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Transformation Strategy

Transformation StrategyFundamentally, this is Fylde's Plan to transform itself for the digital age.

It sounds like a good thing, but the detail is chock-a-bloc full of devils.

We've referred to it in several pervious articles, but this time we're taking it apart and having a closer look at what it says and, more importantly, what we think the management-speak really means.

Hidden beneath the surface are plans

  • for taxpayers to undertake more of the work we are already paying Fylde's staff to do;
  • for us all to have less easy access to public services in person and by telephone (because Fylde has adopted a 'Digital First' policy);
  • we will see separate charging for services currently within the Council tax we pay;
  • there will also be charges for new services that the Council will offer,
  • and market-driven re-pricing of existing services.

There are also some really worrying indicators of an appetite for higher borrowing for speculative development, greater financial risk-taking, and less cautious investing of significant sums by the Council.

But even worse; this plan marks the end of the Council as we know it.

By it's acceptance, Fylde has embarked on a trajectory that will see it all-but abandon the ethos of public service, where everyone shares the cost in order to be able to use the services when they need them (typically when young or old).

This is because Fylde is setting a course to become a business, with a bit of public service on the side.

It is a disastrous direction for those of us who believe that Councils are, and should be - like hospitals and similar public bodies - who deliver the public services we all need at some times in our lives, and for which as adults, we all contribute, roughly according to our means as householders and taxpayers.

But - like Brexit for the Government - if the Chief Executive gets his own way, this Transformation Strategy will become Fylde's 'Big Thing' on his agenda for the next few years.


SYNOPSIS
This is a really important matter. We begin with some Background, which involved the Peer Review and Fylde's so-called Corporate Plan.

Next, we take an overview of the Transformation Strategy itself, followed by our Own comments on what we make of the overall idea.

Then we move into The details each of the sections in the Strategy's framework, looking first at Cultural Transformation, then what's planned in the Digital Transformation section.

We spend a lot of time on the Commercial and Financial Sections because they are potentially very significant for our future, and we give some examples from elsewhere - first at Blackpool's Regeneration, and what's happening in Chester's planned regeneration of the Northgate area.

Then we move Back to Fylde to see where Fylde's proposed Commercial and Financial strategies are up to at present and, whilst it had not yet been finished, we speculate about the sort of things we would expect to see in Fylde's Commercial Strategy when it is completed later this year.

Then we focus on the Money management part of the Financial Strategy and sound some loud warning bells over the direction Fylde seems intent to follow.

In Anything Else to Report? we look at recent moves by Fylde Council to find additional ways of extracting money (above the Council tax) from folk who live here, and we prelude some moves for more additional charges for services that are currently provided within the council Tax, and for additional service to be sold on market-priced consultancies and so on, using what Fylde calls the 'spare capacity' of its labour

We conclude the sections with outline plans for Political Transformation, where we can find very little with which we can agree.

Finally, we give our Own conclusions on this Framework document which will drive forward the individual Transformation Plans that will flow from it over the next year or so


 BACKGROUND

 Peer Review

Although we suspect it was earlier, the claimed point of origin of this project was the 'Peer Review' which was originally conceived to review Fylde's Governance arrangements a year after its move to the Committee system in 2015

But Fylde's majority party didn't like what they were told about their new governance arrangements at an informal pre-report briefing, so that review was pulled up short.

It was subsequently redirected to become an overall appraisal of how Fylde was doing in comparison with other Councils. (A separate review of Governance - with different terms of reference - was later commissioned from an individual consultant).

We covered this in more detail in 'A Ray of Hope? - Or Not?'

But the broader overall appraisal of how Fylde was doing compared with other councils went ahead. The Peer Review Challenge report was dated May 2016 but not reported to any of Fylde's committees until a year later in July 2017.

It was undertaken by councillors from elsewhere, who came via the Local Government Association. They maintain panels of Councillors who can be brought in to 'challenge' what you are doing.

Challenge reviews are always a fraught process for Fylde (we've seen several of them).

This is because Fylde is unlike almost any other council in the country.

Its demographic profile, its political composition and several other characteristics, set it apart from other councils.

Fylde is always different.

It's different because the people who live here are, for the most part, older retired professional folk who are articulate, strongly self reliant, politically aware and civically active.

And for the most part they choose to elect councillors in their own image.

So asking advice from councillors who live elsewhere, in different demographic profiles, will rarely give you the right answer for the residents of Fylde.

And it hasn't done in the past.

But it did give Fylde's Chief Executive the answer he wanted to hear at this time, so we guess he, at least, will have been happy.

 Fylde's Corporate Plan

The next source to feed into the Transformational Strategy was Fylde's (supposed) 'Corporate Plan'

This is a deceptively simple document. For the most part, it has wording that is intentionally vague - so as 'not to frighten the horses' and induce resistance to its proposals.

It didn't fool all of the councillors though.

35% of them (i.e. the councillors outside the majority Conservative Group who had drafted it with officers) refused to support it, and said they would not be bound by its content.

This plan is of the greatest possible significance for Fylde and its residents. It sets the outline framework for the direction Fylde will take - and the priorities it will accord to its spending - until 2020

We've covered this in 'Corporate?? Plan??' in Feb 2016, and in 'Statement of Dissent' and in A Ray of Hope?? or Not?

