I have just spent a very pleasant weekend in Nottingham at our annual party conference.
The central themes of the conference, as already posted on this site, revolved around two of our core policies – A referendum on our continued membership of the EU, and the renewal of democracy at a local level, most notably regarding elected council leaders or executive mayors as they are known.
The UK currently has 12 directly elected mayors, which will shortly become 13 after Tower Hamlets in London voted to have one – They are currently in the process of arranging the election.
Several mayors are independents, and are not beholden to any political party, so can address local issues from a local perspective. To give some examples, Ken Livingstone was elected London Mayor after the Labour Party refused to endorse him, whilst in Hartlepool the voters chose Independent candidate Stuart Drummond, better known as local football team mascot H’Angus the Monkey, in 2002. Stuart has proven so successful, he has been re-elected twice and is doing sterling work for his town – You could say that,in this case, a monkey could do the job better than some local councillors!
One of the most high profile of the elected mayors is my English Democrat colleague Peter Davies, Mayor for Doncaster. Peter inherited one of the most dysfunctional councils in England when he was elected, with a history of corruption and bureaucracy.
Peter spoke to the conference on Saturday, and ran through some of the initiatives he has spearheaded, and also pointed out some of the pitfalls of having to turn around a failing authority – Especially when you are in the spotlight of the national media, some of whom are willing you to fail!
Amongst the more high profile measures that you may have heard of in the national press, the first thing Peter did upon taking office was to reduce his own salary by 60%, and scrap the mayoral limousine!
The twin town scheme was swiftly dismantled – ” Twinning is all about free holidays on the local taxpayer for the council and their staff” he has been quoted as saying. The local government free newspaper soon followed.
Then came the dismantling of the politically correct expenses, to the horror of the left wing press.
Peter cancelled the council grant to the local Gay Pride March, and also did away with council funded translation services. He elaborated on this at the Conference, and at the same time pointed out why this is a way forward, and not the return of the ‘dark ages’ that his critics have been referring to.
On The Gay Pride March – ” I am no homophobic, but I don’t see why the council should pay for a minority group to have a parade in Doncaster. I have no problem with it going ahead, but see no reason why it should be funded by the taxpayer”
On scrapping translation services – ” People should be encouraged to learn English. If we all speak the same language, we can all join in with the local community. Put it another way – In the council offices, we had one cue for people who could speak English, and another queue for those who could not. Effectively, you had segregation. If that had been South Africa thirty years ago, everyone would have quite rightly been up in arms about an apartheid regime, yet in Doncaster in the 21st Century this was happening on council premises!”
Strong words indeed – But Peter has revealed that he has even more in store to get better value for his local taxpayers.
“In Doncaster we have over 60 councillors – To put that in to perspective, in Pittsburgh in the USA, a similar sized town, they have 9. Windsor in Ontario, Canada,has just 7. That is a lot of taxpayers money being spent on councillors that may not be needed – Many do the job on a part time basis, and have another job during the day. I am working to have this changed”
So how is the money saved being re-invested? For the first time in many years, new council properties are being built in Doncaster to ease the housing shortage. Front line services are being protected, whilst the high profile St Leger Race meet at Doncaster Race Course had an increase of 12% in the crowd this year, injecting £10 million in to the local economy.
Doncaster is not out of the woods yet, but their elected mayor is doing everything he can to make sure that his town is making progress. I was fortunate enough to sit with Peter at dinner, and asked him what would happen if he couldn’t deliver the change that he had promised to the people of Doncaster when he was elected.
” Then they will vote for someone else to try and do a better job” was his short answer.A pity that we can’t do the same in Hillingdon at the moment!