Great Yarmouth councillors could face disciplinary action

DEFIANT cross-party opposition to staging a referendum on the question of introducing a directly-elected mayor has left 28 Great Yarmouth borough councillors – including the entire cabinet – facing possible disciplinary action.

In an extraordinary revolt at last week’s meeting of the full council, councillors refused to endorse a draft constitution so the referendum can go ahead on May 5 – despite a clear warning from the authority’s legal officer Chris Skinner that it was their legal duty to do so.

He said if they failed to approve the constitution for public consultation, he would be obliged to record it in a monitoring officer’s report and inform the secretary of state for communities and local government, Eric Pickles, that the council had taken an illegal position.

The rebellion has created what Mr Skinner described as a “complete impasse”, and enraged campaigners for a directly-elected mayor whose 3,500-signature petition triggered the legal requirement to hold the referendum.

As a result of complaints already lodged by the public, the 15 councillors who voted against the constitution and 13 who abstained are now certain to face a preliminary standards committee inquiry to investigate whether they have brought the council into disrepute.

The most extreme sanctions that ultimately could be imposed would be expulsion from the council or a period of suspension.

The procedural requirement for two weeks of public consultation on the draft constitution and two months for civil servants to consider it now rules out a May 5 referendum.

Most Read

However now, the Mercury understands the government is to tell the council it can stage the referendum on May 5 without carrying out any public consultation on the constitution.

That would save the council the embarrassment of having to stage a referendum at a later date; the idea of staging it on May 5 was to share the costs with the local elections.

Council leader Barry Coleman, who abstained in the vote, said it was no good regretting what had happened and described the council’s rebellion as “democracy working”.

He said there had been a groundswell of indignation over the poor legislation that had left councillors facing the “ridiculous dilemma” of being asked to ratify something regardless of whether they approved of it.

At a time when the council was struggling to cope with a shrinking budget it was being asked to spend �50,000 on holding a referendum for a directly-elected mayor that neither side of the chamber wanted. He said there had also been concerns about approving a draft constitution with a number of errors in it as a result of it being hurriedly prepared.

Labour leader Mick Castle, who is leading the campaign for a directly-elected mayor in face of opposition from his own party, said he had been left “gobsmacked” by the council’s rebuff.

He said: “The council wrote to the secretary of state to ask for the referendum to be on the same day as the local elections as a way of saving money. They will have really fouled up if it now has to go ahead on another day, incurring extra expense.”

He stressed that all the people who signed the petition would not allow “bully boy tactics” to stop a referendum taking place.

During a heated council debate, Tory councillor Charles Reynolds said that while a directly-elected mayor might not be out of place in a unitary authority, it would be “lunacy” to have one in a small council responsible for just 20pc of public services.

He said: “The system was never designed for Yarmouth. What is a mayor going to do for his �70,000 a year, cut grass for old ladies on a Monday, empty bins on a Tuesday?”

However, Mr Castle said having a directly-elected mayor would revive interest in local politics and safeguard the borough’s sovereignty.