Alan Melton breaks his silence

HE may be down, but most definitely he is not out! Alan Melton, former leader of Fenland District Council, has broken his silence to talk about his suspension, the malicious lies put around by some colleagues and the enemies he believes tried to destroy

HE may be down, but most definitely he is not out! Alan Melton, former leader of Fenland District Council, has broken his silence to talk about his suspension, the "malicious lies" put around by some colleagues and the enemies he believes tried to destroy his political life.

In this exclusive interview, he tells JOHN ELWORTHY how he was left to pick up the bill for the Standards Board hearing which suspended him, and why he did not dare to risk his family's security by launching an appeal.

So what have you been doing for the past 18 months?

Working on projects such as Chatteris House, the biggest project ever undertaken in my career, which is well documented, and I have worked for a number of other companies and also on quantity surveying and estimating projects in Cambridge, Norwich and Huntingdon. I have also been busy advising and mentoring other local authorities.

Basically, though, you were an embittered man who threw himself into his work after your suspension from the council?

The reason I went back to work was based on Plan B. I built up career in local government based on Fenland, the county and then the Local Government Association, but I also kept one foot in the day job. I know how volatile elected office can be. I left office because of the standards board.

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So what were you guilty of?

Nothing

So why were you suspended?

Because I'm too honest. My name had been cleared on every piece of mud that had been thrown at me. My name had been cleared totally vindicated, which I am proud of. I am still bewildered and still bitter that the standards board took 17 months to to publish that fact. I feel they let me down badly...and don't forget I reported myself to the board in the first place.

That, though, in isolation wasn't just that was it? Once the process started, the press, and I include myself, was offered information that could only have come from your political competitors. You can see that now, can't you?

Oh I know that, I have had two years to piece things together. I know what was going on. I had suspicions at the time. I now know who the persons are.

If you ever became leader again, would they be either back in your Cabinet, if they were so at the time, or, if they were just ordinary members of the council, would you give them the time of day?

Certainly not, absolutely not.

What would have been their motives for dishing the dirt on Alan Melton?

I don't know, I ran my local government career with honesty and integrity, with only the wish to serve the people of Chatteris first, and then Fenland and then, of course, Cambridgeshire, and I did that in the best way possible. What their motives were, I just don't know Whether it is because when I came in I made a clean sweep, I changed the whole ethos of how Fenland worked, I don't know.

You didn't make Fenland more open, however. It didn't become, to use the phrase, more 'user friendly.' It looked a little out of hand and loose under your regime, with people leaving and a major management restructure.

When I took over as leader, with the full consensus of my group, then the full council and people like Barry Wales (then Labour leader) and Florrie Newell and Pop Jolley, who were not then members of the Conservative Group, were generally very supportive. So I had a lot of support and goodwill.

Don't forget my strategy was also endorsed by my predecessor, Mac Cotterell, who recognised that Fenland needed to change and that he was not the person to do it.

He actually said to me when we go over to Cabinet system: "I will step down and I will support you as leader." He said change has got to happen. And I took that on.

Now, you say, John, I was ruthless. What happened was, I went to my group with a programme of what needed to be done. I addressed the group one evening for two hours what needed to be done and explained what was wrong. That was totally me, no-one else.

Yes I talked to people, using experience of going to other authorities, and knowing Government had made it clear local government had to change. Government more or less said you have got to toe the line, got to change, so I changed it and as I say made a presentation to group.

So what was wrong with Fenland at the time?

I think the council had got staid; I think the problem with Fenland was not unique to Fenland, but we were drifting along.

Was the appointment of Tim Pilsbury, as chief executive, unanimous?

It was myself, myself alone, who drew up job description with the aid of two officers, Mike Carter and Chris Hodson, seconded from the council, plus an independent consultant.

Don't forget the appointment of Tim Pilsbury was made by a panel which included Labour and independents.

So has he fulfilled expectations?

Yes. Tim Pilsbury and I sat down and went through the process of what was needed and achieved 100 per consensus

That didn't last for long, or did it?

That was after my time. During my time as leader we went through this joint decision to recommend to the council we would issue 23 redundancy notices as part of the management re-structuring. I am still comfortable with that decision, it was the right decision and those officers who left would acknowledge it was the right decision. All the new positions were filled on merit and merit alone - it was a level playing field. First priority was to get the management structure right

You didn't get it right,though, the first time?

