POLL: Elected Mayor for Great Yarmouth

MAY 5 is election day when a third of the seats on Great Yarmouth Borough Council are up for grabs.

But there are also two other pieces of paper we are expected to put our cross on, and they are referendums ie to find out what we think – on Alternative Voting and whether we want an elected mayor.

Probably the most of local importance is the elected mayor referendum, and please note this is not the vote for the elected mayor. It is to discover if sufficient people eligible to vote want a full-time and salaried elected mayor for the borough.

If the vote is ‘Yes’, then council leader Barry Coleman will be the last civic mayor the borough will have when he takes up that position on May 16 wearing the full regalia of red robes and the badge of office.

In May 2012, we would then be asked to vote for an elected mayor, choosing from a plethora of people and no doubt all political parties would be putting in their own candidates.

But there will also be the opportunity for anyone to stand for the job: in Hartlepool a decade ago, a young man who campaigned as the football club’s monkey mascot was elected! He remains the elected mayor.

Interestingly, both of the main political parties on the current borough council – Labour and Conservative – are not supporting the elected mayor campaign, which is being led by Labour councillor Mick Castle.

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The option of elected mayors – in effect new decision-taking structures for local authorities in England and Wales – was introduced in the Local Government Act 2000.

On the government website it states: “Elected mayors are responsible for the day-to-day running of local services and are voted for by local people, and serve for four years. They provide political leadership to the council and the community, and carry out the local authority’s policies.”

But the phrase “political leadership” could be seen as a little misleading: remember the Hartlepool monkey? To be fair, the majority of ward councillors at Hartlepool are from political parties.

There are currently 13 elected mayors in England and some have been credited with developing new forms of civic leadership and tackling long-term problems. However, in several cases the elected mayor does not hold full sway over what happens in his/her borough or district.

In most of England, there are two levels: a county council and a district or borough council. County councils cover large areas and provide most public services, including schools, social services, and public transportation.

Each county is divided into several districts. District or borough councils cover smaller areas and provide more local services, including council housing, gyms and leisure facilities, local planning, recycling and rubbish collection.

Should the electorate of Great Yarmouth decide they want an elected mayor, the successful candidate would not have any power over any part of local government which is currently administered by Norfolk County Council.

Several weeks ago, Yarmouth borough councillors agreed an elected mayoral constitution; they had to by law because sufficient numbers of the electorate had signed a petition to trigger a referendum. It would be impossible to present everything in the constitution in The Mercury without resorting to chopping down a whole forest, and ignoring any other news – so here are just a few of the points raised without going in to too much detail.

The situation at the moment is the council has 39 elected ward councillors and they choose who will be the mayor – mainly a ceremonial position and which could be regarded as a “reward” for a job well done as a councillor. The position is alternated between the Conservative and Labour groups and raises thousands of pounds for local charities during the year, and is a ceremonial role.

The current mayoral role involves keeping to a busy schedule of diary events and attending functions around the borough as well as county-wide, across the region and representing the borough wearing the ceremonial robes and mayoral chain. The mayor chairs the full council meetings and is an elected ward councillor.

It is a historic position, but one which disappeared from 1990 to 2000, with the controlling Labour group voting instead to appoint a chairman of the council.

An elected mayor would be chosen directly by the people and be in office for four years. They will be treated as a councillor but the position will pay a salary and probably a pension – it is, in effect, a full-time job and so most likely will not be able to devote as much time to raise cash or visit groups and functions to the extent the civic mayor does at the moment.

Today’s borough council has a cabinet which is responsible for most of the day to day decisions, and members are appointed by the ruling political party – in this case the Conservatives.

If the referendum votes in favour of going to the polls in May 2012 to vote in an elected mayor, the subsequent cabinet would be made up of the successful mayoral candidate and other councillors appointed by him or her up to a number determined by the new mayor – and it could be a few as two. This could mean if either of the main political parties has their candidate as the new elected mayor, there would be no compunction to select councillors from the opposition, as appears the case at present.

However, the new constitution reveals the cabinet will not have things all their own way.

When major discussions are to be discussed, or decision made, these will be published in a forward plan and decisions must be in line with the overall policies and budget agreed by the full council. If it wants to make a decision outside these boundaries it must be referred to full council for final determination.

And remember, the full council may comprise a majority of councillors not in the same political party as the cabinet or elected mayor, so technically, anything decided by cabinet could be vetoed!

The job of elected mayor is a big one, and the constitution calls for him or her to appoint a deputy mayor from the rank of elected councillors.

Now here’s where the new constitution introduces a new title – the speaker.

This will apply to the old-style civic mayoral role – the one who in 2011 wears the robes and chain at official functions, raises money for charity, represents the borough around the region, and also chairs the full council meeting.

So, from Mr Mayor to Mr Speaker.

The speaker will represent the council on formal occasions and at external functions in conjunction with the elected mayor or how the elected mayor determines. The job will be filled as now, every year and be chosen by fellow councillors.

So that’s a brief summary of what the referendum will be about and many people have many different views – that’s democracy.

The purpose of the new constitution is to: “In the long term, make the borough a better place in which to live, work, play and to visit.

“In partnership with its citizens, businesses and other organisations help devise and implement policies to reduce unemployment, raise household income, improve quality of life, skills and learning and make the borough healthier, safer and more attractive.

“Support the active involvement of citizens in decision-making, to be represented on partnership groups and other forums, and to generally make their views known to the council.”

Yet this is also what the current borough council set-up has pledged to do.

The decision of whether or not to have an elected mayor is one which every person entitled to vote should make on their own after due consideration.

Will it be better than what we have at the moment? There is no telling.

On the ‘Yes’ side of the referendum it will be seen as the way forward, a different way of operating with one man, or woman, at the top and leading the way and being paid a full-time salary and being expected to work long, long hours. The job and the elected mayor will be closely scrutinised by everyone, including the Mercury, waiting for slip-ups and bad judgements.

On the ‘No’ side are those who want to maintain the status quo, a way of local governance which has been with us for generations and which some would say has served us well, albeit with a few hiccups.

Will a change make everything better, worse or will it remain the same? This is a big issue for Great Yarmouth and whichever way people vote it must be well considered.

Next week, reporter John Owens talks to an elected mayor, and also to people in a district which rejected the idea of an elected mayor at their referedum.

On April 15, Mick Castle and Barry Coleman will present the cases Yes and No.

The elected mayoral constitution is available to download from http://www.great-yarmouth.gov.uk