South Ribble Council leader faces axe over taxi row
The embattled leader of South Ribble Council is at the centre of a move to oust her.
Coun Paul Wharton, Tory member for Farington, has submitted a motion to remove Coun Margaret Smith from the position. He claims other rebel Conservatives have also signed the motion, after growing concerned at her handing of the taxi licensing scandal.
Coun Wharton said: “The council has been dragged through enough and I’m trying to protect the integrity that’s left. We have to take this news seriously, it’s not a blip like she keeps saying.”
He added: “I was elected to represent the residents of my ward and I will not sit back complacently and allow the leader to further damage the reputation of our council.”
A month ago a secret report into child sexual exploitation by two taxi drivers was leaked to the press. In it the council was criticised for failing to carry out proper background checks. Since then a new probe has been launched into how a cabbie who tied up a disabled boy had his licence renewed.
The council and its leader have been criticised for failing to make the report public.
But Coun Smith says that she has done nothing wrong and still enjoys the confidence of the people of South Ribble.
She said: “I have been a councillor for 33 years, I have been a cabinet member, group leader and mayor and the people that come up to me say that they think I am doing a good job. What Councillor Wharton is asking me to do is something I cannot do, as the report [into the taxi licensing issues] will go to the chair of the scrutiny committee, not to me.
“I have done my very best to make sure that we have conducted ourselves as best we can in the circumstances, but there are protocols that must be followed.
“We still have members of staff who are suspended and they deserve a fair hearing.”
The motion has been received by council chief executive Mike Nuttall, who must now decide when a vote will be held on the matter. If a majority vote against Coun Smith, she will be removed from her position with immediate effect.
Coun Wharton’s decision to enter the motion comes after he received a phone call telling him he was suspended from the local Conservative group.
After challenging Coun John Rainsbury – party chief whip – over a lack of formal notification, he said he then received an email saying the matter was being considered by Conservative Party HQ.
Coun Wharton said: “I’m disappointed and upset about it because I’ve worked very hard for my residents and the party. I believe it’s completely personal because I’ve put my head above the trenches.”
Coun Rainsbury said it was a private group issue and all he could say was that Coun Wharton was “fully aware of his position”.
Coun Wharton said the reason he was given for his suspension was that he voted against a cabinet appointment last Wednesday.
In the same meeting three rising stars of the cabinet – brought to inject some youthful energy – departed amid bitter recriminations over the taxi licensing issue.
Two, Michael Green and Caroline Moon, refused to continue – claiming their positions had become “untenable” due to false opposition claims of a cover-up.
The third, Warren Bennett, was removed by Coun Smith just 48 hours after leaving his job as her deputy.
Labour Coun Claire Hamilton supported the motion. She said: “After last Wednesday’s meeting of the council, I felt I had no alternative.
“The Leader simply doesn’t seem to have grasped the enormity of what has happened.”