One of the significant (but less obviously important) changes made in the new Corporate Plan was how Fylde had discarded its overall former vision strapline which said: 'To Achieve Excellence' - and replaced it with a new motto of 'Let Fylde Prosper' as we showed at the time.

Old FBC strapline  New FBC strapline
Old New

This simple and deceptively unassuming change of vision heralded a fundamental shift in the Council's direction as Fylde re-positions itself no longer to deliver excellence in public services, but to generate money from wherever it can, and to become more like a business.

Sharper readers will have spotted that under the coat of arms of the Council, the new aim is *not*  to 'Let The Fylde Prosper'  rather, it is to 'Let Fylde Prosper'.

We can't tell if that juxtaposition is an unintentional slip, or the cunning disguise of a real aim - to 'Let the Council Prosper' - but to us, it feels like the latter.

Some of the significant (but vaguely described) actions heralded in 'Corporate Plan' were:

Money and Finance:

  • Produce and implement an investment strategy
  • Maximise marketing opportunities
  • Explore and initiate new income streams
  • Increase income through new and existing means

The Local Economy

  • Enforce car parking regulations and review car parking options
  • Channel business rates funding opportunities to economic development

It was clear to us that the second wave of change - the underlying agenda that had produced the Corporate Plan - had already been settled when this Corporate Plan was published.

And it has come to pass that the sort of issues in the Corporate Plan have now been set out and further developed into the 'Transformational Strategy'

 THE TRANSFORMATIONAL STRATEGY ITSELF

All the preliminaries to this topic can be found in the Transformational Strategy section of our article 'A Ray of Hope?? Or Not?'

And if you're coming to this topic with fresh eyes, we'd really recommend reading that 'Transformational Strategy' section of our earlier report before continuing here.

As we said there, we think this Transformation Strategy is a really bad idea.

  • It's wrong in principle because it seeks to impose top-down change rather than enable bottom up innovation that has been driven by community need.
  • And it's wrong in practice because it does not set out to convince. It takes the need for change as a given, and it provides the framework in which unelected technocrats expect to dictate what will happen. And that dictation is both to elected members, and to the electorate.

In lesser circumstances, one might say that was the tail was wagging the dog.

But here, sadly, the tail is become the dog.

The Chief Executive's proposals set out a future of continual change for Fylde.

That change that is based around five themes.

  • Cultural Transformation
  • Digital Transformation
  • Commercial Transformation
  • Financial Transformation
  • Political Transformation

Shockingly, the Transformation Strategy was prepared almost without reference to, or consultation with, elected councillors.

The Council Leader (together with other committee members) publicly expressed surprise at receiving the completed Transformational Strategy as a 'Here's one I made Earlier' document which she and others were asked to adopt.

Thankfully, for the first time in a long while, we saw Fylde's elected councillors queue up to criticise the process to the Chief Executive who had presented the report.

Had we been him we would have been squirming with embarrassment.

This was the origin of the 'Ray of Hope' part of our previous article title - because the Committee refused to accept the report as it was, and they established a Cross Party Working Group to go into the detail of it to make changes.

It looked as though they were doing what they should do, and take charge of humanising the cold-blooded drive for economy, efficiency and effectiveness that emanates from from competent officers.

HOWEVER

As things have turned out, the 'Or Not' part of our former heading ended up holding sway.

Hardly anything has been changed.

And most of the changes that have been made are only to improve the grammar.

From what we could see, the most significant non-grammatical changes were:

  • to soften some of the wording about how fast the transformation will be implemented;
  • a slight recognition of the need to match community need (which the Strategy calls 'customer' need);
  • the idea for a chunk of council spending to be decided by residents in an online participatory budgeting scheme has been dropped, and
  • the addition of a new 'opportunity' which sets out to 'Provide equality of opportunity between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and those who do not share it.'

We suspect that terminology might not be entirely clear to our readers, but if we understand this additional wording correctly, 'Protected Characteristics' are shorthand for the nine groups of people who are protected under the Equality Act 2010, and for whom Fylde's Transformational Strategy is setting out to ensure there is no difference in opportunity between non-protected people and the people who enjoy protection in respect of:

  • age
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • marriage and civil partnership
  • pregnancy and maternity
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sex
  • sexual orientation

Except, of course that logically, and by definition, non-protected people are, well, not protected in respect of the opportunities to be afforded to them.

Such is the topsy-turvey world of political correctness.

We've digressed again..... Back to the main plot.....

To see exactly what had changed in the revised Transformational Strategy, we undertook a word-by-word comparison of the changes to the first and final versions. Readers can follow this link to read the final version of the strategy with the changes highlighted.

 SO WHAT TO MAKE OF IT?

Just like Fylde's 'Corporate Plan' (that isn't either corporate or a plan), we see this as officer time being wasted on strategic documents like this when what people really want in Fylde is a practical council who spend their time and money keeping the streets clean, putting pretty flowers everywhere, and the bins emptied efficiently.

But council officers will tell you that their time is not being wasted.

What they won't be so keen to highlight is that strategic documents like the Corporate Plan and this Transformational Strategy are simply 'vehicles' designed for their convenience.

Having had councillors approve a vaguely-worded plan or strategy such as these, officers then assume license to implement it as they see fit.

And increasingly, what ought to be the intervening humanising and moderating hand of the elected member is not felt on the details that are dreamed up and implemented by efficiency-driven technocrats whose 'cold-blooded' approach is exactly not what a public authority is, or should be, about.

