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FEATURES - FIVE GO ON A BIG ADVENTURE

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A waste of money or a force for good?...
A waste of money or a force for good?

How have those trail-blazing mayors fared since they were elected in May? Suzanne Simmons-Lewis and Jon Hanlon tested the water in five of the first

seven mayoral seats

When voters in the north-east elected a monkey and Robocop as civic leaders, MPs urged ministers to drop the mayoral project before it became an even bigger joke than it already was. But the government will not be deterred and by next Friday three more elected mayors will be putting on their chains of office.

Again, a motley collection of candidates faces the public and the government could face the nightmare of seeing a newspaper proprietor (Bedford), a BNP member (Stoke) or even a left-wing journalist (Hackney) seize power.

Newham

Sir Robin Wales knows all about raising the profile of politicians after starring in an advert for The West Wing, but says being mayor has brought more tangible results for residents.

Becoming mayor of Newham LBC was not such a great change for Sir Robin (Lab) or for his east London electorate because he was already leader of the staunchly Labourite borough.

He points out that one of his main achievements is progress with choice-based lettings. But as he first raised the issue in 1984 it is difficult to tell whether progress in Newham owes anything to having an elected mayor.

He says: 'The problem I have is that I was already in post so it is not so easy to see the difference. Lots of the specific differences have been internal. The mayor's office is running, we have carried out a review of our strategic direction and we are looking to join things up.

'Having a mayor has given us the ability to work. We have job descriptions for cabinet members and mayoral advisers. We are finalising agreement of their objectives, reviewing all their different areas and bringing together priorities. In addition to this, it's business as usual.'

As well as ensuring the machinery of local government is ticking over, Sir Robin has a fierce loyalty to those he represents both as mayor of Newham LBC and as chair of the Association of London Government.

He recently castigated pop star Madonna for her comments in Vanity Fair magazine on London's

council housing.

Sir Robin says: 'If local authorities had Madonna's housing budget to spend on every tenant, council homes could look very different. I am sure the material girl's comments on other people's homes have offended thousands of Londoners.'

As mayor, one of his main achievements has been cutting back on the number of dumped cars in the borough by taking on the responsibility for untaxed cars. The number is half what it was 18 momths ago. There has been a 28% reduction in the number of cars set on fire.

He says: 'We have developed a new sense of direction. As well as agreeing priorities with cabinet members and mayoral advisers, we are carrying out more direct engagement with the public. We have moved quickly on this. Listening to people is the big thing.'

Sir Robin asks residents to identify three policy areas which concern them most. Residents can choose from a range of issues including tackling crime, council house repairs, cleaner streets, services for the elderly, affordable housing and sport, leisure and entertainment services. The mayor then writes to residents informing them of progress in the three most popular issues.

He adds: 'We have a soap box where people can speak for three minutes and I will listen.'

Despite recently breaking his leg playing football with his son, Sir Robin has been working hard to make sure the first few months as mayor go some way towards beginning the process of change.

He says: 'Internal communications are being revamped and a number of key officers are about to take a much more active role, focusing on making sure we have got the processes right and the right plans are in place. We need to keep the things we have got and meanwhile pull together to work more strategically and corporately.'

Watford

Watford BC's Liberal Democrat mayor Dorothy Thornhill has a difficult task. She says she has inherited a council in crisis, but an improvement plan agreed with the Audit Commission could herald a turnaround.

A recent report from the commission was highly critical. The council had an 'unmanageable set of priorities and has failed to significantly improve its poorly performing services. Performance management is poor.'

It is one of the worst performing councils in the country and has 'an inflated view of how well it is performing', according to commissioning inspector Nigel Smith.

Ms Thornhill has written to all staff outlining plans to get the council's finances back on track. Job losses are expected and chief executive Alan Clarke is to be made redundant (LGC, 10 October).

In a letter to staff she explains the changes: 'As we now have a full-time mayor and salaried portfolio holders, I feel it is not compatible to have a chief executive in addition to these roles.'

A 'change manager' is to replace Mr Clarke. Along with these changes, Ms Thornhill is making a concerted effort to make the council more accountable.

Two other small changes mean the words 'way ahead' will be dropped from the council's logo and staff titles and department names are to be changed. For example, the quality of life department is to become development and environment. The letter hints at wider changes. It says: 'I have no doubt that the next 12 months will be tough. I will try to ensure everyone is treated fairly and equally and I will be keeping in constant touch with Unison.'

Previously a head teacher, Ms Thornhill is finding the pace of change in local government very slow. She says: 'A decision to completely change the way of working in a department can be tortuous. I cannot understand why some things take so long. A lack of capacity at the organisation may be the reason.'

