Fears growing over cost of new-style mayor

FEARS are growing about the price local taxpayers might have to pay just for voting on whether they want Great Yarmouth to have the first directly elected mayor with executive powers in Norfolk.

The borough council has written to Eric Pickles, secretary of state for communities and local government, asking for a referendum on the issue to be put back to the same day as local elections – May 5 – to spread the �60,000-plus cost of hiring voting venues.

However, ahead of the government’s reply, the Mercury understands it is unlikely to agree to the council’s request to waive the rule of holding a mayoral referendum within six months of a successful petition calling for one.

With campaigners raising the necessary 3,500 signatures on their petition in September that would mean holding a referendum in March – and incurring election expenses twice.

If the referendum then yields a “yes” vote, the bill for local taxpayers is likely to swell by at least another �60,000 as the council will be responsible for printing a colour booklet on the candidates and sending it to every elector in the borough ahead of the mayoral election.

While campaign spokesman Mick Castle feels a directly elected mayor would stimulate fresh interest in local politics, council leader Barry Coleman has already condemned the whole exercise as a “criminal waste of money”, pointing out an additional cost would be the mayor’s salary of as much as �70,000, compared to his �9,000 in expenses as leader.

And joining a growing list of critics this week was Tony Smith, who was the borough’s ceremonial mayor until Michael Jeal took over in May.

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Mr Smith, the current deputy mayor, said: “As well as being a complete waste of money at a time when the council is having to make deep cuts, having a directly elected mayor would also mean losing the position of Yarmouth’s ceremonial mayor.

“The mayor is currently an important ambassador acting for Yarmouth around the county in a non-political way. A directly elected mayor with executive powers would not have time for those duties.”

Mr Castle said he would prefer the mayoral referendum to go ahead in March as it would be potentially confusing to hold it on May 5 when the government might also be holding a referendum on an alternative voting system.

He acknowledged that elections cost money, but he said a March referendum would allow the mayoral election to go ahead on the same day as the local council elections, thus saving money at that stage.

And he argued that other places opting for a directly elected mayor had shown that money could actually be saved in the long run by simplifying the system of governance.

Mr Castle said the ceremonial mayor would be replaced by a chairman of the council who could go to public functions not attended by the new mayor.