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Gravesham council leader David Turner and several allies leave Conservatives to form new party

By Ed McConnell

A council leader and several of his closest allies have left the Conservatives this morning to start a new party.

Gravesham's Cllr David Turner announced the move at a press conference at Gravesend's Civic Centre, in Windmill Street, at 10am.

Alongside Cllr Turner, deputy John Knight and former Mayor Harold Craske and seven others will also leave to start Gravesham Independent Conservatives, although it will not contest next year's election.

The defection was announced this morning
The defection was announced this morning

The trio announced they were suspending their memberships days after the Tories decided not to select them and several other for next year's election.

Councillors Lesley Boycott, Julia Burgoyne, Sandra Garside, Greta Goatley, Bill Lambert, Sara Langdale and Derek Shelbrooke are also defecting.

Cllr Turner said a significant number of other councillors would also have joined them but "were fearful of deselection".

In an unprecedented move the Conservative party had essentially interviewed every Gravesham councillor Tory for their own jobs, judging several, many of whom have decades of experience and hold top roles in the council, to not be up to the task.

Speaking to reporters this morning Cllr Turner, Knight and Craske said no reasons were given for the decisions and that it had outraged fellow councillors and constituents.

Cllr David Turner (Con) announced the decision
Cllr David Turner (Con) announced the decision

Cllr Turner said the decision followed "sustained bullying" of the three from one senior member of Gravesham Conservative Association, "interference" in the selection process and the failure of GCA and the party as a whole to investigate repeated unsubstantiated allegations of corruption directed at himself and Cllr Knight, who is currently suspended pending the result of an assault trial.

Both he and Cllr Knight said they would be pursuing that last matter and if necessary would take legal action.

He added: "We are suspending our membership of the Conservative Group until there is a proper inquiry into this behaviour. I have served the community for 42 years and all I got was an email saying I was not approved. As I'm deemed to be an inappropriate person to represent the party I decided to do the honourable thing and resign from it.

"We have been overwhelmed by the support from fellow councillors but appalled at the lack of interest by the GCA and Conservative HQ."

He added he would not be appealing his deselection as you can only appeal the process and not the decision and the process does not require members of the panel to give reasons.

When asked he confirmed he would consider rejoining the party if the matters were dealt with.

Cllr John Knight (Con) at the press conference
Cllr John Knight (Con) at the press conference

Cllr Craske said: "I have been a loyal member of the Gravesham Conservative Association (GCA) for more than 40 years, a former member of KCC, a borough councillor for 11 years, deputy mayor and mayor last year.

"I was told my interview was to 'check you understand the role and responsibilities, have the time available and the people skills required to be a councillor'.

"The following day I was surprised and extremely distressed to learn that I had not been approved by the panel of just five. The three who objected would not give any reason.

"I do not understand how I have failed in their eyes and neither can any of my constituents in Higham, many fellow councillors from all parties, local organisations and charities and not least the general public.

"By refusing to give their reasons they have cast a slur on my character. It could almost be called slander by silence. Their silence is against natural justice and human rights.

"I had thought of resigning in protest and causing a by-election but this would be expensive to the taxpayers. Instead I have decided to remain a councillor and sit as an independent. I will continue to serve my residents and the borough as a whole."

Cllr Knight said he had been a member of the party since his youth and had always thought the term 'nasty party' was only used by those outside the Conservatives but now realised it could also be used by those within it.

He said: "I've been accused of being corrupt and raised those allegations with the GCA but nothing has been done. These were serious allegations that I was 'on the take' to an unnamed construction company. Being accused of that is one of the biggest insults."

All the councillors will remain in their roles, with many sitting on the cabinet, until next May's election but the decision does mean the Tories will no longer have overall control of Gravesham, previously slightly outnumbering Labour.

Former mayor Cllr Harold Craske at the press conference
Former mayor Cllr Harold Craske at the press conference

The walk-out comes amid mounting tension over the prospect of building on the green belt.

The administration has long insisted there is no option other than to release some of the highly sensitive land to make room for 2,000 additional homes which the government says are needed by 2028.

Cllr Turner previously said there was no brownfield land available but has been accused of not exploring all options for urban development by a number of people, most recently Dartford council's leader Cllr Jeremy Kite (Con).

In November his deputy Cllr Leslie Hills stepped down in protest against the stance.

Party spokesman Harriet Bailey said: "We do not comment on internal party matters."

The GCA has been approached for comment.

Full report in next week's Messenger.

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