Controversial former Hitchin politician David Leal-Bennett censured tonight - as it's revealed council disciplinary process costs taxpayer a cool £67,000
PUBLISHED: 21:45 24 November 2016 | UPDATED: 21:53 24 November 2016
A former Hitchin politician was censured tonight at a meeting of North Herts District Council after a debate on his previous conduct - as it was revealed the true of cost of the process against him this year amounted to nearly £70,000 of taxpayers' money.
Councillors at Gernon Road in Letchworth voted 16 in favour - with six against - to censure former councillor David Leal-Bennett relating to charges of a failure to observe five codes of conduct at a disciplinary hearing back in February.
However, there was controversy as former local councillor Mr Leal-Bennett called for the resignation of the leader of the council, Lynda Needham, during absorbing discussions that had the packed chamber listening intently.
In a stinging counter-attack David Leal-Bennett, speaking as a member of the public, demanded the head of North Herts District Council Lynda Needham after a bitter fallout relating to the long-running Hitchin Town Hall and museum saga which has been estimated to have already cost the taxpayer more than £1 million.
The fall-out comes from a three-day hearing in February convened to investigative evidence over councillor Leal-Bennett’s alleged breaching of the councillor’s code of conduct, from complaints made in March 2015 relating to a council meeting about Hitchin Town Hall Ltd.
The complaints stem from Mr Leal-Bennett’s involvement as a trustee and director of Hitchin Town Hall Limited – HTH Ltd – and his behaviour as a councillor, including refusing to leave the council chamber during a meeting held in January 2015 in which officials said his presence in the debate was a conflict of interest.
The February standards committee heard accusations of a ‘blame culture of fear and intimidation’ levelled at North Herts District Council – but five charges out of nine against him were upheld relating to him breaching council codes of conduct.
Mr Leal-Bennett later lost his seat as a Conservative Hitchin councillor in the local elections in May as the Liberal Democrats triumphed in the ward of Hitchin Highbury – prompting Lib Dem leader Tim Farron to send his congratulations to the winner Paul Clark via the Comet.
However, speaking to a rapt audience before the council voted to censure him for his previous behaviour – at the last ever meeting in the Gernon Road chamber before a multi-million pound revamp – Mr Leal-Bennett pulled no punches stating: “I hold the councillor [Lynda Needham] fully responsible for this situation.
“She should consider her position as leader of the council.
“NHDC spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on obtaining the advice of a QC despite withholding crucial information.
“Fortunately a long police investigation was closed with no action being taken against me – but NHDC then initiated a full scale attack on me.”
The censure debate heard from many councillors including from the Lib Dems Steve Jarvis who said: “I find it strange to censure someone for their behaviour as a councillor when they are not a councillor any more.”
Labour’s Lizzie Dennis added: “I can’t support the motion to censure David Leal-Bennett. The council brought in a senior barrister at a very expensive rate.
“It’s a very sad day for the council and I hope that there are strong lessons to be learned from it. “
There were audible gasps as it was revealed the total cost of following the due process to censure Mr Leal-Bennett totalled £67,902.
Reacting to the figure Conservative councillor Nicola Harris blasted; “No wonder we are having a budget cut.
“I have to say David was a very good ward councillor. I cannot support the motion.”
Councillor Terry Hone responded: “I’m very disappointed we are talking about money – either we follow due process or we don’t.
“We can’t say we haven’t got the money to have a standards board.
“Yes, lawyers are expensive but if you want proper due process so we can be independent it has to be paid for. It is a process we have to go through.”
Speaking exclusively to the Comet after the findings Mr Leal-Bennett concluded: “In any democracy there is the ability to appeal a decision and it is a basic human right. I do not wish to incur further cost but I need to clear my name.
“I do not accept the charges against me.”
It is understood by the Comet if Mr Leal-Bennett wishes to contest a Hitchin seat in a future election he is allowed to do so, despite the £67,000 censure.