Whitehaven News column – 10th April 2014

At a public meeting in Hensingham last week, I was asked my view about the proposal for an elected Mayor for Copeland. The prevailing public mood regarding  these proposals – as far as I can make out – is one of confusion.

I welcome the fact that people are interested in how our local government system works and I applaud the fact that they are moved to act. It’s evident that there is a broad range of differing views amongst supporters and opponents of an elected Mayor, but amongst the public at large there is real doubt about what this would mean and over what the referendum that will be held on the day of the European and council elections is actually about.

Firstly, this is your decision. The last Labour government introduced the right for local communities to change the way they are governed locally. It’s a sound policy. We should be governed by the system that best suits us; that’s democracy and whichever system of local government is chosen by the local community should have nothing to do with Members of Parliament. So far, so clear. To be clearer still, I’m in favour of whatever system of local government the people of Copeland want; you’re the boss. But I’m a member of the local community too, and, like you, I have a personal opinion on what the best system of local government for Copeland might be.

The more I think of this, the more it becomes clear to me that there isn’t a single problem facing our community that could be better, more quickly or more effectively solved by an elected mayor. Hospital services? No. Schools? No. Road infrastructure? No. Care for the elderly? No. Child protection? No. Job creation? No. Local government finances? The reality is that an elected mayor would make Copeland Borough Council’s financial position even worse. A big salary, support staff and the costs of holding the referendum in the first place – none of these do anything to replenish the council’s meagre accounts. Nor will having an elected mayor get rid of a single elected councillor.

Whatever the problems facing our community, it’s difficult, if not impossible to see how an elected mayor would help to solve these problems. The biggest problem facing Copeland borough Council is financial. The vast majority of the council tax we pay goes to Cumbria County Council, on top of this the government has decimated the budget it gives to Copeland Borough Council and this austerity has led to councillors of all parties producing a budget that means that it can do little more than provide those services it must provide by law. Services on top of this, public toilets, the civic hall, communal gardens…all have been victims of this cash crisis.

But it’s your choice; your decision.

One change that would make a difference, would help to raise money and would help to solve the problems facing our community is the creation of a Whitehaven town council. But at the referendum, you will not be asked your view on a Whitehaven town council, only whether you would like to see an elected mayor or not.

Confused? You should be.

A town council would be able to raise money – somewhere between £200 -£300,000 per year. That money could and should (it wouldn’t be down to me) be used to look after the town centre, provide public toilets, flower beds and more. It’s straightforward common sense.

Better than that, for those of you who cry out for a group of people committed to representing the community rather than a political party, town councils are rarely party political; most aren’t even partly political. And best of all, town councillors aren’t paid.

I’ve been asked if I’d like to be Mayor…the answer is ‘no, thanks’. Whether we have a Mayor or not is up to you, but a Whitehaven town council is a much better proposition in every way. And finally, spare a thought for Cllr Geoff Garrity – the ‘Austerity Mayor’- and his wife Sandra. As I understand it, they’ve received very little support from Copeland Borough Council (certainly far less than previous mayors) whilst raising thousands of pounds for charity in the process over this last year. That’s public service and they deserve commendation.

Change can be good and also inevitable. So let’s make sure we get the right change, let’s have a town council for Whitehaven.

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