OPPOSITION to the ruling Labour group on the North’s biggest authority has been divided by a split between two groups of Independent councillors.
While the Labour party on Durham County Council last week came under fire for announcing its 10-strong cabinet before the inaugural meeting of the new authority, it has emerged that some of their political opponents are presenting a far from united front.
Newly-elected council leader Simon Henig has a majority of just eight out of 126 members, and five of those councillors are currently suspended by party bosses over their failure to carry out a women-only shortlist policy.
But now it has emerged that two separate Independent parties have been formed on the authority, which will this year develop and finalise proposals for the new unitary as well as running the county council until the unitary handover in April 2009. As well as facing opposition from the Liberal Democrats, led by Nigel Martin from Durham, and the Conservatives led by Jo Fergus from Teesdale, there is a Durham Independent Group led by Coun Watts Stelling from Derwentside, and a Durham County Council Independent Group led by Coun John Shuttleworth from Weardale.
The reason for the split among the Independents is believed to be a mutual antipathy between councillors Shuttleworth and Stelling.
Coun Shuttleworth said: “We are not a political party, we are merely a group of Independent councillors who value our independence.
“Watts Stelling’s party comes from the Derwentside Independents, which is a political party, and which forms the main opposition group on Derwentside District Council.”
At the inaugural meeting of the authority on Friday, Coun Stelling’s allies voted in line with the opposition, while Coun Shuttleworth’s supporters voted in favour of the ruling Labour group.
Coun Stelling was unavailable for comment yesterday.
Derwentside Independents were registered in 2001. It has 15 councillors on Derwentside District Council, making it the largest group on the council after the Labour Party.
The party increased in strength following the 2003 local elections, gaining nine seats from the Labour Party in west and south Derwentside
The group’s mission statement says: “Derwentside Independents are an association that believe that party politics should not influence local government.
“We believe local issues should not be decided by national politics.”
We are merely a group of Independent councillors who value our independence