Family affairs and political ties

A close-knit group is running the new North Northamptonshire Council

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By Sarah Ward

A select group is running North Northamptonshire’s new unitary council, with close ties to the area’s two MPs.

Leader Jason Smithers has appointed two women who work for the two Conservative MPs representing the North Northamptonshire district as members of his ten member executive.

Cllr Helen Harrison, the live-in partner of Conservative Wellingborough MP Peter Bone has been appointed to the new authority’s biggest portfolio - adult social care, health and wellbeing.

She will add to her approximate £40,000 salary for her role as senior parliamentary assistant to Peter Bone, with an all inclusive allowance of £26,000 for her new role.

Harriet Pentland, who is the parliamentary assistant for Corby MP Tom Pursglove, has been given the climate and green environment brief which, like all executive roles, comes with the £26,00 allowance.

Peter Bone’s former wife Jennie, is also a councillor on the unitary authority and works for his parliamentary office in a paid role. She has been appointed by leader Smithers as chair of the Thrapston planning committee.

The cabinet appointments were a closely guarded secret until just hours before the first annual council of the North Northamptonshire Council last month. 

NN Journal called Cllr Smithers to ask if it was appropriate to appoint Cllr Harrison and Cllr Pentland to the positions considering their professional allegiances to the MPs. However he did not respond.

The council said it was up to the leader to appoint his executive.

Leader of the Labour opposition Jean Addison said the situation ‘feels a bit incestuous’. She said: 

“I do worry about the close links between the MPs and the council. It feels like the tail wagging the dog. Maybe there is not a lot of balance in the cabinet because they seem biased towards the MPs.

“Who is running this council?”

On May 6 election day Cllr Smithers was seen in regular conversation with both MPs at the counting hall and in the first few days of his leadership he has already been on a joint press call with Peter Bone. The pair attended an event at Rushden Lakes on May 28 hosted by Destination Nene Valley - to mark English Tourism Week. 

Besides the parliamentary links there are also a number of married couples within the Conservative-led administration - almost all of whom have been given a position within the cabinet or as a chair of a committee.

Portfolio member for Highways Cllr Graham Lawman is married to Cllr Lorna Lawman who is chair of the democracy and standards committee.

Cllr Andy Mercer, who has the housing and community brief on the executive, is married to Cllr Gill Mercer, who has been appointed as vice chair of the Thrapston planning committee as well as chair of the police and crime panel meeting.

Cllr Wendy Brackenbury will chair the scrutiny committee and husband David has been appointed as chair of the strategic planning committee. 

Cllr David Jenney and wife Barbara are also serving on the authority together with Mrs Jenney appointed as vice chair of the employment committee.

Deputy leader Helen Howell, who has the sports, leisure and culture brief is the partner of Cllr Lee Wilkes.

There is a lack of geographical balance within Cllr Smithers executive. Six of the executive - including the leader, represent East Northamptonshire wards. Three councillors (Cllr Scott Edwards, Cllr Lloyd Bunday and Cllr David Howes) represent Kettering wards and Cllr Graham Lawman is the only executive member from a Wellingborough ward. None of Corby’s three conservative councillors were selected for the executive.

The first month of the new authority has been rocky for the leadership. Cllr Smithers, who is a relative newcomer to local politics, faced off rumours of an upset before the annual council meeting at which he was voted into post and in the end deposed deputy leader contender Martin Griffiths did not show up and has since left the Conservative Party and turned independent. 

This week the North Northamptonshire Conservative group has also put sanctions on Cllr Scott Brown (representing Earls Barton) after he voted in favour of an opposition amendment at the full council meeting to give the vice chair of finance scrutiny to an opposition councillor.

He has been suspended from the group for a month.

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