New Conservative leader’s pledge on economy as attention turns to recovery from the pandemic
The new leader of East Riding Council’s ruling Conservative group has said he felt change was needed amid opposition concerns the move threatens stability.
Cllr Jonathan Owen said the economy, jobs, housing and devolution would be among his main areas of focus as attention turns to the East Riding’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.
The councillor added he felt talk of a rival splinter group breaking away from the Conservatives after last Wednesday’s AGM had been “blown out of proportion”.
Cllr David Nolan, leader of the opposition Liberal Democrats, said they were open to working with Cllr Owen but added “machinations” with the Conservatives could put council services in jeopardy.
The comments come as Cllr Owen defeated incumbent group leader Cllr Richard Burton at the party’s yearly meeting.
The AGM also saw the outgoing leader’s deputy Cllr Mike Stathers ousted in favour of Cllr John Holtby.
Both are set to formally take over leadership of the council at its AGM on Thursday, May 13.
Sources within the group claimed Cllr Owen’s victory could have been as narrow as three votes, though others said it was impossible to know as it was a secret ballot.
Cllr Owen assumed leadership of the group after the vote but within hours sources close to the outgoing leadership said a “significant” number of Conservatives could form a rival bloc.
The source added an independent party adjudicator could be called in to investigate the results.
Another source backing the incoming leadership said the splinter group would likely “come to nothing”, adding the vote was carried out the same way as it was last year.
Cllr Owen said Cllr Burton had already pledged his support to the new leadership, adding a “sensible” handover was now taking place.
Cllr Owen said: “It will largely be business as usual, but I want our leadership to have more discussions and debates with the wider group.
“All of us as councillors are here to represent the best interests of our residents, there are minor differences within our group but they’re minor.
“As we come out of the pandemic I will be looking to work with all Conservatives as well as the Liberal Democrats and the existing independent group.
“I think politics is changing, we might have our spats in the council chamber but day to day councillors from across all parties work closely.
“It’s very unlikely there would be a splinter group, it’s been blown out of proportion.
“There’s no grounds whatsoever for an adjudicator to come in as the vote was conducted in the fairest possible fashion, people were happy with the process and maybe that’s come from those who didn’t get the result they wanted.”
Cllr Owen said he decided to stand for leader after “a number of people” approached him and asked him to enter the fray.
The Conservative leader said: “I was deputy leader of the council for 18 years under Steve Parnaby and then under Cllr Burton.
“I challenged Cllr Burton last year and a number of people said it was too soon.
“Cllr Burton had his ideas and then we ran into the coronavirus pandemic, he took the role on at a time when it was impossible to know that would happen and he faced huge pressures.
“This time a number of people felt change was needed going forward, but I have a huge amount of respect for Cllr Burton and he’s been very supportive in the last 24 hours.
“Now as we’re coming out of the pandemic I want to bring my experience to the role, I want more debate in our group and to develop some of the newer members who came in in the last local elections.
“I will be saying more at the council’s annual general meeting, but I’m keen to look at economic development and jobs and suitable housing, not just affordable housing but housing for our elderly too.
“My interest has always been in health and wellbeing, I think we need to look at growing inequalities in those areas and around issues like living conditions and adult social care.
“I don’t think stability will be an issue, my role is now to rebuild links within the group.”
Cllr Nolan said: “Our group want to see stability at the council particularly so it can keep on delivering services for residents, especially the most vulnerable.
“We’re keeping our door open for discussions in the interest of residents, but we would want to see changes in some areas.
“We would want any council plans for a joint mayor and combined authority with Hull City Council to be put out to a public consultation.
“We’d also like the council leadership to work closely with non-cabinet members, we have 67 councillors but only 10 of them are making the key decisions.
“As far as the AGM goes we’re open to discussions with the new leadership, if there is a split in the Conservatives then things could change hands.
“But we’re still a little surprised at the change in leadership in the middle of a pandemic.
“We think the Conservatives should be focusing on working for residents, they’re more important than the internal machinations of the ruling group.”