Gallery: 'Email-gate' rocks Fenland Council as leader quits and deputy leader is ousted
FENLAND District Council was last night rocked by its biggest political storm in years as its leader quit and the deputy leader was ousted. The 39-strong Tory group heard Councillor Geoffrey Harper resign and Councillor Fred Yeulett lost a vote of confidence.
EXCLUSIVE by: JOHN ELWORTHY
FENLAND District Council was rocked by its biggest political storm in years as its leader quit and the deputy leader was ousted.
Amidst extraordinary scenes inside Fenland Hall last night, the 39-strong Tory group heard Councillor Geoffrey Harper announce he planned to resign with effect from December 31.
An hour later his deputy, Councillor Fred Yeulett, was also gone, removed from office after losing a vote of confidence over his handling of the 'email gate' affair.
Pre-empting what looked increasingly likely to be a vote of confidence in his own leadership, Cllr Harper pre-empted critics by announcing his resignation.
As his colleagues gathered inside Fenland Hall, Cllr Harper popped out to hand me a copy of his vitriolic resignation statement.
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He described how the Tory group was "now involved in a serious internal dispute" and he no longer wanted to be part of it.
His resignation followed circulation of a controversial email by finance portfolio holder Alan Melton which called for a task force to be set up to fight for a leisure centre for Chatteris.
It was Cllr Yeulett's decision to take a copy of the email, which contained some typical ebullient comments by Cllr Melton on the efficacy of some officers, to chief executive Tim Pilsbury that brought about the row which, ultimately, has ended both Cllr Yeulett's and his leader's political careers at Fenland Hall.
Although the email was labelled 'strictly private and confidential' both would have recognised its explosive nature and would have predicted Mr Pilsbury's subsequent actions, which were to ask the standards committee to launch yet another investigation into Cllr Melton's behaviour.
This time, however, the strategy backfired as disaffected councillors began siding with Cllr Melton, especially in the light of previous criticism of other councillors for leaking confidential information.
Ironically Cllr Harper's resignation statement was delivered to coincide with a press release from the council's PR team highlighting Fenland's achievement in recent Audit Commission evaluations.
The assessment was glowing, and described Fenland District Council as enjoying "strong leadership with staff committed to delivering excellent services". Fenland easily outperformed all other councils in Cambridgeshire, including the county council, and is now ranked fifth in the entire country.
Cllr Harper described this as a "fantastic achievement" and said the council was "clearly focussed on addressing the issues that are important".
That achievement, however, was rapidly overtaken by events as he later lambasted a recent standards committee which investigated, and cleared him, of allegations concerning independent councillor Mark Archer.
Cllr Harper described the �5,500 inquiry as a "vexatious political stunt to undermine my integrity".
It was "a scandal and reminiscent of totalitarian regimes where anyone can be denounced by any individual pursuing their own political ends". A future Conservative Government would, he said, abolish "this expensive, time consuming and intrusive legislation".
He said the matter was made worse by a fellow councillor (who I understand to be Councillor Jan French) who volunteered evidence against him during the inquiry and "perhaps that person will now consider resigning from the group".
Cllr Yeulett, also a county councillor and Cabinet member at Shire Hall, now faces a period in the political wilderness, at least from Fenland Hall, as it is likely he will face temporary suspension from the Tory group.
As he left Fenland Hall on Wednesday he insisted "I stuck to my principles" and said he felt "relaxed" about the group's decision.
Now begins the battle for control of the council with Cllr Melton expected to be an early name in the ring.
Others possibly looking to take over will almost certainly include Councillor Simon King, who has only recently been given a Cabinet post, but it seems unlikely others such as Councillor Kit Owen would command the support needed to make a plausible stand.
Whoever takes over can be expected to make wholesale changes to their Cabinet and that could also include re-thinking controversial issues such as the �75,000 cost of switching the Horsefair taxi rank in Wisbech.
There is also the rather more immediate threat of steering through this year's Council Tax rise, expected to be three per cent, and of dealing with growing discontent among back benchers protesting about the mushroom effect - being kept in the dark and having, effectively, manure thrown on them!
Cllr Harper added that had it not been for the standards committee inquiry he had planned to resign earlier.
"I will be 73 in January and I consider it the right time," he said.