Six senior members of Ryedale District Council - including its leader - have resigned from the controlling Conservative group after threats of suspension from the constituency party association.
Councillor Linda Cowling a member of the council for 26 years and leader for the past six years, has quit the party, along with four former council chairmen, Councillors John Raper, Janet Frank, Eric Hope and David Cussons, and council planning committee chairman, Coun Snowy Windress.
Coun Cowling, who represents Pickering, said all six were now part of the council’s independent group and believed that some other Conservative members were also considering their positions.
As a result the council goes from being Conservative controlled to no overall control, with 13 Conservatives, 11 independents, four Liberals, and two Liberal Democrats.
Coun Cowling said the dispute between the Conservative group and the Thirsk and Malton Conservative Association, had been triggered by the controversy over Coun Raper voting twice in a debate last autumn when he pressed his own electronic device to vote on a motion regarding the timing of council meetings, and then pressed that of a neighbouring Councillor Cussons, who was absent from the council meeting.
“Coun Raper was disciplined and we believed that was the end of the matter” said Coun Cowling but the constituency association said it wanted to interview both Coun Raper and Coun Cussons.”
Coun Cussons had not been able to attend a hearing meeting because he was at Buckingham Palace receiving an MBE for his services to agriculture, she said.
The two had been told they were being suspended from the Conservative Party pending expulsion.
“This situation is a great shame because under the Conservative administration the council has made great strides in attracting big new investment, creating many hundreds of new jobs and generally taking the district forward,” said Coun Cowling.
“But the association’s behaviour is not what the public expect. I have no idea what the thinking is behind the association’s decision to suspend not only Coun Raper and Coun Cussons but also myself.”
She added that the association had spent nearly £100 on having letters of suspension notice to the councillors, delivered by special delivery.
“To have created this crisis in the party right on the County Council elections is unbelievable,” she said.
Coun Cowling said that while she now sitting as an independent, she would still be backing two Conservative candidates and friends, Greg White, of Pickering and Coun Val Arnold in the Helmsley and Kirkbymoorside divisions, and helping their election campaign.
Coun Cowling will remain leader of the council until the authority’s annual meeting late next month.
She vowed: “I shall continue to make decisions in the best interests of the Ryedale district in line with Conservative principles and policies.”
Baroness Anne McIntosh who was herself de-selected as MP for Thirsk and Malton prior to the 2015 General Election, said she believed the suspension of the councillors was “completely ultra vires - flouting the rules of the association which clearly state reasons must be given and supporting documents provided for any suspension. None were provided.”
She added: “It is no coincidence that all these excellent councillors supported me during my troubles. I admire them and what they have done in the work as councillors in the interests of Ryedale. They are a great loss to the council.”
A spokesman for the Thirsk and Malton Conservative Association said in a statement: “The association very much regrets that some members of the Conservative group feel no longer able to be part of it and their resignations from the Conservative Party have been accepted.”
“The reasons for the suspensions were to do with the members’ non-attendance and non-compliance regarding standard Conservative Party disciplinary processes in connection with voting irregularities.”