A ROW over alleged harassment and bullying between elected members of a council has intensified as the authority’s Conservative cabinet took the unprecedented step of lodging complaints against two senior Labour councillors over comments made during meetings.

Darlington Borough Council has confirmed it is examining complaints made by its eight Cabinet portfolio holders against Councillor Nick Wallis, just weeks after he stepped down as mayor, and the Labour group leader, Councillor Stephen Harker, who have collectively served on the authority for more than 50 years.

The inquiry follows numerous warnings over escalating tensions at council meetings and personal exchanges made at last week’s Cabinet and full council meetings, the latter of which the authority’s leader, Councillor Heather Scott, described as the most ill-tempered meeting at the council in 44 years.

In the complaint, Cllr Scott said she accepted members needed to respond to legitimate questions, but inaccurate and repetitive questioning amounted to harassment or even bullying.

The Northern Echo: The official complaint lodged by Darlington Borough Council's cabinetThe official complaint lodged by Darlington Borough Council's cabinet

She claimed the Labour councillors had made claims about two cabinet members, councillors Jonathan Dulston and Kevin Nicholson, which were untrue.

The complaints relate to claims that Cllr Nicholson was responsible for the withdrawal of a housing development at Harris Street was untrue and Labour’s repeated raising of the Independent member’s employment with Conservative Darlington MP Peter Gibson.

Cllr Scott said: “This whole debacle has brought the reputation of the council into disrepute. We are promoting the town as a place to live, work and play. Any potential business will not be encouraged to come here if they assume that this behaviour is the norm.”

Since the meeting, both residents and councillors have spoken of their dismay over the row.

Liberal Democrat councillor Hilary Allen said she believed after taking over the council last year the Conservatives had initially given credit, but in recent months “Labour’s constant grandstanding and point-scoring tactics” had alienated some other members and quite a few residents.

She said: “I am a new councillor; but I am not new to the world, nor manners, nor basic courtesy in general.”

Mr Gibson has supported the Cabinet members in the row, saying 55 people had applied for the constituency case worker role Cllr Nicholson had secured after proving himself the best candidate. He said Labour’s comments had been “absolutely unacceptable”.

A council spokesman confirmed it was examining the complaints and an assessment would be carried out in conjunction with an “independent person” to determine how the complaint should be dealt with, but declined to state when its findings should be expected.

In response to the complaints, councillors Harker and Wallis said bullying should be challenged and rooted out wherever it occurs.

They said: “The allegation of bullying is being cynically used by the Conservatives however to try and silence political opposition in the town. By doing so, the leader of the council is belittling the experiences of genuine victims of bullying.”

The Labour councillors said Cllr Dulston was neither bullied nor harassed at the Cabinet meeting, but had been questioned about a Cabinet paper for which he was responsible and Cllr Wallis had reminded him of public comments he made last year, as they were recalled by both Cllr Wallis and other Labour colleagues present at the time.

The Northern Echo: Cllr Nick WallisCllr Nick Wallis

They said: “As we coming to learn, however, members of this administration seem to resent being challenged about almost anything. Ironically, Cllr Wallis is still waiting for the detailed answers that Cllr Dulston promised him at Cabinet about action against dog fouling in the town.

“Furthermore, it was perfectly in order to question at council Cllr Nicholson’s credentials as an Independent. Cllr Nicholson publicly endorsed the Conservative candidate as recently as the 2019 General Election. He now works for the town’s Tory MP. He is no more an Independent than we are.

“In the context of the political debate in town, it is reasonable to point this out when considering his actions as a Cabinet member.”

The Labour members added that the council’s Cabinet had serious responsibilities and meetings of the full council provided an opportunity for all councillors to hold Cabinet members to account.

They said Cllr Nicholson, together with other Cabinet members, had been asked questions about his responsibilities, but unlike the other Cabinet members, Cllr Nicholson appeared to have “unreasonably taken exception to this public scrutiny”.

The statement concluded: “We are becoming very concerned at the way that the leader of the council and her fellow Conservatives are spuriously “weaponising” the serious allegation of bullying to try and shut down debate and slander Labour councillors.

“To address this, we would suggest that all councillors undergo anti-bullying training so that we can all recognise bullying when it occurs; we know how to call it out; and we can all distinguish between real cases of bullying and in contrast the cut and thrust of political debate which is both appropriate and necessary.”