Debate hears both sides of argument – yet do people really understand what they’re voting for? Leeds perhaps isn’t so sure
Leeds – like some other Northern cities – has a massive decision to make this Thursday: Whether to vote in favour of an elected mayor.
The couple of hundred or so hardy souls who packed into Leeds Metropolitan University’s Rose Bowl lecture theatre were under no illusion of the enormity of this once-in-a-lifetime vote. ‘Who could Leeds’ Boris Johnson be?’ asked one before the event. Another said:
Shame Jimmy Savile’s not still around. Our Jimmy would have been just right.
My rather unscientific chats with some of the attendees before the ‘Question Time’ event held in Leeds gave the impression that many who were there had no definite idea what an elected mayor would do.
One attendee told me:
I’m tempted to vote Yes just because the existing councillors want us to vote no. They need shaking up, don’t they? Otherwise I’ve no real idea.
The debate, organised by Leeds blogger Emma Bearman of the Culture Vulture, outlined how the elected mayor would not have a ceremonial role like the current Lord Mayor, but one of strategic power – exactly how much power is yet to become clear. It’s still surprising to overhear conversations or read Tweets from people confused between the two roles.
Many who went into last night’s debate at the Rose Bowl probably had more questions than answers and thought there were pros and cons to both sides of the argument. They probably came out thinking the same thing – there are still a lot of pros and cons to consider before making a decision!
The Government has ordered Leeds and nine other cities (including Wakefield) to have a Mayoral Referendum and electors in Leeds will be asked if they want to change the way Leeds is run.
If the answer is yes, contests will be held on November 15 this year with candidates from political parties and independents all been given the chance to throw their hats into the ring.
Currently Leeds has a leader model under which the public vote for councillors who then elect a council leader. The leader is supported by an executive board, which is responsible for key services in the city.
If Leeds opts for a change, those powers will be in the hands of a mayor directly elected by the public. The mayor, who would appoint a deputy and cabinet, would serve for a four-year term
Panel members at the Leeds Question Time event included Margaret Wood, Regional Chair of the Instititute of Directors in Yorkshire; Tom Palmer, political correspondent of the Yorkshire Post; Jessica Haigh, librarian and purveyor of The Travelling Suitcase Library; Stuart Drummond – first elected mayor of Hartlepool (Independent);and Peter Connolly, head of Yorkshire Design Group & property developer.
The meeting heard that the pro-mayor lobby felt that local government was failing in the north of England and that all the powers were going to London. An elected mayor would be able to meet with influential figures like David Cameron and business leaders and secure investment and more powers in the city.
The anti lobby argues that nobody knows exactly what powers an elected mayor will have – that the role raised the spectre of power-hungry dictators accruing powers to themselves – and that councils would face a period of unnecessary upheaval at a time of austerity.
Existing local councillors spoke out against having an elected mayor. Most vocal was Labour’s Bernard Atha, who said Leeds ‘would lose elected democracy’ if it went down the elected mayoral route. He added:
If you elect a mayor you are stuck with them for three or four years, there’s no changing that. Look at what a mess Doncaster is in with their mayor. At current council elections you can change who runs the council yearly.
Fellow Labour councillor Jon Illingworth added the notion of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Stuart Drummond, who was Hartlepool United’s mascot when he was voted mayor, said Atha was talking about ‘myths’ and said an elected mayor had exactly the same powers as a current council leader. Margaret Wood observed:
The people who have most to lose are giving the most reasons to say no.
Conversely, Yes vote campaigners were accused of scaremongering when it was suggested that Leeds would miss out on investment if it didn’t have a mayor. It was argued that Manchester had been successful in attracting plenty of investment – its success was due to a number of councils in the Greater Manchester area working tightly together.
But David Israel, a fundraiser at the West Yorkshire Playhouse argued:
A mayor would win business for the city and make my life a shedload easier.
Some attendees expressed concerns that while the mayor would represent the corporate side of the city, he (or she) wouldn’t be a mayor for the people and there were concerns that one person could have too much power and be generally unaccountable. Others argued the future of governance in Leeds should be about a bottom-up approach, rather than a top-down elected mayor.
There seemed to be no general consensus from the room on whether people were in favour or not. The reaction on Twitter of attendees was divided, with many still unsure about what to vote.
This tweet from @culturevultures struck a chord:
“I can’t quite express the jumble of thoughts in my head from my recent foray into the #LeedsMayor stuff. But one thing lacking seems ‘hope’
And this post by Leeds blogger Phil Kirkby seems to sum up the mood of some in Leeds with his inspired ‘tacky gameshow’ analogy
We’ll see what Thursday brings.