Harrogate Lib Dems in turmoil as councillors break away from party

The Liberal Democrats in Harrogate have been plunged into turmoil after a third of their borough councillors sensationally broke away from the party, becoming independent.

Monday, 9th May 2016, 4:10 pm
Updated Monday, 9th May 2016, 5:15 pm
Harrogate council offices

The Lib Dems had 15 members on Harrogate Borough Council to oppose the Conservative's 37 majority, having won two more seats at Thursday's local elections.

However, news emerged this morning (May 9), that five Lib Dems had decided to become Independent councillors after becoming recently disilussioned with the party.

John Fox and Jennifer Travena (Granby), Andrew Goss and Bob O'Neill (Woodfield) and Val Rodgers (Bilton) have now switched allegiances, leaving Lib Dem councillor numbers depleted.

Coun Fox has devoted his life to the party, spending 45 years with them and was first winning election on to the council in 1982 before retiring in 1991.

He returned in 1999 but, despite a combined 26 years representing the party on the council, said he had grown recently frustrated with their behaviour.

Coun Fox pointed to the party's poor handling of the £9m council offices move as the tipping point for his disillusionment.

He said: "The Lib Dems had pushed for a different option for the council move in their leaflets in 2014 and we collected 2000 signatures on it.

"This should have triggered a debate on the issue to be heard early in 2015 but it was only presented in July.

"At this point, the council were about to approve a tender from a contractor and confirm the disposal of the old offices. If we had done it earlier then members may have taken a different view."

The leader of the Lib Dems, Coun Pat Marsh, said the party will be holding a meeting tomorrow with the councillors over their decision.

She said: "We are working with the Lib Dem regional group to see whether we can solve the issues they have which, at the moment, we are struggling to understand."

The Lib Dems have recently come in for criticism from voters and councillors after fielding just seven candidates out of 16 contested seats in last week's local elections.

However, Advertiser reader Peter Lilley, wrote in to the paper on April 21 complaining of their 'shambolic performance' at the latest full council meeting.

Mr Lilley observed that the party were demanding a policy change be postponed to allow more time for it to be discussed.

However, when the matter was discussed at a committee meeting four weeks previously, Coun Matthew Webber (Lib Dem) had failed to raise an objection.

Mr Lilley wrote: "It soon became apparent that Lib-Dem councillors don't always bother to communicate with each other before important meetings or necessarily make a point of acquainting themselves with all relevant background papers.

"They therefore come across as an uninspiring collection of disparate individuals rather than a serious political force

"On a council where all the power and nearly all the major decisions are vested in a cliquey six person Cabinet, it's vital that we have a vibrant, capable, well-informed opposition."

Coun Fox said he felt the party had been 'ridiculed' by their handling over the issue but admitted the disappointment shared between the five councillors had been present even before this.

He said: "We've been unhappy for a while and we've decided that the time has come for us to go Independent. We feel now we can work better for our residents.

"For me it's a heart-breaking decision because I've spent 45 years as a Lib Dem and there are a lot of people I have come to know and talk to over the years.

"But, although I support the Lib Dems in the council, their job is to hold the Conservative administration to account and there's a lot going on.

"One of the things I personally want to push is the tourism side and the HIC. We need to make more of Harrogate as a tourist attraction and I'm going to be challenging the council to do that and support more tourism here."

Coun O'Neill only returned as a Lib Dem councillor last year, after originally retiring in 1995, but has switched parties just one year later.

He argued that there was now too much 'party politics' and not enough communication between councillors to be able to represent Woodfield effectively.

"We don't talk to enough with fellow councillors. I just feel the way the Lib Dems are going I don't have the breathing space to voice my opinions," Coun O'Neill said.

"I don't think I could have done my duty as a Lib Dem councillor with the disagreements that I had with the party. I feel I can represent the people of Woodfield better as an Indpendent."

"I know we have all been elected because of our political point of view but I don't think national issues should come in too much when trying to get the best for our district."