Wealden District Council elects new leader

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Wealden District Council has elected a new leader for the coming year.

On Wednesday (May 15), Green Party councillor Rachel Millward was voted in as council leader, taking over from Liberal Democrat James Partridge, who has now become deputy leader.

This switch in leadership forms part of an agreement between the Lib Dem/Green coalition running the council — styled as the Alliance for Wealden — with the two parties having previously agreed to swap the roles each year.

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Following her election, Cllr Millward said: “It has been, as cliche as it may be, a pleasure and a privilege to be deputy leader of this council for the last year and I really want to thank James for his gracious, principled and steady leadership, for being a man of his word and for being an excellent team mate.

Rachel Millward. Pic: ContributedRachel Millward. Pic: Contributed
Rachel Millward. Pic: Contributed

“What we are doing here really matters. I am deeply proud of what we have achieved in just one year. Within six months we had a new council strategy, within nine months we had a local plan draft into public consultation. These are major achievements and I am clear, as were the LGA in the peer review challenge, that we got there through teamwork across the leadership, the cabinet, the membership and with council staff.

“I think we’ve begun to do what residents asked of us. A new kind of politics with more openness and more integrity. We are putting aside party political differences and focusing on the difference we make for residents and it works.”

Cllr Millward’s election as leader was uncontested, although this was nearly not the case. Ahead of the meeting Independent councillors David White and Mike Gadd had put up Heathfield South’s Kevin Benton, also an Independent, as an alternative candidate.

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As the meeting began this nomination was withdrawn. Similar nominations for the chairman and vice-chair roles were also withdrawn.

Cllr White, who leads the council’s Independent group, said the decision to withdraw the nominations — something which came as a surprise to most members — had been made in light of “what has happened in the past 48 hours and assurances given”.

With the Lib Dems and Greens holding a collective majority — 24 out of 45 council seats — the switchover should have effectively been a done deal even with the Independent nomination. Council sources have told the LDRS there had been some doubt about the result, however.

In an indication of some behind the scenes difficulties, on the evening before the vote Cllr Millward announced her intention to step down as the Green Party’s prospective parliamentary candidate for Sussex Weald (a new constituency encompassing Crowborough, Hailsham and Heathfield).

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In an email sent to all Wealden councillors on Tuesday (May 14), Cllr Millward said: “Last July, I was selected by the Green Party to be the parliamentary candidate for Sussex Weald. Whilst it is not uncommon for council leaders, of all parties, to stand as MP candidates, some members of this council have expressed concerns about my being a candidate and leader of the council at the same time.

“It has very recently become clear that these concerns threatened the stability and cohesion of the council. I have no intention of jeopardising that.

“I have therefore listened to members’ concerns, and can confirm that I have notified my party that I will not be standing as a candidate in the forthcoming General Election.

“It has always been crystal clear to me that my responsibility is first and foremost to the leadership of this council, and so there has been no great dilemma in stepping back from the candidacy to demonstrate this commitment.”

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During the same meeting, Cllr Jessika Hulbert (Green) was re-elected as the council’s chairman, while Cllr Gavin Blake-Coggins (Lib Dem) was re-appointed as vice-chair.

Councillors White and Gadd had also put up alternative candidates for these two roles, with Conservative Brian Redman nominated as council chairman and Independent Daniel Brookbank as vice-chair. These nominations were also both withdrawn as the meeting began, leaving the roles uncontested.