THE Mayor of Darlington has suspended council proceedings involving all 50 elected members in a bid to restore calm after rival councillors launched a series of bitter personal attacks against each other, in what was said to be the most ill-tempered council meeting in more than 40 years.

Angry scenes overshadowed a six-and-a-half hour meeting of Darlington Borough Council, which saw no mention of some major issues facing the authority such as its forecast £8million post-pandemic deficit, but repeated barbed comments about a councillor’s day job, an abandoned housebuilding scheme and even the style of a councillor’s home.

The row during an online meeting of the full authority follows repeated warnings over increasingly abrasive debates at the council. It came just weeks after an appeal in the outgoing speech of last year’s mayor for councillors to work together.

The row followed Labour group leader Councillor Stephen Harker questioning the authority’s health and housing portfolio holder Cllr Kevin Nicholson about how a decision to drop a proposed housing development by the council off Harris Street came about and for his views on the government’s Covid-19 testing regime.

Cllr Nicholson, an Independent member, replied the Labour members were continually quizzing him over the Conservative central government’s policies while he focused his energies on improving health and housing in the borough.

He told Cllr Harker: “I don’t live in a castle on Tower Road like you. I still live in a council house.”

Labour councillors then highlighted that Cllr Nicholson was employed by Darlington MP Peter Gibson as a constituency case worker, but mayor Cllr Chris McEwan reminded members that the council’s portfolio holders should only face questions over their council role.

Cllr Nicholson told Labour members: “It is appalling and outrageous that you are continually trying to link my private employment politically.”

After further bitter exchanges, Cllr McEwan urged members to “turn the heat down”, but Labour members continued to challenge Cllr Nicholson over Harris Street and his job.

Intervening, former mayor and Labour councillor Eleanor Lister said: “The tone of this debate is not what we’re used to. I do find it objectionable that personal remarks are being made about various councillors. We are supposed to conduct these debates in a polite and civil manner and I haven’t found that so far.”

Last year’s mayor, Cllr Nick Wallis, said the meeting had seen “some of the most unseemly exchanges I have heard in a great deal of time”, before adding Cllr Nicholson needed to “step away from the narrow political advantage that he has trumpeted over Harris Street over and over again”.

Cllr Nicholson said the Labour Party had bullied him relentlessly as a young councillor over Firthmoor Community Centre and the party had been “the greatest contributor to my demise in mental health”.

He added: “I’m sorry if at times there’s a little bit of a heated argument, but sometimes the memories of that nastiness and abuse come forward. If the Labour Party wants to win seats back in Eastbourne, stop attacking me personally and standing on doorsteps making up lies about me.”

Mayor Cllr McEwan then called a recess for the meeting, saying he was “concerned feelings are running high”.

When the meeting resumed the council’s community safety boss, Cllr Jonathan Dulston, who lodged a complaint earlier this week over Labour claims during a meeting, said he felt “ashamed to be part of this process” and said he too had been bullied by the opposition.

Authority leader Cllr Heather Scott saidshe wants to work with the mayor to ensure there is never a repeat of the hostilities, adding: “I have been a councillor since 1976 and I think this is the worst council meeting I have ever sat through. When we took control we asked people to work together for the benefit of the people of Darlington.”

Mayor Cllr McEwan said he would call a meeting of the party leaders to find a way to stop the hostilities.