A few days before the SKDC Full Council meeting of 25th July, I heard rumours that the knives were out for the Leader of the Council, Cllr Matthew Lee (Con). On the day it seemed that Cllr Lee had survived the alleged insurgency and all of the Conservatives were extremely well-behaved. In fact, I don’t think a single Conservative, other than Cabinet Members made any comment or question during the meeting except in response to specific questions[i].
However, just 10 days after the meeting it was announced ‘out of the blue’ that Cllr Lee had resigned as Leader of the Council. Independent Councillors received no notification, let alone explanation, from Cllr Lee himself but opposition group leaders received a cursory note from the Deputy Leader, Cllr Kelham Cooke (Con) as follows:
“I am writing to you today to inform you that Matthew has resigned with immediate effect as Leader of the Conservative Group. As per the Conservative Group Constitution, I am now Acting Group Leader…”[ii]
Here are some of the reasons why Cllr Lee might have chosen to resign. They are pure speculation on my part but in the absence of any detailed explanation from either the Council, the Conservative Group or Cllr Lee himself, it’s the best I can offer.
This potential reason for Matthew’s departure from ‘front-bench’ politics wouldn’t have occurred to me if it hadn’t been suggested by SKDC Cabinet Member, Cllr Robert Reid, who was quoted in this week’s Stamford Mercury “He’s resigned owing to ill health. The ill health wasn’t something that was very apparent. I do not know what has brought it on. It’s something that sad. None of us are immortal. We will have to get on with it.”
If Matthew is seriously ill then all I want to do is wish him a full and speedy recovery. I may have disagreed with some of his decisions and actions, as well as his political affiliation, but I wouldn’t wish anyone ill-health.
However, it is odd that there was no mention of ill-health in the e-mail from the Deputy Leader. Cllr Lee spent a great deal of Council money on PR and communications. It is surprising that if his departure is due to ‘personal reasons’ that his has not been spun accordingly.
Of course, it is perfectly plausible that Matthew resigned because he was ‘sick of the Tories’, but that’s something different.
Departure of Senior Staff
Just 19 days before Cllr Lee’s resignation, the Council’s Chief Executive, Aidan Rave Esq, left suddenly in order to ‘pursue new ventures’. This expression is not-too-cryptic shorthand for jumping before he was pushed. The reason for his departure appears to have been a disagreement with Cllr Lee about the future direction of the Council. i.e. Mr Rave wanted to be part of the future of the Council and Cllr Lee appears to have disagreed.
I shed no tears of the departure of Mr Rave. During his two years as Chief Executive I only spoke to him about a couple of issues and I was disappointed with the lack of tangible action that resulted. However, the manner of his sudden departure is a concern as it appears to have been at the whim of Cllr Lee who, during his two years as Leader, has apparently hired and fired staff with a non-chalance reminiscent of Alan Sugar.
Since being appointed as Leader in April 2017, Cllr Lee has overseen the departure of two Chief Executives, two Chief Finance Officers as well as a Head of Legal Services who had worked for almost thirty years. The cost associated with sudden unexpected departures is probably nearly £400,000 in less than two years.
Arrival of Senior Staff
Since his arrival as leader, Cllr Lee has been criticised by many people, including me, for appointing cronies from Peterborough without following a proper recruitment process. For example, there was much controversy over the engagement of a communications consultant at a cost of over £140,000 per annum with no tender process or formal contract in place between the consultant and the council. The Consultant had previously worked with Cllr Lee when the latter was a Councillor in Peterborough. The issue came to a head when I asked about the continued costs at Full Council in September 2018. I was accused then, by Cllr Helen Goral (Con), of pursuing a “personal vendetta” but less than two weeks later the consultancy was terminated. In April this year a new Communications job was invented with a salary of over £50,000/annum and the aforementioned consultant was one of only two people who applied for it. His recent reappearance at the Council has allegedly caused concern among the Conservative group.
Lack of Transparency
As part of Cllr Lee’s laudable efforts to make the Council more agile and business-like, the Council has created three separate ‘arms-length’ businesses (Gravitas Housing Ltd, InvestSK Ltd and EnvironmentSK Ltd) with another one on the way. These companies are able to act slightly beyond the normal barriers of a local authority even though they are 100% funded from the public purse. InvestSK has taken some of the responsibility for running markets, festivals and heritage projects. It has also dished out around a quarter of a million pounds in grants for arts, heritage, sports and retail projects.
