings of the Council.

This nomadic lifestyle began when he usurped the Council Chamber, and it only ended last month with the new Council Chamber opening in the Town Hall.

Not content with having closed the Council Chamber, this man then added insult to injury by advertising the oak and leather seating for sale, second-hand, on Ebay.

It was a move typical of the man.

This was also the man who - in the face of an impending Freedom of Information Act - implemented the 'Bin it' campaign amongst the FBC staff.

Edicts were issued that any records over x (we think it was four) years old, had to be shredded - supposedly to reduce the need and space for filing cabinets. Vast numbers of important documents with irreplaceable details were destroyed by this historiophobic hooligan.

This was the man who schemed and connived for change with 'The Commissar' - Council Leader John Coombes. He eventually succeeded, in replacing Fylde's well respected, tried and tested Committee system with the dreadful single political party Cabinet system.

And he did this by deceit and deception - using barely disguised fiddled figures to make it look as though his idea had public support when it did not.

He was a disaster for Fylde.

 REPLACING THE TOWN HALL

But there was worse to come.

His relentless modernisation drive had noted the idea of expanding the Council Chamber, and he re-shaped that into a plan that would eventually propose - and actively seek - the demolition of the Town Hall in St Annes, and it's replacement with, (probably a block of flats, or some equally insensitive and disrespectful money grubbing scheme of) re-development to fund the building of new purpose built Council offices in a tin shed on Whitehills Industrial Estate.

The Civic function and Council Chamber was to be moved to a new storey to be added on top of Lowther Pavilion.

And the 'public face' of the Council was to become nothing more than the 'One Stop Shop' in the former Public Offices - opposite the end of Wood Street, which he had opened previously in order to close the Council Chamber.

Public anger - and a huge protest about the plan for Lowther Gardens - saw ancient covenants invoked to squash the Civic Suite idea. And the threat he had posed to the gardens ultimately led to their management (and indeed ownership) being taken completely out of the Council's hands when they were declared a charitable trust.

Then, in November 2005, having caused all the trouble he did, (and a great deal more than we have chronicled here), Ken Lee left Fylde to work elsewhere. We were never quite sure whether he was pushed, or if he chose to go.

Either way, we were not at all sorry to see him leave.

He was replaced by Philip Woodward who had been the Environmental Health Officer for a few years and was promoted to Chief Executive.

The Commissar's grandiose scheme for a new Town Hall was finally scotched by a reduction in development values caused by the new requirement to provide 60% Affordable Housing on developed land. This in effect 'saved' the Town Hall a year later. 

But this wasn't the end of the modernisation plan. The Commissar was pressing on with Mk 2 or Mk3 or whatever plan he was up to by that time.

The version that had stalled would have seen a New Town Hall built on the same site estimated to cost £7million. This was complete lunacy.

To find this ridiculously large sum they reviewed all the land they could sell to raise money.

We reported this in The Great January Sale in 2007

And that sale plan itself led on to the disasters that became Fylde's plans to

  • sell Blackpool Road North Playing Fields for development (frustrated by public pressure);
  • *give away* land for a homeless hostel which became the Great Heeley Road Hostel Protest (which was eventually changed by public pressure into a land sale to potential housing developers for £400,000), and to
  • the greatest scandal of all, the sale of Melton Grove.

All of these (and other) disasters came about from the Great January Sale 'Asset Review' which in turn stemmed from the Commissar's lack of reality and financial incompetence. And all of it was put in train by a Chief Executive hell bent on making Fylde more 'egalitarian.'

That's why we say Ken Lee as a Chief Executive was the worst thing that ever happened to Fylde.

But he had long since sown the seeds of modernisation in the youthful Council Leader John Coombes - who became known to our readers as 'The Commissar'.

By 2009 Cllr Coombes had spent an estimated £850,000 just on plans and feasibility studies and the like for these impossibly expensive new buildings.

 THE WHITE ELEPHANT TOWN HALL SCHEMES

Then the scheme changed again, and the former 'Chaseley' building next to the Town Hall was mooted for demolition, - to be rebuilt as a new office block, with the Council Chamber being on the ground floor of the present Town Hall, and a development of flats above it. The cost of this scheme went up to a ridiculous £7.5 million.

