Sefton Central Area Committee – Get rid of it, it serves no useful purpose

News that Sefton Council is reviewing its Area Committee’s, their usefulness and purpose is welcome news. Indeed, on a fleeting visit to the Bootle One Stop Shop last week I was personally surveyed by a young lady about my views on the matter.

This photo was taken at a meeting of the Sefton Central Area Committee in June 2013. It only shows two thirds of the participants!

This photo was taken at a meeting of the Sefton Central Area Committee in June 2013. It only shows about two thirds of the participants!

Click on the photo to see a larger size photo

Regular readers of this blog will know how much I have moaned about the present Sefton Central Area Committee which when it meets is like a small conference which is of no use to Joe and Jane Public what so ever. For example if you have a highways problem in Formby and the next meeting of the Area Committee is in Maghull you have to travel all the way over to Maghull to address Formby’s councillors in public. But two thirds of the councillors at the meeting will represent other communities yet they have to be addressed as well! What a nonsense.

Only a few years ago we had 3 Area Committees in the central part of the Borough – Crosby, Formby and the East Parishes. They worked pretty well and had been designed to bring together communities with reasonably common interests. But, as soon as Labour took control of the Borough they abolished these 3 Area Committees, supposedly on the grounds of saving money, and set up a totally useless single area committee to replace them.

On a number of occasions we Lib Dems tried to push Labour into admitting it had been a mistake to fiddle with the original Area Committees and to go back to them. Each time they refused.

Lydiate Labour tells Sefton Labour to reverse policy

But here we have an opportunity to put things to rights at last and what’s more Labour-run Lydiate Parish Council is backing a reversal of Sefton Labour’s daft amalgamation into one huge mega committee. Of course we Lib Dems backed the Lydiate call to revert back to 3 Area Committees.

We can only but hope that common sense will prevail.

Sefton Central Area Committee – It’s still a poor excuse for localism.

A 3-monthly Sefton Central Area Committee came around again last Thursday. This time the mini-conference (for that is what it is) was held in Maghull Town Hall yet all of the items of substance for residents were with regard to Formby and Crosby!

I was only able to stay for half the meeting as I needed to go to see an elderly chap whom I help to look after. I have the feeling that I was the lucky one though as others sat through more than I.

Participants in last Thursday's Sefton Central Area Committee

Participants in last Thursday’s Sefton Central Area Committee

So what did I see and hear?

I raised a correction with regard to the minutes of the previous meeting as ‘Maghull’ had been quoted instead of ‘Lydiate’ when identifying a location in them. Some Labour members at the meeting seemed to find this correction amusing – I know not why.

Parish Councillor David Warren of Hightown complained it took a 6 month wait to get a reply from Sefton Council over a matter he had raised!

I raised a question during the Police Report about a recent raid on a property in Church Lane Lydiate.

Bellway Homes took some stick over their activities in Formby. Complaints about the behaviour of their workforce were made by residents and Independent Cllr. Maria Bennett.

Cllr. Steve Kermode and I also raised continuing concerns about motorbikes on the Cheshire Line Path and the tow path of the Leeds Liverpool Canal with the Neighbourhood Police. We both know that the Police have a tough job to catch the nutters who make the canal tow path and Cheshire Lines path so dangerous with their motorbikes and appreciated the response of Inspector Phil Hatton. Steve and I may be in very different political parties but we often seem to on the same hymn sheet about local matters.

Aintree Village Parish Councillor Peter Gill reported on the voluntary library that is now operating out of Aintree Youth and Community Centre following Labour’s disgraceful closure of Aintree Library and their utter refusal to allow volunteers to take that building over. So despite the Sefton Council the community in Aintree and Melling have set up their own voluntary library that Sefton can’t close or disapprove of. But did I notice Labour councillors approving of the new voluntary library even though their Party stopped one from from being formed, I think I did!

Another item on the agenda was the new Parish Charter which allegedly forms the basis of an agreement between Sefton Council and the 10 Parish Councils in the Borough about how they will interact with each other. Good luck with that then is the best I can say as the previous publication of this Charter, which I had a hand in writing, was unceremoniously (and rightly) ripped up in front of Sefton’s Labour-run Cabinet not so long ago following them treating Aintree Village Parish Council like something you may find on the sole of a shoe! Labour don’t do partnerships with any organisation that does not carry a Labour Party membership card in my experience and their removal of grants to some of Sefton’s Parish Councils now means that the residents of those Parishes are paying for some local services twice.

But to return to the meeting where Formby residents had been forced to travel Maghull to raise their very local concerns……if that’s localism then I am a Dutchman as the saying goes.

Sefton Central Area Committee meeting held yesterday

Don’t worry, this is not another rant about the ridiculous size of this enormous Area Committee, it’s a report on a few of the interesting things that happened at the meeting held in Formby.

