A “playground” parish pump dust-up in a genteel Warwickshire village has left taxpayers with a bill of thousands of pounds – after a ban on a veteran councillor was overturned following a High Court skirmish.
Henley-in-Arden Parish Council has lost a landmark battle against rebel Councillor Bill Leech after being branded ‘dysfunctional’ by Stratford District Council.
Independent group Councillor Leech was accused of harassment and bullying parish clerk Jenny Walsh after he argued in a lengthy campaign that the running costs of Beaudesert and Henley Joint Parish Council were too high.
Coun Leech says that since 2000, Henley Parish Council has spent £280,000 more than its counterpart in Tanworth-in-Arden, which has a larger population.
The increasingly acrimonious spat led to Councillor Leech being banned by the ruling group from key council activities, including visiting the parish office, sitting on council committees or communicating with the parish clerk.
But Coun Leech emerged triumphant after taking the council to the High Court in Birmingham in protest at the ban, which he claimed was illegal. The council has agreed to pay £8,000 towards his costs and to lift the ban after agreeing an out of court settlement.
He said after the out of court settlement: “There has been a shameful attempt to label my campaign for economy and efficiency as harassment and bullying of the parish clerk.
“Fortunately, the Stratford District Council Standards and Ethics Committee have consistently confirmed following eight separate complaints over two years that this was not the case. In their final judgement, Stratford District Council called the Henley Parish Council “dysfunctional” and the parish clerk “provocative.”
“I believe that the majority of residents now believe that we should have a new and more representative parish council which believes in democracy, economy and efficiency.”
Coun Mike Willmott, who is the chairman of the Henley Independents and has known Coun Leech for over 30 years, added: “I believe it is a disgraceful abuse of the democratic process when an elected councillor is persecuted with an illegal ban for challenging the ruling group of the parish council over their spendthrift ways and whose only recourse was to instigate a judicial review of the decision.
“The Henley Independents will continue to campaign for a simpler, cheaper council that can give more money to the many deserving causes in Henley.”
Former parish councillor Sue Osborne, who was on Henley Parish Council for three years and stood down at the last election in May 2012, said: “I am constantly surprised by the complete absence of reasoned discussion and debate at council meetings.
“The pervading atmosphere is one of bickering and point scoring which is more reminiscent of a group of six-year-olds in a school playground.”
Coun Leech added: “No proper procedure was followed in advance of handing down their ban, breaking the laws relating to fair trials first established by Magna Carta in 1215 and now covered by the Human Rights Act.”
A jointly agreed statement previously issued by Coun Leech and Henley Parish Council said: “Councillor Bill Leech and Beaudesert and Henley Parish Council are pleased to announce that the legal proceedings brought by Councillor Leech against Beaudesert and Henley Parish Council have been resolved.
“Councillor Leech had commenced proceedings to challenge the lawfulness of the restrictions imposed on him by the council
“Without any admittance of wrongdoing and in order to save further public funds being expended the council has now agreed to lift those restrictions and to make a contribution towards the legal costs incurred by councillor Leech.
“All councillors, including councillor Leech have repeated assurances that they will abide by the Code of Conduct for councillors.
“Both the council and councillor Leech are pleased that this matter has been resolved and look forward to serving the interests of the people of Beaudesert and Henley in the New Year.”
On January 21 council chairman Les Goodman and the vice-chairman Chris Milsom resigned their positions but remained as councillors. Alternate members from the ruling group were elected by a majority vote.
Parish clerk Jenny Walsh added: “The ban on councillor Leech was in no way connected with his alleged concerns about excessive administration costs.”