The Commissar had always had a hankering for things military, and the new office block on the Chaseley site was proposed to have an open balcony-type feature more or less overlooking the Admiral pub. We said at the time, as with other Commissars, we could just imagine him taking the salute on the balcony as parades of his loyal troops with shouldered brushes and spades gave an "Eyes Right" as they marched to their duties.

Then another new scheme was drawn up by architects to put the offices and council chamber above the proposed ALDI store (which was to be built on the site of the former Conservative Club). But this plan folded just as quickly.

All the time the costs of plans a studies were racking up. Then another £25,000 was spent to get some updated plans done for an earlier scheme that attached a new council building to the back of the old Public Offices opposite the end of Wood Street.

Things went from bad to worse, and in April 2010 public anger that had been brewing over this and a host of other issues demanded change, and The  Commissar finally stepped down as Leader of the Council. Cllr David Eaves became the new Leader.

He signalled a more consensual approach.

 DAVID EAVES INJECTS SOME SENSE

One of Cllr Eaves' first moves was to abandon plans for a £7 million or more Town Hall, describing his predecessor's scheme as 'Pie in the sky'

By this time it was estimated that something approaching £1 million had been wasted on unused and aborted plans and feasibility studies.

Cllr Eaves breath of fresh air and common sense was welcomed.

He said the Council had to be realistic, and something in the order of £2m or £3m was the most they could afford. The six and seven million pound schemes were "just unreasonable"  

 REBUILD CHANGES TO REFURBISH

Paul Walker - Director of Strategic Development, introduced the new plan and said of it:

"....The schemes that we've worked-up to date, have looked at what is required, and not what we can afford - and what we're coming round to Chairman, is an option whereby we look at this building with a completely fresh pair of eyes and we look in a more pragmatic, cost-limited way, at what we absolutely have to do to stay here to make this building more fit for us in the future....."

Translated to more simple wording, he had said - Previously we looked at and designed want the Commissar wanted. This time we're going to deign what you say we can afford.

The 'New Town Hall Project' now became renamed the 'Accommodation Project' and Fylde's Cabinet of the 31st August 2010 agreed:

"a cost limited approach to provide satisfactory accommodation on the Town Hall site within the funding realised from the sale of the currently identified disposal sites, such works to incorporate reintroduction of the Council Chamber and the One Stop Shop facility."

On 4th March 2013 the Council agreed an updated five year Capital Programme including £2,784,000 for delivery of the Accommodation Project which would be fully funded from the sale of assets referred to above

And on 26th June 2013 Cabinet agreed to put the unspent leftover money of £10k from the 12/13 accounts into the project as well, making the total budget for the Accommodation Project up to £2,794,000

On 2 July 2013, Fylde's Cabinet approved the works for the Accommodation Project using the balance of the receipt from the disposal of the St Davidís Road North site in the sum of £261,120 and they let a 'Phase 1' contract for re-roofing the town Hall and the Chaseley building for £250,171.

In March 2014, Fylde's Cabinet agreed to use money from sale of Wesham Offices to fund Phase 2 of the refurbishment (i.e. Replacement windows at the Town Hall) and to continue to market the Public Offices - which were not reaching the price they wanted.

They also agreed that money would only be spent when it had been received and was available.

Finally, they decided that £184,000 which had been put into the revenue budget for 'decanting' (That's the cost of moving staff about as offices were worked on - It's not to do with wine :-)) should now be put into the project budget because the refurbishment meant they didn't need to decant staff to temporary offices elsewhere.

So the Refurbishment budget began life as:

  • The original £3,000,000 maximum David Eaves said they would spend
  • Plus £12,000 which was left over from survey work at the Town Hall
  • Less £218,000 which had been spent to acquire a new depot site at Snowdon Road to replace the St David's road one that was sold for housing
  • Plus the £184,000 that was now not needed for 'decanting'

And (because of the David Eaves cost limit) that meant the total money they could spend on refurbishing the Town Hall was £2,978,000

But as yet, they didn't have it all because they hadn't sold all the assets to fund it.

Irrespective of this, Fylde now started to spend the money, with the re-roofing contract at £250,171 and the replacement windows - which were expected to cost £184,000.

