AN END to the bickering which has crippled Westhoughton Town Council could be in sight after the Liberal Democrats decided not to put forward candidates for next month's election.

The six sitting Lib Dems have decided against seeking re-election after 18 months of bitter rows with the five Labour members and one Independent councillor.

Opposing party members have submitted more than a dozen complaints and counter-complaints to the Standards Board for England.

Bolton Council's standards bosses last month said they were concerned about the way the town council was operating and would be prepared to investigate any evidence of misconduct.

The council's Lib Dem group leader, Cllr David Wilkinson, said councillors had decided not to stand because of "intimidation, harassment and bullying" by their rivals.

Cllr Wilkinson, who will remain a borough councillor for Westhoughton South, said the council was "unsafe". He cited a complaint made two years ago by Cllr Janet Halliwell that a "verbal tirade" by Cllr George Penny at the Westhoughton Masonic Hall had left her mentally scarred.

The Standards Board decided it was a private matter not covered by the councillors' code of conduct, while Cllr Penny claimed Cllr Halliwell had exaggerated, arguing he had merely spoken to her.

Cllr Wilkinson denied the group's decision represented a victory for Labour members. He said: "It is worth the organisation carrying on, although I have strong reservations about the abilities of some individuals on the council. The Lib Dems will continue to fight for Westhoughton and are still putting people forward for the borough elections."

Cllr Wilkinson, who has served on the council for 22 years, said he would not rule out standing for the town council again in the future.

But he said: "We will not stand until the Standards Board and the monitoring officer have dealt with the issues still outstanding."

Town council leader Cllr Jim Gilfillan denied Cllr Wilkinson's allegations and said they had never been upheld by a Standards Board investigation.

Cllr Gilfillan said: "Where's the proof of the council being unsafe' and of bullying and intimidation?"

He added that the Lib Dems' decision had come as "a bit of a surprise" and he would have preferred it if they had put candidates forward.

"I think it's because they are not liked in Westhoughton," he said. "It might make things easier for us but does not do democracy the greatest of good because Lib Dem supporters will not have the choice they would want to make."

In response to a complaint by Cllr Halliwell, the Standards Board last month issued draft guidance to the council's monitoring officer, Bolton Council legal officer Alan Eastwood, to organise mediation and further training for councillors.

But while Cllr Wilkinson said he believed the board had yet to make a final decision, a board spokesman said there was no investigation ongoing into any complaint by Cllr Halliwell.