Ballot re-run sees deputy leader toppled
The new leader and deputy of the North Northamptonshire Council will now both come from East Northants wards after a second vote
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By Sarah Ward
The former leader of Wellingborough Council Martin Griffiths’ hopes of becoming deputy leader of North Northamptonshire’s new unitary council have been ruined.
Yesterday lunchtime the North Northamptonshire Conservative Group voted to put in Cllr Helen Howell as the number two to leader Jason Smithers, whose job will be made official at the authority’s first full council meeting this Wednesday*.
The decision comes after Cllr Griffiths was originally voted in as deputy at the group meeting on May 10. But after concerns the deputy vote had been held incorrectly, new leader Jason Smithers decided to hold the vote again last Thursday. Howell, who is a councillor for Raunds, won the second ballot.
But after a complaint about the notice given for the second vote, the Conservative group met again on Sunday lunchtime and in the presence of Conservative party staffer Mark Roberts they endorsed the decision of Cllr Smithers to rehold the deputy leader election. The deputy receives an allowance of £18,000 on top of their £12,500 basic allowance for performing the role. The leader receives £27,000 plus the basic.
NN Journal called Cllr Smithers yesterday afternoon but he did not answer the call, neither did Cllr Griffiths.
The episode marks three weeks of political manoeuvring since the May 6 election which saw the Conservatives gain a decisive victory - with 60 of the 78 councillors on the North unitary and 66 of the 93 in the West.
In the West unitary, the day before the group vote for leader, joint favourite Ian McCord was suspended by the party and was beaten to the plum job by Cllr Jonathan Nunn.
Cllr Griffiths, who was leader of the Conservative led Wellingborough Council for several years, proved to be a divisive figure in recent times and last summer a group of his own councillors attempted to stage a vote of no confidence in his leadership on grounds which included bullying behaviour.
Last June during an online meeting councillor Robert Gough accused Cllr Griffiths of bullying behaviour which had badly affected his mental health. A standards investigation which concluded in March ruled that Gough, who has now left local politics, should not have made the allegation during the public meeting and had breached the code of conduct.
Yesterday’s deputy leader episode highlights the problem of bringing the four separate conservative groups together in North Northamptonshire.
Wellingborough, East Northants and Kettering are all Conservative strongholds and the party had controlled their former borough or district councils. All had long standing councillors who were used to chairing committees and having other important roles, but the number of positions, that come with additional responsibilities and allowances, has now become less with the creation of the new unitary system.
The loss of three expected councillor wins to the Green party in Kettering threw a spanner in the works of the Kettering group, which was hoping to install Cllr Mark Rowley (son-in-law of former Northamptonshire County Council leader Jim Harker) into the unitary leader role and had hopes of new Kettering mayor Scott Edwards for deputy.
East Northants has for now come out on top of the geographic battle, with both the leader and deputy leader coming from that part of the unitary. It appears that Kettering’s councillors have decided to back East Northants colleagues rather than throw their support behind Wellingborough candidates.
The infighting and jostling has caused some ill feeling in these early days.
A source from the party told NN Journal they were disappointed at the early political manoeuvring as they want clean politics and think that positions should be given to councillors based on merit and their suitability for the role rather than which group they belong to.
Another said it had all been ‘very unseemly’ and hoped now once positions are ratified on Thursday the administration can put the last few weeks behind them and move forward as a collective.
Leader of the Labour opposition Cllr Jean Addison said the infighting she has been hearing about within the local Conservative group ‘does not bode well’.
Cllr Smithers, who represents Oundle, will also decide the portfolio holders this week. There has been some concern the scrutiny chair will not be appointed from the opposition as had been hoped and may be given to a Conservative. The lack of scrutiny within Northamptonshire County Council was seen to be a key component in the poor running of the authority before its downfall. After advice from the Centre for Governance and Scrutiny the county council decided in 2019 to appoint a chair from the opposition to hold a microscope to decisions made by the cabinet.
The meeting takes place on Wednesday* (May 26) and is being held at the Kettering Conference Centre.
*An earlier version of this story said the meeting was being held on Thursday rather than Wednesday. Apologies.