The main focus at first was the impending Comprehensive Performance Assessment and the Audit Commission report. I was involved with CPA and knew what they were expecting. To put it quite bluntly, at that stage, Fenland District Council would have been rated a failing council. To my mind, that was not good enough and I was not prepared to be leader of a council that was failing. I set officers' parameters and priorities to get Fenland up to good or fair and made sure, as portfolio-holder for finance, they were adequately resourced. Don't underestimate the CPA and the implications because, quite frankly, if we had had been a poor authority or failing authority they would have sent the commissioners in. Tim Pilsbury did an excellent job

Don't you find it interesting that six of the 12 new managers or directors appointed are no longer with the authority?

I had left office by then. The new leader and cabinet were looking for savings and obviously made the decision to make savings, including from within management. I have not been party to discussions how that came about.

One of the things I did, and am proud of, is that in the year I became leader we got criticism over the state of parks and open spaces. I remember going to the chief executive and saying this cannot go on and to find resources to do something about it

There did begin, however, this drip drip drip of discontent, partly because of Council Tax rises, partly against you personally, and partly, I think, because some felt the council was out of control.

After the 2003 election, I revisited my mission statement and made it quite clear to members of the group what was likely to happen with all the changes. But don't forget they and the council endorsed our strategy, not just Alan Melton

You became the fall guy...is that what you are saying?

Of course, of course, but they were group decisions. Look, the council tax increases were all endorsed by the Conservative group, with only one exception. The fact was, I set myself up to be the fall guy, but, even so, capping didn't come till following year and followed the group decision to increase Council Tax by 14 per cent.

I went to group, and still have the Powerpoint presentation I made that evening, and I actually said this is the budget you all want and this is what it is going to mean. It will result in letters to the press, bad publicity, discontent within the group, and possible electoral loss but I made it quite clear that is the price we have got to pay if we wanted Fenland to be in better position financially by 2007.

As leader, I knew I would be held responsible when capping came up. It may seem perverse, but one of the things I'm proud of, and would do it again, is to ensure all that flak came to me. It did not go to Fenland District Council as a whole and did no harm to the Conservative group. By taking all that flak myself, I protected the group. And, bear in mind, alot of critics were also members of the Conservative Party. I took the rap.

But colleagues did drip feed discontent.

Yes they did, discontented colleagues who had not got the guts to face me at group meeting or private meetings, who were prepared to go behind my back and talk to the press and probably wind-up other malcontents. They did not have the guts to confront me, did not have the guts to vote me down when they had opportunity.

So is it is fair to summarise it as this: You are getting a negative press, colleagues drip scurrilous information about you - now proven to be without foundation - and then you emerge with a document from the Standards Board that totally exonerates you.. Your only 'crime', if I may call is such, is to release the information that you have been cleared two weeks before it would have been published anyway. For that, you were suspended.

The interesting thing is that many people ask me why I didn't bother to appeal, particularly in light of the Neville Sanderson case in Peterborough. He was successful, so why didn't I?

The simple reason for that, John, is that the whole exercise cost me £3-4,000 in legal fees which the Conservative Party didn't pay for me. In another district, in Dorset, the leader faced a similar thing and the Conservative Party paid for it. I didn't ask them to, I didn't want them to. I paid for it myself. The reason why I didn't want to appeal, and even now I know I probably could have won it, is because I certainly did not bring my office into disrepute.

But I couldn't afford to risk the several thousands of pounds it would have cost to pursue the appeal. I have a family and their interests must come forward.

So you didn't get any support? Wasn't that unfair? Your successor, Geoff Harper, made a speech at the time attacking the Standards Board and saying how the Conservatives would abolish it. So, to use cricketing parlance, if you were sent back to the pavilion for a minor misdemeanour, why, as captain, so to speak, were you excluded? Not just dropped as captain, but dropped from the team. The perception was you were sent into exile.

Can I make one thing clear? It was not my wish after my suspension ended to attain office in any authority for the foreseeable future. I was forced to step down as a councillor but not forced to step down as leader of the Conservative group, they are two different issues. I wasn't asked to step down as leader of the group

The fact is I resigned and sent a letter to the then deputy leader, Geoff Harper, and copied it to every single member

I used the quote John Major used when he was forced out as Prime Minister: When the curtain falls, it's time to leave the stage

You don't regret that?

Not at all, absolutely not. I have no regret about that at all. There were a lot of people who thought I might come back, but nothing could be further from the truth. After my suspension, I wanted out. I don't regret it. Only thing I wanted was for the best for the people who really mattered, those who put me there in the first place, the people of Chatteris. And don't forget on May 5th that year I stood for re-election as a county councillor for Chatteris and I was returned with an overwhelming majority. They are the people who really matter, they're the ultimate judge and jury and they re elected me with a substantial majority for which I'm very grateful and very proud.

