The Great Yarmouth Mayor debate

WHEN the people of Mansfield got the opportunity to choose an elected mayor the low percentage who voted plumped for an Independent candidate, in a move that started a revolution in the make up of the council itself.

Based in Nottinghamshire, members within Labour-led Mansfield District Council decided that, when given the choice of an elected mayor in 2000, to retain the status quo with a cabinet and leader system would be best.

Not everyone, however, agreed, and after spotting a piece in the local paper the Mansfield and Ashfield Chad about the decision, current mayor Tony Egginton explained his interest was roused.

“They asked if this was the best way to do things, and I thought it was worth a serious look as there had been little public consultation,” said Mr Egginton, who had worked for a few years in the architectural division at the borough council but had spent his subsequent time running a number of Post Offices in the area.

He joined others, and they formed a small group of businessmen and interested parties who successfully used their contacts to spread word of their efforts and get the number of signatures required for a referendum.

As with all such efforts, it required five per cent of the number of local electors, from a population of just under 100,000 people.

The petition was eventually successful.

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In May 2002 the idea got the thumbs-up to the tune of 55pc, though turnout was only 21pc, and in October Mr Egginton beat off competition from local parties.

Covering that period for the Mansfield and Ashfield Chad, which remained neutral, was Ashley Booker.

He, like many, was surprised by the result at the time.

“This was Labour heartland, so there was a bit of a feeling in some places that if you put a donkey with a red rosette it would win,” he said. The party had been in control since the early 70s.

“However, I think people wanted a change in the system, and they felt it would give them more of a say in how the town was run.”

Mr Egginton’s election in 2002 was followed by his re-election in 2007.

And, perhaps more importantly, it was followed in a revolution in the make up of the council at the following local elections in 2003, which brought in a flood of councillors under the banner of the Mansfield Independent Forum where once there had been none.

This forum now makes up 29 of the seats, while Labour has 12, the Liberal Democrats have four, the Conservatives one.

Now news editor at the paper, Mr Booker said that the title of elected mayor “holds a lot of kudos” which “opens a few doors”.

UNEASE, stirred up in part by a series of controversial decisions by Darlington Borough Council, was not enough to push an elected mayor into power in 2007.

Much as in Mansfield, Darlington has been dominated by the Labour group for a long period before the question of an elected mayor came up.

However, this time when the opportunity for change came, electors comprehensively rejected the idea.

David Roberts, who reports on the area for The Northern Echo, felt that disillusion had spread following public anger over three issues in the preceding years.

He pointed firstly to an unpopular proposal to merge two schools, then efforts to pedestrianise some of the town centre and install a hypermarket there as leaving people “up in arms”.

“An effort was instigated, not by party members or councillors, but by prominent business people and people who would write into our letters pages, to get a petition going.”

Get going it did.

Soon, a Darlington Referendum Group had, among other things, set up booths in the town centre in an attempt to get the required number of signatures, and though all the parties were officially against it, individually councillors were not quite so uniform in their viewpoint.

However, when the big day – September 27, 2007 – came, the majority of the 24pc who voted rejected the idea, with 7981 saying yes and 11,226 saying no.

Previously a chairman of Age Concern in Darlington, Alan Charlton was a prominent member backing the retention of the leader and cabinet model.

He said having an elected mayor was not always the wrong choice and that elected mayor and former policeman Ray Mallon had done a good job for Middlesbrough.

“I’ve met a number of mayors in my 20 years in the voluntary sectors, and I think in having a civic mayor we have an ideal mayoral system for the town.”

Rejecting the idea that the campaign was a political one borne out of frustration with the council, he added that politicising the role of mayor was not a good idea and could lead to extra cost.

However, Mr Roberts said one of the reasons that the campaign had failed could have been because even it did not provide a candidate for the role.

“There was no obvious figure to take on the role of mayor, and it seemed the chances were the one who would take over would be someone from a political party.”

Not that the efforts had been entirely wasted, he added: “I do think that the parties took note, and they’ve made positive efforts [in response], such as inviting representatives from other political parties and business leaders to cabinet meetings.”