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Being Labour, Cotterill on the Council, Leisure and culture

The timetable of betrayal (part 2)

10.23.08 | Comment?

 Introduction

This is the second part of the detailed analysis of the Conservative-controlled West Lancashire District Council’s decision to turn its back on the government’s Free Swimming programme for under 16s.   It has been delayed a little by the usual deadlines of the week but also by time spent on my last ditch effort, via Legal Services at the Council,  to seek a review of the decision at an emergency Council meeting.  I expect a response on my submission sometime today.

While the first part of my analysis focused on the OVERT decision making process taken by the controlling group, this section focuses more on the COVERT decision making process. 

That is to say, it is my contention, judging by the available evidence, that the Conservatives had taken an early ‘inner sanctum’ decision not to support the Free Swimming Programme, to do so for narrow party political ends, and to use the timetabling of the overall decision making process as cover for this, while wilfully ignoring evidence available in correspondence from Central Government about the programme.

Above all,  I suggest, they chose this route without any consideration for the needs and opportunities of under 16s in the District, and in so doing reneged on their primary function of meeting the needs of residents as far as possible within resources.  This is reflected in the discourse used in the Council chamber on Wednesday night, when no Conservatives member at any point referred to the needs or aspirations of young people, or even more broadly to public health considerations.

The timetable and its manipulation

 The Council received a letter dated 29 July 2008 from the Director of Sport and Leisure at the Department for Culture, Media and Sports.  In it were set out details of the revenue support for over 6os swimming (referred to as pot 1), which amounted to £35,750 per year for two years.  This is an entirely separate grant from the £54, 611 for two years for under 16s, and is the other part of the government’s progress towards its aspiration of free swimming for all by Olympic year 2012.

The deadline to indicate an interest in taking up the over 60s grant was set at 15 September 2008.  However, for this grant, the Council was able to respond quickly, and on 15 August published a celebratory press release, praising West Lancashire Leisure Trust for its willingness to ‘help fund and support’ the initiative. 

I have not had access to how this purported additional £18,000 cost was made up, but it is worth noting that between this press release, suggesting that the Trust would put in money, and the report to Council released on 14 October, what the Trust was actually contributing had become less clear.  The report to Council states that ‘the Trust partners have agreed to underwrite this potential shortfall and will work to mitigate this loss by positive advertising with the potential to benefit from secondary income and enrolment towards and participation in other activities.’

 Thus, it now transpires that the press release is misleading when it states that ‘the Trust has also agreed to contribute towards the costs of such a beneficial initiative for the older generation.’  The Trust is in fact seeking to avoid any additional cost at all, but is spinning the story of its ‘contribution’ as a means of suggesting that it, and more importantly its partners Serco, have taken enough of a financial ‘hit’, and really can’t be expected to contribute further when it comes to the under 16 swimming programme.  Sadly, this has been taken at face value, and the report to Council simply that ‘The Trust are unable to take the higher risk involved in implementing this element of the scheme’.  Fundamentally therefore, Serco get off  ‘scot free’ from any contribution, despite the huge price rises on junior swimming that I highlighted in part 1 of this analysis.

 The DCMS letter of 29 July 2008 (and its appendices) also announces threeother important things, in addition to notifying the grant amount for the over 60s swimming.  These have been glossed over in the report that went to Full Council, and wilfully ignored since late July.

First, the interval between DCMS writing to confirm the under 16 allocation and the need to respond was set at 15 days.  Initially the confirmation deadline was set for 30 September, and the response date was 15 October.  Regrettably, the first deadline slipped by 7 days to 07 October, but the response time of 15 days remained the same, with a new deadline set initially fro 24 October (though as I’ve attested here, it took one quick call and email from me to get an indication that this deadline might be flexible).

So, from the end of July the Council knew that there would only be a 15 day interval for response.  Yet, they appear to have done remarkably little in the way of preparation – certainly it wasn’t seen as appropriate to brief me on the matter so that I might come up with suggestions on how the matter might be managed.   I contend that the reason for inactivity between tne end of July and 08 October was motivated by a desire to be able to say that the information had come too late to deal with it properly.

 Second, and closely connected to this, is that the 29 July letter does in fact give a remarkably good indication of what the DCMS grant for under 16 swimming would be, at least for anyone reading the letter seeknig such an indication, rather than seeking a reason for inactivity.  Paragraph 19 of the letter sets out the fact that £15 million in grant money has been allocated to the over 60s programme, and £25 million to the under 16s. 

The letter makes clear that the £15 million allocation is divided between 354 local authorities across the country.   A simply division of £15 million by 354 gives £42, 373.  If we set this against the actual grant of £35,750 we find that West Lancashire was awarded a grant at 84.3% of a notional average, probably because of its relatively small size.

