COUNCILLOR Ian Bates, who has been leader of Huntingdonshire District Council for the past four years, is to step down in May, he announced today.

His decision not to seek to become HDC's first 'executive leader' with a four-year term when the council adopts a new constitution will spark a leadership battle in the controlling Conservative group.

The news follows Councillor Jill Tuck's announcement two weeks ago that she would not be seeking re-election as leader of Cambridgeshire County Council.

Cllr Bates said the time had come to stand aside when the authority faced major changes and budget cuts imposed by central Government.

He is not saying whether or not his decision was influenced by colleagues' reaction to his now-abandoned proposal to merge HDC with Fenland and East Cambridgeshire District Councils.

What he did say was: “The new post of executive leader will come into effect on May 18, 2011 and will inevitably demand greater pressures on time.

“Along with this, the chief executive will be retiring in the summer and will not be replaced. This change will result in considerable re-organisation of the management structure.

“Since the coalition Government came into being we all know of the rapidly changing agenda, the loss of regional spatial strategies as one example.

“The forthcoming Localism Bill will have considerable impact on this council and, coupled with the savings that must also be achieved by this authority over the coming year, I believe it is now time to hand over the leadership.”

Cllr Bates reflected thus on his term as leader: “Through our financial prudence this district council has and is offering our residents a high quality of service, at a very low cost, and the quality of life which we all enjoy is second to none.”

He will remain on the council as a back-bencher, at least until his term of office as a councillor expires in May 2012. He is also a member of Cambridgeshire County Council.

His deputy, Cllr Mike Simpson, who is approaching his 70th birthday, is also standing down. He will not be seeking re-election as a councillor in May.

Liberal Democrat opposition leader Councillor Peter Downes said Councillor Bates's decision did not come as a surprise.

“These are difficult days for anybody in a council leadership position, and the forthcoming upheavals to which Ian Bates refers in his resignation message make it understandable that he should want to step down at this time.

“I recognise that Ian Bates has worked hard for this council over many years. Clearly I do not think he has always made the right decisions, but I know he always had the best of intentions.

“I hope that the Conservative group will now choose a leader with the competence to deal constructively with the many changes ahead and one who will be willing to listen to views other than those from his own political group.”