An Idiot’s Guide to: Asset Management (Fernbank Farm and Lyndale School)

At one end of the Borough, a large field that has been used for 40 years for stables and acts as a green buffer between Moreton and Upton.  At the other end, a very special school that educates and cares for the most vulnerable children in Wirral.  So far, not much in common.

And yet, on closer inspection, both Fernbank Farm and Lyndale School are following a very similar course, so similar in fact, it almost looks like there must be a manual at the Town Hall on how to close down a facility:

  • Both are used by a small number of people and so, in the minds of Senior Managers, carry not much ‘weight’ when it comes to policy
  • The people who do use them are dispersed across several electoral wards and so, collectively, pose no threat to the ruling party at election time
  • Both occupy sites that could generate a cash windfall for the Town Hall which, as we all now know, desperately needed new carpets, staircases and toilets
  • Campaigners at both have been promised ‘equivalent or better’ alternatives, without confirming where or what the alternatives actually are, until both existing facilities have been lost
  • Both need to close because of ‘funding’, under the cover of the terrible ‘cuts’ that have befallen Wirral but cuts which never, strangely, seem to be so severe as to affect the most senior ‘Strategic’ Directors at the Town Hall.
  • Campaigners at both have been misled by the Town Hall – at Fernbank Farm, being told ‘not to worry’ and assured by the then Head of Law that a new lease would be signed and, at Lyndale, being told by all 66 councillors five years ago that the school would be maintained and supported
  • Campaigners at both have been belittled, patronised and dismissed by senior managers, from the appalling conduct of the witness at the County Court hearing for Fernbank Farm and his shadowy line manager who cannot be named for legal reasons; to parents at Lyndale, by the ‘chairman’ of the consultation meeting which wasn’t so much a consultation as a ‘Oh, do be quiet, I’ve heard it all before’ meeting
  • The data collected and much of the associated paperwork for both is exempt, usually because of an Act of Parliament being quoted by the Town Hall or because the ‘minutes’ of meetings are in fact not minutes at all but ‘high level notes’ that can’t be published this side of the Second Coming.
  • The preparatory work has been completed or, is so far advanced, that, by the time it reaches those who are notionally accountable, ie the 10 Labour Councillors in the Cabinet, the decision is a ‘rubber stamping’ exercise and councillors are licking their lips at the prospect of a windfall ‘capital receipt’.

So, to the next poor, unfortunate organisation or cause that is about to get a smack in the chops from your ‘public servants’, plot your course using this handy Idiots Guide to Dealing with Asset Managers:

Stage One: Your usual level of contact with the Town Hall diminishes or even ceases.  Phone calls and emails are not acknowledged, letters you send are ‘never received’.  Staff are on leave/off sick/in training/being held against their will by separatist guerillas (delete as appropriate)

Stage Two: The Town Hall does however notice a slight change in your circumstances, which suggests you may have a deeper weakness or vulnerability.

Stage Three: A council officer, probably not the one you usually deal with, visits and asks questions which go far beyond what is normal.  When you seek assurances, you are met with bland statements that have no basis in law and which usually end with, ‘and of course, we are short of money’.

Stage Four: Depending on how hard you push back at this stage, another council officer tries to calm things down, probably by saying he/she is new and being very reasonable.

Stage Five: A report or memo is written, without your input, that outlines the various options.  The Cabinet Member may, or may not, see this.  Or, if the issue spans several years, you can be certain that the original Cabinet Member will have been retired/sectioned/deceased/sacked or defeated (again, delete as appropriate)

Stage Six: this will see a ‘consultation’, either formal or informal, which isn’t a consultation at all because keeping things as they are will not be an option and the every option that is listed is a variation on the same theme and with the same outcome: you lose

Stage Seven: your campaign is now up and running.  Petitions are being organised, press coverage is raising awareness, your local councillors are probably supportive, unless they are in the Cabinet or on the Planning Committee, in which case they will say they can’t give a commitment.  The senior managers respond by a) not responding and b) continuing with implementation of Stages 5 and 6.

Stage Eight: Senior Managers now focus on one or two details of their wider scheme in the hope that public attention focusses on that, at which point some people will lose interest.  A senior manager (but NEVER a Strategic Director) will explain how the ends justifies the means and, yes, lessons could be learnt and yes, as a goodwill gesture, they will try to accommodate ‘your needs’ elsewhere, perhaps even by spending 1 or 2% of the eventual revenue from the sale on this alternative.  Notice it is ‘your needs’ as opposed to their original ‘commitment’ or ‘policy’.  They are doing YOU a favour!

Stage Nine: the Report is written.  Some aspects of what you have said are mentioned but, in the next sentence, rebutted and the issue is then decided by the Cabinet or County Court.  The Cabinet, being 10 people who have probably never visited your facility since Stage One (‘keep your head down’, ‘don’t rock the boat’), make meaningless comments and usually refer back to the ‘Cuts’.  To placate anyone in the audience, individual Cabinet members may ask questions that make them look sympathetic but, when it comes to the vote, they all vote the same way and do what the officers wanted in the first place.

Stage Ten (final stage): press coverage laments outcome of vote and loss of facility.  Campaigners pledge never to vote for ‘Councillor X’ again but, due to the fact the campaigners are spread across the Borough and not confined to one area, Councillor X is re-elected.  Council makes a mint from sale of asset and spends cash on glitzy new project, at which, amazingly, Councillors are falling over themselves to be photographed at and claim the credit for.

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One comment

  1. Civil servants take this to an even further degree by referring to consultations not as consultations but as “sounding exercises”.

    However, let me correct you on some minor details. David Dickenson (see here) named in open court his line manager as being Tony Simpson. So although Wirral Council won’t state who he is in answer to an FOI request, the answer was put there in the public domain on the 16th February 2014 by myself.

    As to the court papers about the Fernbank Farm case there is an exemption under Freedom of Information Act legislation for court records. This is because there is a separate scheme that applies to court records. Even if you’re not a party to a case you can pay your £10 for up to ten pages (plus 50p for every page thereafter) to the court for copies of most of the paperwork that will be held by the court in such a file.

    As to the “high level notes”/minutes issue. Well I’m currently trying to write up what happened at that consultation meeting on my blog (the latest part being here and I’m currently writing up the bit where you asked your questions. Probably my write up will be more detailed (and less censored) than whatever notes that were taken which if it is going to Cabinet in September will be published so long after the meeting it will be hard for people who were there to remember whether they are accurate or not.

    Going back to the court case issue, sadly the Contempt of Court Act 1981 c.49 even for civil cases restricts what the press can write about when proceedings are active. There is a caveat in s.5 which states “A publication made as or as part of a discussion in good faith of public affairs or other matters of general public interest is not to be treated as a contempt of court under the strict liability rule if the risk of impediment or prejudice to particular legal proceedings is merely incidental to the discussion.” , but most publications wouldn’t want to risk getting prosecuted for contempt of court because of their reporting on an active case.

    Even after the fast track trial was finished and I got copies of some of the court papers, the person working at the court when giving them to me specifically told me not to publish them! So it’s not just Wirral Council that has a default attitude of keeping things secret!

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