This is why councillors are so important.

They are the ones that know about people. They are the ones who should be accountable to their electorate for devising and IMPLEMENTING policy - which, at Fylde, is now increasingly being left to unelected officers.

Technocratic governance is NOT the way to run Fylde - one of the smallest of Borough Councils in the country. - Fylde ought to keep its councillors much, much, more closely tied in to the practical concerns of taxpayers, and be taking the decisions on how officers should implement policies and strategies.

Tecnocracy is also very damaging to our democracy. Deception by obfuscation in cleverly worded strategic documents becomes the norm, and public trust in the institutions of government erodes.

This approach can be found throughout Fylde's Corporate Plan and Transformation Strategy. They both set out to bewilder and confound the uninitiated.

But as people begin to understand what really lies behind their phrasing, it will cause the same sort of public distrust, disaffection and anger - albeit on a smaller scale in Fylde - that has delivered Brexit, Donald Trump, and other 'populist' surprises for 'the establishment'.

Look at the sort of language used in the Transformation Strategy and, for example, note how often the the word 'customer' is peppered throughout it.

(Customer = 35 times, Resident = 3 times, Taxpayer = 1 time, Community = 1 time)

The author (Chief Executive we believe) clearly sees and wants the Council to become a business that offers services.

So he uses the term 'customer' throughout the Strategy to subliminally attempt to convince readers that Fylde is already a business, rather than a deliver of taxpayer-funded public services for the common good.

Turning any council, (but particularly one like Fylde), into a business, has all manner of downsides, and in our experience, Councils who run 'Pretend Businesses' - as Fylde is gearing up to do once again - frequently run into trouble.

Readers will remember the infamous Cllr Tim Ashton's Streetscene Department that reported a loss of 700,000 all told, (see Where's the Money Gone? Feb 2008) and whose top officer left in disgrace but with an undisclosed Golden Handshake to contractually secure his silence to  maintain Fylde's 'reputational integrity.'

A lieutenant was summarily dismissed, but we were later told he claimed unfair dismissal and Fylde settled out of court. The sum of 10,000 was mentioned to us by the individual concerned by way of reinforcing his innocence.

So Council forays into the world of commerce often end in tears.

Moreover, it is often the case that officers who run 'pretend businesses' develop a lot of civic testosterone when they come to believe in their own inflated importance. Plans for grandiose schemes can waste thousands of taxpayers pounds.

We saw that sort of thing happen in Preston shortly after it gained City status. It planned all sorts of massive River (proposed barrage of the Ribble - see our article 'Sold Down the River' of 2007) and commercial developments. see our article about the Tithebarn Scheme - which we reported in 'Growing Pains' of 2008

In those cases even though they were eventually abandoned, large sums of public money were wasted on consultants studies, surveys, plans, and (in the case of the Tithebarn, legal costs). Money that could have been delivering more or better practical, basic, public services.

And if you think that sort of thing can't happen at Fylde, just remember back to the former Commissar's 'White Elephant' Town Hall Replacement Scheme where around 1m was wasted on plans that would have cost around 6 million or 7 million in total -  before (thankfully) David Eaves took charge, stopped the foolishness, and limited the spending to 3m on a refurbishment of the existing building.

Speaking about this new financial constraint he had imposed, we have a favourite quote from an officer at that time. He said to Cllr Eaves....

"....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....."

Cllr Eaves got hold of the former Commissar's stupidity and shook it to death.

And unless someone gets hold of this current foolishness at Fylde by the scruff of the neck and, like a terrier, shakes the rat of 'transformation' it until it's dead, there remains the risk that Fylde will

  • waste a great deal of public money;
  • put even more money at risk;
  • and, even if it is successful, Fylde will become like anywhere and everywhere else - and that would be very damaging to the particular culture that defines Fylde and presently separates us from everywhere else.

It's yet another example of unwelcome socially-engineered change - just like that wrought by a former Chief Executive who caused so much damage to Fylde because he could not see (and did not think there should be) any difference between, say, Skelmersdale and St Annes.

 A FEW OF THE DETAILS

The Transformational Strategy calls for, and sets out, a programme of continuous change at Fylde.

It says that Fylde must maximise income and minimise service delivery cost.

One of its more appalling statements we spotted, (especially in view of our demographic) was:

'The generations brought up on digital interfaces will not be equipped to engage with organisations that operate through operating burdensome procedure and paper based bureaucracy.'

Our own view of the demographic reality in Fylde demonstrates that a greater proportion of its residents are MORE likely to prefer, and be equipped to engage with, organisations that operate paper based contact than anywhere else in Lancashire.

They are MORE likely to want things like paper bank statements and important matters dealt with by letter - from which they can keep a written record. They are less likely to want or prefer the transient and changeable digital delivery of important information.

We recognise that over generations, this situation will change, but it should be Fylde's role to RESPOND to that change as it arrives, not to try and lead it or impose it - which is what the Transformational Strategy sets out to do.

It articulates a vision of 'seamless services' where

'.....almost all transactions will take place online, and integration across all services will enables customers to verify their identity once, through voice or thumbprint."

That means the phasing out of cash, cheques and other non-electronic means of payment - as Fylde has already tried to do with green bins - only to find that (thankfully), some councillors pressed for those still wanting to pay by cash or cheque could do so.

