Chaos erupted at this week’s Allerdale Borough Council budget meeting, as a motion to elect a new council leader was met with accusations that the council was being “stolen”.
Allerdale Borough Council met virtually on Wednesday evening to decide on its proposed budget for the coming financial year.
But before the budget was considered, an urgent motion was presented to the council by Conservative councillor Alan Pitcher, proposing Conservative councillor Mike Johnson as the authority’s new leader.
This prompted outcry from a number of Independent councillors, who accused Conservative councillors of “stealing” the council.
A number of Independent councillors maintained vocal opposition to the motion, and called for the meeting to be immediately closed.
At one point during the confrontation, Moorclose and Mossbay Independent councillor Stephen Stoddart declared of the proceedings: “This isn’t democracy, it’s theft.”
The West Cumbrian authority has been without an official leader since February last year, following the resignation of formerly Independent councillor Marion Fitzgerald from the position.
Mrs Fitzgerald joined the Conservative Party six months later, explaining she was doing so as a result of the “negativity and obstructiveness” of the council’s Independent Group, leaving her with “no alternative” but to join one of Allerdale’s political parties.
Since Mrs Fitzgerald’s resignation, the role of leader has been fulfilled in an interim capacity by Allerdale’s deputy leader, Mike Johnson.
An informal “agreement” of support between the Conservative group and the Labour group, led by councillor Alan Smith, was struck in the wake of the impact of the pandemic, in order to bolster the council’s stability during the disruption brought about by COVID-19.
Mr Johnson’s position as de facto leader was challenged in November, with the nomination of Independent councillor for St John’s Workington Paul Scott for the position of leader.
This proposal was voted down, maintaining the status quo of Mr Johnson acting in an interim leadership capacity.
Wednesday’s budget meeting was convened with five Independent councillors not in attendance, including the Mayor of Allerdale and council chairperson, Hilary Harrington. In her absence, the meeting was chaired by the deputy mayor, Conservative councillor Malcolm Grainger.
As the meeting opened, an urgent motion was presented by Mr Pitcher, calling for the immediate appointment of a council leader.
Mr Pitcher stated that the council was entering a “crucial time”, with local elections postponed and the emerging process of local government reform advancing.
“Not least, with five by-elections looming, also it is budget time, which requires stability,” his justifying statement read. “We are two months from the [council’s] AGM, and important policy decisions are to be made, which will require consistent and steady leadership.
“I firmly believe the council is being led with a certain degree of clarity and stability over this last year. But some of us clearly do not.”
Mr Johnson’s nomination was met with a matching nomination of Labour group leader Alan Smith from Maryport North Independent councillor Iain Greaney. But Mr Smith rejected this nomination, saying “I don’t think I’m in a position to take this council forward at this present moment in time”.
Before a vote for the position of leader could take place, Mr Stoddart began voicing his objection to the process.
“This council has turned into a pantomime,” he said. “You’re doing this behind the public’s back. You’re stealing the council.
“Why don’t you leave it for two months, and sort it out at the AGM? You’re seizing your opportunity.”
Mr Stoddart branded the council as “rotten”, and was quickly joined in his objections by Mr Greaney, who labelled the motion as a “set-up”, and St Michaels, Workington Independent councillor Will Wilkinson, who said: “this is a preset, planned move, and this is absolutely disgusting”.
Mr Wilkinson declared the proceedings “worse than Handsforth”, referring to the recent viral notoriety of Handsforth Parish Council in Cheshire stemming from a particularly confrontational virtual meeting of its planning committee and environment committee.
He accused the Conservative group of waiting until they had a “casting vote” in place due to the absence of Independent mayor Hilary Harrington.
“They think they can win the motion and take over this council,” he said. “That is pure skullduggery,” Mr Wilkinson added, echoing the accusation made by Mr Stoddart, that the motion amounted to “joint skullduggery” by the Conservative and Labour groups.
Mr Wilkinson declared that he had “no confidence whatsoever” in the council, adding: “This is not a council meeting. This is a kangaroo court”.
At one point, Allerdale Borough Council’s chief executive, Andrew Seekings, stepped in, urging councillors to “get a grip”.
“The monitoring officer has been very clear about the procedure and the motions that need to be followed,” he said. “Please, some decorum and some respect.”
Calls for the meeting to be immediately closed from Mr Stoddart, Mr Greaney and Mr Wilkinson were dismissed by Mr Grainger, and the proposal to elect Mr Johnson or Smith as leader of the council was put to a vote.
Following Mr Smith’s declaration he did not wish to be leader, Labour members, along with a number of Independent councillors, abstained from voting.
With Mr Johnson receiving support from Conservative councillors, he was then formally elected as leader of Allerdale Borough Council.
After the meeting, Mr Johnson described the present moment as a “really busy time for the council”, with lots going on right now, and plenty of positive initiatives happening in the borough.
“My focus as the new leader is to concentrate on the job in hand, and not allow individuals to derail our efforts. I look forward to working with councillors form all parties who want make a positive difference, and offer constructive feedback.
“But I believe Allerdale Council will be better served right now if some elected members were to review their own conduct at public meetings.
“I’d like to reassure our residents that the behaviour of a handful of councillors at Wednesday’s meeting, is in no way representative of all councillors.”
In response to the question over the conduct of the Independent councillors who had voiced opposition to the proceedings, Mr Greaney responded that he had “the same view of the Conservative councillors”.
“I expected better.”
Mr Greaney said that the absence of the five Independent councillors should have been respected.
“Other councillors should respect illness, and not utilise it for gain,” he said. “I think their conduct fell well short of that. I think that was most upsetting.”
In a statement, Allerdale Council’s Independent Group described themselves as “extremely disenchanted” with Wednesday’s meeting.
“An emergency/urgent motion was presented by the Conservative group that we believe went against the Allerdale constitution”.
A spokesman for Allerdale Borough Council stated yesterday that Wednesday’s meeting “was a scheduled, ordinary meeting of the full council.
“An urgent motion to consider the election of a leader of the council was submitted to the meeting and dealt with in accordance with the council procedure rules within the constitution.”
The statement from Allerdale’s Independent Group, which states that the motion was “unconstitutional”, argues that it had been presented to council after Conservative councillors had been informed “that the Independent Group had five members unable to attend due to illness and, even worse, serious medical conditions of family members resulting in hospitalisation.
“It is not unreasonable that fair-minded human beings would consider, during a world-wide pandemic and serious medical conditions, that empathy and integrity would be the best course of action.
“Unfortunately, Conservative members supported by Labour members decided to use the position for political gain within the council.”
Speaking yesterday, Labour group leader Alan Smith explained that had he accepted the nomination for leader and won, “it would have been impossible to run an administration”.
“I’ve gone from 28 to 12 Labour councillors, I can’t lead a council with 12.”
Mr Smith said had he been elected leader, he would have been controlled by the influence of the 16 Conservative councillors, or 17 Independent councillors.
“I would be a patsy for them. That’s something I will not do. If I’m going to lead, I want to lead an administration where I have some sort sort of control. Had I won last night, I would not have had control.”
Mr Smith added that Labour councillors chose to abstain from the vote on appointing a leader “because it wasn’t our fight”.
“Last night wasn’t my fight. It was between the Conservatives and the Independents.”
Following the resolution of the vote, which resulted in Mr Johnson being elected leader, Allerdale Borough Council also resolved to pass its budget, setting out its financial plans for the coming 12 months.