 THE OVERALL BUDGET IS ESTIMATED

On 25 June 2014, the Cabinet had a further report and an estimated costing for the whole project  it was

Phase 1 Roof replacement
This had been completed and cost £261,000 It had been funded by part of £489k Fylde got for selling St David's Road North Depot

Phase 2 - Window replacement and structural repairs
This work was in progress and expected to cost £184,000. It had been funded from the£184,000 savings on 'Decanting Costs'

Phase 3 The East wing
including a lift was estimated to cost £320,000

Phase 4 Works to the Chaseley link bridge
Estimated to cost £207,000

Phase 5 One Stop Shop
established in the Town Hall and estimated to cost £277,000

(Note Phases 3, 4 and 5 totalled £804,000 and were to be funded from most of the £895k Fylde got from the sale of the Wesham Offices / Site)

Phase 6 Council Chamber
estimated to cost £179,000

Phase 7   Internal refurb/redecoration/services
(heating, lighting, etc) estimated to cost £819,000

Phase 8   Car park and external works
estimated to cost £186,000

(Note: Phases 6,7 and 8 totalled £1,184,000 and were expected to be funded from the residue of the Wesham Offices money AND crucially, from the sale of the Public Offices site or some other asset sale).

So overall the cost was going to be £2,433,000 and they had actual cash of £1,340,000.

It follows there was a shortfall at that time of £1,093,000 which they hoped to plug with selling the Public Offices site.

This is the bit that has turned out to be the biggest problem.

Everything was well within the cost limited budget of £3m (assuming they could get £1.9m for the public offices)

 THE REFURBISHMENT ESTIMATES

The Committee of 3 August 2015 had to re-jig their spending plans.

There were some big changes to the estimates because of:

  • tender prices being more than expected,
  • unforeseen construction issues,
  • the (area) for phase 3 being slightly larger than originally planned,
  • some work planned for a later phase (e.g. mechanical and electrical) had to be brought forward to reduce future disturbance,
  • and the impact of inflation between the original estimates and the tender return date.

The revised estimated cost at this time had become

  • Phase 1 ReRoofing £ 262,000 (Completed)
  • Phase 2 Replacement Windows £ 179,000 (Completed)
  • Phase 3 Lift, Stairs and Office Refurbishment £ 547,000
  • Phase 4 Alterations & Remodelling Chaseley Building £ 485,000
  • Phase 5 Alteration to Form One Stop Shop & Link £ 305,000
  • Phase 6 Alterations to form Civic Suite £ 296,000
  • Phase 7 1st & 2nd Floor Refurbishment & Boilers £ 537,000
  • Phase 8 External Works £ 124,000

Total £2,735,000

So the estimated total had gone up from £2,433,000 to £2,735,000 (an increase of £302,000)

This revised estimate was still within the £3m limit they had set themselves, but they hadn't managed to sell enough assets to raise that money yet.

Mr Walker's report to this meeting included asking the Committee to agree to

"3. review the previously agreed cost-limited approach to providing satisfactory accommodation from within the funding being realised from the sale of the surplus Council assets of the former depot site at St Davidís Road North, St Annes, the former offices at Derby Road, Wesham and the Public Offices site in St Annes;

4. consider the establishment of an accommodation project earmarked reserve and consider sources of funding into the reserve such that the reserve may contain the necessary funding to ensure the delivery of the remaining phases of the accommodation project"

And he asked that(4) be done as a matter of urgency.

It was now clear to us that the extra income from the Public Offices was not to be. They remained unsold because Fylde couldn't get what it needed for them in order to finish the scheme.

The Committee also agreed to :

(1) and (2) approve some changes to the phasing of the work and the letting of a contract

"(3). recognise that the previously agreed cost-limited approach to providing satisfactory accommodation would *not * be met from within the funding being realised from the sale of the surplus Council assets of the former depot site at St Davidís Road North, St Annes, the former offices at Derby Road, Wesham and the Public Offices site in St Annes;

(4). request that a report comes back to the Finance and Democracy committee, in the November cycle, with recommendations to the available sources of funding to ensure the delivery of the accommodation project up to phase 5; and

(5). approve that work on establishing and financing an Accommodation Project Reserve be considered urgent so that the committee can identify and allocate further funding to allow for the consecutive award of phases 4 and 5 to the same contractor on the condition that performance is considered acceptable."

Translated into plain English, points 3 to 5 say:

We haven't even got enough to complete the refurbishment within the £3m limit we set ourselves, so we need to change the plan yet again. We're preparing a plan that will do what we can with we've got left, and we're asking you to agree to create a new reserve account and we'll put whatever we can find into it for spending to finish the refurbishment in case we can't sell the Public Offices.