In reality the agenda was rather dry but the questions from the public were of more interest:-

LIBRARIES – Independent Aintree Village Parish Councillors Peter Gill and Bill Honeyman asked questions about the future of the now closed (by Labour) Aintree & College Road Libraries. The answer Peter Gill got, drafted by an officer of the Sefton Council, was something along the lines of we do not know what we are going to do with the buildings or when. Frankly, the 3 line written answer was insulting to campaigners in Aintree and Crosby who have done all they can to both save their local libraries and run and them with volunteers. Labour had already ensured that neither would happen.

What’s more Bill Honeyman had submitted his question on the 14th April and he still awaits an answer after being told last night that investigations would take place as to why he had not been sent/given a response!

You got impression that the Labour councillors at the meeting found Peter & Bill and their questions about as welcome as snow at Harvest! I told the meeting that they were entitled to a proper answers but I wonder if and when that will happen?

ELECTION OF INDEPENDENT CLLR. MARIA BENNETT – A member of the public from Formby asked whether the main political parties would work with Maria. A bland answer from a Labour member was followed by me saying yes, I and my Lib Dem Group on the Council would work with her, indeed we welcome her election.

GREEN BELT – A member of the public from Maghull asked if the Labour dominated Area Committee would listen to the public of the Borough and oppose the draft Local Plan for Sefton which proposes to build on acres of Green Belt and high grade agricultural land.

This question also seemed to go down like a lead balloon with the Labour members, a representative of whom said in effect said they would not comment as they may be perceived as pre-judging the issue. In other words he got no answer.

A similar question from a Formby resident got a similar response.

At the end of the public questions it seemed to me that the Labour comrades had seen off another attack by impertinent members of the Sefton Borough community with the score being Labour at least 10, residents Nil. As an exercise in local democracy where the public try to hold their elected representatives to account it was far from inspiring.

Sefton Council – Its local governance is getting worse not better!

Another important matter discussed at the recent meeting of Sefton Council was the future of our strange Borough which was seemingly thrown together, without much logic, as a collection of disparate and diverse communities to the north of Liverpool in 1974.

Frankly, the Borough has never sat well with most people and it is well know that the good people of Southport find it hard to believe that the neighbouring areas that they have most in common with i.e. West Lancs and Preston have been in a different County since 1974. Lydiate is another example of a community surrounded on 3 sides by Lancashire but only connected in local government terms to Merseyside. One wonders what on earth was going through the minds of the great and the good who created Sefton Borough.

The Boundary Commission reviewed Sefton in 1997 and it recognised the Borough’s geographical/local governance problems and said:-

There are a range of democratic and management arrangements that could be used to address the problem. If these changes are to succeed, they must provide a shared agenda for the Council and those who have been campaigning for Southport to leave Sefton.

AND

The encouragement of a culture with Sefton Council which recognises the distinctiveness and importance of Southport and other parts of the borough is needed. We have seen little evidence that Sefton Council as a whole has this kind of decentralised approach and thinking. This is reflected in the way in which residents across the borough feel that other areas receive more favourable treatment – which will only change if the Council behaves in a different way.

As a consequence of such independent criticism, which effectively backed up what many residents felt, Sefton embarked on structural changes. This coincided with me being elected as a Sefton Councillor in 1999 and subsequently becoming its Leader in the early 2000’s for 7 years. Coming from a part of the Borough that, like Southport, felt that Sefton did not serve it well I was keen to move the decentralisation agenda forward.

Bootle Mafia?

My part of the Borough is its East Parishes (Maghull, Melling, Lydiate, Aintree Village, Lunt & Sefton Villages) and I was the first Leader of the Council not to come from either Bootle or Southport, indeed I still am as the leadership of the Borough is now firmly a Bootle one again. On one level the fact that the present Labour leadership of the Borough is called the Bootle Mafia in some quarters is amusing but sadly it has a hard edge to it as well as this Bootle-centric leadership has simply highlighted once again Sefton’s geographical governance problems.

Progress made in empowering communities

But back to how the Council tried to address the criticisms of the Boundary Commission of 1997. The big changes were:-

* the setting up of Area Committees which were intended to get decision making done at the lowest possible level within recognisable communities and groups of communities that had a commonality of interest. Originally there were 9 of these – 3 in Southport, 3 in the central part of the Borough and 3 in Bootle. However, it soon became apparent to the people of Southport that they could more effectively manage and govern their communities with just one Area Committee and a vote was held across Southport which confirmed this view. The middle part of the Borough, where the communities are particularly diverse, continued with 3 Area Committees as did Bootle and all worked reasonably well, although I was always of the view that more decisions needed to be made at Area Committee level myself. However, the Council was balanced with no one party in control so, with Labour generally being hostile to more decentralisation and the Tories lukewarm on the matter, no significant further devolvement in decision making was made.

