Gallery: New leader goes to ground as he sets about ending council's culture of secrecy

By John Elworthy NEW council leader Alan Melton went to ground today whilst council officials pondered his post election remarks which could bring about significant change at Fenland Hall. Cllr Melton is not expected to return to Fenland Hall until next

By John Elworthy

NEW council leader Alan Melton went to ground today whilst council officials pondered his post election remarks which could bring about significant change at Fenland Hall.

Cllr Melton is not expected to return to Fenland Hall until next Thursday when a full council meeting will endorse his leadership and that of Councillor Mac Cotterell as his deputy.

Whilst chief executive Tim Pilsbury is also away, and not expected to return to work until next Wednesday, senior officials were mulling over some of the statements made by Cllr Melton last night.

Life at Fenland District Council can expect to change, and possibly quite dramatically, in coming months as some of the new leader's initiatives are translated from rhetoric to policy.

One of the most significant aspects of Cllr Melton's post election briefing last night was the lack of emphasis placed on finance - even though he is expected to retain that portfolio post- but his proposals for fundamental changes in the way officers and councillors go about their business.

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Cllr Melton emphasised the need to "re establish the members' control of the council and trust with the community, which has broken down". He placed importance on what he described as "breaking down barriers" between councillors and officers of Fenland Council.

He also pledged to bring "the end the culture of secrecy" quoting figures handed to him by his predecessor Councillor Geoff Harper (a notable absentee from last night's meeting) which showed Fenland Council has responded to 750 Freedom of Information requests. Although unclear about the time span this involved, Cllr Melton insisted many of these requests may well have been about information that should, instinctively, have been in the public arena anyway.

"I gave an undertaking there would be better communications between the leadership and back benchers," he said, promising also to expand membership of the planning committee.

"Significant planning decisions can be made by as few as five members and these are decisions which can sometimes have a major impact on communities," he said.

The degree of unity which greeted Cllr Melton's victory (which came, I understand after three ballots involving the six candidates) ended with a clarion call for the Conservative controlled authority to be ready to work towards securing the election of the party's candidate, Steve Barclay, to replace Malcolm Moss at the forthcoming General Election.

Cllr Melton in the meantime is not expected to make any immediate changes to the Cabinet he inherits from Cllr Harper but whether the ousted deputy leader Fred Yeulett will wish to remain is unclear.

There could, however, be a top table place for March garage boss John Clark, a relative newcomer to the council but who impressed councillors with his unsuccessful presentation to win the top job. I understand he secured second place in the poll, and is almost certain to be rewarded with a Cabinet or senior position.

There is also expected to a role for veteran Wisbech councillor Roger Green, and I expect Councillor Jan French of March, a former planning committee chairman, to play a role in the new administration following her successful foraging into section 106 payments.

Also expected to return, possibly as vice chairman of planning, is the Mayor of March, Councillor John West, who had been isolated by the previous administration.

What still remains unanswered today, however, is the complaint made by Mr Pilsbury to the Standards Board of England over the wording used in an email sent by Cllr Melton in December about the need for a review of leisure facilities in Chatteris.

The ramifications of that email led to the email gate crisis which saw the leader quit and Cllr Yeulett voted out of office. The email effectively 'did' for the leader and his deputy as it was a privately circulated memo from Cllr Melton but which both men then took to Mr Pilsbury. The chief executive reacted by alleging it contained references to officers which possibly breached the members' code of conduct but that issue was ignored by many councillors who rounded on their former leader and deputy for breaking confidentiality.

There was no word today from either Fenland Hall or from the Standards Board as to whether the complaint has been dismissed or withdrawn. A statement is expected later today by the board.

• Cllr Melton lost the leadership of the council in 2005 after he was suspended for four months for leaking a confidential draft report of a Standards Board investigation which, ironically, had cleared him of any wrong doing. Cllr Harper then took over and a year later Cllr Melton failed to secure the deputy leader's post.

YOUR COMMENTS

GOD Help Us is what I say!

Here is a man who attempted to force through a 14 per cent rise in council tax when he was last leader as well as threatening to introduce pay parking in the town. Fortunately, he had to stand down because of the standards board inquiry before he could force that through as well.

What goodies will he have in store for the Fenland community this time I wonder?

REG KEMP

March

DON'T concern yourself about harmonious working relationship twixt Pilsbury and Melton.

Wasn't Melton instrumental in bringing Pilsbury back to Fenland District Council, to his current highly paid position? Surely Pilsbury will show some gratitude in return!

Is the appointment of Melton seen as a good thing for the electorate of Fenland or a retrograde step considering his previous performance in the role?

RICHARD STIMSON

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