Row escalates over public debate of 'no confidence' challenge to R4U's leadership of Uttlesford District Council
Opposition parties lost a vote over their motion of no confidence in Uttlesford District Council's administration in a heated meeting that saw the press and public excluded from the debate and one councillor walk out in protest.
The Green Party's Barbara Light (Saffron Walden Audley), a former member of the council's ruling Residents for Uttlesford (R4U) party, refused to take part in Monday's extraordinary UDC meeting if it went into private session, declaring: "I will not stay, it's not legitimate."
Others accused the authority of "skulduggery, secrecy and a conspicuous failure in leadership".
A recorded vote to exclude the public and press was won by 18 votes to 12, with two abstentions. Council officers had advised the move because of the legally sensitive nature of information likely to be discussed. Cllr Light walked out after casting her vote against.
Live-streaming of the meeting was cut. The result of the 'no confidence' motion in R4U leader Cllr John Lodge and his cabinet was announced later: it was lost by 20 votes to 10. A recording of the vote was posted on UDC's website on Tuesday (June 29).
The cross-party motion submitted by Liberal Democrat, Conservative and Green Party members claimed that the council's leadership had failed Uttlesford residents and was unfit to govern.
It cited the council's failure to defend growth at Stansted Airport, a failure of good governance amid an Essex Police investigation, lack of accountability and the "bullying and intimidating culture" that had been created.
Lib Dem group leader Cllr Melvin Caton (Stansted South & Birchanger) said after the meeting: "Following the decision of the planning inspectors to allow the expansion of Stansted Airport and award costs against Uttlesford District Council, it was the right time to mark R4U’s card as we are now mid-term of their four-year administration.
"We believe the leader and cabinet must do better. They have failed to deliver the open, transparent, inclusive Uttlesford accountable to district residents that they promised."
His predecessor as Lib Dem group leader, Cllr Alan Dean (Stansted North), warned: "The council is heading for the rocks unless it changes course. After being in power for two years, R4U have demonstrated poor leadership, creating crisis after crisis. It is extremely disappointing they voted to hold the debate behind closed doors."
Cllr Paul Fairhurst, of the Green Party, said: "The notorious police investigation continues to haunt this council after 15 months. The skulduggery, secrecy of it all, the public and press excluded... are we afraid of other opinions? Isn't it absurd that a debate about good governance is held in secret?"
R4U leader Cllr John Lodge proposed the 'no confidence' motion recommendation go into private session and dismissed it as nothing more than a publicity stunt. "This is not a serious motion, it is purely done for publicity and the attention it will get," he said.
He added afterwards: "While it is unremarkable that a political opposition doesn't agree with a governing party, the motion stated a number of important things as facts, which they know were not, in an attempt to mislead the public, press and their colleagues.
"Furthermore, there were valid concerns about revealing the council's legal strategy for overturning the Stansted Airport expansion [appeal decision], which is why council officers recommended it be held in confidence.
"The recording in its entirety is now released into the public domain. The amount of council time it took to arrange, facilitate and manage this unnecessary meeting is unjustified. We want to be focusing on getting the job done."
Cllr Christian Criscione, the Conservative group leader, denied that mainstream Westminster party politics was at play and said: "That members of the public are not being told about the very serious failures of governance by this administration is a disgrace."