Authority leader refuses to step down amid bitter row

Rowlands Castle Parish Council chairman John Pickering
Rowlands Castle Parish Council chairman John Pickering
Commuters ride a crowded South Western Railway train on the Portsmouth to London line. Picture: Carey Tompsett/PA Wire

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  • Councillors agree on a vote of no confidence in the leader of Rowlands Castle Parish Council
  • Former Portsmouth University professor vows to continue until May
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THE leader of a parish council is refusing to resign despite fellow councillors demanding he step down.

John Pickering is at the centre of a bitter row over his conduct as the chairman of Rowlands Castle Parish Council.

The extraordinary council meeting of Rowlands Castle Parish Council''Chairman John Pickering is the top left with the committee around him

The extraordinary council meeting of Rowlands Castle Parish Council''Chairman John Pickering is the top left with the committee around him

Meanwhile, Cllr Pickering, a professor and former deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Portsmouth, has launched complaints to the monitoring officer at East Hampshire District Council about all seven of the other parish councillors.

The council has ruled that no further action will be taken against them, but is still investigating the councillors’ own complaints about Cllr Pickering.

He has been the elected chairman since May 2011 of the authority, which takes an annual precept of £70,000 from taxpayers and oversees planning issues and open spaces.

In a separate row, Ferris Cowper, the Conservative leader of East Hampshire District Council, has called for the immediate resignation of Cllr Pickering.

In a private email about Cllr Pickering seen by The News, Cllr Cowper comments on being ‘so upset by Cllr Pickering’s disgraceful behaviour I will be going for the jugular’.

The row came to a head this week when councillors called a meeting and six parish councillors took a vote of no confidence in Cllr Pickering.

But the law means Cllr Pickering has no legal obligation to resign and he has vowed to continue until May.

The News understands the disagreements started after Cllr Pickering sent a letter to Councillor Sean Woodward, leader of transport at Hampshire County Council, about his strong concerns over the impact of building 700 homes at Hazleton Farm, north of Rowlands Castle. The News understands that some of the other councillors did not want the letter to be sent.

In heated exchanges this week at the village’s Small Parish Hall, Cllr David Symonds, vice-chairman of the authority, stated three reasons for the vote of no confidence.

He said: ‘Firstly, the chairman, by making a unilateral decision to send the letter. Secondly he insisted on seeing correspondence not addressed to him by coercing the clerk, thereby restricting councillors’ ability to speak freely and privately.

‘Thirdly, by inappropriate behaviour. He has caused the clerk to suffer alarm and distress, for which councillors have felt the need to put in place protective measures.’

He added: ‘Councillors, collectively, now conclude that the chairman no longer has the respect, trust and confidence of this council.’

There were heated exchanges during the meeting, with Cllr Pickering telling other councillors to ‘be quiet’ and remarks back of ‘Don’t treat us like children’.

Resident Elisabeth Hall told Cllr Pickering from the public gallery that it was time to step down for the sake of his health and the authority.

‘I think you have done an absolutely brilliant job,’ she said.

‘Having seen this nobody can work in a situation like this.’

In a statement read out in public, Cllr Pickering denied any wrongdoing and said: ‘I received a letter on behalf of all the councillors, calling on me to resign and offering what I considered to be a “bribe” that if I went quietly my efforts for the parish would be recognised.’

He said that as chairman he had the authority to write to Cllr Woodward on behalf of the council.

He said: ‘I’ve always sought to serve the people of this parish honestly and honourably and openly. I believe under my chairmanship a lot has been achieved.’

Regarding accusations about the clerk, who has raised a grievance about him, Cllr Pickering told the meeting: ‘For quite some time, the clerk has been unhappy to have a line manager, especially as her chairman. But that is the contract she agreed.’

After the meeting, Cllr Pickering told The News: ‘The chairman is elected to serve for a year at a time. My term of office as chairman expires some time in May.’

When contacted by The News, Cllr Cowper did not deny sending the email with the ‘jugular’ comment.

His statement said: ‘Cllr Pickering is the subject of many complaints about his behaviour.

‘In addition, just a couple of years ago it was necessary for me to write in the strongest possible terms to the clerk of the parish council to protest at Cllr Pickering’s behaviour towards an officer and also a cabinet member, of the district council.

‘In my opinion, Cllr Pickering is a disgrace to public life and the parish councillors and residents of Rowlands Castle deserve better.

‘Cllr Pickering would do public service and the village of Rowlands Castle a big favour by resigning immediately.’

Mr Pickering told The News Cllr Cowper’s email was ‘unbecoming of a leader of a district council’.

BID FOR MEDIATION IS REJECTED

At the meeting, resident Ian Hewitt said he knew an experienced minister who would be prepared to act as an independent mediator.

Mr Hewitt said: ‘Bearing in mind we are quite a small community and we’ll meet each other quite regularly, this doesn’t bode very well for the future.

‘Far better, if through mediation, you might at least be able to meet with a certain amount of honour and integrity and come to some sort of reconciliation.’

Cllr Pickering said: ‘For myself, I would confirm I am happy to do anything that would help this parish.’

He added: ‘I’m happy to pursue mediation.’

Cllr David Symonds said he consulted with a mediator in the legal profession who is familiar with such cases.

‘Her opinion was there was so little likelihood of it working out as to not to bother,’ he said.

‘You will have seen from shaking heads in here that there is unanimous disagreement with almost all that he has said.’