This meant Fylde scratching round to find 'spare' money to finish the job.

This sort of thing can be done - for example, any vacancies that come up are frozen for a few months and you divert the salary to the Reserve account, and you trawl the accounts for any money that might be snaffleable as being unspent at that time, or you sequester any savings made on other work, and so on.

 THE CASH STARTS TO FLOW IN

At the 30th November 2015 Finance and Democracy Meeting, the Financial Officer reported:

"Following a review of the budget position for 2015/16 as part of the preparation of this Financial Forecast update, including the identification of fortuitous additional income for the year, costs-savings and the outcome of the budget right-sizing exercise, the forecast revenue surplus for 2015/16 is £777k as detailed at Appendix E.

It is proposed that of this revenue budget surplus a sum of £504k is transferred to an Accommodation Project Reserve to provide a source of funding for the delivery of the Accommodation Project up to phase 5 of the total scheme .....

.....If the transfer of funding into the Accommodation Project Reserve is approved, a further report will be presented to a later meeting of the Finance and Democracy Committee which will provide full details of the proposed works in relation to the next phases of the scheme, and which will request approval to enter into contractual agreements to deliver those works."

So what's happening here is that after trawling the estimates, officers have found they have £777,000 that has not been spent from the previous year, and the suggestion was to put £504,000 of this into the new 'Accommodation Reserve'.

The Finance and Democracy Committee agreed to put this to the Council, and the Council Meeting of 14 December approved what Finance and Democracy had asked.

This was the point at which Cllr Eaves' plan to constrain spending on the Town Hall refurbishment to income from asset sales was actually busted.

But worse was to come because Fylde was now salami slicing its spending - bringing a phase at a time so none of the individual items looked very big in themselves.

 SOME MORE REVISED ESTIMATES

A report on 22 January 2016 gave the latest costings.

Phase 4 and 5 (work to the Chaseley Building and One Stop Shop & Link) had been going to cost £790,000 but the latest revised and probably final estimated cost was down to £784,000.

This was to be paid for with the last of the remaining money from the sale of Wesham offices, and the £504,000 they'd just put into the new 'Accommodation Reserve'

Sharp eyed readers will note that this appears to empty the pot of money, and we've still got phases 6,7 and 8 to go.

The Finance officers comments on the report noted it as well, concluding

"Funding for the remaining phases of the project (phases 6, 7 and 8) is dependent upon the sale of the Public Offices site."

The Technical officer recognised this as well, because his report said:

"Funding for the remaining phases 6, 7 and 8 is dependent upon the sale of the Public Offices site. There are several bids under consideration for the site which are currently being assessed. Discussions are also taking place with the ground landlord of the site to determine the financial considerations of obtaining approval to each of the proposals. Once these assessments are complete the bids will be discussed by the Accommodation Working Group and a recommendation made to the Finance and Democracy Committee."

 LEFT-OVER CASH GOES INTO THE POT

The Finance and Democracy Committee of 20 June 2016 considered the Council's end of year capital spending and noted that overall, there was useable closing balance of £343,000.

This was set aside into a special fund to finance future expenditure on the Accommodation Project.

 THROWING ALMOST EVERYTHING INTO THE POT

On 26 September 2016, the Finance and Democracy Committee considered phases 6 and 7 and there was more bad news.

Phase 6 (the remade Council Chamber) had been expected to cost £296,000.

The quote submitted was £577,000.

That's quite a big increase, and there's a lovely quote in the officer's report:

"The initial estimate obtained in 2011 assumed that the surrounding walls could contain and support the weight of the floors above. Recent more detailed invasive surveys of the integrity of the existing walls/foundations have meant a revised design which includes an independent structural support frame independent of the walls which is piled down into the basement. This higher structural specification has resulted in a much higher price for the phase."

We read this to mean 'Ooops we thought the walls were strong enough for the alterations we've making, but it turns out they're not'

But the slightly better news was that Phase 7 (that was 1st and 2nd floors of the Town Hall - refurbishment/redecoration/services upgrade including heating (new boilers) and lighting) had been expected to cost £536,000 but was now likely to cost £496,000

Overall however, they needed £1,730,000 to do both phases (and Phase 8 - the outside works - wasn't even in this cost).

