Councillors call for cabinet of local authority facing police probes to resign

2 Oct 17

Councillors have called for the entire cabinet of a council facing police probes over manipulation of data and allocation of public funds to resign.

Ten independent councillors have threatened to call on the government to place Cheshire East in special measures unless the cabinet and leader resign over the next six months.

This comes after a group of local residents - ‘Hands Off Our Sandbach’ – have also written to communities secretary Sajid Javid over what they call the unitary councils’ failure to “maintain the high standards of public office”.

Cheshire police earlier this month confirmed they are investigating allegations over the council manipulating air quality data, its allocation of public funds to a primary school and land purchases.

In another blow to the council’s reputation, Michael Jones, leader of the council from May 2012 to December 2015, resigned from the Conservative party group on Monday last week over a separate issue before a vote on whether to eject him from the local party. 

Although, the department for Communities and Local Government has told Public Finance it would only intervene if “serious systematic failures” were found at the council.

A DCLG spokesperson said: “This is a local matter and it is paramount that the council continues to work to deliver quality services for residents.

“Removing control from those elected by their constituents is an extremely serious decision and we would only intervene if there was strong evidence of widespread, systemic and extremely serious failure.”

James Nicholas – a spokesperson for independents at the council – told PF that the police probes were part of the wider governance problems facing the council, which he said was “letting residents down”.

He argued that many of the current cabinet members were part of the council when the alleged incidents took place and are “increasingly part of the problem, rather than the solution”.

Nicholas said these leadership problems needed to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

He added: “Either a new cabinet, without the tainted members of the past, or the instigation of a committee style council leadership, are the options open to the current leadership.”

He said unless “substantive progress” had been made towards replacing the cabinet by the end of the municipal year, members of the Independent Group will reluctantly recommend that CEC be placed in special measures and its cabinet replaced with a committee system of governance.

In July the council admitted that it had passed on incorrect information to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs regarding air quality data between 2012 and 2014.

The authority said it has also raised concerns about the allocation of public funds when a £70,000 grant was made to the primary school Berkeley Academy in Wistaston, Crewe, in April 2016, allegedly without going through the normal contracting procedures.

Concerns about land purchases have also been referred to the police but further details on these have not been released.

A spokesman for the police said: “There are sufficient grounds to proceed with formal investigation.”

The Hands Off Our Sandbach group said it had got together a petition for issues with the council going back to 2012 – of which the police probes is the latest.

These issues include:

  • the so-called ‘Lyme Green’ fiasco, where the council began developing a waste transfer station three weeks before applying for planning permission - the development was cancelled at an over all cost of more than £1m
  • the suspension of chief executive Mike Suarez in April and director of legal services and monitoring officer Bill Norman in July following allegations of misconduct. Further details of these allegations have not been released.
  • resignation of Michael Jones as council leader over contracts awarded to his personal physiotherapist's firm in 2015.

The ruling Conservative group was last week due to vote on whether to suspend former leader Jones for his links to Core Fit, a physiotherapist firm owned by his personal physiotherapist, which received contracts worth £156,000 to run school fitness programmes during his time as council leader.

A BBC investigation revealed financial rules were waived three times to award these contracts but Jones has denied any wrongdoing over his links to the company Core Fit.

The Sandbach residents group said the on-going issues with the council had “destroyed” their confidence in the administration and its officers.

Leader of the council Rachel Bailey said: “It is vital that these serious matters are dealt with fully and that if there has been any wrongdoing it is exposed.  

“While a police investigation is a serious matter, I would like to reassure residents that the council itself has brought these matters forward in order to put things right.”

The council stated it had responded to these “legacy” matters in a “robust and transparent way”.

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