DAVID Bittleston has unexpectedly resigned as leader of Woking Borough Council.

In a statement at a council meeting on Thursday evening, Cllr Bittleston said: “After much careful thought, I have decided that now is the right moment for me to hand over the leadership of the council.”

He said he had intended to retire from the council in April this year but this had been postponed by coronavirus. He added that he had wanted to step down as leader in July, but had been persuaded to stay on to put in train the recruitment of a new chief executive to replace Ray Morgan, whose contract ends at the end of March next year.

Cllr Bittleston has been replaced as leader by his deputy, Ayesha Azad, and her deputy is Simon Ashall. Cllr Azad was nominated by Cllr Bittleston and seconded by Cllr Ashall. There were no other nominations.

In her acceptance speech, Cllr Azad emphasised the need for the council to work closely with residents and community groups.

“We have seen during the past few months the benefits of supporting and encouraging local communities to identify issues and develop solutions,” she said.

Ann-Marie Barker, the leader of the Liberal Democrats on the council, Tahir Aziz, the Labour leader, and John Bond, the leader of the Independence, all thanked Cllr Bittleston for his 20 years’ service on the council.

He had previously said he will be stepping down as a councillor at the local elections in May next year but had been expected to remain leader until then.

Cllr Bittleston’s departure comes part-way through the process of finding a new chief executive and a director of planning to fill the role held by Douglas Spinks, the deputy chief executive, who will retire on 31 March next year.

The recruitment process is due to run until 30 November with a special council meeting in late December or early January at which the new appointments will be decided.

Andy Caulfield, a leader of the South Woking Action Group (SWAG), which campaigned against a plan to build a new Woking FC stadium and adjacent flats, said he believed that Cllr Bittleston’s position had been undermined among some of this Conservative Party colleagues by his support for the project.

Mr Caulfield said the council leader had supported recommendations by officers for the plans to be approved and that some councillors felt that this was not usual practice.

He said he was delighted that the new leader recognised the value of residents’ views and the role of community groups.

For more on this story, see the 22 October edition of the News & Mail next week