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ANALYSIS - BOWLES' DIGNITY VERSUS CROFT'S BLUSTER

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By Mark Smulian ...
By Mark Smulian

'When I was bound apprentice in famous Lincolnshire

Full well I served my master for more than seven year

Till I took up with poaching, as you will quickly hear

Oh! 'tis my delight on a shiny night, in the season of the year.'

'The Lincolnshire Poacher' - traditional.

Lincolnshire CC leader Ian Croft (Con) served his master, former leader Jim Speechley (Con), loyally for many years.

Mr Speechley was jailed for misconduct in public office (LGC, 8 April), so recent events must be anything but a delight to Mr Croft, who has stood by his old friend.

This week, the leader was fighting for his political life. His animosity against chief executive David Bowles, who blew the whistle on Mr Speechley, plus failed efforts to prevent him returning to work, have sparked a public uproar. Other Tories fear it is doing serious damage to their district council election campaigns.

One senior councillor has urged the leader to resign, the Conservative Party's local government spokesman, Eric Pickles, has intervened and the local media has ridiculed Mr Croft's behaviour.

Mr Bowles gave evidence against Mr Speechley that helped jail him for 18 months for trying to alter the line of a new road near land he owned.

The chief executive had already fallen foul of Mr Croft, who last December said he lacked confidence in him.

Mr Bowles was signed off sick in February, though by 29 March he was fit to return. But Mr Croft did not want him back and council solicitors sent Mr Bowles a letter telling him not to return, with the word 'not' emphasised in capitals.

His legal advice said there was no lawful reason to prevent his return and Mr Bowles, backed throughout by the Association of Local Authority Chief Executives, went back to his office last Friday, ready to see if anyone tried to bar his way. They did not.

Most chief executives would be staggered if Unison offered to provide a cheering crowd to welcome them, but Mr Bowles turned it down, despite the offer.

'We are absolutely delighted to see him back,' said John Sharman, the union's branch secretary.

Mr Bowles said: 'I have been overwhelmed by the support from staff, members of the public and colleagues, all encouraging me to return to my post and continue to show the determined officer leadership necessary following the turmoil which has hit the council.'

But the peace was shattered the same day when county secretary Charlie Adan issued a statement which said: 'It is a matter of public record there exist difficulties between the chief executive and the leader of the council.

'For the effective delivery of high quality public services to the people of Lincolnshire it is important there is an effective working relationship between council officers and elected members.'

She convened an all-party meeting 'to discuss how to take this process forwards'.

Unison saw this as a veiled threat to Mr Bowles' position. 'Our concern is if it results in any move against him,' said Mr Sharman. 'That would have really adverse impacts both in relation to his position and the message it sends out.'

However, Labour group leader Robert Parker challenged the power of such a meeting to take decisions.

The situation is changing fast, but as LGC went to press a formal appointments committee had been scheduled to meet next week instead of the cross-party meeting.

Mr Parker called on Mr Croft to withdraw the December letter in which he expressed his lack of confidence in Mr Bowles.

But Mr Croft has since said on local radio that Mr Bowles should go (LGC, 23 April). This has alarmed the chief executive's supporters, who fear further moves against him.

More pressure piled on Mr Croft this week when Lincolnshire Police Authority, on which he sits, summoned him to a standards committee meeting.

The authority is thought to fear being brought into disrepute through Mr Croft's radio interview, in which he blamed 'systems' for Mr Speechley's downfall, and by his failure to forthrightly condemn his old friend or to clearly s upport Mr Bowles' whistleblowing.

The political fallout is so menacing for the Tories that Mr Pickles is seeking to limit the damage.

He said: 'We believe in the highest standards of probity in public office and a chief executive has a perfect right to contact the authorities if he believes corruption is staking place.'

Tory Central Office is understood to have told Mr Croft to draw a line under the affair, distance himself from Mr Speechley and support Mr Bowles.

But events mean it is unclear whether Mr Croft could do this even if he wished to.

Hilton Spratt, Tory group leader on Lincoln City Council, has called on him to resign.

He said: 'This is bringing the Conservative Party into disrepute. I have had a lot of calls from people who are greatly concerned about what is going on.

'Croft is too clearly associated with Jim Speechley and that is what is causing the problem in the public mind.

'If they don't sort it out it will cost us a lot of seats, and possibly cost control of West Lindsay. County councillors will lose their seats next year - and deserve to.

'I may get into trouble with the county councillors, but I'm a big lad and I'll deal with that.'

Geoff Kirby, the party's regional chair, said there was 'unrest' in the county council group.

The Tories have found Mr Speechley omitted to pay his party subscription for some years, although he was still described as a Conservative on Lincolnshire's website this week.

He remains a councillor pending an appeal lodged against both his conviction and sentence.

A special meeting of the county council is due today to debate a call by the opposition Labour group for a recovery plan. But it remains to be seen whether the leader and chief executive can both stay in office.

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