The Strategy then takes several of the transformational thrusts that are envisaged, and puts a little more flesh on their bones.

We've picked out a few that caught our eye from each of them, but they will all be amplified further as the following individual headings become full transformational plans in their own right.

 CULTURAL TRANSFORMATION

This section has the usual 'motherhood and apple pie' phrasing, and the overly effusive descriptive prose decorating a lot of corporate managementspeak. We found one odd bit though.

One of Fylde's 'core competences' says it does or will:

'Treats employees as customers'

We say they are not customers. They are employees who are also public servants.

 DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION

This section is where the plot to shift everyone to digital interaction with the Council is found. One of the heralds of this future is the quote that says:

'Modern efficient organisations must embrace technology in order to meet customer need in a digital world, self-service is efficient and delivers efficiencies and increases speed of service delivery through automation...."

Well it might be, but it will be interesting to watch Fylde try to sell that idea to the routine and regular queues of folk waiting to be served at manned tills and checkouts in the area. Folk who, as a matter of principle, will not use the automated self-service checkouts and tills that the arrogant banks, building societies, and supermarkets want to force them into using.

As an aside at this point, we came across an interesting example of this in a local Tesco 'convenience' (yes, really) store last week. There was one manned till and two self-service checkouts.

A lady was serving one customer at the manned till, and there were three other customers with less than a handful of items, and each was queuing to pay the lady. They were ignoring the self service tills.

In an attempt to encourage their use, another employee who appeared to be doing administrative work or tidying up asked:

"Does anyone want to use the self-service tills, we now have two of them, and only one cashier.?"

After a short pause, one of the three waiting customers said "No thank you. That's the wrong direction altogether, and you can pass that comment back to your manager please"

If, as seems likely, Fylde wants to ape this Tesco philosophy, we suspect they will have a fight on their hands.

Another quote from the Strategy.....

'Digital channels must be the forefront of service delivery with a 'click, call, and come in' hierarchy, always seeking to migrate customers to 'click'.

and

'A 'Digital by Preference' (DBP) initiative has been developed as the first stage in transforming service delivery.'

We can't see either of those ideas being popular in our demographic.

In fact, there is already dissatisfaction being recorded.

The letters page of the Express last week carried a letter criticising, and describing as 'appalling' and 'disgraceful' the wait that taxpayers were having to endure when trying to telephone FBC.

If we remember correctly the writer spoke of a routine 15 minute waiting time on hold on Fylde's main number, and said the call cost them 2.65 to complete each time they made it twice a month.

We don't think this delay is at all to do with the number of inbound phone lines Fylde has, or the number of staff.

We think it's part of the deliberate policy that's being introduced to make online (digital) contact the first choice for everyone who wants to get in touch with the Council.

We think other methods of contact are being intentionally slowed down so as to persuade you to give up and use email - or better still, Fylde's website.

The Digital Transformation section of the Strategy also sets out to:

  • Identify high volume front-line services not currently available online, and provide them online ensuring the new service is as transactional as possible, the target is to require no officer input (end to end digital services).
  • Review services and payment facilities Fylde currently provide online to ensure they are as transactional as possible and easy for customers to use.
  • Support the migration of customers online to drive up self-service.
  • Reduce the need for contact in person and over the phone in Customer Services and back office creating capacity whilst increasing productivity.

The process to begin this has already been put in place and has started to bite.

Hidden in a FBC 'Facebook' posting on the second of April this year, (the start of Fylde's new financial year), was the first (awful) change that we spotted. It said


On Tuesday 2nd April, Fylde Council's Customer Services Team will be changing the way it deals with face to face enquiries from customers visiting the Town Hall. In making the first significant change since 2004 in how we deal with personal enquiries the drop-in system will be replaced by an appointment only service. Customers will be able to choose an appointment from 30 minutes slots during our current opening hours with 2 separate appointments available for each 30 minute..... See more
 

Enter your name email address and/or contact number and details of what your appointment is about Please also provide any relevant reference numbers or other Information that may assist us prepare for your appointment

WWW4. FYLDE.GOV.UK

So not only has the Council ended our ability to call in and speak with the officials whose salaries we pay, they now require us to make an appointment in order to speak with someone, and it would appear we are now expected to make that appointment online.

Like the long wait for the telephone to be answered at Fylde, this change is nothing to do with not having enough people, it's part of the plan to transform the council into a Digital Council.

It is intentionally putting difficulty and obstacles in the way of those who are unable or unwilling to transact with the Council online.

Philosophically, it actually reverses the roles, and does indeed treat Fylde's employees as 'customers' whilst transforming taxpayers into servants.  Perhaps that was what was meant when Fylde says it 'treats its employees as customers'

If our readers are not happy with this, we can advise that the only person to speak with is the Councillor who represents you. It will be absolutely pointless speaking with - or complaining to - the hired hands. They are the ones that are driving this policy.

There will only be change if Councillors feel the weight of public opinion. We hope they do feel the weight of public opinion, but we worry they will not.

 COMMERCIAL TRANSFORMATION and FINANCIAL TRANSFORMATION

We think the drive to digital delivery we've just mentioned is going to irritate taxpayers, but the greatest threat to our present culture and wellbeing comes from the Commercial and Financial transformations that are planned.

