South Ribble councillor admits being “out of order” over chief executive slur

A veteran member of South Ribble Borough Council has apologised for suggesting that the chief executive of the authority was “in the pockets” of the ruling Labour group.

Thursday, 26th May 2022, 9:43 am
Updated Thursday, 26th May 2022, 2:42 pm

Barrie Yates, who has been a councillor in the district for 31 years, made the comment during a testy debate about the future of the area’s leisure centres.

The Conservative politician proffered an apology to Gary Hall – the council’s most senior officer – within moments of delivering the jibe at a recent meeting of the authority.

However, Mr. Hall declined to accept it – and South Ribble’s Labour council leader Paul Foster has made an official complaint over the matter.

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Cllr Barrie Yates made his comment after saying that he had seen chief executive Gary Hall "laughing" during a meeting of the full council last week

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Cllr Yates, who represents the Samlesbury and Walton ward, has now told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) that he was “out of order” in what he said.

Councillors were discussing a multi-million pound investment in South Ribble’s three leisure centres – in Leyland, Penwortham and Bamber Bridge – and the borough’s tennis centre.

The subject has long been a source of rancour between the two main parties on the authority, with Labour claiming that a previous Tory plan to build a new leisure centre alongside the council’s headquarters would have involved closing all of the existing facilities – something which the Conservatives deny.

Gary Hall's role as South Ribble Borough Council's chief executive is a non-political one

It was during a debate which revisited that running sore that Cllr Yates produced a leaflet which he said he had distributed to residents in the east of the borough back in 2018.

Having been rebuked by mayor David Howarth for likening Cllr Foster to “Pinocchio” – over what he said were “misleading” claims made in Labour campaign literature on the topic – Cllr Yates declared: ”When I put a brochure out, we tell the truth.”

He then broke off from his next sentence to add: “And I can see the chief exec laughing, because he’s in the pockets – the same pockets -…as the other way,” gesticulating towards the Labour ranks.

Cllr Howarth ordered him to “apologise immediately” or face being ejected from the meeting. He duly did so, but was told by Mr. Hall – whose top-job role is strictly non-political – that his apology was “not accepted”.

Long-serving South Ribble borough councillor Barrie Yates has sat on the authority for 31 years

Gary Hall has been the joint chief executive of both South Ribble and Chorley councils for three years, having held the role at the latter authority alone since 2011. He retires from the shared post at the end of this year.

Speaking to the LDRS the day after the meeting, Cllr Yates said: “What I said was out of order concerning the officer and I did apologise to him in the meeting and on close of the meeting.

“[During the meeting], accusations and use of bad language came from a Labour member [who] was also dealt with by the mayor. No action [was] taken against that member and no apologies [were] given by the member,” Cllr Yates said.

He added that the incident had been “building up after two years of intimidation against me and it came to a head last [week]”.

Last year, Cllr Yates was found by the council’s standards committee to have brought the authority into disrepute after he threatened to call the police about the conduct of a Labour member midway through a virtual planning committee meeting in December 2020.

Cllr Foster told the full council meeting that he was making a complaint to the authority’s monitoring officer about Cllr Yates’s latest remarks.

“ I – in all my time as an elected councillor – [have] never heard such an absolute disgraceful comment as was made. I’m genuinely stuck for words,” Cllr Foster said.

Addressing Cllr Yates directly, he added: “I think your comments were appalling, at best.”

Criticism also came from a member of the Tory group, with former cabinet member Caroline Moon saying that she wanted to “distance myself” from what she described as “disgraceful” comments – and said that she would take any “consequences” from speaking out against one of her fellow Conservatives.

“It absolutely boils me. My view of politics is through the floor, the public’s view of politics is through the floor and then…you come straight from work, you come in to do your duty…and you listen to this,” Cllr Moon said.

Deputy Labour council leader Mick Titherington – who was presenting the report on the leisure centre investment plan, which was subsequently approved – said that he was “fed up with the bloody lies that are being told in this borough and in this country”.

He, too, was pulled up by the mayor – who suggested that he apologise for what he had “inferred” about members of the authority.

Cllr Titherington said that, unlike Cllr Yates, he had not made any “direct accusations”, but nevertheless apologised if he had “offended anybody”, adding: “But I do tend to state the truth and I will continue to do that.”

Cllr Howarth – presiding over his first meeting as the borough’s mayor – appealed to all members for a “standard of debate” in the chamber which did not involve suggesting that others were liars.

Following the standards committee ruling against him last September over his actions at the planning committee, Cllr Yates was ordered to undergo training in the code of conduct for elected members. He initially said that he would be making a complaint of “maladministration” against the council for the way in which it had handled the disciplinary process surrounding the affair, but the LDRS understands that he was told that the Local Government Ombudsman would not consider such a complaint from a councillor.

Cllr Yates told the LDRS that he had complied with the standards committee’s decision.