Uttlesford District Council leader John Lodge bullish despite motion of no confidence
The leader of Uttlesford District Council (UDC) has dismissed opposition moves to oust him as "insidious politicking" and insisted a motion of no confidence in him and his cabinet colleagues must be held in private.
Cllr John Lodge was scathing about the cross-party coalition vote to confirm he and his eight Residents for Uttlesford (R4U) cabinet colleagues are unfit to lead the authority.
The motion of no confidence at an extraordinary council meeting on Monday (June 28) has been proposed by Liberal Democrat group leader Melvin Caton and seconded by Independent Cllr Vere Isham, who defected from R4U after May's local elections and is erroneously listed on the council's website as a member of the Green Party.
It says: "The leader and cabinet of Uttlesford District Council have failed on a number of fronts to the detriment of our residents. This is a direct result of the lack of transparent, accountable and honest leadership which has been consistently demonstrated during the past two municipal years through the following unacceptable actions and behaviours and failure of leadership that must not be allowed to continue."
The motion highlights three areas of concern. The administration is accused of failing to defend democratic decisions because "the council leader and cabinet failed to uphold the planning committee's decision to unconditionally refuse Stansted Airport Limited permission to expand Stansted Airport". Cllr Lodge's critics say that compromised the planning appeal, which found in favour of airport growth to 43 million passengers a year – and awarded costs likely to exceed £1.5m against UDC.
Cllr Lodge and his team are also accused of a lack of good governance for failing to "call upon parties involved in an ongoing 14-month police investigation... to stand aside until the investigation's completion". The probe by Essex Police means the council's 2019-20 accounts cannot be signed off by an external auditor.
The third charge is a failure of accountability. The motion says: "They have displayed dishonesty and have created a bullying and intimidatory culture which tolerates neither dissent nor questioning from backbench members. Elected members who question or ask for clarification are frequently dismissed, demeaned or intimidated by administration party members, often in a vicious or otherwise inappropriate manner, so effectively suppressing the democratic representation of their constituents."
Thirteen opposition MPs from the Lib Dem, Green and Conservative parties have written to UDC chief executive Dawn French to challenge the decision to hold the debate behind closed doors by excluding the press and the public. She has been asked to justify the decision in law.
They told her: "The business to be transacted affects the most fundamental purpose for which a local authority exists: to have a democratically elected and publicly accountable council that functions effectively. A council is a political body because it is responsible for local public affairs. Therefore, insofar as a vote of no confidence against a leader and cabinet is a challenge to those vested with executive political authority within a council, it is, in our opinion, of utmost importance and in the public interest that such deliberations are conducted in the view of the public and press."
A similar vote of no confidence was tabled in March to be debated on April 13 but the meeting was cancelled.
Cllr Lodge was defiant: "R4U doesn't seek approval from Westminster parties. Residents are our priority, so the only vote of confidence we care about is from local people, which we are grateful to have received again – resoundingly – in May.
"While the local Westminster opposition coalition is clearly upset at being repeatedly rejected at the ballot box, their insidious politicking has real consequences.
"We refute their complaints, and their motion seems to have clearly been designed to wreck UDC's chances of overturning the Stansted Airport expansion at the High Court, by attempting to force the revealing of the council's legal strategy and evidence to the airport's owners. Because of this, UDC officers have quickly acted on legal advice that this debate must happen in private.
"Whilst this might upset the Conservatives, who approved the expansion in the first place, and their opposition local coalition partners, we agree that it is imperative that UDC's chances of winning are protected."
Independent councillors Neil Gregory and Richard Pavitt have made it clear they do not support the no-confidence motion but added: "There are areas where the performance of the R4U administration should and could improve."
A UDC spokesman told the Indie: "The council is following independent legal advice in holding this debate in private so as to not prejudice related ongoing matters. The outcome will be made available to the press and public after the meeting has concluded.”
UDC has 39 councillors representing 22 wards: R4U 24, Lib Dem 5, Conservatives 5, Greens 2, Independents 3.
At the local elections in May, R4U won the district council by-election in Newport while the Tories won the Sampfords seat. R4U took two of the Conservatives' four Essex County Council seats in the Uttlesford division.