The Strategy separates them into separate headings, but we're dealing with them together because, as the Strategy itself says they are 'inextricably linked'

The Financial one includes the following:

'The council has adopted a prudent financial strategy since 2008 when the financial management of the authority was inadequate as a result of low reserves.

This was the right strategy to achieve the transformation to a robust financial position in 2016 with significant general and ear marked reserves and low borrowing, putting the council in a strong position to take a less risk averse approach to financial management.

The need to transform financial management at Fylde is driven by the requirement to be self-sufficient by 2020 with no central government grant funding the revenue account will be dependent on; business rate retention; new homes bonus; council tax; and commercial income streams.

Transformation of the financial position is reliant on how the elements of the funding stream controlled by the council are managed.

Council tax is the major source of funding and within the control of the council subject to limits set by government, Fylde will seek to maximise income from council tax.

A number of income streams are directly influenced by the council, at every opportunity existing income streams will be maximised whilst maintaining value for money and new sources of income will be explored.

Capital sums and revenue surplus will be invested in schemes that generate a financial return for the council, priority will be afforded to long term sustainable income generating initiatives that contribute to the revenue account.'

Translating this to clearer language, it is saying:

Since we almost bankrupted the Council in November 2008 (see MTFS UPDATE 2008) we've had to be prudent, but now we've recovered, we're going to do something even more risky in the hope of making loads of dosh.

And because we're not allowed to increase the Council tax (which is capped by the Government) we're going to screw as much as we can from local council taxpayers, and we're going to charge as much as we can get away with for as much as we can get away with.

But not only that, if we make savings on what taxpayers have given us to deliver the public services, we're going to use those savings not to reduce the cost of services for the next or future years; we're going to use it to buy assets that we hope might generate a long term income (typically that would be land or buildings).

In March, Fylde reported savings of about half a million pounds on last year's budget.

Much of that was squirreled away into reserves to offset overspending or for other public works projects.

That sort of sum (0.5m) is quite typical at the end of Fylde's financial year, so that, and (probably significant) borrowing and perhaps other sources of income, will be fed into an investment portfolio that Fylde now plans to build.

The aim is to:

'Develop an investment portfolio that generates income to the revenue account'

This borders into, and blurs the boundary between, the Commercial and Financial Transformation plans. It is all about acquiring the 'assets' (for which you can probably read 'land and/or buildings') that Fylde hope will generate income once they are rented out.

The relevant paragraphs from the Strategy say:

"The option to acquire additional assets to generate commercial revenue will be explored as part of the commercial and financial transformation required to achieve a self-sufficient council by 2020.

Assets should be income generating, for example, car parks must realise the maximum possible income through strategic position and layout that delivers maximum volume."

and

'Fylde will work with commercial experts to develop the necessary skill for a commercial and less risk averse approach to investment opportunities and asset management.

Marketing, advertising, profit, partnership, joint ventures and sponsorship will be part of the commercial strategy and a core function in the local authority.

Commercial transformation will influence financial policy, asset management and procurement with the objective to secure income into the revenue stream that by 2020 not only supports the existing service delivery at Fylde but additional service delivery is funded.'

Translated to clearer language again, this says Fylde is about to embark on a buying spree of land and properties it could develop or re-develop and rent or lease out to help offset its existing spending, and also give Fylde money to spend on things that it doesn't do now.

Worse, it is going to give this aspect a lot of prominence in its work plan.

In short, Fylde Council is about to become a property speculator as well as a council.

Well, technically it isn't, because speculative borrowing purely in order to invest is actually unlawful for a council, as (usually) is the speculative purchase and subsequent disposal of property.

But if you define the investment as 'Strategic Development' and it is part of an approved project plan that plan is covered by statutory powers within an approved Council objective (such as a Regeneration Strategy in Blackpool), or in Fylde's Case perhaps a Commercial Strategy

Then you can get away with it.

So with the right decisions in place, Fylde could become what we would call a 'property speculator' as well as a council.

There's no detail about how this is going to be done yet, but we expect to see more borrowing - which will have capital and interest payments made from rental incomes - (if the investments are a success), or from taxation levied on future generations of Council tax payers - (if they are not successful investments).

In some instances it might be that Fylde provides the land and lets developers take the risk of building and renting out what they build - on a sort of 'shared income' basis - so-much to Fylde for the land, and so-much to the developer for the building.

And there may be other forms of 'partnership' arrangements.

This plan has the potential to be a disaster for Fylde.

Local authorities have a poor track record as speculative developers or as being in partnership with them.

 Regeneration of Blackpool

Blackpool Council is already working along these lines.

Blackpool's most recent (2018/19) forecast shows its accumulated total debt has now reached 432,819,000 - and that is very close to maxing out it's credit limit.

The maximum Capital that Blackpool is allowed to borrow during this year (its current Authorised Limit for External Debt) is 433,000,000

And this borrowing is over and above spending out of money such as Government and other grants and so on.

Most of this capital borrowing (all but about 67million) is for spending on Non-Housing projects such as developments, and the capital and the interest on these loans must be funded either by income - (typically from the tenants of their new properties), or by future taxpayers.

And yes, we know interest rates for borrowing are low at present, but we recall them reaching 15% in the Government's ERM shadowing debacle.

At a notional rate of only 5% interest, a failure to generate any income to repay the loans would leave Blackpool taxpayers facing interest payments of just over 21,000,000 a year.

We did a very quick and dirty estimate, and we think that would be something like one sixth of Blackpool's current total annual net spending - just to pay the interest on the loans.

