AN outgoing mayor’s call to improve the workings of a local authority by changing the seating arrangements in a council chamber has been dismissed.

In a speech as he stepped down as the civic figurehead and chairman of Darlington Borough Council, long-serving Labour councillor Nick Wallis claimed the Conservative administration had unconsciously made the authority’s decision-making sessions more combative by moving the seating from a horseshoe shape to one in which members from the ruling and opposition groups directly faced each other.

His call follows bitter recriminations at the council’s most important meeting of the year in February amid friction over the Local Plan, as female opposition councillors were talked over and jeered and the mayor was accused of showing bias towards his party while managing debates.

After handing over the office of mayor, Cllr Wallis said he had tried to foster a productive working relationship between councillors of different political groups by hosting get-togethers in the Mayor’s Parlour following council meetings, at which he had sought to be even-handed.

He said all councillors were motivated by public service, however their values aligned.

Cllr Wallis said: “It is in the best interests of the people that we serve that we reject the bitter polarisation that we see in national and international politics.

“That’s why some of the personal rancour that I have seen in council over the past 12 months has been so disappointing. In my opinion this has been inadvertently promoted by the decision to position councillors facing each other as MPs do in the House of Commons rather than the traditional horseshoe arc that almost every parliament and council employs. This has sometimes created a petty, bickering atmosphere which reflects poorly on us as a council. I do at some point that decision can be revisited.”

In response, Conservative councillor Heather Scott said when she took leadership of the council last year she had “hoped the parties could work together constructively” and that she would send out a message to all the political groups on the authority that councillors should work alongside each other whenever possible.

However, she said Cllr Wallis was “concentrating on “minutiae” at a time when it was vital to focus upon the recovery from lockdown.

Cllr Scott, who was first elected to the council in 1976, said: “I don’t think it makes the slightest bit of difference where we sit. I can’t see why where people sit makes any difference to how we operate as a council. I also think eye-to-eye contact is better.

“If they want to criticise that’s fine. I have no objection to constructive criticism.”

Liberal Democrat group leader Councillor Anne Marie Curry added she preferred the newer seating arrangements, adding: “I don’t like talking to people without looking at them.”