The problem with the Council’s private companies is that they are not controlled or scrutinised in the same manner as the Council’s ordinary operations. In April this year, the Council handed over £400,000 to InvestSK and this was followed in May by a further £1.3 million. This presents a challenge for backbench councillors, including me, in scrutinising and influencing how all this money is spent.
There are other transparency issues at SKDC in relation to access to Committee meetings and workshops but I do not believe Cllr Lee is responsible for these problems. In fact he has had a positive influence on access to meetings by encouraging participation by all Councillors at Cabinet and Committee meetings.
The Conservative Group are revolting
The last three meetings of Full Council have been dominated by discussion of the underfunding of Lincolnshire Police. Well, to be more accurate, they have been dominated by an ongoing argument between Cllr Ray Wootten (Con) and most of the opposition councillors over whether he misled the council by boldly announcing an additional £10 million of extra police funding which didn’t actually exist. His statement led to confusion at the time but this has been aggravated by his refusal to apologise or accept any responsibility for relaying incorrect figures to a public meeting of the Council. At the July meeting of Full Council, Cllr Wootten repeatedly refused to apologise and appeared more ridiculous every time he spoke. This was all rather embarrassing especially when not a single Conservative colleague, neither frontbench nor backbench, offered Cllr Wootten any word of support during the meeting.
It could be argued that a strong leader would have ‘nipped this in the bud’ months ago by telling Cllr Wootten to back down and by enforcing his authority by threatening to remove him as Chair of the Council’s Committee which comes with a Special Responsibility Allowance of around £5,000/annum.
The strength of Cllr Lee’s leadership was also recently undermined by the elections in May where the Conservatives lost several seats and Cllr Lee only held on to his own Stamford seat by seven votes. Such a result was hardly an endorsement for him personally, or for his supposed radical programme of change.
Several of the Conservative group also still hold grievances concerning the manner of Cllr Lee’s original election as Leader. Having previously been a Peterborough City Councillor, Cllr Lee was only elected to SKDC in 2015 and within a year was organising a hostile takeover of the Conservative Group. His first attempt was unsuccessful but it took only two years to oust the personable Cllr Bob Adams (Con) from the position of Leader that he had held since the election.
Another reason why the Conservatives might be unhappy with their leadership is the lack of tangible delivery on promises. Immediately after the coup of 2017, there was a display of action and vigour in the form of The Big Clean which was a half million pound project to tidy and clean the streets which the County and District councils had failed to keep on top of in previous years. This was followed by a flamboyant summit for business leaders, the great and the good of South Kesteven. Cllr Lee made promises of improved markets and festivals as well as eye-catching building projects including new Leisure Centres for the Deepings and Stamford. These promises were renewed a year later at a private summit (which cost £14,000) but very little has actually happened as a result.
The existing Deepings Leisure Centre is becoming more decrepit by the minute with rain literally pouring in through the roof, yet there is still no declared site, budget or plan for its replacement.
A market has been launched in Market Deeping but there is no budget for its ongoing promotion, management or marketing.
The St Peter’s Hill cinema, which was over five years in the planning and well over £5m is the building, is now open to customers but the building is shared with two restaurant units which remain empty due to lack of commercial interest. A university centre for Grantham is still stuck on the drawing board.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and big projects can take a long time to come to fruition, but the lack of progress on so many issues at South Kesteven, combined with all the factors above, is surely one of the reasons why Cllr Lee has thrown in the towel.
Does anyone know which dynamic Conservative will now step in to take the helm at South Kesteven? The Leadership election is due to take place on 2nd September.
[i] Actually, Cllr Sue Woolley and Cllr Bob Adams did propose a procedural motion to move to the vote but they didn’t express any opinion on the question at hand so it doesn’t count
[ii] The e-mail continued with some house-keeping arrangements and an invitation to Group Leaders to phone if they had any questions. I have tried phoning Kelham but so far I’ve had no reply.