With a population of around 140,000 people, that's equivalent to an annual interest bill of anywhere up to 155 for every man woman and child in Blackpool.

The current total debt per head of population is already over 3,000 - and Blackpool hasn't finished spending yet.

If it all works, and the money they spend makes a surplus that pays the capital and interest off, and maybe even generates some to spare, it would be a good thing.

But Councils generally are not good at this sort of stuff.

We seem to remember the Sandcastle was built on a similar idea, as a joint partnership between the Council and the private sector. But it had to be re-absorbed into the Council's ownership around 2003 with costs falling on taxpayers and a cash injection of around 5 million to upgrade it.

The Tower and Winter Gardens have likewise mostly been a drain on the public purse in recent years, and are now back in the Council's ownership with the private sector having been unable to make them sufficiently profitable to stand without support from the Council.

Blackpool Council has even had to buy the airport back into its own ownership, as the various commercial companies failed to make it pay.

We're not saying any of this is wrong. Some will see public ownership of assets such as these as being a good thing. But history shows they have not been individually commercially viable, and that is expensive for Blackpool's Taxpayers.

So it's not certain the present plans for Blackpool's economic development will succeed based on historic information.

 The Chester Experience

Blackpool is bad enough, but for an even worse example of what can go wrong just look at the disaster development that is unfolding as Cheshire West and Chester Council undertake their plan to compete with places like York in a bid to attract shoppers to its proposed redeveloped 300m Northgate scheme.

There has been widespread disquiet, including a letter signed by more than a hundred business folk which called for a major rethink of the scheme, and locals are worried that internet shopping, (and Chester's being surrounded by out-of-town shopping centres), means the Northgate scheme for 45 shops, 12 restaurants, a cinema, a hotel, 25,000 sq ft of offices, 120 homes, and 1,000 parking spaces, is no longer viable.

That view wasn't helped when House of Fraser withdrew as one of the two main 'anchor tenants' in June this year.

This move has severely - if not fatally - damaged the scheme. It could even mean the Council's plan to fund the city-centre regeneration project will fail because its funding depended on there being two anchor tenants. Now there's only one.

Chester/Cheshire West Council clearly has no shortage of vision - and apparently no shortage of civic testosterone - but for many folk - whose money is pouring into what they see as a black hole (1m gone in plans and such so far) - what's missing is the prudence that the use of public money should also bring

 Back To Fylde

So where is Fylde's own Commercial Transformation Strategy up to at present, and what's going on?

Well It looks as though the Commercial Strategy will be the first one of the Strategy framework documents to be published

We're soon to see more details of it unveiled - because Fylde's Chief Executive intends to give it a good deal of priority in his workload, and the latest progress report on the Corporate Plan (that went to Council on Monday 16 July 2018) says he expects to publish the Commercial Strategy during 2018, and there's already half the year gone, and everyone's about to go away in the summer recess, so we expect it to be in the Autumn.

We've no knowledge of what it will say, because it hasn't been completed yet, but we're going to have a stab at predicting the sort of thing it might address.

Predictions are always risky, but we risk doing it here because, in 1974 (immediately after the English Council's equivalent of the City's 'Big Bang') we worked for one of the new and most commercially driven district councils of its day.

Led by an ambitious and ruthless Chief Executive, it formed its own property department whose job was to attract commercial investors and property speculators to invest in the area, and to acquire and re-develop land and buildings in the sort of manner Fylde now seems to be contemplating. We were not involved in the detail of this, but worked at a level that saw quite a bit of what went on, and we had a close personal friend in that department..

We saw a town centre changed almost out of all recognition. We saw extensive housing development that vastly increased the area of building (and almost the corresponding loss of countryside). We saw desperate attempts to re-develop a failing industry (on a similar scale to British Aerospace here) that sucked money out of other important social developments. To be honest, whilst some would say it was progress, others (including us) thought it ripped the heart out of a community.

In our experience, Chief Executives love doing this sort of thing because playing at being businessmen is a big change from their usual 'day job' - and seems to boost their ego.

They seem to find doing property deals very seductive.

But for the one we mention above (NOT Fylde's CE), that boosted ego also led to a high-living lifestyle with flash cars and clothes, together with what some (actually mostly female, small and big C) conservative councillors thought to be inappropriate conduct with one or more of his less senior female members of council staff, eventually led to the unexpected premature departure of said dynamic and ambitious Chief Executive for pastures elsewhere. We recall business interests in the Cayman Islands and the Isle of Man being mentioned in the same breath as him around the time of his leaving.

A salutary tale indeed.

But Fylde's aims look slightly different to those.

They are more about generating revenue income from acquired assets rather than the aim of expanding the housing and commercial sector we previously saw.

So income from housing is probably not going to be high on Fylde's target for asset acquisition.

Certainly there could be some land acquisitions in order to enter into partnerships, or to sell on to housing developers to generate capital profits for reinvestment, but we think it's more likely to be commercial and retail property that attracts Fylde's attention.

It's quite possible that our CE is developing a taste for this sort of operation following his involvement as a Director of the various economic development entities that grew out of Blackpool's Regeneration company (Re-Blackpool) which later morphed into the Blackpool Fylde and Wyre Economic Development Company and has now, once again, reverted to a local authority Joint Committee structure to look at, and lead, the economic development of the whole Fylde coast.

