Senior Uttlesford Tories given pay rises on same night Council Tax benefits cut for low income families

Uttlesford District Council's offices.

Uttlesford District Council's offices. - Credit: Archant

Uttlesford’s top brass have come under fire this week after approving a hike in their allowances on the same night it was agreed to cut Council Tax discounts for lower income families.

The ill-timed move, at a full council meeting on Tuesday evening, came on an uncomfortable night for the ruling Conservatives following the allegation from one of its own members that she was “bullied and harassed” into toeing the party line on a separate issue.

A proposal to up the amount of the Council Tax bill paid by non-vulnerable working age people from 8.5 per cent to 12.5 per cent was approved by 30 votes to seven. Pensioners, disabled people and carers will not be affected by the change.

Liberal Democrat councillor Martin Foley said the decision sent out a “very bad message” to Uttlesford residents.

Prior to the vote Saffron Walden resident Martyn Everett, who has been campaigning for more to be done to tackle child poverty following the Reporter’s exclusive revelation that 1,582 children in Uttlesford are living below the poverty line, handed over a 300-name petition opposing the tax hike – calling the district council “heartless”.

Leader of the opposition, Cllr Elizabeth Parr, a Lib Dem for Elsenham and Henham, told members she had previously relied on benefits.

“If I had found out councillors voted to put up their pay and then agreed to take money away from vulnerable people I would be outraged,” she said.

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“More people signed the petition than responded to the council’s consultation, which shows people do care about this when it’s placed in front of them.”

‘Heartless’ jibe rubbished

Portfolio holder for finance, Cllr Robert Chambers, refuted the “heartless” claim, as did leader Cllr Jim Ketteridge.

Cllr Chambers said: “I’m a little concerned by the suggestion this is a ‘heartless council’ that ignores real poverty. If reductions are not made to Council Tax support we would either have to put up Council Tax for everybody or cut vital services.

“We have to ask some low income households to pay a little more Council Tax.”

He added: “Our scheme is the most generous in Essex – some districts in the county have residents paying 15-30 per cent instead of 12.5.

“The average impact on the 1,300 households affected is 90p per week. That is a lot of money to some people but not a lot to many, I hope.”

Under the proposals, residents who own a second home will lose their 10 per cent discount on the property, while there will also be a reduction in the empty homes discount.

Allowances upped for the cabinet

Councillors earlier voted to increase allowances for certain members from next April to better reflect new roles following the move from a committee to cabinet system. Cllr Alan Dean, a Lib Dem, used this to attack Cllr Chambers. He said: “It’s rich that a member of the cabinet can say it’s only an extra 90 pence per week for people when he himself is taking an increase of £24 per week.”

The changes, put forward by an independent panel of three members of the public, include rises in allowances for the council leader, deputy and members of the cabinet.

On top of the basic allowance of £5,000, Cllr Ketteridge will now be able to claim £10,750, up £2,000, from next April. However, in a move to gradually phase out group leader allowances, he will lose £1,500, equating to a net increase of £500.

Deputy leader Cllr Jackie Cheetham will see the allowance for her role rise from £5,250 to £6,500, while the cabinet will each receive a 25 per cent hike in allowances from £4,750 to £6,000.

Bullying claims

At the same meeting allegations of bullying and intimidation were made against Uttlesford’s ruling Conservative party.

The claims preceded a controversial vote which appeared to show Tory rebels opposing the district council’s housing plans.

Wimbish and Debden representative, Cllr Tina Knight, launched a stunning tirade against her own party, claiming she had been “bullied and harassed” into voting down a motion by the Liberal Democrats which called for an independent inquiry into the legitimacy of the Local Plan.

Cllr Knight said: “For the past year I have felt like a big player in a remake of Yes Minister – I’ve felt excluded from many things.

“I think we have made mistakes and the quality of a council is when they realise this.

“This thing [the Local Plan process] has taken a sinister turn in my opinion. I’m an adult, I have my own opinion and I have the right to express it.

“I resent the fact that I have been bullied and harassed over the last few weeks, and accused of bringing the Tory party into disrepute.

“I do not agree. I think the executive have been doing that enough themselves [by pushing ahead with the Local Plan].”

Not too late to change plan

Addressing the cabinet, Cllr Knight added: “There is always time, even at the 11th hour, to pull things round.

“This plan is not right and if you want to start beating me over the head for expressing my point of view, you have picked the wrong person.”

Conservative colleague Cllr Keith Mackman, a representative for Dunmow South, backed up Cllr Knight’s claims.

He said: “I have been accused of disloyalty, which I feel offended by. This is not a political matter, it affects us all.

“Planning should be done for the right reasons and not for political point scoring.”

Council leader: ‘A lot of inaccuracies and mis-information’

Leader of the council, Cllr Jim Ketteridge, chose not to respond to the bullying allegations at the meeting. He added: “I have listened to a lot of inaccuracies and mis-information [about the Local Plan] but I am not sure what point it would serve going over it again, as it has all been well documented.”

His cabinet colleague, Cllr Howard Rolfe, leapt to the defence of the Local Plan, saying he was “proud” of it.

He added: “There has been no alternative mentioned other than to delay the process and that would be a complete disaster.

“I think there is legitimacy, a great deal of intelligence and a lot of thoroughness that has gone into this plan.”

Lib Dem leader Cllr Elizabeth Parr, who tabled the motion, argued that an inquiry could run alongside the council’s ongoing consultation so as not to delay the process further.

Tory Rebels

The motion was voted down by 26 of the 38 councillors present.

The Conservatives did not have it all their own way, however, as Cllr Mackman and Independent Cllr Joanna Parry voted with the five Lib Dems.

In a sign of rebellion, four Conservatives abstained from the vote – three of whom represent wards in Saffron Walden – along with independent Elizabeth Godwin.

Prior to the meeting, one anonymous councillor told the Reporter: “Abstentions will be the way some Conservatives go, that is what people should read in to it. We cannot be seen to support the Lib Dems.

“However, councillors should be able to voice the views of their constituents and not necessarily those of the Conservative party.”

The Reporter understands a motion to relieve Cllr Ketteridge of his position as council leader was discussed privately but later abandoned because of the perceived lack of support for the move.

Nevertheless, it appears to show there are fractures developing within the Tories over the controversial Local Plan, which sets out where 10,400 homes should be built over a 20-year period.