Conservative run Peterborough City Council is reeling from the resignation of four of its councillors within three days.
By Saturday three Conservative councillors had quit the party, leaving council leader Wayne Fitzgerald at the mercy of opposition councillors if he is to retain his position.
The fourth resignation has been confirmed, leaving council leader Wayne Fitzgerald at the mercy of opposition councillors if he is to retain his position.
Tonight, on the eve of the council’s annual meeting, that is looking increasingly less likely.
Cllr Fitzgerald was expected to announce tomorrow (Monday) the shape the shape of his administration for the coming year.
With the political make-up of the city council thrown to the wind, he no longer has a workable majority. When all votes were cast on May 4, the Tories ended with 30 seats, one short of a majority.
Tonight, with only 26 seats they are still the major party but well short of an overall majority and dependent on opposition support if they hope to hold onto power.
Crucially the rules of proportionality – which dictates representation of political groups on committees – is in disarray. A report prepared by city council officers will have to be hastily amended.
The resignations have undermined Cllr Fitzgerald who a fortnight ago celebrated the results and only last week, in his regular blog, wrote that “regular readers will know how excited I am about Peterborough’s on-going development.
“There is so much to look forward to such as our plans for the Station Quarter and the Vine and we want to involve residents in our planning wherever possible”.
Cllr Fitzgerald is a tenacious and often contentious figure who has fought hard for investment and increased prosperity for Peterborough.
He won’t take kindly to this rebellion by four colleagues and Monday’s full council meeting will determine if retains his grasp on the levers of power.
Cllr Fitzgerald has stayed relatively quiet this weekend, only tweeting on Saturday evening from the Tap and Tandoori restaurant in the city that he was “relaxing over a beer and a curry with Mrs Fitz as life is too short.
“I don’t worry about politics all of the time! family and true friends are what matter most. I always try to be nice to everyone!
“Often difficult when faced with people who just plain and simple don’t like you.”
His deputy, Cllr Steve Allen, was more forthcoming.
He was disappointed but “what I think is even more disappointing, is that the people who elected these members as Conservatives now find that, within a week of the election, they’re independent.
“That is not really a democratic decision to get elected and then a couple of days later change your mind. I think that does need calling out.”
Cllr Peter Hiller (Glinton and Castor) Cllr Brian Rush (Stanground South) and Cllr Ray Bisby (Stanground South) were the first to quit to join the independent group Peterborough First.
And tonight, it has been revealed that Cllr Gavin Elsey of Wittering has also moved to Peterborough First.
Cllr Elsey told BBC Radio Cambridgeshire that he wouldn’t compromise his integrity for a political party.
All four are key figures in Peterborough political life, Cllr Rush for instance having been a councillor for more than 20 years and at the annual meeting of Peterborough Conservatives only a week ago was appointed treasurer.
Cllr Risby has been a key player, too, and coincidentally represents, along with Cllr Rush, Stanground.
He was also, from 2017, deputy Police and Crime Commissioner for Cambridgeshire, subsequently stepping up to acting P&CC when Jason Ablewhite was forced to quit.
“To be a councillor is a privilege, a rewarding role gifted to us by residents who deserve to be represented by people who put their interests first,” he says.
“While we don’t always get things right, I love the many positive things about our community and being able to support residents with problems and get them back into a good place.”
He is about to do that outside the Conservative group.
His fellow Stanground Conservative councillor, Cllr Rush, once again re-elected in May 2023, was first elected to the city council in 2000.
Cllr Hiller represents a rural ward comprising Castor, Ailsworth, Glinton, Marholm, Maxey, Etton, Northborough, Deeping Gate, and parts of Peakirk.
First elected to Northborough ward in a 2006 by-election he was re-elected in 2011. Following subsequent boundary changes the ward joined with other parishes to become Glinton and Castor ward where he was re-elected in May 2023.
Cllr Elsey returned to the city council after winning the May 2021 election to represent Wittering ward which also covers the parishes of Wansford, Thornhaugh, Sutton and Upton.
First elected to Peterborough City Council in 2008, he is a former Cabinet member with extensive experience of local government.
He fought a by-election in Orton Longueville ward in 2018 but was narrowly defeated by Labour the following year.
Cllr Elsey was also elected unopposed to become chairman of the North West Cambridgeshire Conservative Association, a position he held for three years until 2022.
So why the sudden exit of Conservative councillors?
It could be this, a company – in which its employees are the majority shareholders.
Barnack Estates is one of the city’s leading development companies whose chairman is Rob Facer, a successful local businessman who first began in 1997 by building industrial estates.