Perhaps he has even been getting the inside track from colleagues in Blackpool on the redevelopment of their town centre - (something that, as we have shown could become a dreadful millstone around the neck of future generations of Blackpool residents if the investment doesn't pay off, and could - if inflation and interest rates rise as predicted - bring Blackpool Council to its knees).

We suspect Blackpool's gleaming modern glass structures will seem very seductive to those who are wont to play with the bigger boys.

So we wouldn't be at all surprised if this turns out to be the direction for Fylde's Commercial Strategy

It would also increase the sums payable to Fylde in business rates, (a matter of growing importance if proposed government changes to business rates follow through as expected).

It might also explain the incredibly over-optimistic need for commercial and industrial land that Fylde has built into its emerging local plan.

Perhaps Fylde intends to acquire such land, then grant itself planning permission for commercial use on it, and then, if there is enough cash available, either develop some commercial or industrial uses itself, and collect the annual rents as the units are (hopefully) let out to businesses, or if there is not enough development cash, they might enter into partnerships with commercial development companies on a shared income stream.

Another direction might be to merge some sites already in Fylde's ownership with adjoining commercially owned land.

A small but good example of this principle might be at Heeley Road where the Council appears to have retained ownership of the land under the road when it sold the former CVMU premises to a speculative developer who also had land on the other side of the road.

Fylde's willingness to part with the stub-end of Heeley Road to enable a single site development across the (presently three) individual sites would undoubtedly be more profitable for whoever does it.

We imagine there could be other sites like this as well.

Another direction might be to acquire and break up large redundant units (as is happening with Blackpool at the Airport) and redevelop them into smaller units ready for businesses to occupy. This could involve something like a redundant pub complex or perhaps the former J R Taylor's store in St Annes, or maybe it ties into the Council's - as yet undisclosed - plans for further development of The Island site on St Annes Promenade.

We hope readers will get the picture of where Fylde's Commercial Transformation MIGHT be going from our speculation about the sort of things that we would expect to find in the Commercial Strategy once it is published later this year.

 Money Management

Turning to money management, the outline of Fylde's 'Commercial Transformation' part of the (already published) Transformational Strategy Framework document also includes the following quote:

'Local authorities are risk averse, managing public funds with the necessary checks and balances to ensure appropriate protection of the public purse. Fylde must transform from a traditional risk averse culture in which opportunities are missed because procedure has priority, to a culture in which innovation and creativity are encouraged with opportunities explored in a flexible and responsive organisation.'

Especially when this sort of approach is coupled with the asset acquisition and exploitation proposals we've reported above, this sort of stupidity - the sort that sets out to increase risk in traditionally 'belt and braces' prudent financial management - is precisely the sort of approach that delivered the sub-prime mortgage scandal.

And that came within a hair's breadth of destroying the global financial system in 2007/8.

In that case, supposedly clever financial instruments were created with the intention of deceiving supposedly sophisticated (but ultimately gullible) investors about the high level of risk they were entering into, in order to generate the funds to offer mortgages to poor people who had no understanding of financial matters. And those mortgages were sold by sharks who absolutely knew the mortgagees would never be able to repay them.

Shifting to higher risk in the hope of higher returns from more risky investments is always a dangerous idea.

Fylde would do well to remember what happened after the relaxation of long established checks and balances of its own, when it hoped to create the other sort of 'cheques and balances' that were so seductive to former Commissar John Coombes.

His financial incompetence with public funds brought this council to its knees. It was only the solid and clever rescue set in train by its (then new, now former) Finance Officer Bernard Hayes who salvaged things by declaring a financial 'State of Emergency' in 2008.

He has been followed by a combination of the subsequent and capable Finance Officer Paul O'Donoghue teamed with Princess Karen Buckley who is in charge of the political side of the money - who have managed us into the sound position we now have.

We are truly shocked if Princess Karen supports the Chief Executive's dangerous moves away from financial prudence and into speculation and risk.

Local authorities are not, and should not be, risk takers with public (or any) money

 Anything Else to Report?

Yes, elsewhere in the finance and commercial strategy section there is also to be a renewed drive to extend existing schemes, (and identify new opportunities for schemes) that will increase income to the Council.

So we can expect to have to pay additionally for things that are currently provided as part of the tax we pay now.

Fylde has already been conning people on this line for several years. Their Equitable Taxation/Special Expenses scam raised double council tax income from residents in respect of open space services for which residents were already paying.

The Green bin subscription service has been (and continues to be) another con trick. Taxpayers were double charged in its first year of operation, and subscribers are still being told that it now costs considerably more than it was costing Fylde to collect green waste via Council Tax, (when they're only collecting about half as much green waste) in order to justify higher than necessary subscription charges that might yet be proved unlawful.

We've also seen Fylde's 600,000 income from off-street car parking deliver a massive profit of 400,000 above the cost of providing and operating the car parks.

With that sort of duplicitous financial scheming being played on local people, it's no surprise that Fylde's Transformational Strategy wants to extend it to other services.

We're already hearing about charges for planning officers to give advice on planning applications (which raises some really unsatisfactory issues about conflict of interest and possibilities for corruption if the same organisation is taking payment for the advice they give and, at the same time, deciding whether to grant planning permissions or not)

This quote from the Commercial Transformation section makes the new charging direction for charging very clear....

