THE Labour group running Southampton City Council has been plunged into chaos after its finance chief resigned and another councillor quit, hitting out at his former leader and colleagues.

Andrew Pope has left the Labour group and criticised his former leader, Simon Letts, saying he "lacks vision and strong leadership" and accusing him of "putting his own position ahead of the people of Southampton".

His shock resignation came as the party's deputy leader and finance boss Stephen Barnes-Andrews stood down, having said he was always intending to do so.

Labour boss Cllr Letts responded to the criticism, putting Cllr Pope's resignation down to a clash of personalities and defending his administration's record, but the Conservative opposition say Labour are "imploding".

Labour has run the council since May 2012 when it defeated the previous Tory administration, but former leader Richard Williams resigned less than a year later after an inquiry found he had misled the public about why a former cabinet colleague had left his post, with Cllr Letts then taking over.

Hundreds of jobs have been lost at the council over the last few years as a result of ongoing cutbacks which Labour say has been caused by their shrivelling grant hand-out from Government, and there is a predicted £90m needing to be found by 2020.

Following the recent dismal General Election result for Labour and the loss of another two councillors in the local elections Cllr Pope, who was re-elected to represent Redbridge ward last week and had stood for Parliament in New Forest East, said he had "not made his decision lightly" to stand down from the Labour group and become an Independent councillor, a move that reduces the party's majority further.

He said he had put forward ideas that were rejected over the past three years suggesting ways for the council to make money, such as starting a renewable energy co-op or a local broadband company, both ideas taken up by other councils in recent years.

He said he had been "very unhappy" with the way the proposed Millbrook and Maybush estate regeneration and library review had been handled, and claimed no business plan had ever been put together for the estate scheme, adding: “This is despite me raising concerns over the funding directly with the cabinet member and his officers in a public scrutiny meeting more than two years ago, and repeatedly ever since".

Referring to the scandal over former leader Mr Williams, in which transport boss Jacqui Rayment was also implicated and apologised for her role in, he added: "How is Jacqui Rayment in the cabinet, how is she still a councillor after what she did?"

He said he believed Cllr Letts, "should sack lots of members of the cabinet and put people in who know what to do", saying: "The Labour party in Southampton is not protecting services, it's not improving the lives of people in our city and that's what a Labour council should do."

Cllr Pope, who has now turned down an offer to join the council's cabinet with a brief to look after transformation and change, was also highly critical of Labour's national leadership, and said the party "faces oblivion unless it sorts itself out".

Cllr Letts defended his team's record, saying: "I would argue that we have done the vast majority of cuts by efficiency savings and kept frontline cuts to a minimum. You can't take £90m out of the budget over three years without cuts."

He said he was "profoundly disappointed" with Cllr Pope, adding: "If he felt like this then he shouldn't have put his name forward for the election. It's pretty disgraceful behaviour.

"He's disappointed that he hasn't been promoted to a cabinet position, though I was looking to promote him this week, and he feels that some people who are of lesser ability were kept in the cabinet rather than him.

"You've got to work through personality clashes, rather than throwing your toys our of the pram."
Saying the library review had been carried out with "legal advice, with no decisions taken", he said:

"I urge him to put his case back to the people for Redbridge for election as he was defrauded them in getting elected as a Labour candidate and then resigning."

Cllr Rayment said: "If he had concerns over recent or past issues then he could have spoken to me or the leader. My ability to continue as a cabinet member was supported by the group and party, I've always been a team player and I work for the residents of Southampton in whatever capacity I am asked to."

Cllr Payne said he was "stunned" by his former colleague's decision, saying: "There will be plenty of money to redevelop Millbrook using the Development Company we approved at cabinet last month."

Cllr Letts confirmed that Cllr Barnes-Andrews had stood down as deputy leader and finance chief for "personal reasons", which are unconnected with Cllr Pope's resignation.

Cllr Barnes-Andrews said: "It was always my intent that it was a two-year stint and I am going to concentrate on issues in my ward.

"I just thought that was long enough. I wanted to make my impression and I think the finances are in reasonable order despite the Government's best efforts."

The turmoil in the Labour group has been seized on by the council's Tory opposition, whose deputy leader Jeremy Moulton described the estate plans as a "disaster" while outgoing leader, Royston Smith, said: "The Labour council has been chaotic from the moment it assumed office.
"The Labour party in Southampton is imploding and it's just a matter of time before the public will lose patience and remove them from office."