Nazi salute row ‘masked reason councillors quit’

Long Preston, near Settle
Long Preston, near Settle
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Villagers accused of toppling their parish council say they are unrepentant and insist their elected leaders had merely “walked away from the mess they had created”.

Former Long Preston parish council chairman Nick Thwaite cited a meeting in which one resident had made a Nazi salute and shouted “Heil Hitler” as he quit along with five colleagues amid claims of “unwarranted abuse”.

But residents accused him of dredging up an incident that happened nearly a year ago and claimed the councillors’ sudden departure had more to do with recent spats with the village’s Christmas lights and playing fields committees.

Peter Scott-Smith, who admitted responsibility for the gesture, said he had done so out of frustration after Mr Thwaite refused to answer his question about why a Freedom of Information (FoI) request he had made about councillors’ expenses had not been responded to.

“I was told to shut up and sit down – not exactly in those words – and I refused to do so,” he said. “It developed into a shouting match between the chairman and me and I walked out saying: ‘Heil Hitler’.

“It seemed to me very reminiscent of the early days of the Nazis in which dissent was quickly quashed. I know that is grossly melodramatic but that is how I felt at the time.”

The 81-year-old added: “Yes I did give a Nazi salute, but it didn’t seem to me at the time and doesn’t in retrospect to be inappropriate.

“I can’t say I feel particularly proud of having done it.”

Mr Scott-Smith claims he was arrested for refusing to leave a later meeting – although no charges were ever brought against him.

His FoI request followed a report by the Yorkshire Post last June that revealed Mr Thwaite was paid thousands of pounds by the parish council to mow its 10 village greens and playing fields and maintain its roadside verges.

He was awarded the grass-cutting contract in 2007, shortly after he was elected, by his deputy Keith McBride, and is understood to have earned around £20,000 in three years.

Mr Thwaite denied there was any conflict of interest at the time but Craven District Council said it had received complaints from a number of residents and ordered a review of its contract tendering process.

Fellow villager Pauline Joyce defended Mr Scott-Smith, who she said had acted out of exasperation at what she described as the council’s “lack of transparency and probity”.

The retired solicitor, 74, added the incident had happened last December and questioned why Mr Thwaite had brought it up in announcing the councillors’ resignation last Thursday.

“I think the bottom line is they wanted to cause maximum embarrassment to people in the village and make trouble for us, frankly,” she said.

The true catalyst for their departure appeared to be the presentation of a petition in support of the village’s Christmas lights committee after the latest in a series of “totally unnecessary spats and arguments” with community groups, she added.

“I think they wanted to find some credible justification to walk away from the mess they have created. When they were faced with a petition signed by villagers they suddenly realised just how out of touch with public opinion they were and decided it was time to jump before they were pushed.”

The resignation of all but one councillor – independent member Chris Moorby – leaves the parish council lacking a quorum and Craven District Council now has responsibility for its affairs until a new election can be held.

Mr Thwaite could not be reached for further comment last night.