"Capacity achieved through efficiencies will be used to generate income by selling services to the market where applicable for example, consultancy services in professional disciplines or cleansing, waste and grounds."

 POLITICAL TRANSFORMATION

Having seen what is proposed elsewhere in the awful Transformation Strategy, we approached this section with some concern.

It's not that we don't think political change is needed. It absolutely *is* needed - but not of the sort this Strategy proposes.

Fylde needs to transform itself into a council that works consensually, where chairmanships are (rightly) held by the majority party, but vice-chairmanships are held by those from the other political groups and by independent councillors. Where budgets are drafted by cross party groups, not the divisive, discordant and selfish 'only us Conservatives' that applies at present.

We could go on for ages with this list, but it will be a waste of space, because it ain't going to happen, and we're pretty sure it ain't going to be part of Fylde's Political Transformation strategy.

The prelude to the Political Strategy shows there is to be considerable emphasis on bullying councillors to buy into the idea of commercialising the Council.

Coercive terminology is clearly present. For example, the original version said:

'Elected members must be in a position to provide clarity of direction and support actions that deliver the transformation necessary to achieve a self-sufficient organisation."

Admittedly in the final version, the coercive and controlling 'must' has been softened to 'will' but there's no doubt about the subliminal message.

Likewise

"elected members must be flexible and responsive to transformation."

If we were an elected member, our response to that statement would be to remind the Chief Executive - in robust Anglo-Saxon language should that be necessary for his clear understanding - that he is the hired hand of the Council, and it is not his place to even attempt to tell elected members what they must and must not do - so long as they act within the law and the Constitution.

We find much to disagree with in his approach to political transformation.

He goes on to set out his aim for Political Transformation, saying:

"A transformed political culture at Fylde in 2020 will have effective decisions made through efficient committee arrangements; a clear demarcation of responsibilities between members and paid employees; open and transparent communication between elected representatives; an ambitious shared vision for the borough with regional and sub regional objectives; and the opportunity for meaningful engagement for every member of the council."

This sounds as though his intention is to drive Fylde further down the road that separates members from the decisions in which we believe they should be an integral part.

We have no truck with the view that Councillors should only decide overall policy.

The close involvement of members in the *delivery* of services to the public that have elected them is crucial to a properly run council.

Time was when each councillor at Fylde was presented with a detailed book of estimated costs within the control of each committee every December.

The pages showed in great detail what the money the Committee was being asked to spend was expected to be spent on, and councillors were able to be intimately involved in deciding which of the officer's budget recommendations went into the actual budget. They voted on the budget item by item of expenditure.

The elected councillors decided the priorities by according finance (or not) to each proposal.

This process inculcated a really intimate sense of ownership and responsibility amongst elected members for the services they delivered. The more experienced of them understood almost all the detail of what was needed by their committee and could argue the case for it.

Today, those details are all mostly hidden from councillors, as are many of the service delivery details, and Fylde is much the worse for it.

At best Councillors approve the overall departmental budgets because that's what they are given.

Breaking the intimate link that should exist between a committee of councillors and *their* budget has been one of the most damaging things that Fylde has done.

It's true that a budget book of broad service detail does exist and can be downloaded by more or less anyone, but without experiencing the debate of its items within it, - without understanding of what is included within those headings and items, and what the impact of changes might be - councillors are financially emasculated.

We suspect this is intentional. Keeping most members in the dark leaves more power in the hands of the few.

Another section of the Strategy Framework for Political Change says

"Clear political ambition delivered by strong political leaders through effective group structures across all political parties is necessary to deliver political transformation."

We fundamentally disagree with this concept.

What is being described here is a politician not a councillor.

To make this a valid statement, it would require the ballot paper to bear only the name of a political party.

We think it is a disgraceful and insulting statement to have made, especially when Fylde has one of the highest proportions of independent councillors in the country. We know of only one council that has more.

Independent councillors have no party allegiance, they elect no 'Leader' and have no hierarchy of power. They stand and are elected on their individual merit, on the good they do as individuals. To us, that defines a proper councillor.

However, for committee allocation placements, present legislation considers independent councillors to be a 'group' to whom committee places are allocated in proportion to their relative number within the whole council, but many are fiercely independent, and thus able to speak their minds and vote without fear of censure or disciplinary action taken against them by any party structure or hierarchy.

We expect any Political Transformation plan at Fylde is likely to be hugely contentious, and we think its positioning as a short section and at the end of the report probably means there is a lot more more change lurking in the woodwork that it's not safe to bring out yet.

 OUR OWN CONCLUSIONS

We have said throughout that we do not like much of this document.

We don't like the way it came about, the tone it uses, nor the great majority of its content.

It is a top-down document styled in coercive language and possessed of a controlling tone.

We think it would be quite fair to say it amounts to 'Civic Abuse'.

The best place to put it would be in a shredder.

But it's undoubtedly going to be expanded by subordinate plans unless someone with more influence than we have is able to stop it.

And it needs someone to stop it because otherwise:

  • It will destroy the culture of Fylde.
  • It will destroy what makes Fylde such a good place to live.
  • And it will further erode public trust in the democratic process and its institutions.

When people wake up to what is happening, we predict there will be a time of great public anger, and a time of reckoning for those who have been complicit in its production and acceptance.

But before that happens, and sadly, we don't expect this to be our last report on the matter.

Dated:  27 July 2018

 

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