Monday, 30 September 2013

Networking for Frodsham

For me one of the most important roles of a Councillor is to 'network' for your community.  You never know who you'll meet, or where you'll meet them - but there can often be opportunities to 'spread the word.'  The trick is, of course, to spot them and use them.

Yesterday was quite a day where I made loads of links - and I hope the community will be able to benefit from the networking and the opportunities that arise.

A-star sports - is a new business based in the Chester/North Wales area that brings good quality sport coaching to youngsters aged 2-10 in a whole range of indoor based sports.  Some Frodsham parents already take their children to their training and parties outside Frodsham.  A-star sports are looking for more venues in Frodsham.  (They've already used the Church Hall.)  I've already suggested the Guide Association Hall and the Youth Association Hall as possibilities and put A-star in touch with them. If anyone has any more ideas where they could put on events in and around Frodsham let me know - or email Gary Bassett (gary.basset@a-starsports.co.uk).

Thrive - harnessing the power of gardening
Thrive is a charity that seeks to help disabled people build their skills and self-esteem through gardening.  I was very impressed talking to Alice Walters (alice.walters@thrive.org.uk) and seeing how gardening together can have real tangible benefits for individuals.  I hope to be able to encourage Thrive to bring their work to Frodsham - and perhaps work with Weaver Vale Housing Trust and possibly Transitions and Frodsham Foundation to make this a reality.

Country-side alliance - mobile phone coverage
We all know just how frustrating poor mobile phone coverage can be.  Well the Countryside Alliance want us all to do something about this.  It suggests we all download their app - go to here to find out more.  I searched for Frodsham on their data base and saw a dearth of data at the moment.  It is the Countryside Alliance's hope that their real data will encourage all mobile providers to up their game generally and especially in rural areas.

Frodsham Foundation
I chatted at length to organisers from Social Action about Frodsham Foundation.  They were really impressed with what we have done so far - and I was invited to add their name to the 'Social Action wall.'  I was really pleased and proud to be able to do this.  They were really impressed with the entrepreneurial and social enterprise approach being taken.

Aircraft noise and emissions
I had a long chat about Frodsham and Liverpool airport and learnt a lot about how industry is trying to make aircraft quieter and greener.  Sometimes being green makes aircraft less quiet than they could be.  This is a very interesting trade off - which industry is grappling with.  Operators are looking for greater fuel efficiency as the first priority.  I took the opportunity to spread the word about Halton Council dragging its feet over changes at Hale which, when implemented, would improve Liverpool Airport's safety rating and efficiencies in operation.

So where did all this interesting activity take place... at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester!

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Planning Update - Hovercraft on the Marshes?

I encourage everyone in Frodsham to log on to CWaC's planning portal - (click here)  or go to Frodsham Library or FTC at Footman's Cottage and ask to see the plans and documentation for planning application

13/03657/COU: Frodsham Marshes – land off Brook Furlong

Change of Use: Agricultural to Leisure Use

application site shown edged in red - on the north side of the M56 opposite Frodsham
Lynn and I have called this planning application into CWaC's Planning Committee as we recognise it is an important application and should be given a wide airing and discussion.

It may not be clear from the plan - but the application site is on the north side of the M56.  It is an 18 acre field lying opposite Frodsham.  The applicant proposes a wide range of outdoor leisure activities - potentially including archery.  Of note they also propose using buggies and 2 small hovercraft.

The applicant suggests that the noise from the hovercraft is the equivalent of 2 small vans.

The proposed access to the site is down Marsh Lane, over the M56 and then into Brook Furlong.
It is suggested that the site would be open 09:00-15:00 in the winter, to 17:00 in the summer with the exception of Thursdays when they propose to remain open to 20:00.

I have spoken with Liza Woodray - the planning officer evaluating the application and she has confirmed that in principle leisure uses on the marshes are acceptable.  This is in accordance with the long standing Vale Royal local plan.  However this is not the end of the consideration as questions such as vehicle access/vehicle parking/temporary structures as well as noise etc still have to be evaluated.

We all know how congested Marsh Lane is - Lynn and I have only just 'paid' for the double yellow lines to be extended out of 'our' Members' Grants!  Thursday in Frodsham is Market Day and Marsh Lane becomes even more congested...  all these things must be considered and evaluated too.  It has also been suggested that the end of Marsh Lane nearest the M56 is not a public highway - and that there are no rights for private vehicles to access the marshes.  If this is correct - those who control the private rights are in a very strong position to influence what happens.

I am sure many people in Frodsham have views on these things and the application as a whole - so please make sure you have your say.

Incidentally I have suggested that before any decisions are taken that the applicant should bring a hovercraft to the site and let us hear just how noisy it is.

So having encouraged you all to have your say - what's my initial position.  Incidentally I won't make up my mind finally until I see all the officer reports and consider all the other representations made.  I do intend speaking at the Planning Committee and I will readily reflect the diversity of opinion of the local residents - and I will be particularly interested in and will present what those living near the site and its access have to say.  I will reflect their comments to the Planning Committee.

So back to what my initial views are:

First I very much support the concept of increased leisure activity on the marshes - all too few of us enjoy the marshes at the moment and I would like to see more people walking, cycling, bird watching, model aircraft flying etc etc etc.

Second - if the application site had been in the Ship Canal lagoons or perhaps alongside the model aircraft field all other things being equal the application would be very much easier to support.  We do not get noise complaints about the model aircraft.

Third - any application - and this one included - really ought to be right application, right place and I'm not sure this is.  If you have a potentially noisy use why place it immediately opposite Frodsham and the motorway width from the Park Homes?  We need to get to the bottom of just how noisy this proposal could be - hence the suggestion that we have a demonstration.

Fourth - vehicle access - why down Marsh Lane?  I don't know where the public rights end and private rights for vehicle access begin - but wouldn't it be preferable if access for vehicles was down Godscroft Lane?  Does this point to another reason why another site would be preferrable?

Fifthly - we must be clear that the arrangements for car parking and for any temporary structures are suitable and appropriate.

