Tuesday, 1 May 2012

The Nottingham Post elected Mayor debate and other distractions

I went along last night to the Nottingham Playhouse and listened, along with about 200 other people, to what the 'yes' and 'no' protagonists had to say for themselves. The report is the Post today was fair and, if anything, surprisingly bland. I made my own notes and offer my own take on what was said and what I thought of the four speakers.

To deal with the latter first. I felt the 'yes' speakers performed better than the 'no' speakers and I particularly warmed to Issan Ghazni, Chairman of Nottingham Liberal Democrats. Graham Chapman coped well with periodic outbursts of frustration from 'yes' supporters in the audience who, thanks to a good chairman in the shape of Charles Walker from the Nottingham Post, never got out of hand. Mick Newton from the Nottingham 'Yes' Campaign seemed overwhelmed and hesitant at times. Tony Eggington, the present elected Mayor of Mansfield was on the stage in the absence of a comparable Nottingham politician willing to speak in support of the 'yes' argument (why else bring an outsider into what is, essentially, a city matter?). Eggington has all the bearing of someone used to being the centre of attention and was the first to turn on another member of the panel.

I think it fair to say the arguments were well rehearsed and little new was said, although I did leave thinking the Post had been given their headline from a heated exchange between a businessman in the audience and Chapman. In fact they went with a very tame headline in the Kindle edition and on their website: 'Complex issues in debate behind the simple Yes and No'. All I intend to add is what caught my attention during the debate.

to be continued later... as I now have to go and do dinner.

In the meantime, some pics from the park on this very wet and cold 1st May, which I took at about 5pm when I went to lock up the toilets and park pavilion.

A lone runner blurred by the rain which was lashing my camera in an otherwise deserted Lenton Recreation Ground…

…except for the tail enders in the pavilion who had been working on part of a huge inflatable artwork in the company of other local residents. Kim and Emily, who work for Nottingham based Architects of Air, which was founded in 1981, hold part of the work aloft against the backdrop of a paper template. I just had time to snap this pic as they were packing things away at the end of a busy afternoon. The completed structure, called a 'luminarium', will be in nearby Highfields Park, 2–10 June, as part of an event being organised by the Lakeside Arts Centre.

Now, back to the mayoral debate last night. The main argument of the 'yes' campaign was succinctly summed up by Mick Newton: 'Having  and elected mayor primarily gives the right to choose who leads Nottingham to voters — not a group councillors'.  Issan Ghazni immediately made the point that having an elected mayor would impact on an area greater than just the city; that city councillors would lose their powers and we have no idea as to what powers the new mayor will have.

Sometime was spent arguing over 'no' campaign claims that an elected mayor will cost Nottingham £1million over a number of years and, in fairness to Mick Newton, I thought he did have a point when he said 'The 'no' campaign has sensationalised the cost of a mayor and (had) pulled the £1million cost out of thin air because it made a good headline'. Even if they did, it remains a good argument and anyone watching the regional East Midlands TV news will have heard and seen all the arguments about the cost of their elected mayor and his deputies. Eggington, however, claimed that 'The cost of a mayor in Mansfield in 2012 is actually cheaper than the cost of a council leader and cabinet ten years ago.

When you elect a mayor you get one person who then picks a number of paid helpers. With councillors you get a team who choose a leader and a pool of colleagues to work with that person.

Chapman referred to his professional experience of working with elected mayors who had been less than successful in a string of English towns and cities. He named North Tyneside, Hartlepool, Doncaster, Stoke-on-Trent and Torbay. He made the point that Nottingham 'punches above its weight' in terms of attracting inward investment and that this had been achieved under the present system.

Eggington told the audience that 'The role of Chapman in Mansfield has been to disrupt the working of the Council' and added that 'the mayors who failed in Doncaster and Stoke were Labour mayors'. As Chapman pointed out this was not true — one was an English Democrat and the other an Independent.

Issan Ghazni made a telling observation when he said 'We're sleep walking into a crisis… The London mayoral model is very different (it covers all the London Boroughs) and comes with a  assembly to scrutinise the work (and policies) of the mayor'. He added that in Japan such assemblies could dismiss mayors, but if they did this they would trigger not just an election for a new mayor, but a new assembly as well'.

