A mediation meeting was held last night (February 19) in a bid to reunite the UKIP and UKIP Independent groups at Thanet council.
UKIP’s Local Government spokesman and Local Government Association member, Councillor Peter Reeve MBE, has been acting as a facilitator to the talks following yesterday’s announcement that group and council leader Chris Wells has resigned his position as from February 28.
The move comes at the same time as Thanet Tory Party leader Bob Bayford indicated he would move to form a fresh administration. The Conservatives are currently the largest group at TDC with 21 councillors. UKIP has 13, 12 Thanet Independent UKIP Group; 6 Labour; 2 Independent Group and 2 Independent.
Following talks with Cllr Bayford this month Cllr Wells gave formal notice of resignation, allowing for the calling of an extraordinary council meeting to take to elect a new Leader for Thanet District Council.
Deputy Leader, Cllr Lin Fairbrass will be acting leader for the period between the resignation taking effect and the results of the Leadership election.
But the talks could mean a reformed UKIP throwing their hat into the ring – although discussions have so far stalled. Thanet Independent UKIP Group leader Cllr Stuart Piper claims demands were made that Cllr Wells remain in the Cabinet, an existing Cabinet member takes the lead role and Cabinet roles remain in situ, adding that this was “unacceptable.”
He said: “We do not think that is at all appropriate for the people of Thanet particularly given the desire by those same people to lose the airport and accept excessive housing numbers without any challenge or application of the Objectively Assessed Need criteria or use of the Localism Act of 2011.”
The talks, if resolved, could mean the survival of the country’s first UKIP council, elected in a landslide victory in 2015.
The party won 33 of the 56 seats but the group has since suffered defections and resignations, the last being the move to Independent UKIP status of the 12 UKIP members who voted down the Local Plan.
The sticking point of the plan was the proposal to remove the aviation-only designation for the Manston airport site and instead earmark it for 2,500 homes.
An “11th hour” amendment to defer for two years the mixed-use designation for Manston airport pending the resolution of the DCO process was not enough to get the plan voted through to publication stage.
Cllr Bayford said if the party did reunite then they would be in a position to retain control of the council.
But he questioned whether the issues between the two groups could be resolved. He said: “Given that they split on the biggest policy there is, I cannot see how they can come together with any kind of credibility, they would be compromising any policies they have.
“Chris Wells going was inevitable, he had lost the confidence of the council, and as the largest group (Conservatives) it was incumbent upon us to step forward to form an administration.
“If they (UKIP) come together they will be able to keep control at the council but there will have to be a massive compromise and I am not sure that it will be good for Thanet.”
Campaign group reactions
The resignation of Cllr Wells and impending leadership contest has brought a mixed reaction from campaign groups concerned with the future use of the Manston site.
Save Manston Airport association
Pro-aviation group Save Manston Airport association (SMAa) said: “SMAa would hope that all the TDC councillors will now work together to restore aviation at Manston airport. Although they can’t adjust the formal submitted TDC response to the RSP consultation, perhaps a new TDC administration can submit a second response, or at least an email, that does recognise the result of the voting on January 18, and quotes Policy EC4 as being in force.
“And, of course, it is important for the new administration to work towards a fresh response to the local plan that recognises the wishes of the people of Thanet and the realities of the forthcoming DCO for Manston airport.”
No Night Flights
But Anne Marie Nixey, founder member of No Night Flights campaign group, said the group had deep concerns. She said: “ The chaos at council level plays to the agenda of our partisan local MPs and their plans for Manston. We remain deeply concerned at the fact that undermining the initial, evidence-based Local Plan has led to the unseating of the council lead.
“Now more than ever we need to be vocal about what it is that the community itself wants in Thanet. The huge volume of people who submitted complaints about the airport consultation last week shows that much of our community feels that its voice is not being heard. We will continue to be their voice and are asking our local councilors to meet with the ward as soon as possible.”
The election of a new Thanet council leader will take place on Thursday, March 1.
Cllr Wells said he would make no comment until after the leadership election.