If I've missed out anything you think I should have included please let me know.  I will publicise the date when the application will be considered by CWaC's planning committee.



Thursday, 26 September 2013

Governance Review

The Governance Review Committee at CWaC looked at Frodsham Town Council's arrangements last night. They also considered the arrangements for our surrounding parishes.

Based on the extensive consultations carried out over the last year or so CWaC officers made recommendations to change Frodsham's boundaries and also to re-ward Frodsham.

The proposed boundary changes are:

To the East - move Frodsham's boundary out to the Swing Bridge (where most people think it is anyway).  This will make the Weaver Navigation our Eastern boundary as opposed to the River Weaver.  The landowners expressed the wish to be part of Frodsham.

To the South - the proposal is to bring Kingsley Park, Netherton Hall, Catton Hall, Catton Lodge and Lady Heyes all within the Frodsham boundary.  Those living in those areas had also suggested a stronger affinity with Frodsham than anywhere else.

Interestingly most of the businesses in the area prefer to present as if they are trading from Frodsham.

I have attempted to show the changes on this map - but please do not treat this as any form of official map - it isn't!

Everyone living in the areas where there are proposed boundary changes will be contacted by CWaC once more.
The proposed re-warding changes are:

To more closely equalise the number of voters to the number of councillors - and to remove the imbalance which at the moment dis-favours North ward.  New names for each of the wards are suggested replacing the existing north, south, east and west.  The new suggested names are:  Weaver (broadly North Ward); Lakes (broadly East Ward); Overton (broadly South ward) and Castle (broadly West ward).

There was some discussion as to whether some further tweaks are required to the re-warding - possibly to balance each ward up with 4 representatives.  At the moment East has 5 and West 3, with North and South having 4 each - this is proposed to continue at the moment.

Personally I would prefer slightly different names for the wards - and perhaps making more than 4 wards.

I suggest:

North: Newtown and Weaver;
South: Five Crosses and Overton;
East: Townfield and Lake;
West: Netherton and Castle

as names.

If you have any views on these changes please email Alison Armstrong of CWaC at
alison.armstrong@cheshirewestandchester.gov.uk



Tuesday, 24 September 2013

FTC and Park Lane

We had an ordinary FTC meeting last night.  What wasn't ordinary was the fact we had 40 or 50 members of the public in attendance.  It was great to see so many people interested in the workings of their local council and being willing to engage in a conversation - in particular about the future of the closed Park Lane play area and the council's wider play strategy.

The planned agenda was moved around to accommodate those members of the public wishing to speak and to ensure that people could hear the various debates about the Park Lane proposed sale etc.
The members of the public that spoke largely had the same message which was - 'please place things on hold whilst a wider consultation takes place.'

There was also a consensus that there was a need for a broad discussion and a reasonable conversation. No one took much persuasion - in fact many of us would have suggested it whether or not members of the public had requested it.

The council voted overwhelmingly to put the brakes on the proposed sale of Park Lane and to embark on a Frodsham wide consultation regarding the play strategy and whether money should be raised by selling 'surplus' land.  What happens next will depend on what emerges from the consultation.

The exact format of the consultation and the questions to be asked will need to be determined.  FTC looks set to retain external consultants (not Groundworks) to devise the questionnaire and to carry out the consultation.  The intention expressed last night was for a letter drop through every letter box in Frodsham.

For me it makes sense that, within reason, the proposed consultation covers more than the play strategy, Park Lane, and Churchfields.  We have other closed play areas such as along Ship Street.  It makes sense that we ask the people of Frodsham about the future for these sites too.  Consultations are difficult to get right, are often expensive, and those on the receiving end have to be 'engaged' otherwise the consultation will end up in the bin as nothing more than a waste of money.

One of the suggestions I put forward for the Park Lane site was whether FTC should look to 'give' or 'sell' that site to the Castle Park Trust in return for FTC becoming some sort of co-trustee for Castle Park alongside CWaC.  It is important to point out that I am the Chairman of the Castle Park Trust Executive - so I am wearing at least 'two hats' when I make that suggestion.  Castle Park Trust could potentially use the land as a car park.  However this is only one idea - and a very sketchy informal one at that.  Lets hear many suggestions please.

There were many heartening things that emerged from last night's meeting - including an increasing consensus about the facts how Park Lane came to be purchased by the old Parish Council.

A personal plea - the CWaC Local Plan which will guide development in and around Frodsham and the wider CWaC Borough is open for consultation at the moment.  The closing date for that consultation is 1 November 2013.  This is a very important 'once in a generation' plan which should interest absolutely all of us living in Frodsham.  It would be wonderful to have 40 people show an interest in that.  FTC will have an internal debate on that tonight.




Monday, 23 September 2013

Chronicle errors - an update and a further update

I learnt this morning that the Chronicle's editor has agreed that they got their story with the Castle Park caption 'spectacularly wrong.'  I had asked CWaC's press officer to contact the editor regarding the errors affecting CWaC.  I am told they will be publishing a retraction this week.

I've also asked FTC's Town Clerk to contact the editor regarding the errors that affect FTC.
Let's see if the Chron gives equal prominence to correcting the errors as they gave to the error strewn story?

UPDATE - now I thought the above 2 paragraphs was pretty uncontroversial stuff - I didn't deal with the Chron I left it to the CWaC Press office - imagine my surprise to receive the following tweet from the Chronicle:

Michael Green@ChronicleEditor:
'Just to clarify, we have agreed that two words were wrong and will print a correction and apology on Thursday.'

OK - two cheers for the Chron - being proactive, acknowledging that there had been errors - however so far as I am concerned the errors go far deeper than two words.  But for me - this isn't enough.

So I tweeted back:
'the errors are profound.  Nothing to do with Castle Park, misleading photo (in my view), no gift, no imposed restriction.'

Since then this particular part of the tweetasphere has been quiet.  So I decided to do a bit of digging of my own.

The opening paragraphs of the PCC Editor's Code state:

1 Accuracy

i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.

ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and - where appropriate - an apology published. In cases involving the Commission, prominence should be agreed with the PCC in advance.

iii) The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

iv) A publication must report fairly and accurately the outcome of an action for defamation to which it has been a party, unless an agreed settlement states otherwise, or an agreed statement is published.

2 Opportunity to Reply

A fair opportunity for reply to inaccuracies must be given when reasonably called for.


OK Mr Green - thank you for engaging so far - however you need to recognise your paper's errors go beyond two words. 

The Park Lane story has nothing to do with Castle Park;
The larger photo in your story and its caption were and are in my view very misleading
The references to the land [Park Lane] being 'given' ie a gift are simply wrong - it wasn't;
Similarly those selling the land did not impose any restriction on the use of the land as a recreation ground - it was the then Frodsham Parish Council that declared its intended use. 

You can check the facts very simply by a visit to Castle Park where the history of the park and how it came to be owned by CWaC (not FTC) can be seen.  You can also check with the Land Registry - and to make that task easier here are some relevant pointers for you:

The following is a quote from FTC's Land Registry title to the Park Lane play area - it is one of the shortest you will ever see 

A: Property Register:
The freehold land shown edged red on the plan... 

B: Proprietorship Register:
1 PROPRIETOR: Frodsham Town Council  ...
2 The value stated at 9 July 2001 was ... [Note this was/is a Stamp Duty requirement and is not relevant]
3 A Conveyance of the land dated 27 November 1939 made between (1) Albert Berry Weaver and George Herbert Garratt (Vendors) and (2) The Parish Council of Frodsham (the Council) contains Purchasers personal covenant(s) details of which are set out in the schedule of personal covenants hereto.

Schedule of Personal Covenants
1 The following are details of the personal covenants contained in the Conveyance dated 27 November 1939 referred to in the Proprietorship Register:-

'The Council for itself and its assigns hereby covenants with the Vendors that the Council and its assigns will forthwith fence off and at all times afterwards keep effectually fenced off the said property from the adjoining property of the Vendors.'

That's it - no more covenants.  So no covenant or indeed any other form of restriction about this being a play area.  Even if there was the law allows any council to sell off such land.  FTC has received legal advice to this effect.

I also have a copy of the Abstract of Title describing the 1939 Conveyance - no longer relevant given that the title is registered but it deals with the sale of the land. When describing the operative part of the conveyance it states:

'In pursuance of the said agreement and in consideration of the sum of £50 then paid by the Council to the Vendors...'

In other words this was a sale. It wan't 'given' or 'donated' it was a sale - at what looks like the market value for open or agricultural land at the time.

The average price for agricultural land in England in 2012 was about £6,200 per acre.
This plot of land is much smaller than an acre - but I've not done the measurements.  £50 in 1939 equates to just over £2,000 in today's money. 

Castle Park and its grounds were gifted to the then Runcorn Rural District Council (a predecessor of CWaC) just under a decade before the sale of Park Lane took place - and a visit to Castle Park and the plaques on the wall will show this.

So Mr Editor - you got much more than 2 words wrong in my view - please correct all your errors.




Saturday, 21 September 2013

Poor, lazy journalism, the need for accuracy and correcting errors when they are made

I've long since given up reading the Chester Chron, Frodsham & Helsby edition - and especially since they no longer have a local journalist reporting on Frodsham events.  They get things wrong - and have got things spectacularly wrong this week.

Now I know that the individual who writes the headlines is not necessarily the same individual who writes the article - and often the two bear no relation.   This is the case this week too.

The Chron has published a comment piece about the plans for the closed recreation area on Park Lane. However the headline says:

'Castle Park sell-off plan blasted by descendant of land's original owners.'

The headline is wrong, and in my view gives false and misleading impressions.  This is because:

  1. Park Lane Recreation Ground has nothing to do with Castle Park;
  2. Castle Park is owned by CWaC under the terms of a Charitable Trust;
  3. Park Lane Recreation Ground is owned by FTC
  4. There are no plans to sell off Castle Park - I am working hard to expand the events being put on in the park
The photograph of Castle Park House, Footman's Cottage and the formal garden with the caption 'Gift to the People' has nothing to do with Park Lane.

The errors continue with the bold assertion:
'Area was given 'on condition of the land being used as a recreation ground.''

No it wasn't!

Using the word 'given' is wrong and very misleading as is the rest of the statement.

The land was bought for £50 in November 1939.  No conditions were imposed on its sale by the vendors.  It was the parish council at the time who declared that the land was to be used for a recreation ground - this was not a condition imposed by those selling the land.

Anyone - and that includes the Chronicle could check their facts by asking to inspect the Land Registry title details - either with the Land Registry or with FTC.  These errors are so fundamental I wonder whether the piece has been put together by an intern.  I can't believe that a journalist of David Holmes's experience would make such basic errors.

Now I learned from a source this morning that Cllr Pennington apparently considers my first blog relating to the sale of Park Lane to contain an error.  I reported in that blog that the public meeting last Saturday had been 'brought together by Cllr Pennington.'  I genuinely thought that this was the case  - however I am more than happy to correct the apparent error.

Cllr Pennington I apologise for any discomfort I may have given you by that statement and I accept your word that you didn't bring the event together.  I will also amend the wording of that blog.

Anyone reading the Chronicle piece will also see a prominent picture of Cllr Pennington in the same article.  Cllr Pennington - now you make sure the Chronicle corrects its errors!

 







Wednesday, 18 September 2013

The Nolan Principles and the Code of Conduct

Every single councillor in the county, together with MPs and anyone else in public life is expected to uphold the Nolan Principles.  These principles are an integral part of the Code of Conduct that all Councillors on FTC (and CWaC) have signed up to.  In Frodsham we have added 'Respect for others' to the 7 Nolan principles.