Charles Walker, the debate's chairman, referred to the fact that when the Nottingham Post went out and about on Monday asking people what they thought, the question of Nottingham's boundary came up more than once and asked the panel for their views. Newton was in favour of extending the city's boundaries, as was Ghazni, who added that 'This is why this is the wrong time to be electing a mayor'. Eggington took the view that boundaries should not restrict a mayor from doing his job, whilst Chapman said 'I cannot see the outer areas agreeing (to a Greater Nottingham)… It's not really an issue as we already work well with the County and meeting regularly with Derby and Leicester city councils'.

At about this point an irate 'businessman' (his own description) in the audience stood up and shouted that Chapman had told a meeting of city business leaders recently that when meeting other European city leaders he had described himself as 'a mayor', at which point the 'no' members of the audience howled at Chapman in derision.  Chapman, over the din, admitted that that was what had been said and that he had also explained why. Put simply, most European cities have mayors with similar powers to leading councillors in Nottingham, but they find it difficult to comprehend the way we work.

It was this outburst and exchange which I expected to see turned into a headline by the Nottingham Post, but they chose to ignore it in their press report*.   As it happens I fully understood why Chapman and his colleagues used the analogy with a mayor. During my time as a councillor, albeit a long time ago, I chaired two regional authorities for a good few years and found myself on more than one occasion being whisked through customs, into a waiting Mercedes with police out-riders and given five-star treatment. I have sat in the royal box at La Scala, Milan, and have the audience rise to applaud me and my wife as we entered. I spent an idyllic few days in Norway and Sweden, travelling between the two countries in a private railway carriage fit for a king and all because on every occasion my hosts in these countries thought that I was a 'regional minister'. The failure of Chapman's critic to understand how and why the situation he so deplored came about simply revealed his ignorance and Chapman's pragmatism.

Towards the end there was a discussion about how the 'yes' and 'no' campaigns were being funded. Mick Newton simply blustered a few feeble words about how their campaign was funded by 'private donors', all from Nottingham and he had to respect their privacy — this coming from the person who attacked the City Council for not publishing details of all items of expenditure over £500 was a less than satisfactory response.

Chapman said that the 'no' campaign was being paid for by Labour city councillors, who contribute c10% of their allowances to the Party. If only I had had such a chance when I was on Birmingham City Council and Nottinghamshire County Council. I would have paid gladly.

Then it all came to an end with each speaker having a final minute to speak. Nothing new was said and the debated ended at 7.15pm. I'm glad I went.

Come Friday we'll know the outcome of it all, but somehow I feel as if this is the beginning of change in Nottingham. The governance of our great city is an issue which needs attention and debate. 

Ultimately, Labour's undoing in Nottingham will be its failure to give attention to the seemingly inconseqential issues. Every week I listen to the 'vox pop' of elderly bowlers and local historians. Frustration and a sense of powerlessness feed an unhealthy cynicism of local politics. As for Labour's active opponents I know and talk to, there is a bitterness creeping in that I have not heard before. I say this as a lifelong Party member. You could hear it in the audience at the Post's mayoral debate in the Playhouse last night.

*FOOTNOTE: The Nottingham Post used the story on 2 May 2012 (the eve of the mayoral referendum) and said 'Mr Chapman's comments prompted laughter in the audience of up to 200 people'. Not my interpretation — I don't think his opponents in the audience thought his remarks funny at all. 

International news today:
Russian police have arrested 17 gay rights activists at a May Day rally in St Petersburg. Members of the group were detained while trying to unfurl rainbow flags at a rally organised by opposition groups, activists said. Police said they were to be charged with failing to co-operate with officers.

National news today: 
Rupert Murdoch is "not a fit person" to exercise stewardship of a major international company, a committee of MPs has concluded, in a report highly critical of the mogul and his son James's role in the News of the World phone-hacking affair.

More than 4,500 pupils were off school again yesterday as members of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) went on strike for the third time over the city council's plan for a five-term year.

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