 If we then do the take 84.3% of the notional average of the £25 million under 16 pot divided by 354, we get (£25m/354×84.3%)= £59,533.  This is the amount of grant that might have been estimated from the letter of 29 July, about £5,000 more than was actually received (either because the overall local authority take up was somewhat higher than projected, or because there may be different ratios of under 16s as opposed to over 60s to contend with).

Either way, an intelligent interpretation of the 29 July letter gives a very good indication of what the under 16 grant would be.  The Council as a body choe no to use its intelligence.

Third, and again related, paragraph 9 of appendix 2 to the letter reads: ‘Government opes that local authorities will work creatively with local partners, including Primary Care Trusts, to access funds from other sources (suchas Working Neighbourhoods Fund, Extending Activities, the Big Lottery Fund) as well as with commercial and third sectors, to maximise the impact across shared agendas’.

The final phase might be central government policy gobble-di-gook, but the substantive part pf the sentence contains a very clear acknowledgment that, while some authorities might want to go forward on their own, using reserves/working balances/saving in other areas etc), most are likely to want to bring together a match funding package.

Yet West Lancashire District Council chose to look at none of these options, other than a cursory and inconclusive approach to the PCT (at what stage, I am not clear).  Again, I contend that this inaction, despite DCMS prompting, was driven by a desire for Conservative councillors be able to stand up in Cabinet and Full Council and feign outrage that the grant did not cover all costs.

There is another important issue at hand here, related to the seeking of other contributions and the establishment of a funding ‘package’. The report to Full Council states that ‘There is a significant financial risk of accpeting participation in pot 2, free swimming programme for those aged 16 and under, if the funding to cover the operation of the scheme is not secured or identified either from external partners or allocated as a commitment for revenue funding for financial years 2009/10 and2010/11.’

 Yet this is the kind of ‘external parter’ risk that Councils up and down the country engage with regularly and with much, much bigger sums of money, and with which this very Council has engaged with for around about six years, quietly and without fuss because it has not been politically expedient to raise it.

 The Council’s engagement with this kind of risk comes in the form of its role as accountable body to the West Lancashire Single Programme Fund, which is an overall £20 million regeneration, of which £8 million comes from the North West Development Agency.  Thus, in much the same ratio as required according to the Free Swimming report, the Council is expected to manage the ‘leverage’ of £12 million from ‘public and private ‘ sources, in order to implement the programme overall.  Failure to do so, or at least seek to do so, responsibly brings with it the potential for clawback by the NWDA.   This is not the only example.   The council is also the accountable body for European regeneration funds spent in the area, and similar arrangements apply.

 This concludes my analysis of what I contend to be the Council’s wilful mishandling of the whole process – wilful, I contend, because the inaction between late July and early October happened because political chicanery was regarded as more important than the quality of lives of young people in West Lancashire, with the result that a golden opportunity is, as we speak, being been cast away.

Conservative discourse – some conclusions

To conclude this section of what has become a three part analysis, I refer back to the evening of Full Council (15 October), the discourse used by Conservative members, an how this reflects the motivations driving this whole sorry process. 

A number of Conservative councillors levelled criticisms at DCMS, and the government more generally, for calling what was presented a ‘Free Swimming Programme’.   They were of the opinion that it is not free at all, if the grant is insufficient to meet costs, and that the government was therefore roundly to blame for their decision.  What none of them mentioned, even in response to my opening statement on the matter, was that what is at hand is free swimming for young people – that is they do not have to pay to swim.  By and large, young people will not worry too much about what section of the broad public purse this offer comes from, as long as it is free. 

Conservative councillors last Wednesday forgot who they were supposed to be serving.  Sadly, there will not be th chance in 2009 to remind them of this directly through the ballot box, though a proxy vote may be hand at the County and European elections, but i will be making it my job, in the period up to may 2010 (the next District elections) to remind people what the Conservatives  in West Lancashire did in October 2008, and why they did it.

What’s coming in part 3

 This is the second of three posts on this matter.  The last post will focus, not before time, on the impact the decision taken by the Conservatives will have on young people, and on public health in general, in West Lancashire. It will then move on to a wider analysis of why the Conservatives acted in the way they did, and how this relates to a degenerate political culture in west Lancashire.  This degeneration, I will suggest, is 95% the fault of the conservatvies who have, after all, been in control of localpolitical institutions since 2002 and therefore must necessarily take the majority blame, but it will not absolve Labour from all blame.

I am also considering providing a suitably edited version of the analysis, and including a review of still developing events around my efforts to get a formal review of the decision, as a dossier of evidence to the Audit Commission.

 If you’ve got this far, thanks and well done (unless you skipped, in which case please go back and start again).  I hope you’ll read part 3, which I think is a Friday night job.

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