  1. Whenever you are acting as a member of this authority you must act in accordance with the following obligations:
    Selflessness
  2. 1 You must act solely in the public interest and must never use or attempt to use your position improperly to confer an advantage or disadvantage on any person or act to gain financial or other material benefits for yourself, your family, friends or close associates.
    Integrity
    2 You must not place yourself under a financial or other obligation to outside individuals or organisations that might seek to influence you in the performance of your official duties.
    You should exercise independent judgement. Although you may take account of the views of others (including a political group), you should reach your own conclusions on the issues before you and act in accordance with those conclusions.
    Objectivity
    3 When carrying out your public duties you must make all choices, such as making public appointments, awarding contracts or recommending individuals for rewards or benefits, on merit.
    You should remain objective, listen to the interests of all parties appropriately and impartially and take all relevant information, including advice from the authority’s officers, into consideration.
    Accountability
    4 You are accountable to the public for your decisions and you must co-operate fully with whatever scrutiny is appropriate to your office, including by local residents.
    Openness
    5 (a) You must be as open and transparent as possible about your decisions and actions and the decisions and actions of your authority. You should be prepared to give reasons for those decisions and actions. You must not prevent anyone getting information that they are entitled to by law. 
    (b) Where the law or the wider public interest requires it, you must not disclose confidential information or information to which public access is restricted.
    Honesty
    6 (a) You must declare any private interests, both pecuniary and non-pecuniary, that relate to your public duties and must take steps to resolve any conflicts arising in a way that protects the public interest, including registering and declaring interests as set out below.
    (b) You must only use or authorise the use of the authority’s resources in accordance with the authority’s requirements. You must, when using or authorising the use by others of such resources, ensure that they are used for proper purposes only. Resources must not be used improperly for political purposes (including party political purposes) and you must have regard to any applicable Local Authority Code of Publicity made under the Local Government Act 1986.
    Respect for others
    7 (a) You must treat others with respect. You should engage with colleagues and staff in a manner that underpins mutual respect, essential to good local government.
    (b) You must not do anything which may cause your authority to breach any equality laws.
    (c) You must not compromise or attempt to compromise the impartiality of anyone who works for, or on behalf of, the authority.
    (d) You must not bully any person, including other councillors, officers of the authority or members of the public.
    Leadership
    8 You must promote and support high standards of conduct when serving as member or co-opted member of the authority, by leadership and example, championing the interests of the community.
    You should uphold the law and, on all occasions, act in accordance with the trust that the public is entitled to place in you. 


So what do these principles mean in practice...

Well at the risk of stating the obvious:

No Councillor should claim he can 'get you planning permission' - it isn't in any councillor's gift - let alone a Town Councillor.  FTC has limited influence over planning decisions which are taken by CWaC - mostly by CWaC officers;

No Councillor should claim he can get you a 'council house' or a 'housing association house.'  Again it isn't in his gift.  FTC has very limited influence over these things.  Housing decisions are taken independently either by the housing association or by CWaC officers;

No FTC Councillor can claim that he can sort out the transfer of assets such as playing fields, particularly assets that belong to someone else or to another council;

No Councillor should seek to bully or intimidate anyone, including FTC's own staff;

All councillors should engage with their colleagues with mutual respect - and of course this goes for 'outbursts' at public meetings...

Of course some of these examples may also amount to something more serious such as fraud or misconduct in public office...

Part 7 - Why being fair, open and honest is vital

One of the saddest aspects of the debates concerning Park Lane and Churchfields is how some people have felt duped and cheated.

Most people are instinctively fair minded.  They realise that not everyone shares the same views - but the important thing is to listen to all sides of the discussion before coming to a judgement.

Unfortunately those leading the way in their opposition to the potential sale of Park Lane and the proposals for Churchfields have ignored the need to be fair and balanced.

Take the first ad hoc meeting called about the Churchfields proposals.

That meeting was called by those who had taken informal 'art of the possible' plans from FTC's offices before the council had even considered them.  They were never intended to be the final proposals - or even possibly proposals to consult about.  They were simply drafts.  They were taken from FTC's offices and presented to residents in and around Churchfields as if they were the finished article.  They weren't and never were.

This 'stunt' as I mentioned in one of my earlier blogs gave rise to a formal complaint against one Councillor.  An independent panel found that he had breached the Councillor's Code of Conduct over this.  Much tiunnecessary unpleasantness was caused.

The meeting last Saturday was called by those trying to mobilise public opinion regarding the potential sale of Park Lane and the revised plans for Churchfields play area.

The meeting was arranged so that those opposing could speak without challenge - and without time restriction.  No agenda was published, no advance warning of what was to be discussed was given.  Anyone after the original speakers was given only 2 minutes to make their point.  The Town Council was not given any proper balanced opportunity to present its position or respond - and people at the meeting, even those who may perhaps disagree with what the council is planning to do noticed the unfairness.

Whilst 2 minutes is more than enough to make a short point and pose a question - it isn't long enough or indeed fair to anyone who seeks to give an answer or indeed pose a question to 'the other side.'

This is my 7th blog posting about this affair - and even though I am writing 'economically' there is still more that could be written and stated.

I have no problem with anyone having a different view to mine.  I have no problem with anyone seeking to persuade people that their view is the correct one.  That is free speech and democracy.  The more the better please.

I have a problem with people who present things unfairly and unreasonably and who act in an undemocratic way.  I have a major problem with people who lie and misrepresent things and especially those that stir up the public with lies and 'misinformation.'

So, for example I have no problem with discussions about:

  • whether Park Lane play area should be sold;
  • what play scheme, if any, should we put in at Churchfields...
in fact I positively encourage it - as the more views we all listen to the better any decisions made are likely to be.

However I have a major problem with anyone who accuses FTC acting in some inappropriate, secretive or furtive manner. The council has not acted in secrecy; it cannot act in secrecy as a matter of law even if it wanted to.   Anyone can inspect any of the agenda, reports and minutes. The vast majority of us believe in the democratic principles where honesty, integrity and openness come first.


Monday, 16 September 2013

Part 6 - Number crunching and democracy. Democracy is precious please use it.

These last few days have been very interesting in Frodsham.

We've had a contested by-election in west ward and a public meeting discussing the selling of a closed pay ground and the upgrading of another.  Both of these sites are in west ward too.

