Lib Dems storm from meeting at East Cambs Council accusing ruling Tory group of ‘governance farce’ and rules made up ‘as we went along’

Cllr Lorna Lupre (second right) leads her Lib Dem colleagues out of a stormy meeting at East Cambs D

Cllr Lorna Lupre (second right) leads her Lib Dem colleagues out of a stormy meeting at East Cambs District Council offices in Ely tonight after claiming the ruling Tory group was making governance up on the hoof over its council owned trading companies. Picture; ARCHANT - Credit: Archant

The leader of the Liberal Democrat opposition on East Cambridgeshire District Council stormed from a meeting tonight in Ely describing proceedings as “a governance farce where rules were being made up as we went along”.

Cllr Lorna Dupre, who heads the 13 strong opposition group, said that what she expected to be a formal meeting of the shareholder committee responsible for the council's trading arm turned into a "complete shambles".

She said she expected the chairman of company, East Cambs Trading, to be there or at the very least the managing director John Hill, the latter also chief executive of the council and joint chief executive of the combined authority.

"Instead we arrived to find the meeting chaired by Cllr Lis Every, who is chairman of the council but nothing to do with the trading arm," she said.

"We walked into what we thought was going to ne a shareholder meeting but instead we saw Cllr Every with her chain of office starting the meeting and no chairman or managing director present," said Cllr Dupre.

"We had expected and had been told this was a meeting of the company and the agenda we got was the trading companies heading: it didn't say it was a council meeting and if it was then there should have been a move to exclude the press."

The simmering row between the Lib Dem opposition and the ruling Conservative group (who have 15 seats on the council) has been in part fuelled by an announcement earlier this week by council leader Anna Bailey.

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Cllr Bailey, together with fellow Tories Cllr Josh Schuman, Cllr David Ambrose-Smith and Cllr David Brown, announced they were resigning as directors of the trading companies following legal advice.

She said it had been "increasingly frustrating" that both she and her three colleagues had been unable, for conflict of interest reasons, to speak at full council debates over the trading arm.

Cllr Bailey recognised that with the "new political make-up" of the council following the election the very people heavily involved in the trading arm and with knowledge of the detail of what was being discussed would, effectively, have been side lined at council meetings.

This, of course, could have meant the Lib Dems using the narrowness of numbers within the council to force through recommendations on trading issues that would not suit the agenda of the ruling Tory group.

By quitting as directors, she said, and after the council taking external legal advice, it could mean all four could once again take part in debates.

"In addition, and following legal advice, officers will be recommending that the composition of the boards of our two trading companies will no longer include elected members," she said.

"I am, of course, committed to the fullest member scrutiny of the two companies and therefore the council will be asked to appoint two members to act as observers to each of the boards with speaking but no voting rights. These members can then take the fullest role in the overview of the governance and performance of both companies."

However Cllr Dupre believes tonight's meeting was symptomatic of much deeper problems within the running of the council and its expansionist policy, particularly in regard to schemes such as the 500 homes planned for Kennett.

"At tonight's meeting the Tories seemed to be inventing the governance on the hoof; there seems a no man's land between the council and the trading companies" she said.

Cllr Dupre said the status of the meeting tonight remains unclear since she was told there would be no minutes taken, it was not open to the public, it was not able to make decision "and effectively it was just an information sharing event".

"To be blunt nobody seems to know what they are doing about the governance of these companies," said Cllr Dupre.

The proposal to go to council, she said, would mean the number of directors of each company dropping from five to three with two officers acting as directors with an independent chair of each.

"There is a whole morass of conflicts of interests at councillor level and officer level. "It is a mess".

Cllr Bailey, in a tweet following her resignation, said her decision to resign as a director was "not really that extraordinary".

She added: "It was just a pragmatic response to new political realities! The trading companies are hugely successful and will continue to be so."