THE Mayor of Darlington has reissued his pledge to “treat people without fear or favour” during council meetings in a drive to maintain constructive and civilised debates.

Councillor Chris McEwan said he was determined to prevent a repeat of the ill-tempered scenes that overshadowed a full meeting of Darlington Borough Council in July, leading to him suspending proceedings after successive attempts to restore order failed.

After the meeting, the acrimony continued as leading Conservative and Independent politicians accused senior Labour councillors Stephen Harker and Nick Wallis of bullying them, leading to a lengthy inquiry which this week cleared them both of the allegation.

Before the meeting in July, concerns had been mounting over the conduct of full council meetings. Some members felt a change in the seating arrangements in the council chamber so rival politicians faced each other had created a more combative atmosphere.

However, Cllr McEwan, who has held “frank” talks with party leaders in a move to encourage more respect is displayed in meetings, said he believed the fractious nature of the July meeting, which had been held virtually due to social distancing concerns, was partly triggered by the new online environment.

He said similar concerns over hostile council meetings had been raised at a number of other local authorities since virtual meetings had begun.

Cllr McEwan said answers were yet to be found to technical issues, such the inability to call a point of order while someone is speaking, adding: “Chairing a meeting in this kind of environment is incredibly difficult, but we will have virtual meetings for some time to come.”

Cllr McEwan said he had taken on board criticism of his handling of the meeting, but felt he had done the best he could in a new way of working.

He said: “I have reflected and one thing I am keen to do is ensure that we have constructive debates, and to be fair, the executive get a chance to answer questions when put. Members must be very clear what the question or the comment is. We have been collectively guilty of not being clear about questions.”

“We must strive to have our debates in a civilised and good-natured way and be polite with each other. That’s how we should deport ourselves generally, but we shouldn’t lose sight that we are community leaders.”

Cllr McEwan said performing the mayor’s ceremonial functions during the pandemic had also proved difficult, but he was working to be as visible as possible to herald the work of “Darlington’s lockdown heroes”, such as bus drivers, chemists, GP practices and supermarket workers.

He said he had undertaken 14 social distanced visits to thank workers for their efforts adding: “Often we think of the NHS being on the frontline, but what lockdown showed was there are a number of key workers who helped Darlington through the difficult time.”