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Dawn French: Uttlesford District Council chief executive announces departure just days after ruling party's Essex County Council election success

The chief executive of Uttlesford District Council, Dawn French, has tendered her resignation, it was announced on Tuesday (May 11) – five days after the ruling party’s success in Essex County Council elections.

The timing has prompted questions as to when UDC’s Residents for Uttlesford (R4U) administration knew of her decision to quit, particularly with the party contesting seven by-elections in the district alongside last Thursday’s (May 6) county council elections.

At a meeting next Tuesday (May 18) of the full district council it will be proposed that an appointments committee be set up to oversee Ms French’s replacement. She leaves at the end of August after five-and-a-half years.

Uttlesford District Council leader John Lodge (47089446)
Uttlesford District Council leader John Lodge (47089446)

R4U leader John Lodge refused to comment on Tuesday when approached by the Indie, but in a council statement issued shortly after he said: “We’d like to thank Dawn for her hard work as chief executive. Her experience and collegiate approach has made her well respected, liked and successful at UDC.

“She’s shown herself to be adaptable to change and worked tirelessly to help deliver the council’s new resident-centred strategic and operational plans. I personally found her an invaluable guide and helpful to all councillors as the council navigated the seismic shift to an almost completely different council following the elections of 2019.

“We wish her well for the future and thank her for her continued support during the transition period to a new chief executive.”

Uttlesford District Council deputy leader Petrina Lees (47089355)
Uttlesford District Council deputy leader Petrina Lees (47089355)

Cllr Petrina Lees, deputy leader of the council and member for Henham and Elsenham, added: “Dawn has been at the centre of us reshaping the council for its next chapter. The finances are in robust shape, the new Local Plan is on track and the council has strengthened governance.

“I’d like to particularly thank Dawn for the calm and unflustered work in steering the district through the pandemic over the last year. I join John, other councillors and staff in wishing her well.”

Ms French joined UDC from Basildon Borough Council in February 2016 following the retirement of John Mitchell. She also worked for Chelmsford and Colchester councils.

But the past 18 months have proved something of a rollercoaster ride for the chief executive, voicing her “regret” at a developing lack of trust between the R4U administration and council officers and dealing with the authority being under criminal investigation by Essex Police.

Uttlesford District Council's offices in Saffron Walden (47088944)
Uttlesford District Council's offices in Saffron Walden (47088944)

She went on record as saying: “I have worked for a number of authorities and I think the trust that members have in the officers here is not as good... and I think it isn’t at the same standard as has been historically the case, which is a regret.”

Along with the police investigation, the authority has been unable to sign off its 2019-20 accounts because of a “governance issue”.

In UDC’s statement, Ms French said that the announcement of her resignation had been made now to ensure a smooth transition of leadership.

Residents for Uttlesford logo (47089324)
Residents for Uttlesford logo (47089324)

“The timing of this decision is something I have been deliberating for some time, in order that the needs of the council are balanced with my own personal aspirations.

“I have been in local government for 38 years, joining Brentwood Council straight from A-Levels, and have always had a desire to allow myself some more time to be able to do something different. The pandemic has meant those plans have altered somewhat, but now that the elections have been concluded and we start to find ways of living with the virus, now would seem a good time for both the council and for me to embrace some changes.

“I feel incredibly privileged to have worked with such a great team at Uttlesford and would like to thank everyone for their support, dedication and hard work through some challenging times.”

Thursday’s Essex County Council elections in Uttlesford district saw R4U win the Saffron Walden and Thaxted seats from the Conservatives, who held Stansted and Dunmow. Overall, the Tories marginally tightened their control of the 75-seat council, which they have held since 1995.

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