MYSTERY surrounds a decision to hand the reins of Darlington Borough Council’s ruling political party to a different councillor than the authority’s elected leader.

Ahead of Councillor Heather Scott starting the third year of her administration starting on Friday, the 23 elected Conservative members have agreed at their annual general meeting that Brinkburn and Faverdale councillor Rachel Mills should become their leader.

Cllr Scott, who was elected as a councillor in 1976 and has been the Tory group leader for some 14 years, declined to directly respond when asked if she would continue as the authority’s leader.

She replied: “I was elected as the council leader for four years.

“What will happen in the Conservative group could be different. It’s not necessarily a dual job. I am leader of the council and that’s the priority.”

Cllr Mills, who was first elected to the authority in 2015, said splitting the party and council leadership roles was designed to enable Cllr Scott to focus on major projects for the borough, such as the Department of International Trade and Treasury relocations and Bank Top Station refurbishment.

Cllr Mills, who is Sedgefield MP Paul Howell’s constituency office manager, added: “Heather is fully supported by our group as the leader of the council and she’s elected as the leader of the council for four years.

“I have agreed with the blessing of the group and Heather to take on group responsibility to assist Heather as we have so many good things happening in Darlington.”

Cllr Mills said acting as both council and Conservative group leader was “a huge task that Heather has done extremely well” for the last two years and the group wanted that to continue.

When asked if she had any concerns over grey areas of responsibility being created by dividing the leadership role, she said: “Heather and I work closely together. There’s no issue with that split at all.”

Opposition councillors said they had been left confused as to how dividing the roles would work, such as who would be responsible for policy decisions.

Labour group leader Councillor Stephen Harker said: “People do need to know who is making decisions and who is in charge. When things go wrong or you want comment on things they need to know who is responsible for correcting things. Do they go to Heather or do they go to Rachel? Is Heather only in charge of things when they’ve decided what they’re going to do? It’s an odd way of running a local authority I would say.”