Mid Devon District Council – the Sad Saga continues

Clarity sought after number of splits and sackings leaves council divided

Ollie Heptinstall www.devonlive.com

A series of political splits and sackings at Mid Devon District Council has led to calls for clarity about three newly formed groups and the future of the authority’s leader. Since 2019, the council has been run by independent-led coalitions – firstly with the Liberal Democrats and then the Conservatives – after the election resulted in no overall control.

Leader Bob Deed (Cadbury ward, New Independent) has been in charge throughout but his independent group recently split following a disagreement, with most members later joining forces as the Non Aligned Group (NAG). As for Cllr Deed, he and two other colleagues formed the New Independents. The delicate balance of the council meant the Tories could have taken exactly half of the 42 seats at the recent Cullompton South by-election, meaning its then-leader Bob Evans (Lower Culm, Ungrouped), who was also deputy leader of council, may have been able to challenge Cllr Deed for the top job. However, the Liberal Democrats won the by-election, and the state of the parties has been further muddied by Cllr Evans being replaced as leader of the Conservatives and sacked as deputy leader of the council.

Cllr Deed was accused of “political manoeuvrings” by Cllr Evans for the decision, as reported by DevonLive, but he claimed it was down to a “matter of trust.” Councillor Clive Eginton (Taw Vale, Conservative) won a vote to replace Cllr Evans as top Tory, while Councillor Stuart Penny (Yeo, Conservative) has taken on his cabinet member job for housing and property services. To make matters even more complicated, Cllr Evans has since resigned from the Conservative group and now sits as the council’s only ungrouped member.

Hoping to clarify the state of the parties at Wednesday’s full meeting of the council, Councillor Frank Letch (Lib Dem, Lawrence) said: I’m sure if the public looked at down table of allocations we have the three obvious parties, Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Greens. Now we have New Independents, Non-Aligned Group and Independent No Group with one member.

“I’m presuming that the leader isn’t the one member of the independent No Group, because if he is we would all feel very sad for him. I remember in 2019, and I’m sure he does, that he was elected as an independent. So is he now the New Independent, because if he is, surely he is the old independent because he’s still there and he hasn’t gained anybody?

“I think the public really do need to know what these three groups mean because at the end of the day, some of these people would have been elected under one banner, like I was. If I changed to another group, I would stand down and I would put myself forward to be re-elected as a No Group, Independent, Non-aligned or whatever.

“Can we just find out if the leader has any plans to join these people together to find some way of getting the New Independents, the Non-Aligned groups plus the Independent No Group, number one, if they could get together to form a more cohesive entity.”

Cllr Deed replied: “In terms of the number of groups within this council, it isn’t unusual. And even within some councils you have two groups of the same party because there is a difference among members and so on.”

But he acknowledged Cllr Letch’s “very good point” adding: “I take your point, which is a very good point and maybe, because I think my column in the Gazette comes up next week or the week after, that’s something that I will address in the Gazette in terms of the different parties and what they mean.

“I don’t know how we slipped into the group that I’m now in, which is the New Independents. We should have just stayed as New Independents and the NAG should have got on with their nagging.”

The leader was asked by Councillor Graeme Barnell (Non Aligned Group, Newbrooke): “We’ve seen three replaced over the last year and this seems unrelated to performance in post because he congratulates all of them on their performance on his sacking of them. Can he please tell us how these sackings are related to the needs of the people of Mid Devon?

While he would not go into the reasons, Cllr Deed said: ” As you would expect Cllr Barnell, I’m not going to respond on the reasons for the removal of – some would like to say sacking – the removal from cabinet of certain members.

“In each case I felt it was justified, and therefore I took the action that I did. As you know, under the constitution I have the facility to hire and fire, but I do take the view generally as a leader that I should try to maintain a cabinet, which is, the best minds available to undertake the various cabinet posts. If for some reason individual members are finding it uncomfortable to maintain the job of a cabinet member within the cabinet, then there have been from time to time changes.

“Relating to the press this week, I would congratulate Councilor Luke Taylor (Bradninch, Lib Dems) because at least we have one mathematician within the council. He has managed to make sure that I’m reminded that I have removed seven cabinet members in the last three years.

“I hope that that number will not increase, but who knows? Somebody once said a week is a long time in politics. I have no intention at this time of changing any cabinet members, and I trust that we will go through to the elections in May 2023 and we will have a very good story to say in a year’s time.”