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Page last updated at 10:06 GMT, Monday, 22 February 2010
Doncaster's political history: from Donnygate to mayor

By James Vincent
Political reporter, BBC Radio Sheffield

Talk politics in Doncaster and within about 30 seconds someone will mention 'Donnygate'. The phrase was coined over a decade ago with 20 former councillors guilty of expenses fraud. People still use it now when they remember being let down by their politicians. The problem is that the reputation has never fully recovered.

The Mansion House in Doncaster town centre
The Mansion House in Doncaster town centre

The elected mayoral system offered a way out. It was a new, streamlined, accountable model of democracy, designed to drag the town out of the mud and to attract badly-needed money to improve the town's network of former pit villages.

A New Labour idea, it was seemingly the perfect way to draw a line under 'Donnygate' and gave the party the chance to have a Labour Mayor for labour people.

On the 20th September 2001 Doncaster decided it was for them. Only a quarter of people voted in the postal ballot but it was enough to make Doncaster the first metropolitan borough council to sign up for the idea.

Do people care who runs their council, as long as it is run well? It was a change at the top that went unnoticed by many. But this was a massive political experiment to hand power over to one directly elected politician. People like moaning about their council; now they had one man to aim at. Whoever the first mayor would be, they would be the personification of the council.

Doncaster's first elected mayor, Martin Winter
Doncaster's first elected mayor, Martin Winter was in office from 2002 to 2009

In 2002 Martin Winter became that first mayor and Labour had got their man in. His time in the Mansion House saw big new developments. An airport, stadium, college and shopping centre all popped up. Supporters of the mayoral system say that was down to the new way the council could make fast decisions, attracting money from government and the private sector.

Not everyone agreed. Big, new, shiny developments were not bread and butter council services. What was the priority? Councillors felt they were left in the cold. Not needed to make decisions, they started a campaign to get rid of the man and the system.

But because of that system, the campaign made no difference and the mayor was untouchable. In March 2007 11,000 people signed a petition calling for the mayoral system to be thrown out and Mr Winter saw a series of votes of no confidence go against him. He even fell out with his own party. He was expelled from Labour for setting up on his own as an independent. Not even this could force a change at the top.

Then came the crisis in Doncaster's Children's Services department, and the end for Martin Winter. Seven vulnerable children had died in the town since 2004 and several of the reports into those deaths found serious failings by the council and other agencies.

The mayor was not blamed in the reports but as the man at the top, people were aiming for him. In March 2009 Martin Winter said Councillors had been using the issue to damage him and the mayoral system. He said the deaths happened "on my watch" and would not be seeking re-election that summer.

What happened next, nobody could have predicted. As the MPs expenses scandal took levels of apathy and anger to new levels, former teacher Peter Davies was elected for the English Democrats in June 2009. Just 350 votes from an electorate of over 200,000 secured him the victory.

Labour were roundly beaten, none of the traditional big three got close. Mr Davies' ideas to cut funding for translation services and the annual gay pride march caused controversy, and many councillors are still trying to block his decisions.

Doncaster's elected mayor (2009- ), English Democrat Peter Davies
87% of people in our survey could not name Doncaster's current mayor, English Democrat Peter Davies

Doncaster will get another chance to decide whether this is the system for them. A referendum is promised in 2011. The majority of people in our survey want to get rid of it, but many think Doncaster has become a better place to live since the mayoral experiment began.

No doubt there are still big problems. A rating as one of the worst councils in the country, and a children's service still being run by the government does not make it look like a good place to live.

'Donnygate' was a long time ago, but there is still a feeling that people are being let down by their politicians. Do people care who is running their council as long as things are being run well? The last question in our survey was 'Can you name your elected mayor?' 87% could not.


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