It was clear this was going to be a problem, so they opted for some less extensive alterations to the Council Chamber to reduce the cost a bit.

The first plan of this (See the graphic later in this article) that we saw was absolutely awful in terms of functionality for the Council Chamber and even the officer report said it had 'some restricted views.'

But on the other hand, we were pleased the change did abandon the destruction of the 'Mayor's Parlour' and lots of period features in the building.

These changes brought the costs for Phase 6 down, and the overall cost was reduced from £1,730,000 to a supposedly more manageable £859,000.

But the pot was still empty and they still couldn't get a buyer for the Public Offices site, so instead, they raided the money they had on one side for specific jobs.

  • They had money on one side to pay for changes in the Land Charges service, and they snaffled £28,000 from that, arguing they could still do what was required.
  • They also raided the 'Vehicle Maintenance Reserve' and took £127,000 from that.
  • And they also took £212,000 from the 'Vehicle Replacement Financing Reserve'

We were pretty sure what was going on here will turn out to be something of a money-laundering con-trick. It was clear to us that the vehicle money had been (and probably still was) needed for repairs and replacements vehicles, but FBC didn't want to be seen to borrow money to fund the work to the Town Hall.

So in our opinion, they set out to transfer the vehicle money to the Accommodation Project knowing they could come back later - if or when there was trouble with the vehicles - and say we have to have extra money to repair and replace them.

If something like that happened several months later, no-one would remember to connect the need for vehicle replacements with what had been spent on the Town Hall. Simple!

These reserves threw another £367,000 into the pot. But it still wasn't enough, so they raided the General Reserve account of £151,000 - and this took the spending pot up to £518,000.

They also deferred work to the second floor of the Town Hall (estimated to cost £310,000) from this phase of the plan, expecting to find more money for that later on.

Removing this work reduced reduce sum needed to £518,000 - and work on the (reduced) Phase 6 and 7 could start.

The report concluded

"Funding for the remaining element of phase 7 will be the subject of a further report to committee in January. It would include work to the 2nd floor of the Town Hall, along with new boilers/fire alarm. Meanwhile it is proposed that phase 8 will be undertaken using in house capacity and existing capital and revenue resources and would be commenced during the latter half of 2017."

 AND THERE'S MORE.....

When the Finance Officer reported an update of the Five Year Financial Forecast in November 2016 he noted that the latest position showed there was likely to be £816,000 of spare cash.

This was not analysed as to where it had come from, but was said to include some unexpected income, and money that was no longer expected to be spent during the year

His report also proposed that £320,000 of the (forecast) spare cash should be transferred to the Accommodation Project Reserve to pay for the remainder of phase 7 of the project.

We also noted a sentence in his 'financial warnings' section that said

"Due to the significant value of the vehicle replacement programme and the potential for changes in vehicle specifications and emissions regulations this scheme has been highlighted as a potential future risk"

And we smiled. (He's not wrong of course).

And there was another nugget.

In a section dealing with the Accommodation Project he updated what had happened, and said of the Public Offices sale:

"The Public Offices was re-marketed during 2014/15 and the Accommodation Working Group have reviewed a number of further expressions of interest. The site has additional complications of being in a conservation area with the Public Offices being a listed building and the tenure being leasehold not freehold. Disposals of this nature where purchasers require certainty of any planning and leasehold requirements prior to committal often take some time to bring to a conclusion"

We thought that was pretty much why there were going to be no takers for buying the Public Offices. (Although we did wonder why this advice had emerged so late in the process).

 THE LAST LAP

The 13 January 2017 Finance and Democracy Committee received another report on the 'Accommodation Project.'

It proposed another change.

Phase 7(a) was already in train, but the remaining part of Phase 7 was being split into two phases:

  • Phase 7(b), internal refurbishment/redecoration/services upgrade including heating and lighting works to the 2nd floor of the Town Hall.
  • Phase 7(c), works to replace the boilers (located in the basement of the Chaseley Building).

Readers will remember that the latest cash injection to complete all of Phase 7 was £320,000.

This report expected spending £211,701 of that money on 7(b)

The implication of this was that the new boilers could be installed in the basement for just over £108,000 and the report noted (we thought rather ominously) that works (plans) to replace the boilers, were currently being finalised and would be reported to committee in March, so the boiler work could be undertaken during the summer months.

