INDEPENDENT councillors have caused a political storm after joining forces in an attempt to challenge the major parties in Hartlepool.
Eleven of the 13 councillors who were previously independent and without any affiliation to any parties have formed their own group to give them a greater say when it comes to local authority decisions.
In an added twist, former Ukip councillor Martyn Aiken – who stood in the General Election in Easington – has quit the party to become an independent and join the newly-formed group.
Members of the Association of Independent Councillors say the move will help them gain positions on council committees or outside bodies.
The two remaining independent councillors – Paul Thompson, of the Seaton ward, and Michelle Plant, of the Brus ward – have turned down the chance of linking up with the breakaway group.
The move has been questioned by opposition leaders, who query how independent councillors can be part of a group.
Councillor Cath Hill has been elected leader of the new group with councillor Hilary Thompson as deputy.
Coun Hill, who is cabinet member for children's services, said: "The main reason we decided to form this group is because it can be difficult for independent councillors to be given positions on committees or outside bodies such as the fire and police authority.
"It doesn't affect me because I am in the cabinet but for others there was a feeling that they were not in the best position to represent the people in their wards."
Coun Hill, who confirmed she would not be receiving the leader's allowance, added: "There will be no meetings where independent councillors will be told how to vote, that will not happen.
"People can still vote how they wish and remain independent."
Those involved in the Association of Independent Councillors are Reuben Atkinson, Timothy Fleming, Steve Gibbon, Cath Hill, John Lauderdale, Alison Lilley, Geoff Lilley, John Marshall, Lilian Sutheran, Hilary Thompson, Michael Turner and Martyn Aiken.
Independent Mayor Stuart Drummond will not be affected by the changes.
Coun Plant said: "I didn't feel it necessary to join as I can still have my voice heard and put my case forward at council meetings."
Coun Thompson was not available for comment when approached by the Mail.
The town's Labour Party takes up half of the elected member positions on Hartlepool Borough Council with 24 out of the 48 seats.
The Association of Independent Councillors has 12 seats, Liberal Democrats five, the Conservatives four and there are two independent councillors plus Mayor Drummond.
A council spokesman said: "We can confirm that a new political group known as the Association of Independent Councillors has been formed.
"Under local government legislation they are entitled to be considered as a group for political balance purposes."
Councillor George Morris, leader of the Conservative group on the council, said: "How can a political group be made up of independent councillors?"
Councillor Jonathan Brash, leader of the Labour group, said: "I think that everybody gets a little confused when they hear of independents forming a group. But how other councillors organise themselves is up to them."
Councillor Arthur Preece, leader of the Liberal Democrat group, was not available for comment.