Thursday, 17 January 2008

Under-fire Conservatives step down in council financial row

THE leader and deputy leader of the minority Conservative group on West Somerset Council are quitting their political positions amid a row over the authority’s financial crisis.
The Conservatives lost control of the council in last May’s elections when Independent candidates backed by the Liberal Democrat-founded pressure group Direct won more seats.
Since then, Conservative leader Councillor Christine Lawrence (pictured, right) and her deputy Councillor Roger Webber (pictured, below) have been accused of allowing council finances to spiral out of control.
It resulted in both the council’s chief executive Tim Howes and deputy chief executive Rod Latham receiving huge pay-offs from the new Independent administration to leave their jobs, which plunged the authority further into the fiscal mire.
Council leader Councillor Keith Ross was forced also to abandon the much-vaunted New Horizons healthplex scheme in Minehead because there was no money in the kitty to fund the district’s share of the costs – even though work had already started.
New Horizons, which was a partnership with Somerset County Council, Somerset Primary Care Trust, and the West Somerset Community College, included a modern replacement for Minehead Hospital – and now the PCT has been unable to guarantee that it will still be delivered.
The council’s deputy leader, Councillor Simon Stokes (Labour) later called on Councillors Lawrence and Webber, who was the finance portfolio holder until May, to accept their share of responsibility for the crisis and to resign.
Now, former headmaster and chief executive Councillor Tim Taylor, who was elected in May to represent Crowcombe and Stogumber, is to succeed as Conservative group on February 1.
Both Councillors Lawrence and Webber will continue as district councillors.
Councillor Lawrence, who is also a Somerset county councillor for Dunster, said: “I have enjoyed serving the community and I am proud of the projects we were able to deliver during my term, especially the groundwork for the new hospital.”
She said she wanted to devote more time to resolving issues in her Minehead north ward and to her responsibilities as a county councillor.
Councillor Lawrence said she originally intended to hand over to somebody else after the council’s annual meeting ion May, but thought it sensible to allow a new team to be put in place beforehand.
Councillor Taylor said: “West Somerset owes them an enormous debt of gratitude and I am sure this will become more obvious over time.”

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