The agenda for the March 2017 F&D Meeting was late. It was separate to, and not sent out with, the main agenda.

That's usually a bad sign, and is often because of last minute panic with figures.

Sure enough, when the meeting was held, this report was not presented. The minutes say:

"This is item was not tabled. Mr Oldfield explained that the item had been withdrawn to seek further tenders, as officers did not consider the quotes received to be competitive."

You just know where this is going, don't you dear reader?

Fast Forward the 19th June meeting of the Finance and Democracy Committee and there is an item about the Accommodation Project on page 28.

However, on page 3, the Finance officer is presenting the end of year accounts for the previous financial year.

He says now the accounts are closed, they have found another £379,000 more than they expected has been left unspent, and he recommended that another £135,000 of this be transferred to the Accommodation Project Reserve.

And the Accommodation Project report later in the agenda did ask to use this money.

  • It also gave advance warning that further consideration was being given to the Council Chamber work, and that might need an extra £47,000 or so.
  • And once they had started work on Phase 7 they found additional work that would be needed, some of which was structural, and this was expected to cost another £60,000
  • And the boilers were more expensive. The budget of £108,000 was insufficient and they needed £136,020 to do the work.

These three items added up to the extra £135,000 that had already been agreed from the Finance Officer's report.

Sharp eyed readers will also note we've lost track of Phase 8 - the external works.

That's because this cost disappeared from the horizon when the £186,000 they were due to cost was snaffled for the internal works, and a note added to the spending to say they would be "undertaken in 2017/18 using existing capital/revenue resources" (which basically means 'we'll find this money from some other things we were going to do') .

So there's no obvious record of what the external works cost that we or anyone else can find.

 THE END?

Unless we hear anything else, that brings to an end the very costly scheme that

  • began with a simple call to extend the Council Chamber to better accommodate the public, then
  • transitioned to what was always going to be a completely unaffordable 'white elephant' scheme that wasted £1m or so of our money on plans and studies that were all thrown in the bin, and it has
  • ended with David Eave's very honourable attempt to switch from rebuilding to refurbishment with a capped limit of £3 million derived from asset sales,
  • only to see that promise breached under Cllr Fazackerley's leadership when monies from sources other than the sale of the Public offices have had to be used to complete what had been started.

It's probably not over yet, and there has been such jiggery-pokery going on with the numbers that no-one can be sure of the real final cost, so we'll have to wait and see if and what Fylde eventually gives as the official total cost.

It may be that the £3m limit remained intact, but using large sums of money on this project that should or could have been spent on existing services, is still taking it out of taxpayers pockets.

It's money we have paid that could have been spent on something else, or to reduce the Council tax required of us.

 THE NEW COUNCIL CHAMBER

This is like the proverbial Curate's Egg - good in parts.

The first Council meeting in Fylde's new Council Chamber

Most importantly it's very good for the Council to have its own home. We hope it will encourage and become a unifying influence on the Council as time goes by.

It's also right and proper that it is located within the Town Hall, the administrative, if not the geographic, centre of the Borough.

We're also delighted that it has removed the last vestige of the damage that Ken Lee did during his term here.

His dreadful Cabinet System went a couple of years ago (after a public referendum forced the change back to the Committee System), and now the Council Chamber he destroyed is restored to the Town Hall.

 LAYOUT MATTERS

In terms of the layout, we're not quite so impressed.

The first choice for the layout was undoubtedly the best.

The best, but most costly room layout

It had a curved seating plan on a 'widescreen' rectangular format. But, not only would that layout have destroyed the Mayor's Parlour, the Minton tiles and other important period features, it was also going to cost more than councillors thought justifiable. So it had to be dropped.


The first incarnation of a cheaper alternative layout was simply awful.

The awful first re-design

It was so bad it was unworkable.


Compromises were made and the eventual layout (which is closer to the less-good second layout than to the first), is probably just about acceptable in workability terms. It does however still have the problem that unless you sit at the extreme left hand side of the Public Gallery, some councillors and officers are hidden from the public's view.

The selected compromise layout

On the negative side, we don't like the way the layout has a 'square' section of seating facing the Mayor's seat, and a separate 'curved' section nearer the door.

At a sub-conscious emotional level, it makes the 'square' section seem more important than the curved one. (although we've already spotted one very independent member who - as we might have done in those circumstances - seems to have deliberately chosen to make their home in the curved section - even when there is space in the square one).