* the establishment of a Cabinet system of governance to take strategic decisions affecting the whole Borough went hand in hand with the establishment of Area Committees. From when the Cabinet was set up until 2012 it had members on it from all 3 major political parties and in turn they represented a good cross section of Sefton’s diverse communities. I know that the cabinet system of local governance has its critics but from my perspective, whilst I was a member of it, it worked reasonably well. However, since 2012 all the members are Labour and they all represent wards in the Bootle Constituency, so the limitations of the cabinet system have been starkly brought to the surface.

Area Committees get the chop under Labour

Moving forward to 2012, Labour wins control of the Council and the decentralisation train hits the buffers. They not only reduce the number of Area Committees to just 3 across the whole Borough but they don’t even put this to the people of Bootle and Sefton Central to vote upon as had previously happened in Southport. The heavy foot of socialist central control was firmly stamped down. In the East Parishes, Formby and Crosby folks were up in arms but Labour would not listen. We now have a frankly ludicrous conference once every 3 months, which replaces the by-monthly meetings of the 3 former Area Committees. 27 Borough and 10 Parish Councillors sit on the new Area Committee and it is a nightmare for the public to access and sensibly engage with.

Governance – now worse than in Boundary Commission’s damning 1997 report

So Sefton, having made some progress towards decentralisation has significantly rowed back on this under Labour. With our all Bootle, all Labour Cabinet running the show the two other Parliamentary Constituencies that make up the Borough (Sefton Central and Southport) and the councillors elected to serve in them effectively have no say in how Sefton is run! In other words the governance of the Borough is worse now, in terms of it being representative of our diverse communities, than when the Boundary Commission made its 1997 report!

Southport people still feel local governance is wrong and inappropriate but so do folks in the more remote parts of Sefton like Melling and Hightown for example. Sadly, Labour decided not to address these concerns last Thursday but to continue to issue socialist edicts from Bootle Town Hall and if the residents of the Borough don’t like it then they know where they can ……….

Sefton Central Area Committee – round 3 of the muddle in the middle!

I will try not to have another rant about this ridiculously large Area Committee which covers around a third or more of the population of Sefton Borough but it still does not hang together despite this being the best of the first 3 meetings of the Committee.

Last night's Sefton Central Area Committee meeting in Formby

Last night’s Sefton Central Area Committee meeting in Formby

It was dominated, at least as far as the public was concerned, with Formby traffic matters but at least the meeting was in Formby this time! But this led to an odd situation when it came to a vote on a particular traffic matter in Proctor Road Formby. I will not rehearse the rights and wrongs of the report before the Area Committee as frankly I know nothing of this very local matter because I represent a community miles away from it. However, the 3 Formby councillors from Harrington Ward clearly have been living the matter for months because there have been 3 rounds of consultation with the residents about a parking matter.

The interesting point though was the vote because the Chair effectively called for it to be of just those 3 members when previously this massive Area Committee has all voted on everything. Now don’t get me wrong I am all for localism but I wonder if what happened was constitutional? And I was not the only one sat there wondering that!

Flooding and coastal erosion were big issues in Formby and Hightown following much damage as a consequence of the winter storms of the past few weeks. Council reports on this worrying problem are bound to follow but it was Formby and Hightown Parish Councils leading the charge for action.

On an amusing aside I inadvertently referred to Inspector Phil Hatton of Merseyside Police as Cllr. Hatton! Shades of Militant there with my slip of the tongue but I hastily corrected myself amongst much humour around the Committee.

It was nice to see the 10 Parish Councils, which are all within the Central part of the Borough, making their presence felt because frankly they have been shunted into a siding in recent times by Sefton Council and its leading councillors in my view. A re-write of the Borough’s Parish Charter is now on the cards formally and despite being given credit for the original Charter last night I am happy to see it updated so long as the Borough does not try to water it down of course.

Can this Area Committee work? Well no it can’t; all that can happen is that it is able to work as best it can. It is and always will be a dog’s breakfast of a muddle that the Labour-run Council just needs to admit it is not fit for purpose.

Labour blocks attempts to reform unworkable Sefton Central Area Committee

Stubborn Labour Council leaders will just not admit when they have got something wrong. My latest attempt to get the Leader of Sefton Council to reverse the decision to create one huge Area Committee for the middle of the Borough came to nought at last week’s Sefton Council meeting.

The new Area Committee which replaced the 3 former Area Committees of Formby, East Parishes and Crosby as part of Labour’s cost cutting drive has been criticised at every turn for being far to large and difficult for residents to engage with.

The first two meetings saw Formby residents with local highway concerns to raise having to travel firstly to Maghull and then to Crosby to get a hearing.

We Lib Dems opposed this ridiculously large Area Committee when Labour proposed it; we knew it would not work and so it has proved. Labour’s stubborn refusal to reverse this daftest of policy ideas does them no credit what so ever.

Area Committees are meant to reflect real communities and that is what we had with the previous well thought out 3 Committees for the middle part of the Borough. Now we have this huge committee with 27 Borough Councillors and 10 Parish Councillors on it; that’s a conference not an area committee. Labour just needs to admit they were wrong to make this change.