So just how much support did the individual candidates get in that by-election - just how stirred up were the 1100+ electorate?

Well only 13.8% of the electorate voted - and this was after FTC paid for polling cards to be sent out to all eligible voters.

The winning candidate Mike Pusey secured 51 votes, 8 more than Mike Duffy who was in second place. The other two candidates polled 32 and 30 votes respectively.  Doing the number crunching - Mike Pusey secured the votes from around 4.5% or the total electorate - or around 33% of the total votes cast. 

However one views the election it is pretty clear that the vast majority of the electors for whatever reason didn't bother to vote. 

A petition signed by 202 signatories has been presented to the council.  Assuming for the moment that all of these individuals come from Frodsham - that is a petition signed by around 2.1% of the total population.

There was a public meeting convened on Saturday to discuss Park Lane and Churchfields.  I don't know the actual numbers who attended - but it looked fewer than 80... That's right probably fewer than 1% of the population were there.  

The plans for Churchfields can be studied on-line.  Some 2,200 people have viewed the plans on line (around 24% of the population if they are all from Frodsham and separate users) - and the Facebook page already has 65 'likes' for the plans - probably the same as or more than the numbers expressing some opposition on Saturday -  that was before they had seen the latest plans.

Every single meeting of FTC is advertised around a week in advance.  The entire calendar of ordinary meetings is published in May each year.  These meetings are advertised in the time honoured way of being posted on the council's notice board by Lloyds Bank.  This is the same method that has been used for the last 50 years and more.  Anyone can call into the council's offices in Castle Park and ask to see the list.  

And for the 86% (source ONS) of the population who have access to the internet can find all of the information on line.  Typically we get no more than 2 or 3 people attending council meetings.

FTC takes a page in Frodsham Life every month to tell people about what is planned.

So please - if you are interested in anything, if you want to know anything, if you want to influence anything get involved.   Democracy is too precious and too important to be left to a handful of people.

If you care about Frodsham - if you have a view - make sure it gets heard.




Sunday, 15 September 2013

Part 5 - lies, damned lies and petitions - the Park Lane petition.

A petition has been signed with 202 signatures and delivered to FTC.  The statement the signatories were asked to sign was:

'We the undersigned strongly object to the Council selling off recreational land in Park Lane Frodsham.'

Now just how many of these 202 signatories knew:

  • the Park Lane site has been closed for several years;
  • that the closure of the Park Lane site was itself the subject of public consultation which included a letter drop to residents on Park Lane;
  • that the purpose of the sale of the land would be to reinvest in FTC's other play areas.
How many people would sign a petition saying:

'We the undersigned want FTC to renew and reinvest in play areas for the children of Frodsham.  We want them to do this in a cost effective manner and one that doesn't involve raising the council tax.'

How about a petition saying:

'We the undersigned want FTC to look at its land holdings and make sure they are all being used efficiently and effectively for the benefit of the people of Frodsham.'

And then how about:

'We the undersigned expect anyone putting a petition before us to do so fairly and reasonably, after being honest and open about what is really intended.'

I hope, in due course that FTC will get the opportunity to debate this petition.  

Any councillor has the right to add an item to the FTC council agenda.  If the individual promoting the original petition doesn't do so I may have to ask it to be included on the next agenda.


Part 4 - Park Lane and Churchfields

Thanks for the feedback I've received on the blog posts so far.

One of the questions posed to me is about 'Community land going for housing.'

Part of the discussion at yesterday's meeting related to whether the Park Lane site should be sold for housing.

Whilst this is a simple question - the answer is not as simple as I would like - you see the law gets in the way.

All councils - whether FTC or CWaC when selling land are under a duty to get 'the best consideration reasonably obtainable.'  (That is s123 Local Government Act 1972).  The purpose of this legal duty is plain - any council selling a public asset has to set out to get the best price for it.  This is just what each of us would do as individuals - we'd seek to get the best price for it.

So how do you go about getting the best price for a piece of land - well simply put - you advertise the sale as widely as possible so as many people as possible know about it and can bid for it.  Also you don't restrict the future uses of the land - as this would reduce its value.

This is exactly what FTC did.  Having been approached informally by an interested party who wanted to buy the land - FTC resolved to open up the process and advertise the sale widely to ensure that as many interested parties as possible could bid for it.

Now I am aware of one individual who, at one stage claimed that FTC were looking to do some sort of secret deal.  Such a suggestion was always wrong and outrageously wrong.  FTC didn't invite the original expression of interest - but when it came FTC resolved to ensure the widest advertising and even delayed the closing date so as to maximise the level of interest in the site - after all if we are to use the proceeds of sale to improve the play areas we want the highest price.

On the assumption that the sale goes through - it will be for the purchaser to decide what he or she wants to do with the land subject of course to obtaining planning permission if he/she proposes to change the use or build something on the site.  This isn't a given by the way.  I'm sure FTC will, at its next meeting discuss the sale.

Assuming for the moment that the purchaser wants to use the land for housing a planning application would have to be submitted.   The effects and/or congestion on the highways would inevitably be part of the planning process.  CWaC's highway officers will have to be involved and they would make a recommendation based on their expert assessment as to whether the site is sustainable and suitable.  I don't know what the officers would say.

There is a broader question for Frodsham - and one that has been raised now for over a year and one that will be coming to a head in the next couple of months.  This is the local plan.  CWaC has just published the draft local plan for the years 2010-2030.  That plan suggests that leaving aside windfall sites Frodsham should seek to build only 250 houses in the 20 year period.

The sites suggested include - one already built out at Salt Works Farm, the site at the medical centre and the site with planning permission from the BT Exchange to the back of the Old Hall.

Given our demographics - we have one of the oldest populations of any ward in CWaC I don't think this is enough.  With people living longer we need more houses just to accommodate our existing population, leaving aside the prospects for sustainable growth.  Helsby, for example, has been allocated 300 houses and they are half our size.  I am also hoping, by the way, that we get more land allocated for recreational use too - and more employment land and opportunities around Frodsham. and the household waste site relocated...  Surely we want to be more than a dormitory town?