We understand a proposed seating plan for the new chamber was the cause of much upset before the first meeting, and a 'failure to agree' was reached between the various groups.

However, in what we would like to think might be a sign for the future, common sense prevailed, and excepting for meetings of the Full Council when a fixed seating plan may be in place (we're not sure yet), certainly at Committee meetings, councillors are making individual choices about where they want to sit. Again we think this is a very positive move.

Another positive move is that there is now space for Councillors who are not members of a particular committee (and who may speak, but not vote, in debate) are able to sit in the Council part of the room and don't have to use the public gallery - as they had to do before.

But there's a layout problem. We think it probably arises because, orientated the way it is (facing the sea), the room shape means the Mayor's dais has to be almost in the corner of the room. We think it would have been better orientated through 90 degrees, so the Mayor's dais faced Lytham and the Councillors faced Blackpool (as the original room layout used to be).

It's probably not this way because there is an unsightly and unwelcome metal supporting pillar which can block the Mayor's view of some councillors, but as far as we can see, its still there and causing the same problem the way it is now.

But the room layout isn't going to change anytime soon because the desks are fixed to the floor. This looks to have been necessary because of the technology. The desks have microphones hardwired into them so the cabling means the desks cannot be moved.

 USING TECHNOLOGY

We're mostly very impressed by the technology.

There are a series of video cameras that produce excellent quality video, including zooming and name captioning of each speaker. The Council meetings are now live-streamed on YouTube and although (as far as we can see) there is presently no link to download the webcasts (and that would probably only be necessary for anoraks like us!), the ability to watch meetings live online is welcome.

There is also a large TV screen (football style) set up in the Public Gallery for those who can't see 'round the corner' because of a projecting wall that restricts views of the curved seating. So at least an attempt has been made to solve this problem.

And we've even seen remote participation and teleconferencing on this video system.

The Finance and Democracy Committee had an item about it (especially because of Cllr Mark Bamforth who suffers from agoraphobia and struggles to attend meetings in person sometimes), and although Fylde's implementation of this interactive technology is sill in its infancy, we can see it will reach the point were remote participation will be completely functional, and it could also mean future presentations or participation being made by remote technical or other experts for example, and for training or workshop sessions that are delivered interactively from a remote tutor.

The situation with Cllr Bamforth has prompted Fylde to look into remote participation in some detail, and Fylde is one of very few Councils across the country that are now leading the way on this matter.

So that's almost all good.

The bad part - at least at present - is that only meetings of the Full Council are being video-streamed and shown on-screen in the public gallery.

The system does not seem to be switched on for committee meetings, and this is a shame.

We suspect the reason is staffing cost - because from what we can see, the cameras need an operator to select the camera view (there are several) to work the captions, and to work the zooming, and it may be that Fylde is choosing not to pay for the officer time.

We think this parsimony is a mistake, and it did lead to comments from those in the Public Gallery (after a meeting that drew an almost full public gallery) that members of the public found it unsatisfactory and insulting to have to watch the back of people's heads and not be able to see who was speaking. So we hope that will change, and committees will be streamed as well.

 AUDIO SYSTEM

The audio system is much better than before. We're told there is an induction loop, and that the volume can be adjusted separately for the loudspeakers in the council chamber and the public gallery. The desks appear to have one microphone between two councillors with a 'push to speak' button that they're having to get used to. When it's working properly it is a lot better than the previous system.

But there are some intrinsic faults. The worst is that the microphones seem to be very directional, so if you're not facing into them as you speak, the volume drops dramatically, and it becomes difficult to hear. This is not helped by the 'one microphone between two' distribution arrangement.

Another small audio problem is that Fylde has at least one Chairman who doesn't like to use the microphone (we suspect, but are not sure, that they might worry their quiet asides to adjacent officers or their vice chairman might be heard if they forget to switch it off). But that's simply a matter of self discipline.

However, the layout of the chamber itself is causing a bigger hearing problem.

The officers seem to have adopted positions toward the front of the curved section of seating, and when someone addresses a question to them, or seeks a clarification of something, there is a natural tendency for both the councillor and officer to face each other as they speak.

This means that both councillors, and the responding officer are actually speaking at 90 degrees or more to the microphone that is trying to pick up what they say. And certainly from our experience in the public gallery, those who do not speak from their diaphragm were inaudible when speaking to an officer  'across' the chamber like this.

