South Ribble Borough Council has seen its second change of leader in three weeks after Margaret Smith was re-elected to the top job at the authority.
As she began her second stint in charge, Cllr Smith told members that she “didn’t expect to be here” - and pledged that her Conservative group “can make a difference”.
She previously led the district for nine years until resigning on health grounds in 2016.
Her return brought an end to the 17-day-old Labour cabinet which was appointed by councillors last month - in spite of there being a Conservative majority on the authority. A third of Tory members failed to attend a previous meeting to nominate a new leader after Mary Green resigned ahead of a planned vote of no confidence.
READ MORE >>> South Ribble leader quits amidst criticism of colleagues
Cllr Smith told a meeting of the authority that past differences within the Tory group had been “addressed”.
“We have had difficulties - we admit that,” she said. “Those difficulties will have to be put behind us and we have to move forward as a group and a council.”
Cllr Smith’s departure two years ago came in the wake of a damning report about failings in the council’s licensing department - and was preceded by the resignation of four members of her own group. Out of the three who remain on the authority, all now sit as Conservatives once again.
READ MORE >>> Margaret Smith steps down as leader of South Ribble
Speaking after the meeting, the returning leader likened her Tory group to a family.
“Everybody has disagreements, but the thing is to resolve them and work together - and I’m sure we can do,” Cllr Smith said. She added that she had received the full support of Conservative members since being re-elected as group leader last month.
Outgoing Labour leader Paul Foster told members that he did not want to lead a minority administration. “I believe wholly in the democratic process,” he said.
But he warned Conservative members that they had a duty to step aside if there was still a rift within their group and said he feared a return to “disarray”.
“If your personal vendettas are over and if you are going to put the community of South Ribble first - where they belong - then the next six months [to local elections] may just pass without any further distress.
“But the local community will never forgive anything other than service, not self,” he added.
Cllr Foster added that staff had been “buoyed” by the short time his Labour cabinet had been in control and said that he was proud of what it had achieved.
Liberal Democrat leader, David Howarth - whose group helped Labour to power last month - called for a cross-party administration. He added that the motion to remove Cllr Foster was “not in the interests of residents or staff, but purely in the interests of the Conservative party”.
“It’s as if the Tories are saying, ‘there’s more of us than there are of you, so we have a right to rule’,” Cllr Howarth said.
And the meeting also heard from a resident who said he was not a supporter of any political group and decried “the level of anymosity shown across this chamber by all sides” in recent years. Haydon Williams added that Labour should be given a chance to run the borough, as the Conservatives had “abused the privilege” of having a majority.
“As a council tax payer it disappoints and frustrates me that, while there are differences of opinion between and within parties, these cannot be worked through in an amicable fashion.
“[The Conservatives] have had more than enough leaders since the election in 2015 and as a collective, you are simply incapable of running this administration,” Mr Williams added.
All of the Conservative members present at the meeting supported Cllr Smith’s nomination, with the Labour group opposing it and the Liberal Democrats abstaining.
Caroline Moon returns as deputy leader of the council, with a small number of changes to other posts compared to the previous Conservative administration:
***Colin Clark - Corporate Support and Assets
***Cliff Hughes - Strategic Planning and Housing
***Susan Snape - Finance
***Karen Walton - Public Health and Safety, Wellbeing and Environmental
***Phil Smith - Regeneration and Leisure