Dunstable Town Council has been blasted over the “shambles” of six councillor departures since the 2015 election – costing an estimated £70k in by-elections.
There are currently three empty spaces on the council due to the absenteeism of one Tory councillor and sudden resignation of two of his colleagues. Cllr Des Moffatt’s Manshead seat became vacant after he failed to attend meetings for over six months.
Cllr Andrew Whayman – the leader of the town council and chairman of the finance committee – resigned last week, as did Cllr Stephen Elliott, whose troubled nightclub business Unity left a string of alleged creditors in its wake.
It means a total of six Conservative councillors have left the council since the 2015 election due to absenteeism or resignations – costing rate payers an estimated £70,000 in by-elections.
Labour Cllr Anne Kennedy said: “To be honest, I think it’s a farce. Two councillors have just resigned and I took the place of one who hardly turned up to meetings. It’s a shambles and this council is falling apart.
“I also think they are completely incompetent. One of them voted to change the structure of the market and then resigned straight afterwards. This is not acceptable behaviour.”
The Gazette spoke to departing Cllr Stephen Elliott, who said: “[My resignation] is absolutely nothing to do with Unity. I’ve taken on some work away from Dunstable, I’ll be away six or seven months and so I can’t commit to the town council’s needs.
“It’s unfortunate that the council is going to lose three councillors.”
Cllr Andy Whayman became leader of the council despite being one of its relatively junior members, joining in 2015. He told the Gazette that he had resigned for “purely personal” reasons.
He added: “It’s not a council thing, I was aware of a vacancy before mine due to non-attendance.”
Besides the three current vacancies, Cllr William Tookey resigned from Northfields ward earlier this year and Cllrs Julie Harnett and Gemma-Marie Le-Surf resigned from the same ward in 2016, all resulting in by-elections.
With the exception of Cllr Harnett, four of the departed councillors were part of the new intake from the 2015 election. Cllr Stephen Elliot was elected in a by-election last year.
Two sitting councillors – Cllr Jessica Castle and Cllr Emma Simmons – currently hold attendance records of 14% this year.
The Gazette has been unable to contact Cllr Moffatt.
CBC Cllr Carole Hegley, vice-chairman of South West Beds Conservative Association, said: “Primarily, we have a challenging task to fill 69 seats, and won the majority of those in 2015 – 21 for Dunstable Town Council, 21 for Leighton-Linslade Town Council and 25 for Central Beds Council – a tall order for any party! Admittedly, some of those seats are held by twin hatters – there’s dedication for you! For Labour to find one candidate for Dunstable Town Council or a handful across all three councils, is I would suggest a far easier task!
“We filled nearly every seat in South West Beds in 2015 with quality candidates! On pure statistics, it IS likely we would see more turnover. If you take all changes, that’s less than a 10% change in posts – I think a number of large organisations, even councils would be envious of that – I’m hearing staff turnover figures of 12.5% – 20% in other circles.
“We have a robust selection process for candidates to find high calibre people with a good demographic mix, including younger members. We have a high benchmark to encourage members who are committed (in time and purpose), have a skillset which is helpful to their role in council matters and have the endurance qualitites to see through a four year term.
“It probably takes a term for a new member to understand local government! You have to be resilient, broad shouldered, impenetrable sometimes to Facebook comments, opposition comments, press articles and the like and as a part of a democratic entity you have to observe the voice of others, and abide by majority thinking and voting, it’s an acquired taste! Members elected to the Town Councils are pure volunteers, and many have active lives, families, other voluntary roles, business commitments which can and do take them out of the area – sadly we cannot predict this and clearly cannot stand in the way of an individual’s progress.
“Town Councils have an opportunity to consider their size and formation of members for the future, they may wish to consider reducing numbers for practical purposes.
“For various reasons, three members have decided to stand down which is deeply disappointing – we know it will raise comment, criticism especially by opposition players – that is politics! We will explain the above to residents who I am sure will understand and see the story behind the headline too.
“We are considering the prospect of by-elections, we are committed to fielding good candidates to offer choice to our residents and especially Conservative supporters and will continue to strengthen the members on the town council with appropriate skills and talents. Our members across all councils have ‘earned their keep’ in terms of outcomes for the town during this term – the opening of the A5/M1 link, Woodside Connection, hundreds of jobs created locally, Award Winning Priory View independent living scheme which was worthy of a Royal visit, a new Leisure Centre & Library being constructed for Dunstable, Market Town Regeneration Fund investment £600K+ to Dunstable, High Street Improvement Scheme with 14 shops on the current list for shop front improvement works in the pipeline, a new Splashpark, active events programme and a current consultation on the ‘make over’ works for Dunstable high street.
“There’s never been a more important time to have key members with skills at Dunstable Town Council to keep shoulders to the wheel to maintain momentum, work together locally and with other members at Central Beds to maximise benefit to Dunstable.”