Police investigating possible criminal offences at Uttlesford District Council
Essex Police is investigating whether criminal offences have been committed at Uttlesford District Council (UDC).
The force has confirmed to the Indie that it has been made aware of an “ongoing internal investigation” at the authority, which governs north-west Essex, including Saffron Walden, Great Dunmow and Stansted.
A spokesman for Essex Police said: “We have been made aware of an ongoing internal investigation at Uttlesford District Council. Our officers are currently assessing information, which has been provided by the council, to determine whether or not any criminal offences have been committed. We are engaging with UDC.”
The council has been unable to sign off its annual accounts for 2019-20 because of a “governance issue”, despite an extended deadline. The issue has prompted an angry call for answers from opposition parties, who condemned a lack of clarity from the Residents for Uttlesford (R4U) administration.
On Tuesday evening (Dec 8) Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Green Party councillors were blocked when they tabled a motion calling on all members to agree to uphold the council’s code of conduct and asked anyone unable to do so to resign from their post in the administration.
On Wednesday they made their frustration clear at council leader Cllr John Lodge and his cabinet's failure to clarify the situation.
Cllr Chris Criscione, leader of the Conservatives, said: “There’s no excuse for a councillor to vote against holding up the basic principles of public life to which we have all signed up after our election, and for asking for transparency on key issues facing the council.
“No doubt someone’s going to say that this is political posturing, or game playing, as is the normal rhetoric from this administration, but this is way beyond that. As we contend, this is a question of selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. This is not about what someone has to do, but what they should do for the benefit of the whole council.”
Cllr Paul Fairhurst, co-leader of the Greens but a former R4U member, said: “In recent weeks, the R4U administration have attempted to portray an ongoing investigation into councillor practices as a trivial matter, not worthy of councillors who ought to be dealing with the terrible Covid-19 pandemic and the economic fall-out that it has caused. No doubt these are serious issues that the whole council is justifiably focusing on.
“However, the question of good governance and the current investigation of members of the executive is no trivial matter and affects not just the external auditor’s decision to refuse sign-off of the annual governance statement but goes to the very heart of the trust which the residents have placed in this council.”
Cllr Melvin Caton, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats and proposer of the motion, concluded: "As the R4U administration at UDC knows full well, the current investigation was called by the chief executive and by the chief legal officer of the district council in a case that they both agreed was far too serious to be dealt with internally. It has been under investigation by Kent and Essex Police since March.
“This is no doubt deeply embarrassing for the R4U party, who fought their [May 2019 local] election campaign on a promise of integrity and transparency. However, it’s not helpful to compound this by political stealth and blame the messengers. One can only assume that they have their own internal codes of practice and should be judged on their own party’s terms.”
Cllr Alan Dean, leader of the opposition at UDC, was shocked at the way the meeting was handled.
He said: “In order to suppress elected members’ concerns being raised, R4U councillors then voted to shut the debate down. At least eight councillors, including from the ruling party, were cut off by the chair [Independent Cllr Martin Foley, a former Lib Dem] in a move that pandered to the administration.”
“Let there be no doubt that this is one of the saddest days in the council’s history.”
Currently, the 39-seat UDC is made up of 22 R4U, 5 Lib Dem, 4 Conservative, 2 Green Party, 2 Independent and 2 Thaxted and the Eastons Independent Group councillors. There are two vacancies. When R4U seized control of the authority in May last year, routing the Tories, the party had 26 seats.
Three members defected to the Green Party in October last year. One of that trio, Cllr Anthony Gerard, resigned in April. He had been embroiled in controversy when it emerged his wife Susan used her maiden name to make a planning application for a property in Saffron Walden and did not declare she was married to a member as required.
His Newport seat remains vacant. The death of R4U Cllr Alan Storah means the Sampfords ward is also without official representation.
As well as the police investigation, R4U is facing an expensive appeal by Manchester Airports Group after councillors overruled legal advice and reversed the previous Conservative UDC administration's planning permission for growth to 43 million passengers a year at Stansted Airport.
The party has also presided over a second local plan failure, leaving the district vulnerable to developers and facing a further hefty bill. After deciding to return to the drawing board in April, the party is in a race against time to come up with a new housing strategy before the Government takes control of the process.
The Indie has asked Cllr Lodge and UDC’s chief executive Dawn French to comment on the opposition comments and clarify the circumstances of the ongoing police and internal investigations.