Council leader acted 'unconstitutionally' - claim

HUNTINGDONSHIRE District Council leader Ian Bates has been accused of acting unconstitutionally when he approved a £50,000 contribution towards the cost of a light-controlled crossing at the junction of the A141 Huntingdon northern bypass with Kings Ripto

HUNTINGDONSHIRE District Council leader Ian Bates has been accused of acting unconstitutionally when he approved a £50,000 contribution towards the cost of a light-controlled crossing at the junction of the A141 Huntingdon northern bypass with Kings Ripton Road.

The decision, which Councillor Bates acknowledges he made on his own in February, followed the death of 16-year-old Warren Hay at the junction last May.

Opposition Liberal Democrat leader Councillor Peter Downes has tabled a motion for next Wednesday's council meeting (April 16) welcoming the possibility of HDC funding for the scheme, but deploring Cllr Bates's "unconstitutional action".

The motion has little chance of success in an authority that has been dominated by the Conservatives since HDC was formed in 1974, but it will prompt a debate about just how much power the leader actually has.


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Cllr Bates and colleagues deny that he acted outside the constitution, but Cllr Downes may have a point. The council's 336-page constitution sets down principles that must underlie decisions, including that they should be open, explained and taken after due consultation and professional advice from officers - as this one certainly was.

The question is whether Cllr Bates had the authority to take it at all or, if not, whether it is a decision at all. One thing is certain: next week's debate will not regularise it if he was not entitled to make it.

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Before the Local Government Act 2000, under which the present system of cabinet decision-making was introduced, there would have been no doubt. The council took decisions or delegated them to committees, which had to consist of at least two members of the authority. So no one could take a unilateral decision.

Now HDC's decision-making is extremely complex, with some decisions still reserved for full council, most executive decisions taken by cabinet meeting in public or by executive councillors and senior officers acting together and on authority specifically delegated by cabinet.

But specific decisions about how approved budgets, such as those for the market towns' transport strategies, are spent can be made as part of a wider delegated authority. Cllr Bates may argue that his decision fell into that category. Cllr Downes will say it did not.

Whatever the outcome of the debate, the "decision" will have to be either endorsed by cabinet or, if it is found technically not to exist, actually to be taken by the cabinet in open session in the next few weeks before any money can change hands.

The only public mention of funding so far was at February's full council meeting, when an amendment tabled by Cllr Downes that would have earmarked £150,000 for the road safety scheme was overwhelmingly defeated.

Whatever happens on Wednesday, HDC's £50,000 contribution will not be affected.

The matter has never been discussed in public by the cabinet, but it has certainly been aired privately.

Cllr Bates was very careful to insist at the time he disclosed his "decision" in late February that it was his and his alone.

Today (Friday) he said: "I don't think I've done anything unconstitutional at all."

Cllr Jonathan Gray, who chairs one of the scrutiny panels that oversees cabinet decision, agreed. "I don't think it's unconstitutional," he said. "It happens all the time, and has never been complained of before."

He has written to Cllr Downes, who is a member of his scrutiny panel, asking him to withdraw the motion.

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