Friday, 8 June 2012

A good year

So what do you think of Frodsham Town Council's performance last year?   We've had the Annual Town Meeting and I've presented my 14 page report.  Well these are my personal views.

Lets bear in mind that most of the councillors elected this time around were new councillors and were elected as independents under a common Frodsham First manifesto which committed the councillors to engage in dialogue and consultation and 'cut out waste.'

One of the first things the council did was to consult with the people of Frodsham on a wide range of issues including whether:
  • the over 70s lunch should be withdrawn and replaced with vouchers;
  • there was support for a winter gritting scheme, 
  • the Frodsham Post should be replaced;
  • whether the Christmas lights should be replaced.
Most of the changes consulted on emerged as expected - however the public did indicate they valued the New Year fireworks and so they were retained.

The council received commendations from the Association of Market Towns in March this year for its winter gritting scheme and the over 70s vouchers - however not all councillors had supported those initiatives.  This is the first time FTC has received any sort of recognition for its work.  The fact that we picked up 2 awards out of around 30 awarded nationally can be a matter of great pride for us.  Both of these schemes had to be launched quickly.  We showed we could work with pace.

The change to the Frodsham Bee from the Post has been well received.  It was a broadly cost neutral change - it certainly relieved the office of much administration.  Crucially, however it allowed the council to communicate in a more timely and effective way than ever before.

Financially the new council rejected the old councils plans to spend £4 for every £3 of income.  In fact last year the council made a surplus of around £15,000.  We brought our income and expenditure broadly into line.

We were the only one of 97 Town and Parish Councils to spot the changes to CWaC's council tax charging arrangements could allow for FTC to raise its precept by around £32,000 without increasing the tax take from local residents.  Frodsham residents pay less in council tax than any other town in the Borough with a town/parish council and the difference between what we pay in Frodsham and what unparished residents of Chester City pay has been reduced from around £30 per year to around £20 per year.  All this is moving in the right direction!  We pay less than our neighbours in Helsby and Elton too - and, we do far more than they do.

We chose to invest the additional monies we raised in a Town Champion (jointly funded with CWaC) - and are establishing the Frodsham Foundation - our own charitable social enterprise company - which will concentrate on promoting and supporting Frodsham and its community.  This innovation has been described as 'the most exciting thing in local government' by a CWaC officer.  In a time of public austerity we are set to bring more resources into Frodsham than ever before and be able to do more, more flexibly than ever before as a community.  At the moment our external lawyers are setting up the company.

We commissioned Groundworks to report on our play areas - they are due to report shortly.

In terms of the council's own administration the number of committee and council meetings were halved and even though we ended up with 6 more council meetings in the year than the planned 12 we still made significant cuts in the number of meetings where councillors talk to councillors with a clerk or an office manager present to administer them. 

The changes made to the committee structure were originally made without changing any of our constitutional arrangements - however at the end of the year we modernised our standing orders and brought ourselves into line with the National Association of Local Councils suggested standing orders.

We now have a standing item at our council meetings where Love Frodsham can address the council - showing the greater business focus this council has over its predecessors.

We brought the community together in our bid to become a Portas Pilot.  We seem to have lost out to larger communities - however with the Foundation and the links forged with Love Frodsham we are set to continue along Portas bid lines.

And we decided unanimously to make more of our civic representation and promote Frodsham more widely, to choose our Mayor by a convention, and we decided by a majority to have a separate Mayor and Chairman so as to build our capacity to do more.  Having voted to do this by a 7-5 majority the proposal to overturn this decision was defeated by an overwhelming 10-6.

In fact so many of the changes we brought about to FTC passed unanimously or by such large majorities that we became very used to consensus... and all this was done without party politics or pre-meetings taking place.

But the greatest success of last year was the removal of party politics from the council table.  At the beginning of the year those independents who stood on the Frodsham First manifesto indicated they did not want to caucus as a political party.  This left the Conservatives as the largest party with 4 out of the 16 seats.  As one of those 4 I can tell you there has never been party orders telling me or anyone else how to vote.  I think Sara Wakefield (Con) got it right when I asked her in a public meeting had I ever told her or asked her to vote in a particular way.  She replied no - and that if I had she would have told me to get stuffed!

OK so far so good.

So what wasn't quite as good as we hoped so far?

Well we didn't get our zero based budget drafted this last year - but one of the up sides of that was that all councillors were engaged in drawing up the budget for this year.

We discovered gaps in the council's administration - many of which appear to have persisted for many years - but these are now both recognised and being addressed.  Interestingly the responsibility for the HR side of the council has for years been the responsibility of the Policy and Process Committee and its predecessor the Finance and General Purposes Committee.   It has never been under the control of the Chairman.  There may well be an argument for bringing the responsibility for the HR issues either to full Council or to our Chairman. 

We also learnt last year which councillors bothered to read their papers in advance of meetings and inform themselves about what is going on and to work through the ramifications of various decisions.

I regret not being able to get round to updating the council's website - but I'm part of a group of councillors looking into this going forward.

Personally I am quite cross that two or three people portray last year as being a 'one-man' council.  This is very unfair to the councillors who attended more meetings than I did and made many more decisions and recommendations than  I did.  I only attended the council meetings (in fact I missed one of them too) and one working group.  My attendance record was one of the best.  

And then there was the curious undemocratic reaction of some to having lost the vote on separating the Mayorship and the Chairmanship.  The Nolan principles of public life require councillors and other public servants to be 'selfless' in their approach.  We are also required not to bring the council into disrepute by our code of conduct. I think a couple of people need to re-read the code of conduct and compare their actions with it.  

Ironically had we worked like political parties this particular public spat may have been avoided - but then open democracy - even in its very raw state - is often for the best.

So was last year perfect - well of course not - but it was by far one of the best years the council has ever had.  It was very instructive.  We showed we could act together.  We could have a common purpose, we could act with pace and determination.  I have been very touched my the welcome feedback I have received from so many sources.  Typical amongst the comments has been the fact that the council now appears to be doing something!

Last year I used the analogy of FTC being a car - we have a Rolls Royce body - but I'm not quite sure what our engine size is.  Like it or not localism is heading in our direction - we either shape up and deal with it - or others will deal with localism for us.

I think the car analogy holds good this year too.  This year we have shown we have a strong majority of councillors who want to drive FTC forward for the benefit of the community.  Whilst there are some that are still grabbing the hand brake and want to slow the pace of change the vast majority want us to continue to innovate.

Is FTC solely to concentrate on the small issues - or are we going to grow up and influence far more for the benefit of our wonderful town?  This will be the debate I think will underpin many of the discussions we have this year.  Personally I want to see more, and more important decisions taken at the FTC Council table.  If FTC doesn't want that, or isn't able to perform, then those crucial decisions may end up being taken by just a couple of people... I also want our capacity to be improved locally so we are better able to implement or commission the public services we want.