Part 3 - Park Lane and Churchfields

In 2012 FTC adopted a play strategy.  You can read the document here.  http://parish.cheshire.gov.uk/frodsham/cur_docs/play_strategy_2012.pdf .

The opening words of the Executive Summary state:


Frodsham Town Council’s play areas are recognised as being poor, from the findings of consultants and from the views of householders and play users. This has been the situation for a number of years and their modernisation is well overdue. (The Borough Council’s recent play and recreation provisions at Castle Park and Saltworks Farm has superseded and rescued the town for play to an extent. They should not continue to mask the deficiencies on the Town Council’s sites.

However, on the positive side, the play and recreation sites owned or managed by the Town Council are of a good size and some are in good locations, complementing the CWaC sites. So even if it were possible to acquire new sites for conversion to play, this should not be necessary. It is possible to transform the Town’s offer by working with the land already held.

The aim should be to re-develop the selected sites for play over a phased programme that is short enough for progress to be seen and for the end to be in sight, ie up to 5 years. 

These words weren't written by the Town Council.  They come from Groundworks Cheshire - a well respected independent consultancy.

The whole play strategy document is nearly 100 pages long.  It includes comments on the lengthy and extensive consultation undertaken for FTC about the play areas and what people said about them.

The first site identified for improvement was Churchfields.

The first plans for Churchfields were 'art of the possible' drawings produced by Groundworks - what could be done, not what should or would be done.   They were indicative drawings.  Unfortunately individuals who either didn't understand what those drawing were - or because they just wanted to 'rouse the community' claimed that these were the formal proposals.  They weren't and never were.  They were never presented for discussion or approval to FTC let alone to be adopted.  

Yes, that's right - these plans were taken from FTC's offices and published in the community before FTC had even had a chance to consider them.  This outrageous conduct gave rise to a formal complaint that a Councillor had breached the mandatory Code of Conduct in doing what he had done.  An independent panel found that the Councillor in question had broken the Code of Conduct.

Leaving aside the unnecessary unpleasantness and needless confusion this 'stunt' produced it did spark a healthy debate with the people in and around Churchfields.  The Churchfields proposals were a significant part of the Annual Town Meeting where commitments were made to draw up further plans and embark on further consultations.  

So what are the current proposals for Churchfields? - well they've only just been drawn up and are being   circulated now.
  
In other words those calling the public meeting for yesterday hadn't bothered to check what the current proposals actually are.

For my part, and I'm sure for most of the councillors I will only be voting for or against any plans for Churchfields when I am clear that the community knows what is being proposed and has expressed its views on them.



Part 2 - Park Lane and Churchfields public meeting - truths, lies and distortions

In my last blog entry I explained the legal position behind the Park Lane play area - but this isn't just a legal question.  Is FTC seeking to do the right thing in selling a closed play area and re-investing the money in the other FTC play areas?

Now leave aside any particular scheme - just ask yourself the question is it right that FTC seeks to invest in its play areas?

To my mind the answer to this question is an overwhelming - 'Yes, absolutely right.'

It has been quite depressing over the last decade to watch the various FTC playgrounds decline.  Like many places we've suffered from vandalism, and a rise in the perceptions of health and safety dangers.  This has led to play areas being closed - such as a Park Lane and at Ship Street, and play equipment being removed such as at Top Road and at Top Park.

Now play equipment that is safe, well maintained and conforming to health and safety requirements doesn't come cheap.  Also fashions change over time - play equipment, like architecture dates very rapidly.  If we are to reinvest in our play facilities we need to:

  • raise the money; and
  • consult widely on what can be done - with parents, residents and children.

Leaving aside the CWaC owned and controlled Castle Park and their Ship St/Saltworks farm facility where money has been spent recently we've seen a sad decline in the facilities in Frodsham.

Ask yourself the question - do our youngsters deserve more than grassy fields?
Again I think the answer is 'Yes, absolutely.'

Now getting play areas right is a specialist task - and so FTC has retained Groundworks to help with:

  • design;
  • consultation; and,
  • money raising through grants etc.
I would have thought that 99.9% of the people in Frodsham would support improving the play facilities for our children in principle.   I fully accept that questions of what/where/how etc need to be debated and resolved.  I will cover that in my next blog entry.

One or two questions raised issues at the public meeting related to CWaC's play facility in Castle Park.  There was neither the time, nor was I given the opportunity to respond to the points raised about it - and as I am Chairman of Castle Park Trust I do know the answers so here goes:
  • why isn't the play area fenced - the old one was?
  • and what about dogs (and other animals) that may use the sand as a toilet?
The Castle Park renovation was managed by the old Vale Royal Borough Council.  They involved experts from the Heritage Lottery Fund and consultants - including experts in play.  The play area was deliberately moved to the present location for several reasons - some of which related to restoring the vista from Castle Park House - and others relating to improving the play facilities for the children.

As you could imagine people like me posed the experts questions about things like - whether the play facility should be fenced off or not. The expert advice we received was that we shouldn't be putting our children behind bars.  Besides - the area where the play area now is - is effectively secure in its own setting without the need for barriers.  Parents can supervise their children very effectively in the play area in any event.

I posed the question about dogs potentially using the sand as a toilet many years ago.  Up until yesterday I only had one person contact me about the issue.  

Ask yourself the question have you ever seen dog mess in the sand?  I haven't by the way - although my children are a little too old for that style of play.   Now all dogs in the park should be controlled in any event, and any owner whose dog makes a mess commits a criminal offence if they do not clean it up after them.  The sand used in the playground is not the typical toilet for a dog in any event.  Also the park staff inspect the play area daily in any event.  If this is an issue it isn't one that is being reported to me or to the park staff.

There was some suggestion that we have a dog problem in Castle Park - again if there is one this isn't being reported if that is the case.  The place where we do get complaints is Salt Works Farm.  CWaC dog wardens do police Frodsham from time to time.  Any complaints - please make sure you report them to CWaC dog wardens by calling 0300 1238123.

