No elected mayor for Calderdale – the least worst option

Calderdale council decided this week to say no to an elected mayor for the borough. When consulted, Hebden Royd Town Council also supported the view that a leader elected by the council was the lesser of two evils. I spoke in favour of that option, and would like to explain why.

Firstly, neither of the options is particularly attractive as they both put a large amount of power in the hands of one person, but central government is forcing us to choose one or the other.

However, many people have spoken out in favour of an elected mayor, saying that it is (i) democratic and (ii) what the people of Calderdale want. I would like to explain why I disagree with both of those points.

Would an elected mayor be more democratic? Well, superficially yes, giving every voter in Calderdale the opportunity to choose who runs the borough sounds more democratic. However, for me, democracy is about both representation and accountability. An elected mayor delivers representation, but once elected, there is no way of holding him or her accountable to the wishes of the people. Essentially, he or she would have carte blanche to do whatever they like for their period of office. On the other hand, a leader elected by the council can be removed by the council, so they can’t go out of control without facing up to the consequences.

But shouldn’t we ask the people of Calderdale what they think? Of course – and the council has done exactly that, in a consultation that I believe was flawed. I’ve dug my copy of the document out of the recycling (see picture) and although it gives a reasonably balanced picture of the two options, there is no kind of questionnaire that could be analysed statistically. All responses had to be written in the responder’s own words. No boxes to tick at all. However, the council somehow analysed the responses into six rather arbitrary categories. For example, the distinction between “option 1 – indirectly elected leader” and “opposed to an elected mayor” is rather subtle, since they essentially amount to the same thing. What does come across clearly, though, is that only 47% of people were in favour of an elected mayor on a turnout of approximately 1% of the borough’s households. That is clearly not a ringing endorsement.

At Hebden Royd, myself and others – including Labour councillors – expressed frustration at the imposition of this situation by the New Labour government. So much for local people making their own decisions. But, given that we have to opt for one of the choices, going with a leader elected by the council is clearly the least worst option.

In London with Nick Clegg

Chris Sawer with Hilary Myers and Nick Clegg

Last week a group of us from Calder Valley went on a day trip to London to The Wave climate change protest. It involved getting the first train out of Hebden Bridge in the morning, and the last train back in the evening, but was a great trip for several reasons.

Firstly, the train down was organised by the Co-op, and apart from being very cheap, was full of others going to the protest so there were balloons galore, plenty of banter, and leafleters for every environmental campaign going wandering up and down the train. Not to mention some great musicians.

Secondly, we arrived at the protest at the same time as Nick Clegg, and we grabbed the chance of a quick chat with him about the campaign in Calder Valley. It was great to meet up with Lib Dems from all over the country to hear Nick’s speech, along with those of Susan Kramer and Simon Hughes. I recognised many faces from conference, and chatted to some new people too.

It was extremely important that we put pressure on the government ahead of the Copenhagen summit to make it clear that if we don’t do something drastic about CO2 emissions pretty soon, it will be too late for millions of people around the world – most of them in the poorest countries – who will die as a result of flooding, crop failures, or wars caused by the mass migration that will result.

In the light of recent speculation about e-mails at the University of East Anglia, it was also important to have a big demonstration to be shown on the news, and keep people informed that global warming is real, and that we must do something about it. It is clear that the overwhelming scientific consensus backs the hypothesis that the planet is heating up because of the greenhouse gases, principally CO2, that mankind is pumping into the atmosphere at ever increasing rates. There are a few sceptics, of course – critical thinking is essential for good science to be separated from bad – but pretty much everyone who has actually studied in a related area has come to the same view.

One analogy I heard and rather liked is that you’re about to get on a plane, and suddenly the pilot and an aeronautic engineer come running out and tell everybody not to get on board as the plane is too dangerous to fly. A vet and a dentist stroll to the front, announce that everything’s ok, and get on board. Who would you trust?

The march itself passed off well, although it was a bit slow getting started so it was more-or-less dark by the time we actually got to parliament. It was hard to get an idea of how many people were there, but estimates ranged from 20,000 to 40,000 which is not bad for a cold December day. I had my home-made Calder Valley Lib Dem placard, which attracted comment from a number of people.

One week on, I think Ed Miliband is doing a reasonable job in Copenhagen. Not as good as Simon Hughes would do, of course, but not too bad considering. I just hope he is able to persuade the other industrialised countries that it is our responsibility to lead on this issue. I know that China are building huge numbers of coal-fired power stations, but they’re only following our example. We led the industrial revolution in this country. Now it’s time for us to lead the green revolution too.

Why start this blog?

I moved to Hebden Bridge exactly two years ago today. When I moved, I would never have predicted that I’d be elected to the Town Council in less than a year, become chair of the local branch of Liberal Democrats, and campaign organiser for our Parliamentary candidate.

One of the things that frustrates me most about the Town Council is how little the community know and appreciate about what we do. All the councillors are volunteers, and (apart from the mayor) receive no allowances. Most of us give up lots of evenings to attend meetings and events, occasionally at our own expense. The media don’t seem interested – the local newspaper print our press releases more or less verbatim, and the local news website report what we do occasionally, but I have never seen a journalist at any of our meetings, not even the budget meeting where we decide how much council tax to collect from residents. Our annual ¬†turnover is around a quarter of a million pounds, hardly small change.

I have done my best to keep in touch with my own ward through Focus leaflets (which I’ve paid for), but they are expensive, slow to deliver, and only cover a small part of the council area. I’m hoping this blog will provide more information on what we do on a vaguely regular basis to whoever is interested. I’ll also comment on national issues that catch my eye, or that I have some involvement with.

Assuming that I follow my plan to publish articles once a week or so, and don’t just give up in boredom, I will begin to publicise the blog in early 2010. Readers’ comments are welcome!