The beginning of the end for Doncaster's era of shame

Resignations triggered by pressure from the Labour Party after secret trips were revealed
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The resignation of the two leading councillors in Doncaster marks the beginning of the end of a shameful period in municipal history.

A small group of leading councillors appeared to have treated the council as a fund for providing trips, in business class, all around the world, with little justification and without the knowledge of their fellow councillors.

The resignations are thought to have been partly triggered as a result of pressure from the Labour Party nationally, and also by the fact that the chief executive, Doug Hale, has been asking every council department to list all trips abroad taken by councillors.

Some of the trips were ostensibly to drum up business for the local areas, while others were visits to twin towns, of which the impoverished council, facing cuts of pounds 8m, has five: Wilmington, North Carolina; Avion, in northern France, Herten, in Germany, Dandong, in China and Gliwice, in Poland.

Councillors also went on visits to foreign racecourses, because the council owns the local course, home of the St Leger.

The District Auditor's report raised questions about "hospitality, foreign visits, expenses paid to members and officers, particularly in connection with foreign trips" and also about the relationship between the council and a local developer, Keepmoat, which has been given the exclusive right to develop all the council's spare housing land.

He is also investigating whether the council's procedures on allocating contracts are being followed properly.

One newly elected councillor was told by a senior colleague: "You decide where you want to go and you find a reason why you need to go there." But the events in Doncaster raise a number of issues for the Labour Party and for democracy generally.

Labour is so entrenched in many parts of the country that opposition parties have been reduced to a tiny number of councillors or even wiped out altogether.

In Doncaster there are five non-Labour councillors out of 63. The meetings of the council then become mere rubber- stamping mechanisms for the internal Labour group meetings, which decide all policy and which are held in secret.

There is little opportunity for the few opposition councillors to make any intervention.

In Doncaster and in some other authorities, groups within groups have emerged which dictate policy.

The Doncaster Mining Community Group, originally consisting of miners who were also councillors, makes all the key decisions and allocates all key council posts. Although Peter Welsh, the council leader, who resigned yesterday, denied the existence of the group, the Independent has talked to several existing and former members. One said: "We used to meet in community halls or anywhere else that was a bit private. The most important meeting was the one before the annual meeting of the council and we would decide on all key seats."

Ron Rose, a former councillor who fell foul of the Mining Community Group, said: "The problems of the council will not be solved until the power of the group is broken. They are likely just to appoint another of their number as leader."