The next blog entry will look at the Churchfields play area issues.







Part 1 Park Lane and Churchfields public meeting - the truth, the whole truth or just half truths and lies?

There was a public meeting this Saturday morning.  It was brought together by [persons unknown - ed] with a view to discussion FTC's plans to sell off the Park Lane play area and also to discuss the plans to provide improved play facilities at Churchfields.

I hadn't been invited - and in fact no-one from FTC was invited to attend the meeting.  I just turned up as a member of the public.

Now I'm going to split up this blog into parts - because before anyone reaches any judgments about any of these issues there is quite a lot of detail that needs to be understood first.

The law governing local council meetings

The legal position on council meetings is very simple and straight forward.  All meetings have to be advertised to the public with agendas published typically a week in advance.  For FTC this means publishing the agenda on the council's notice board and publishing it on the council's website.  The council's timetable for its ordinary meetings is published in May of each year and published in advance.  If you want to know the meetings schedule go to http://www.frodsham.gov.uk .

All council business has to be held in public - unless there is some legally justifiable reason which the council in that meeting accepts as being necessary to place that business in private session.   The vast majority of council business is held in public session.

These legal reasons for holding a meeting in private have to be ones recognised in the Local Government Act 1972.  Anyone reading the list of what should be dealt with in private session will immediately realise that they are reasonable and sensible.  They include things like confidential employment matters, confidential commercial matters and confidential legal advice.

So just ask yourself the following question - would you like your confidential business arrangements and your confidential legal advice broadcast to the world?  Would it undermine your negotiating position if your confidential legal advice or your business position was made public - of course it would.   The same is true of councils.

All Councillors are under a legal duty to keep confidential matters confidential.  This includes keeping confidential legal advice confidential.  Any councillor who breaks the duty of confidentiality can be sanctioned for doing so.  The fact that the council's confidential legal advice was made public regarding the Park Lane play area almost certainly involved one or more councillors breaching the duty of confidentiality they owed to the council.  Councillors also have a duty to protect the best interests of the council.  Making confidential legal advice public almost certainly breaches this duty too.

No council can just choose to hold its business in private session.  Anyone who suggests to you that this is the case is at best mistaken, or at worse being deliberately misleading or simply lying.

What is the legal advice the council has received?

Normally I would not be in a position to discuss it.  However as the confidential advice had been made public I argued before the council's meeting in August that the meeting should remain in public session - as there was no point in discussing the legal position in confidential session when it had already been made public.  This is what happened - and so I can discuss the position here.

So what is the legal status of the Park Lane play area.

This was raised at the public meeting on Saturday morning.  Those opposing the sale of the land gave their description of how the land came to be owned by Frodsham Town Council.  Unfortunately those explaining the situation didn't describe it accurately or fairly in my view.

We heard expressions expressions such as 'donation' and 'sale' used interchangeably.  They are not alternative terms.  A donation means a gift.  A sale is, a sale!  We also heard words such as 'restrictive covenant' as an apparent description to describe what some saw as restrictions on the use of the land.   We also heard nonsense from one corner about the Town Council acting in secrecy.  

The simple position is this:

In November 1939 what was then Frodsham Parish Council bought a piece of land on Park Lane.  They bought that piece of land from the estate of Harriet Elizabeth Wright.  They paid £50 for the land. The parish council bought the land to be a recreation ground. 

We've looked at the minutes kept by the old Parish Council to see what their intentions were when they bought the land in 1939.  What we've found is that the parish council was looking for land to be a recreation ground.  They looked at a site near where the tin church is today - and for reasons which are not recorded they decided instead to buy this piece of land at Park Lane.

When they bought the land there were no restrictive covenants or indeed any other form of restriction imposed on the land limiting its future use either by the late Ms Wright's personal representatives or by the then parish council.

Now FTC has a number of recreation grounds - several of which are held under Charitable Trust.  The lands held under trust include land such as Marl Pits, Manley Road Copse, Crummers/Crowmere Lake.  This recreations ground trust was established during World War I.  It would have been well known to the then parish council.  Neither that parish council then, or later, nor Frodsham Town Council subsequently chose to bring this piece of land within the charitable trust.  (Lands within the charitable trust can be sold by the way - I will return to this point later.)

In 2001 the Town Council registered its legal title to the Park Lane site.  When they did that all the legal documents proving the Town Council owned the land were submitted for scrutiny to the Land Registry.  This included the Conveyance between Ms Wright's personal representatives and the Parish Council.  If there were any enforceable restrictive covenants or any other restrictions on the land they will now appear on the registered title.  Now those of you familiar with your own registered land titles will be familiar with the paperwork.  Often the restrictive covenants affecting a piece of land will run to several pages.  In this case there is only one restrictive covenant - and that simply relates to fencing the land.  It is one of the 'cleanest' and shortest legal titles you are ever likely to read.  Anyone can inspect the legal title if they wish - if you pay the relevant Land Registry fee.  There is a copy of the title at the Town Council's office that can also be inspected.

So when anyone tells you, or suggests to you that there are restrictive covenants on this land confining its use to a recreation ground they are wrong, mistaken or perhaps telling lies.

I hope you also realise that FTC has been painstaking and careful in examining exactly how it came to own the land and what restriction could affect it.

OK - so no restrictive covenants - but can FTC sell land that is a recreation ground is there any other legal protection?

At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious.  Things change over time and the law recognises this.  Just because a council bought the land for one purpose doesn't mean that it cannot be used for another purpose or sold off when it becomes surplus to requirements.  In fact all council's have a duty to maximise the use of their public assets.  Simply owning a closed play area isn't a good use of public resources - you are spending money on insurance and limited maintenance that simply doesn't make sense especially in times of public sector austerity.  There are various Local Government Acts of Parliament that specifically allow local councils to sell recreation grounds without restriction.