At that stage the Barnack business consisted of a confectionery, storage, and logistics business.
It was founded by Mr Facer in Shrewsbury Avenue, Peterborough and has since moved premises 5 times as it has expanded. Currently the head office is in Orton Southgate, Peterborough.
“Between 2004 and present day we have built over 2 million square feet of quality warehousing in Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire,” he boasts proudly, on the company website.
— Cllr Steve Allen (@CllrSteveAllen) May 13, 2023
In 2021 it turned in a net profit before tax of £3,955,795 to the delight of its workforce who, in October of that year, became the majority shareholders through a transfer to an employee ownership scheme.
But the company is land hungry, pointing out in its annual accounts that “a shortage of deliverable land and public sector delivery continues to delay opportunities for development”.
Barnack’s quest for fresh opportunities led to them submitting an application to build a 15-acre business park between Stanground and Whittlesey near Horsey Bridge.
But refusal of that application by the city council planning committee, and a subsequent attempt to force a change of mind, forms part if not the main decision of the four Conservative councillors to leave the party.
The site under debate lies on the northern side of the A605 Peterborough to Whittlesey road, with the River Nene/Kings Dyke running along the northern boundary.
Barnack Estates believes it could create around 400 jobs while city council officers believe these estimates “are considered to be a best-case scenario, nonetheless the quantum of economic benefit to the local economy is likely to be considerable”.
Among objectors was Fenland District Council who fear it could signal erosion of the border between Whittlesey and Peterborough.
The city council planning committee voted 6-2 (with one abstention) to refuse the application claiming Barnack Estates had failed to demonstrate there was insufficient land elsewhere in the city.
Under normal circumstances an applicant who has been refused planning permission will appeal to the Planning Inspectorate and allow the issue to be settled by a Government inspector.
However, Peterborough City Council has a ‘planning review committee’ which allows for a decision of its planning committee to be challenged.
Which is what three Conservative councillors did.
It has not helped matters that Mr Facer has been a donor to the Conservatives, is president of the Peterborough Conservative Association where the chairman is city council leader Wayne Fitzgerald.
Categorically there is no suggestion that Mr Facer, nor Barnack Estates, have done anything wrong; indeed the company has been transparent throughout.
In short Barnack believes the new industrial estate will be a major asset to Peterborough and city council planners backed the application, recommending it for approval.
But to revitalise the application, and see it to a speedy and satisfactory conclusion, step forward three Conservative members of Peterborough City Council.
Cllr Ishfaq Hussain, Cllr Scott Warren and Cllr Lindsay Sharp took advantage of the rarely used procedural tactic to upend the planning committee’s decision to refuse permission for the business park has caused mayhem.
All were signatories to the ‘call in’ of the planning application – and in so doing have created the political maelstrom that threatens the leadership of Cllr Wayne Fitzgerald.
Cllr Chris Harper, chair of the planning committee felt the three Conservatives who ‘called in’ the decision displayed “a complete lack of respect for the democratic decision-making process of the planning committee after they voted 6 to 2 with 1 abstention to refuse the application
“This, whilst extremely unusual, is permissible under the constitution.”
The dissenting councillors, however, claimed that “the decision, and the thought process that was followed by the committee to reach the decision, were both defective.
“Neither reason given for refusal of planning permission is arguable, nor supported by robust empirical evidence”.
Cllr Bisby has admitted the planning application for Horsey Bridge was “amongst other things” that prompted his resignation.
He told the local democracy reporting service: “It’s against my principles. I can’t vote for it, it’s the wrong thing.”
Cllr Hiller says he has no single area of concern but didn’t want to “go along with the political self-interest of the current administration”.
“I want to represent my rural ward, that I have for 17 years now, as an independent free from any political mantras, any particular dogmas – call it what you will.
“I’m not naming names or slagging off the current administration, that’s not something I wish to do, but it’s what I’ve decided to do and that’s what I’ve done.”
Meanwhile city council planning officers, awaiting the outcome of any local appeals procedure, are unable to publicly log the outcome of the Horsey Bridge application.
Which is still attracting comment on the city council planning portal.
“It looks to me that however many times this application gets rejected, someone in high places will get it passed,” says a recent comment.
“Someone once said that if voting really mattered they wouldn’t let us do it. “Unfortunately, I’m beginning to believe this to be true.”
The correspondence has been heavily redacted, probably for legal reasons.
Mayor making is at 6pm on Monday and the annual meeting of the council follows at 7.15pm.
If you want to see what happens follow this link
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