 THE PUBLIC GALLERY

The Public Gallery  has been formed from what was once a kitchen, and the wall has been knocked through creating a square 'arch' into the Council Chamber. The gallery is an open space with (for meetings at least) loose chairs arranged 'theatre style'.

You enter the gallery not from the Council Chamber, but are directed through a small maze of short passages/corridors to enter the gallery at the rear. (We couldn't help thinking this arrangement very much creates the impression of a 'servants entrance' but perhaps were being unkind).

Once inside the gallery, excepting for the limitation of vision that the archway creates to your right, the room is functional. The walls have Fylde's collection of colour photographs of former Mayors of Fylde who represent what we would describe as probably Fylde's best era in modern times.

We suspect the biggest problem with the Public Gallery will be its capacity. We're told its maximum capacity is 28 people and that's going to be enforced irrespective of the fact that there would be standing room at the back. We recall the time that there were 80 in the Chamber itself (as well as the Councillors).

 AMBIENCE

As far as the Chamber itself is concerned, one thing we did struggle with is what might best be described as its ambience.

It's an uncomfortable juxtaposition of ancient and modern.

The magnificent stained glass 'wall'

The entry to the Chamber is through a wonderful a Victorian/Edwardian stained glass 'wall' and door that leads councillors into and opens onto a very clinical-coloured ivory and white room.

A rather cold and clinical interior

It has ornate plasterwork ceilings but modern looking paintwork and (what we'd call 'MFI Pink' but is actually probably closer to fawn) chipboard or MDF veneered modern-style desks with matching (or at least toning) chairs.

Also clearly visible are the ultra-modern-looking video camera installations and 'pub football style' TV screens here and there.

But all of this sits most uncomfortably with the impressive but 19th Century gilt-framed works of art on the Chamber walls.

Perhaps that is what sums up Fylde at the moment.

It's in transition from ancient to modern, and it's still not sure which it wants to be.

 TAILPIECE

We hope readers will indulge us if we end this article by sharing a humours note.

Many years ago, soon after Fylde merged its Tourism, Parks and Leisure services into one department, and housed it in the two semi's opposite the end of Wood Street (which have now been empty for some time), the previous occupants of that building (Fylde's Planning Department) moved to Fylde's offices at Wesham.

Part of that move did to the Wesham building the same sort of refurbishment that the Town Hall has now had.

And part of that refurbishment recreated the former Fylde Rural District Council Chamber in the building. (Planning and some other meetings took place there).

After it was finished, the late former Cllr and later Alderman George Bamber who was always a passionate advocate of Wesham, approached the officer responsible for Fylde's art collection at the time and said he would like some of the Council's artwork to be displayed in the refurbished Wesham Offices Council Chamber.

This was readily agreed in principle and, after various inquiries had been made about lighting, security and insurance, suitable arrangements were put in place to house the works of art.

All that remained was to select the paintings and, as Cllr Bamber had initiated the idea, the Director of Tourism and Leisure invited him to decide which paintings he would like installed.

Now, we must make it clear at this point that we have no wish to disrespect the late Cllr Bamber. He did a great deal for Fylde and for his local area, but not unlike ourselves, 'artistically cultured', would probably not be the first words we would use to describe either of us.

Clearly he wanted to 'lift' the importance of the Wesham Chamber by having an important painting there, and he didn't want any old rubbish, he wanted one of the better ones, and preferably a big one that would go in the centre of the wall behind the Chairman's dais.

These requirements quite quickly whittled the options down to two paintings, and the one he chose - to the silent but enduring mirth of the officer - was an Ansdell called 'Gathering the Flocks on the Grampian Hills.'

In essence, this is a flock of sheep looking startled and uncertain as two sheepdogs bark at them to initiate a course for them.

As far as we know, we don't think Cllr Bamber ever saw the irony in the painting he had chosen for the Council Chamber.

Knowing this story as intimately as we do, readers will not be surprised to find we were enthralled and delighted to find this same painting had been chosen to adorn the walls of Fylde's new Council Chamber.

We've no idea whose choice it was to select this painting from all the artworks Fylde holds, but we can't help wondering if it was someone with a similarly mischievous sense of humour.

The Flock Gathering

 

Dated:  29 March 2018

 

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