Stratford District Council has a new man at the top following Chirs Saint’s resignation from the role last week.
Cllr Chris Saint — the leader of the party and the district council for the past seven years, his second stint in the role, and a councillor for 20 years — was toppled by a member of his own cabinet, Cllr Tony Jefferson, in what was understood to have been a closely-fought leadership challenge at the group’s annual meeting on Tuesday.
Cllr Jefferson has given no firm reason for the challenge, other than that he had been encouraged by a number of party colleagues.
Herald sources have suggested that Cllr Saint’s public criticism of the influential Coventry and Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership’s transparency and decision-making process, which led to him being kicked off its board of directors, was also a factor behind the mood for change.
He also clashed with Warwickshire County Council’s Conservative leader, Izzi Seccombe, last year over children’s centres.
Cllr Saint told the Herald: “I have worked very hard to put this council in a good place and I don’t think the treatment I have received has been justified. I think this leadership challenge is ill-deserved and no reasons for it were put forward.
“I am now in the process of taking advice from colleagues about how best to proceed. The Conservative group has taken their decision, I am still leader of the council, but it’s not an easy position to be in. Whatever is decided, I can say I won’t be resigning as a councillor and I have already said it is my intention to stand again at the elections next year.”
Cllr Jefferson said: “I can confirm that I was elected leader of the Conservative district councillors’ group last night after a very positive contest with Chris Saint.
“The group were energised and fully engaged, and asked many challenging questions. I am therefore proud to have been elected by my colleagues and I pay tribute to all the work that Chris has done.”
Cllr Jefferson was first elected to the council in May 2014 and represents the town centre Welcombe ward, and has been portfolio holder for health and community safety since September.
The change of leadership has drawn differing views from Conservative councillors.
Cllr Peter Richards, housing and infrastructure portfolio holder, and the Snitterfield ward representative, said: “It is disappointing that Chris’ tenure has been brought to a close in the manner in which it has. During his seven years as leader he has put this council in an extraordinarily good position both financially and in terms of policy.
“He has guided us through many difficult decisions, not least of which was the adoption of a Core Strategy and a very positive Peer Review. The success of his leadership was demonstrated at the last all out elections where he returned a huge swing in favour of his chosen party.
“Personally he has helped me in many aspects of council work and I believe he is owed a duty of care and respect by all councillors during any transition and beyond.”
Cllr Mike Gittus, who represents Kinwarton, said: “I’ve always supported Cllr Saint as leader, I had the pleasure of proposing him as leader seven years ago and I again supported him as leader at the recent conservative AGM. I’m surprised and disappointed that the group have made this decision.
“Stratford District Council is highly regarded by the public, the Core Strategy is firmly in place and it is in a strong financial position and it’s down to Cllr Saint. From my perspective I’m not very clear on the reasons why some members felt there should be a change. Cllr Saint has accomplished a great deal as leader and will be a very difficult act to follow, I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes.”
Cllr Dave Riches, portfolio holder for enterprise and revenues, and Long Itchington and Stockton representative, added: “I’ve worked closely with Chris Saint now for around three years. He’s been a fantastic mentor and inspiration. His attention to detail and grasp of high level situations is second to none, and I value the time that I’ve spent with him.
“Chris has led SDC through a number of non-trivial situations, successfully delivering the Core Strategy, closely guarding Wellesbourne Airfield and a very complimentary Peer Review to name a few. He has many friends, who regard his work very highly.”
Richard Hobbs, chairman of the Stratford-on-Avon Conservative Association, said: “We would at this time like to congratulate Chris Saint for his many years of service leading the council and we have no doubt that, as his time as leader draws to a close, people recognise his many years of outstanding work. He will leave a fine legacy on which to build.’’
Cllr Saint’s political opponent, Cllr Peter Moorse, leader of the Liberal Democrat group, said: “Whilst Cllr Saint and I have many differences of opinion, he was undoubtedly extremely hardworking and never shirked the difficult decisions.
“I hope there will now be much more emphasis placed on improving relationships between the council and outside bodies. The relationship with the LEP is essential if we are to get our fair share of government grants and I am convinced that sharing services with other neighbouring councils is far more effective in saving money than just cutting services.”
Other Conservative councillors have given their backing to Cllr Jefferson in his new role.
Cllr Mark Cargill, the ward councillor for Bidford West and Salford, was elected as deputy leader of the group.
He said: “We have a very strong council, with an adopted Core Strategy in place and a sound financial position, but we now need to look to the future. It is a healthy thing democracy, and change can bring new ideas.
“I think Cllr Jefferson is going to be a very inspirational leader. I’m very excited about being elected as deputy leader of the group, having that confidence from peers is very heartening.”
Cllr Maurice Howse, of Avenue ward and a former cabinet member, said: “Cllr Tony Jefferson is now group leader and I think it was a very fair democratic decision. Each year, the group leader, deputy leader and the secretary are all confirmed for the next 12 months and anybody has the right to propose themselves if they are seconded. Tony’s CV is impeccable, he has a track record of handling large complex situations and on top of that he’s a very likeable guy. I would like to see the leader try to develop a better relationship with stakeholders.
“Leaders come and go, everybody has a date stamp, it’s just the way of things.”
Cllr Chris Kettle, Bishop’s Itchington representative, said: “Chris has given great service to the council and achieved a huge amount. I think Tony has a fantastic CV and a great deal to add, he’s in a good position to pick the baton up from Chris.”
Cllr Daren Pemberton, the councillor for Bidford East, who was recently sacked from the cabinet by Cllr Saint, said: “I’m absolutely delighted with the decision, I believe Tony will be highly effective as leader and will take this authority forward. Along with Mark Cargill as deputy and Jo Barker as whip, I think it’s a really strong team.
“Tony stood on a very positive agenda, bringing fresh leadership and a more strategic approach. He spoke of being a team player who wanted to work closely with the town and parish councils, it’s an agenda that anybody can get behind.”
Independent Welford councillor, Peter Barnes, said: “It’s good to have a new broom, I know I can work together with the new leader.”
Alex Hall, agent for the South Warwickshire Conservatives, added: “Cllr Tony Jefferson has shown all the qualities necessary to be a fantastic leader and in due course will be able to build on the very strong position of our well-run district council and deliver a new vision for the future.”
For a full interview with the new leader of Stratford District Council, Tony Jefferson, read tomorrow’s Herald (Thursday).
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