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Last Updated: Sunday, 16 October 2005, 13:18 GMT 14:18 UK
Resort pins hope on elected mayor
by Jonathan Morris
BBC News South West

Ballot box
Changes in the law have allowed directly-elected mayors
Torbay is poised to become the first local authority in the South West to have a directly-elected mayor.

Fourteen candidates are standing for the 50,000-a-year post on 20 October when the role of a council leader, elected by councillors, will end.

Supporters say an elected mayor, who will preside over a 145m budget, will give local people a stronger say in how the council is run.

Critics say the post is unnecessarily costly and could undo improvements.

Torbay will be the 12th English local authority to have a directly-elected mayor, following the 2000 Local Government Act which opened the way for local referendums on the issue.

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Former local Liberal Democrat president David Scott was one of those who called for a mayor following a series of problems at the local authority.

The council was rated as among the worst performers in the country in 2002 by the Audit Commission.

There has been a string of controversial decisions, including the closure of public toilets, councillors' pay rises and the removal of a permanent cross at Torbay Crematorium.

Torbay was one of only five local authorities to be capped last year, after setting a council tax rise of 9.9%.

It was 4.9% this year, the lowest increase the council has seen.

Torbay needs a new broom say mayoral supporters
In the July referendum, 18,074 voted for a direct-elected mayor and 14,682 voted against.

Mr Scott told BBC News: "Torbay needs a new broom and we need a leader with vision.

"At the moment the leader of the council is appointed by the biggest political group on the council and that to me is not good democracy.

"We need someone with a mandate from the entire community to push things through."

The new mayor's role - directing council policy and managing the delivery of services - will be similar to that of current council leader Chris Harris.

'Hunger for improvement'

But the council's executive, appointed by councillors and responsible for most of the day-to-day decisions, will be replaced by a cabinet, appointed by the mayor.

Despite Mr Scott's enthusiasm, the ruling Liberal Democrat group, which wrested power from the Conservatives in 2003, remains opposed to a directly-elected mayor.

It fears improvements made by the council - whose performance last year was described as "fair" - may now be put in jeopardy by the changeover.

Chris Harris
If an elected mayor is the answer, someone is asking the wrong question
Chris Harris
Mr Harris said: "We fear people have been misled about the benefits of an elected mayor.

"I don't think they are going to live up to expectations. Even if some young whiz kid wins there are huge issues to take on and there is a real hunger for improvement in Torquay."

Mr Harris, who claimed 28,000 in allowances and expenses last year, is also concerned about the costs of the mayor's office which Lib Dems estimate will be 200,000 a year, including the mayor's salary, staff salaries and administration.

"If an elected mayor is the answer, someone is asking the wrong question."

Michael Dolley, Conservative campaign manager, said: "An elected mayor requires the goodwill of all involved and it's a shame people are spreading doom and gloom.

"There are a lot of advantages in instant accountability, but whatever you may think of the principle, the people of Torbay have taken a democratic decision to elect a mayor.

"Whoever it is, we need to get behind them. Torbay is a great place, but it also has huge problems and it needs these problems sorted out."

Budget rejected

Supporters of elected mayors claim that the Torbay contest will herald a second-wave of mayoral contests around England.

Pressure is already growing for a directly-elected mayor in neighbouring Exeter where a businessman is trying to get a petition with the required 5% of the electorate.

Stuart Drummond
Stuart Drummond has shed his image as a joke candidate

Stuart Drummond, Hartlepool's first directly-elected mayor, was initially dismissed as a joke for adopting a monkey costume in his election campaign.

His first budget was twice rejected by councillors and a recent phone poll in the Hartlepool Mail found almost two thirds thought he was doing a bad job.

But the 28-year-old former credit controller has been in the 50,000-a-year post, overseeing a 150m budget for a year, and won re-election in April with a hugely increased majority of more than 10,000.

He said he was pleased with the way Hartlepool had been transformed over the past five years and took credit for part of it.

Free bananas

He points to achievements including Operation Clean Sweep - a targeting of areas for improvements by agencies including the council, police, health service and Job Centre.

Teams of 50-80 spend a week tackling everything from overgrown paths to unemployment.

Mr Drummond said: "There is nowhere to hide when you are mayor so when issues come up - even on health which is not my responsibility - people expect you to do something about it."

Mr Drummond was first elected as a joke candidate, calling himself H'angus and calling for free bananas for schoolchildren, but he has shed the costume and has enjoyed taking on the challenging role of mayor.

"My election was very high profile, and it was two or three months before people took me seriously," he said.

"But the public are now much more involved in the council, in everything from neighbourhood forums to council meetings.

"I'm now starting on my fourth budget and I already feel like an old hand."

The candidates in Torbay are: Nicholas Bye (Con); David Pedrick-Friend (Labour); Nicholas Pannell ( Lib Dem); Beverley Brennan (Ind); Bob Brewis (Ind); Susan Colley (Ind); Rob Crawford (Ind); James Grimble (Ind; Peter Middleton (Ind); James O'Dwyer (Ind); Gordon Oliver (Ind); Ian Oxley (Ind); Julien Parrott (Ind) and Marshall Ritchie (Ind).


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