It’s decision day for the future of Fylde Council – and the verdict from the electorate in today’s governance referendum will be historic and have implications across the UK.
All eyes are on the borough as 61,000 residents have the opportunity to go to the polls for the first referendum of its kind since the Localism Act came into effect in 2011.
Residents can vote to maintain a cabinet system of governance, or force the council to re-adopt the committee system it previously operated under until 2006.
The authority must adhere to the decision.
The Fylde Civic Awareness Group, which prompted the referendum by gathering more than 4,600 signatures on a petition calling for change, proudly claim it is the first poll of its kind – and other campaigners around the country are watching eagerly.
“The initiative of Fylde Civic Awareness Group could have a huge knock-on effect across the country,” said Sian Pettman, a spokesman for the Campaign for Democracy in Canterbury District (CDCD), currently gathering signatures in Kent in the hope of prompting a change back to a committee system on Canterbury City Council.
“The CDCD is very grateful to the Fylde Civic Awareness Group for their pioneering campaign to petition for a referendum on governance.
“We are following the lead that they have taken and we know of other communities in Kent which are hoping to do the same.”
The Kent campaigners have already gathered 1,000 of the 5,500 signatures they need to prompt a referendum in Canterbury and Sian’s colleague Richard Norman added: “The Fylde campaign has been a huge inspiration to us.
“It shows public opinion can inspire the possibility of change.
“We feel the campaign is as important as the outcome, as it generates public opinion and gets people thinking and talking about how their local councils are run.
“We launched our campaign in March after being inspired by the Fylde situation.”
Campaigners for change back to the committee system claim the system allows a greater say for all elected councillors on the authority.
Fylde currently has 51 councillors.
But supporters of the cabinet system say it is a more efficient system of governance and helps speed up local government decisions.
They also argue decisions can still be scrutinised by the whole council.
The Fylde Civic Awareness Group claims some 40 councils across the country – including Lancashire County – are considering the change to committees, and 13 have already volunteered to do so.
But while the Department for Communities at Local Government points out that governance referendums have already been held in a number of authorities headed by an elected mayor, it is understood that the Fylde poll today is the first which has seen the electorate challenge a leader and cabinet system.
Jon Harrison, chairman of the Fylde Civic Awareness Group, said: “We have been out and about talking to voters and we have been very pleased with the response.
“A lot of people we spoke to were unaware of how their council is run, but we were greatly encouraged by how many wanted to learn more and the questions they asked.”
The group believes a cabinet of just seven councillors disenfranchises the rest.
Many decisions can be made by portfolio holders alone in the cabinet system – but the committee system requires the agreement of more elected representatives.
A change would see the re-introduction of larger committees to discuss matters including parks and recreation, environment and policy.
But Fylde Council leader Coun David Eaves has claimed the referendum is costing Fylde council tax payers £54,000 and says; “If it ain’t broke (the system) don’t fix it.”
He added: “I’m convinced the vast majority of Fylde residents don’t care what system is in place. Their main concern, I believe, is what is delivered and how much it costs them.
“This referendum has already effectively cost Fylde Council tax payers the equivalent of a one per cent council tax increase. Why change a winning formula?”
But Coun Liz Oades, leader of the opposition, said: “These seven councillors represent only four areas of the borough, yet take decisions affecting the whole borough, usually behind closed doors.”
Polling takes place at 49 Fylde polling stations today (Thursday), alongside the European elections, and opening times are 7am to 10pm.
The referendum count will take place tomorrow in Lytham and the result is expected around mid-afternoon.