I could have resigned from Fenland at the time and walked away. I said no, but it did go through my mind that I had been there 24 years, and had been there and done that. I discussed it with my family and close friends and the overwhelming consensus was: "Alan you have put a lot of work into Fenland over the years, why should you away from it when you have done nothing wrong?"

Did you expect to return to the fray once your suspension ended?

No

You walked away from Fenland, though.

I did say I would not attend any meetings, probably for up to a year, because I felt it would be unfair on the new leader.

Is he a good leader?

Yes.

As good as you?

That's for others to judge. He's different to me, with a different style, and a different background.

So is Fenland better or different because of what has happened?

The perception Fenland is different is because you have different characters running the council; you could say that about the deputy leader, Fred Yeullet. He is not like Pop Jolley.

Do you regret Pop Jolley not being there?

Yes I do. Pop Jolley is like me, a down -to-earth Fenlander who comes from a very similar background. Pop had his constituents and Fenland at heart

If you had been leader would you have handled the Pop Jolley incident differently?

I don't know what the Pop Jolley incident was and I don't really want to know. I was as surprised as anyone when I got the phone call to say Pop had resigned and I still don't know what the real reason was, no one will tell me, and, quite frankly, it's history

History needs clarity and some parts of Fenland's council history remained shrouded in secrecy. I use, for example, your surprise axing of Councillor Jan French as planning committee chairman. Any comment?

No.

Can you not enlighten us more?

No. There was a private conservation between Mrs French and me, I respect that

But she still went?

Yes, leader's prerogative

And you're never going to explain why she went?

No.

Did she go because she did something wrong?

No, no comment.

Pop Jolley went, a bit more publicly. These people were important to your administration - Pop, for example, might have ended up as leader.

I think it is very regrettable Pop resigned from the council and I hope that one day he will come back

So moving forward, I see you are now on the council's staff committee. What's that about?

I didn't ask to go on any committee. When I saw I was on it, I was bewildered and then I was pleased.

It has given me the opportunity to rebuild my local government career from where I started, and now I have been appointed to the overview and scrutiny committee. I also serve on the local development framework panel, and am thoroughly enjoying it. You question, analyse and do things you sometime can't do as chairman.

You clearly have the appetite for all things Fenland, and your self-imposed exile is over. Is that right?

It's different now from four years ago when I became leader -- we've moved on, Fenland has moved on,

Does it matter if you don't ever become leader again?

No it doesn't matter to me. You might say Alan Melton has been there done that and has held every office in Fenland.

So what is Fenland Hall like these days?

It does concern me going back into Fenland Hall, that there is not the focus on strategic planning and economic regeneration there should be. We have not invested enough in either.

Is Fenland 'open for business?'

It was, but whether it is now or not, I don't know.

What is your perception?

I have to be careful, because I have interests, but there are issues which need to be addressed. Are we, for example, customer-friendly towards inward investment and planning?

Which, in a way, brings us to enforcement. Some might think the deputy leader, Fred Yeulett, who is also in charge of enforcement, is walking around in a pair of jackboots. His colourful language - he said for example Fenland is not the Wild West - would you think is helpful, or intemperate, or necessary?

I would say it is inappropriate.

You wouldn't use such language?

No.

And you wouldn't encourage it?

No.

Continual use of such language does suggest, however, that it has sanctioned by higher authorities such as your successor or the chief executive. They see it regularly, so have not prohibited its use.

Fine, if that's council policy, but, again, I haven't been there.

After next May's elections, would you be disappointed if the leader did not offer you're a portfolio?

If Geoff Harper forms an administration, I would be more than pleased to serve.

Of immediate concern to Fenland is the issue of the possible transfer of Fenland's council housing stock. Do you agree with the policy?

Absolutely, totally. I sincerely hope the tenants' vote is a resounding vote for change. The only way you are going to get investment into social housing is through transfer. And it's interesting to note that some of the council's most vociferous critics regarding transfer all live in private houses.

What would you do with the possible £20 million capital receipt that might come Fenland's way as a consequence of the sale?

We must not fall into the trap of some authorities who have blown the money on schemes which need supporting from the revenue account. Any old fool can spend money; we all know that. What we need is to invest in future priorities.

You mentioned earlier your love of Chatteris and its people. What can you hope to achieve for them in the future?

Chatteris definitely needs a leisure centre and I will not leave local government until such time as that happens.

So, finally, what of the future?

When I went back to Fenland last October, my faith in local government had been hit; on a scale of one to 10, to about a four. But my passion is there again to work for the betterment of Fenland. It's time to move on and to park those ideas that have come to fruition. It's time for a new vision statement of where Fenland is to go, to ask where does it need to go and to question where should it be.

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