Berwick rejection puts elected mayor on skids

14 Jun 01
Labour's big idea for local government, directly elected mayors, has flunked a big test and flunked it badly.

15 June 2001

Last week, residents of Berwick-upon-Tweed were given the chance to make their town the first outside London to embrace an idea that could create a fresh force in British local politics.

Instead they chose, by a margin of almost three to one, to establish a new landmark: the small border town became the first to reject the idea through the ballot box.

When the votes were counted, the result was conclusive. Those against the idea numbered 10,212. Those in favour just 3,617. Turnout was a healthy 63%.

The case for a mayor foundered on several fronts. First, the estimated annual cost of £100,000 (salary, secretariat and car for the new boss of Berwick) was seen as too steep for a council that has one of the smallest annual budgets in the country – £3.5m.

Second, the ruling Liberal Democrat group and the local MP, Alan Beith, were vocal opponents. Third, these same opponents feared it would undermine local history, where a civic mayor has been in place since 1238.

At a time when politicians are more unpopular than ever, the idea of creating a new, prominent political post always seemed likely to founder. In all it resulted in a two-finger salute to Labour's plans for transforming town halls, and a final policy

snub to Hilary Armstrong, outgoing minister for the now defunct Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions.

'I think mayors are going to be a seven-day wonder,' says Bill Ferguson, leader of Berwick-upon-Tweed council. 'We were the victims of Hilary Armstrong and Brian Douglas [the local councillor who forced the referendum by producing a petition signed by 5% of the electorate] for doing this. The government wanted a referendum anywhere.'

The campaign also veered towards the personal. Ferguson claimed that Douglas, an independent, was a 'one-off' and 'independent of the independents'.

Douglas countered by accusing his opponents of 'scaremongering' over the cost of a mayor and claimed an unholy alliance between politicians and the local media had ensured that the referendum never received the proper attention it deserved.

'We knew it would be difficult,' says Douglas. 'It wasn't a level playing field. I feel that the public weren't given the full opportunity to take Berwick forward.'

Taking the town forward would have meant a mayor trying to stem the loss of jobs and the not-unrelated decline in the town's 27,000 population. That job will now be left to a streamlined Cabinet system.

The 'no' vote has also left ministers with a headache over what to do with mayors. Their big idea is in danger of turning into a big flop.

Since the notion of mayors was first mooted more than three years ago, not one council has embraced the idea, despite the prompting of ministers. Several, though, have been keen to reject it.

Mayors have been left to struggle by a government confident that its idea would take root. It has not. For the concept to succeed, ministers will have to take a more active role, something that even the normally enthusiastic New Local Government Network, long a champion of mayors, admits is the case.

'It needs some commitment and it needs a little bit of momentum put behind it,' says John Williams, executive director of the NLGN. 'It has never had any serious political commitment behind it.'

Whether that commitment comes from the new ministerial line-up remains unclear. What Stephen Byers, now head of the new Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions, thinks about mayors is unknown. But, given that

he is a loyal Blairite, there is every chance that he will inherit his boss's enthusiasm for mayors over the next few months.

What is less clear is how the government's renewed faith in regional government affects or even overrides its policy on directly elected mayors. Some believe it will place mayors at the centre of a new system that puts the accent on areas beyond Westminster and Whitehall. Others disagree, claiming that mayors will become redundant in the move to further devolution.

The commitment that Williams talks about could come from councils themselves. On June 28, two more councils – Gloucester and Cheltenham – will hold referendums. On July 12, Watford will follow them.

The big push may come on 'super Thursday', October 18. On that day, up to eight councils, including Lewisham, Plymouth and Brighton & Hove could hold referendums.

If they all said no, it is unclear how the concept of directly elected mayors could survive. A 'yes' here or there, though, would provide a spur.

Ministers may also provide an impetus. By the end of this month, all councils have to submit to ministers their plans for political reorganisation (although those dealing with the social and economic consequences of foot and mouth will be given a short extension).

If the government feels there is a real basis for further referendums among any of these plans in towns, and especially in any of the bigger cities, including Bradford, Liverpool and Birmingham, then further votes could be forced.

At long last it seems that the debate on mayors is coming to a head.


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