The legal advice received by the council specifically confirms that the council is entitled to sell the land if it wishes to do so.  The money raised by the sale could be used for any purpose so far as the law is concerned.  Incidentally FTC is looking to reinvest all the proceeds of sale from this site in play facilities across Frodsham - exactly what it would have to do if it sold one of the recreation grounds that was held in charitable trust.

This Park Lane play area has fallen into disuse and was formally closed some years ago.  This play area was built before Castle Park became a public asset (controlled now through CWaC and not FTC).  It was a play area before the High School / Leisure Centre was built.

When FTC was considering the future of Park Lane two years ago the council carried out a consultation exercise with the residents in and around Park Lane about closing the play area.  This involved sending letters to residents.  If memory serves no one sought to persuade FTC to keep the play area open.  This made sense anyway - especially bearing in mind the significant investment in play facilities by CWaC at Castle Park - a matter of a few yards away.

So concluding the legal position:

  • there are no legal restrictions on FTC selling the land;
  • there are no legal restrictions on how FTC could use the money that it raises if it sells the land
Fortunately though this is not just a legal question.

The legal position is only part of this issue. Just because something is legal doesn't mean it has to happen - there are practical and other considerations too.  I will turn to those in my next blog entry.

Ed - this piece was amended on 21 September with the insertion of the words in [    ] in the first paragraph.  See blog post for 21 September 2013 for other comment.

Friday, 13 September 2013

The political bubble, froth, foolishness and the price of democracy.

We often hear references on the news to the 'Westminster Bubble' - a less than flattering reference to the arcane world that our national politicians inherit.  Well the last few days and the various goings on at both CWaC and in Frodsham make me realise that we have our own little bubbles here too.

We've had an interesting week at CWaC - with not, one, not two but three special council meetings.  We've debated and agreed unanimously to start the ball rolling on a new prestigious shopping area for Chester which will hopefully see many hundreds of millions of pounds worth of investment attracted to our Borough. This was perhaps CWaC at its best.  Whether either of the other two special meetings saw CWaC at its best will depend on your view of what went on.

On Tuesday night we had Labour tabling a motion seeking to provide advice to the Executive to reduce the yearly house-building target included in the just published draft local plan.  Their figures were constructed so as to be able to claim that two sites suggested for housing and presently in the green belt - Westminster Road in Chester and Ledsham Road in Ellesmere Port could be removed.  They also sought to adjust downwards the housing allocation for Winsford.

Other than the political capital which Labour was seeking to generate - this was amongst the most pointless meetings imaginable.  First the Executive had already published the draft local plan.  In that sense the train had already left the station!  No matter what the decision by council the plan was already out for public consultation - and will remain open to consultation until 1 November 2013.  Do please read it and comment on it.  If you don't submit a consultation response you won't have the right to address the Planning Inspector when it comes to the Examination in Public (ie a Public Inquiry) which tests out the draft plan.  Secondly the place for the comments on the plan is through the consultation process and the subsequent Examination in Public.

I have to say I don't agree with everything in the draft plan - but I will be making comments on it, I will be encouraging FTC to review the draft and to comment as well.  I fully intend to address the Examination in Public - and I hope as many people from Frodsham and the Borough as a whole will participate in this process.  This local plan will guide development decisions until 2030 so it is important.

Last night we had a special council to consider whether the council should change its constitution on a one off basis so as to require the planning application for the Chester Student Village to be considered by the council as a whole.  There is a trite and true legal expression - 'hard cases make bad law' - in other words don't use an extreme of anything on which to set precedents or create laws - or in this case make changes to the council's constitution.  This planning application is mired in controversy.  But just because something is controversial doesn't mean it should be handled any differently from any other application.  Lets not forget the council has handled applications for incinerators, windfarms and other equally controversial subjects appropriately so far - so what is different about this case?

The answer it appears is innuendo.  Whispers of skull-duggery.  Questions of perception.  But there is no proof of any wrongdoing...

Well it is on the basis of these perceptions that the council voted 32:30 last night to treat this planning application as exceptional.  A curious alliance of 4 Conservatives, 1 Lib-Dem and the Labour Group decided that full council should decide this application.

What is even more curious is that this application, as it involves green-belt land, will have to be considered by the Secretary of State in any event - so even if there was skull-duggery (which I don't believe there is) there was a check against it in any event.

Deciding planning applications is not as straight forward as you may like to think.  All 75 Councillors are now going to have to be trained in planning law and practice and acting in a quasi judicial fashion.  No-one who has a pre-determined view as to the outcome of the application can take part in the decision making... let alone anyone with an interest.  I suspect that we will have many fewer than 75 Councillors taking the decision if that moment is ever reached.  Will the applicant appeal the matter for non-determination?

Now many will argue that this decision has not set a precedent - it is a one-off.  I have to say that one-offs have a habit of becoming more regular.  Do we really want 75 Cllrs deciding planning applications?  There was all party unanimity when CWaC was created that the more controversial applications would be handled by a Strategic Planning Committee.  On the one hand I can't blame Labour for taking the opportunity to defeat the ruling group for the first (and I hope) only time - although I do wonder just how many of their number really have an appetite for deciding planning applications at full council.  Be careful what you wish for - decisions like this one have a habit of biting others in due time too.

Will Labour be able to resist whipping their members I wonder?  There are strong rumours (originating from within Labour) that Labour did whip its members in advance the last time the student village application was considered.  If they did - that would have been highly inappropriate... or is this just more innuendo ...

And finally - yesterday we had a by-election in Frodsham.  Four candidates contested West Ward where one vacancy was up for grabs.

On a 14% turnout Mike Pusey was elected with 51 votes beating the other 3 candidates.  In other words the now Cllr Mike Pusey was elected by just 4.5% of the electors on the roll or 33% of the votes cast.

This election will have cost the council tax payers of Frodsham around £5,000 to stage.  With 156 being the total number of votes cast each vote could be valued at £32!  An interesting way to judge the price of democracy!

I am pleased the election was contested - it shows on one level the greater interest in FTC than before.   But any democrat has to be concerned that only 14% of the electors bothered to vote.  That said this is the first contested election in West ward in a very, very long time.