Council leader survives no confidence vote
Matthew Smith local democracy reporter
- Credit: WHBC
Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council's leader has survived a vote of no confidence in the wake of a scathing report into housing safety checks.
At a full council meeting on Thursday, September 16, leader councillor Tony Kingsbury apologised “unreservedly” to tenants and leaseholders, but said the situation was being “twisted into a political opportunity”.
Liberal Democrat and Labour groups unsuccessfully called for the leader to stand down in the wake of a report that found 90 per cent of homes owned by the borough council had an overdue fire safety assessment.
The report published by the Regulator of Social Housing in July found the borough council had breached the Home Standard in relation to electrical, water, asbestos and fire safety checks, adding there was “potential for serious detriment to Welwyn Hatfield BC’s tenants”.
The leader of the council said that as soon as he was made aware of the issues the council referred itself to the regulator, and he directed council staff to write to every tenant in Welwyn Hatfield to explain what had happened.
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Liberal Democrat group leader Councillor Paul Zukowskyj proposed the motion of no confidence, claiming that opposition groups had raised concerns about the council’s housing stock, and had been kept in the dark about the issues with safety checks.
He continued the situation had highlighted a “secret society approach to local government”, and urged the council to commit to publishing the findings of an internal review.
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Cllr Zukowskyj said: “Whose responsibility is this situation, this breakdown, this scandal, this secret society approach to local government? The answer is simple and sweet, it’s the leadership.
“Leaders in any organisation are responsible for the culture and the ethos of that body. Councillor Kingsbury has had ample time to change that culture and ethos, that failure. He needs to take responsibility, it’s time to step down.”
The motion was seconded by Labour group leader Councillor Kieran Thorpe, who denied that the motion was politically-motivated, and said it was the “very worst breakdown” of the council’s duty to keep residents safe he had seen as a councillor.
He said taxpayers also deserve an apology after the housing stock had been left “neglected” by the council.
Cllr Thorpe added: “Our residents were saying something was wrong, councillors were saying something was wrong, the media were running stories on something being wrong. When a problem this serious is ignored, the people doing the ignoring become the problem. How can anyone have confidence in that?”
However, the Conservative group defended the leader, saying that the motion was looking for a ‘scapegoat’ following the report.
Councillor Stephen Boulton said the motion was “miserable and confused”, adding: “Leaders don’t look for scapegoats, they look for solutions to problems, and [Cllr Kingsbury] put that into effect immediately.”
Deputy leader councillor Duncan Bell highlighted the leader’s work during the pandemic, and said this was not a decision for the council to make.
Cllr Bell said: “I am perhaps old fashioned but I happen to think the ballot box, not a motion at full council is the right place for determining confidence or otherwise in the leadership.”
During the debate, Cllr Kingsbury rejected claims that he kept matters private from councillors and the public, adding that he has worked “collaboratively” with opposition groups during his time as leader.
He added that issues with maintenance and repairs were being introduced into the debate on compliance to “confuse the matter”, and these concerns are being looked into separately.
Cllr Kingsbury said: “I am confident I directed the council to act promptly and with transparency, despite your comments. Additionally, I made a point of keeping the leaders of the Lib Dem and Labour groups in the loop throughout.
“Therefore it’s disappointing but predictable that you may suggest I somehow kept you in the dark. This is a clear attempt to twist the situation into a political opportunity rather than the concern I have for those affected.”
Cllr Kingsbury survived the vote of no confidence by a majority of six. A second motion, brought by ruling Conservative councillors expressing confidence in their leader, also passed by a majority of six.
Cllr Kingsbury added that the council is working towards a return to compliance and is expecting to meet statutory health and safety requirements in relation to water, asbestos and electrics within the next two weeks.