Her work as mayor so far has been too focused on internal working, she says, although residents are always keen to stop her in the street to discuss their concerns and the number of letters received by the council has increased 'phenomenally' since she took over.

As well as raising the profile of the council, Ms Thornhill says she has powers which extend beyond other models of local government.

'I feel I have a powerful mandate a leader wouldn't have, and I am able to offer a clear impetus to change. The problems I face are there in black and white.'

One other mayor expresses something close to envy that Ms Thornhill faces such a clear challenge to resolve well-documented problems, while others see it as an unenviable task. Either way, she is determined to fulfil the role for which she was elected - to rectify the crisis at Watford DC.

Hartlepool

Hartlepool BC's mayor Stuart Drummond is famous for being the man in the monkey suit from the football club - but his election and subsequent success raise some serious questions about politics in local government.

Mr Drummond does not speak the language of local government - he does not once mention capacity building or modernisation.

He is keen to move on from his days as a mascot at Hartlepool Town FC and insists it was only a gimmick

to get him noticed by the electorate.

Mr Drummond lists his major achievements as setting up a skateboard park and keeping the sports centre open.

He says: 'I have absolutely no experience in politics

or local government but I have sat back and taken everything in. There's a lot of jargon, but I'm not using it.'

Supported by a team of capable officers, Mr Drummond has made a number of brave decisions.

He has selected a cabinet consisting of members from Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives and independents, saying 'I am sure everyone will work for the benefit of the town.'

In what may not be seen as a controversial decision, he is going to scrap the mayor's ball, a traditional charity event, and replace it with a pro-celebrity football match.

A move that has caused some upset locally. He says: 'The mayor's ball was a very elitist, exclusive event and it only raised about£100. I'm going to replace it with a pro-celebrity football match at Hartlepool Town FC which should raise more money.'

If scrapping the ball got members' backs up, then Mr Drummond's decision to cut the number of councillors from 47 to 33 has been received with even more hostility.

The mayor carried out a public consultation on whether the number of councillors should be reduced to just two in each ward and decided there was justification in significantly reducing the number of councillors. The consultation resulted in 450 letters supporting his plans and fewer than 10 against. It is estimated sacking 14 councillors would save around£70,000 a year.

The mayor's plans to cut the number of councillors by a third were agreed by the cabinet, which forwarded its response to the boundary committee for England.

The cabinet's submission says: 'The proposals are based on a belief that the council's functions are capable of being discharged by a body of members significantly smaller than its present complement of 47 plus the elected mayor.'

The boundary commission's findings are expected this month but committee chair Pamela Gordon has already said electoral arrangements in Hartlepool need changing.

Mr Drummond is writing to other mayors to gain support for his plans to cut the number of councillors and is encouraging them to do the same. He says he has been able to keep the local sports centre open and make other improvements in the town by making savings on councillors' expenses.

Mr Drummond has spent a night on duty with the local police and joined binmen on their rounds. He is seen as enthusiastic and honest and has a level of popularity which many other politicians can never hope to achieve.

Middlesbrough

When Middlesbrough voters chose Ray 'Robocop' Mallon, some hailed it as a victory for common sense, while others said it was a sad indictment of modern politics.

But the dust has settled and a one-day event organised by the New Local Government Network and the Improvement & Development Agency last month has provided an opportunity for reflection on what the future holds for Middlesbrough Council.

The emphasis in Middlesbrough is very much on avoiding rhetoric and improving front-line services. People in Middlesbrough town centre reveal this was why Mr Mallon was elected rather than candidates from the mainstream political parties.

Retired carpet fitter Roy Burgess said: 'He is a man of the people. People in Middlesbrough are tired of litter in the streets and rising crime. Ray Mallon is working class and represents people far more than any politician. Most people can see through politicians. They are in it for themselves rather than the good of the community.'

This sentiment is echoed throughout the town, and council policy seems to reflect these priorities through schemes to reduce crime, rehabilitate drug addicts and offenders and reduce litter in parks and streets.

Regeneration, housing and culture corporate director Andy Snowden highlights this during a tour of the town: 'A number of people feel that if they didn't drop litter they would be putting a large section of the council workforce out of work. We need to change this sort of thinking.'

There is an overriding feeling that Mr Mallon is at least attempting to deliver on his law and order promises.

Metal fences are being erected around the town to create gated communities, and money is being provided for more perimeter fences and upgrades to security systems at homes and businesses.

Measures to reduce crime and the fear of crime go hand in hand with youth inclusion. Among the barbed wire and searchlights are innovative projects - such as the work of a drugs co-ordinator who spent the first few days of the project walking the streets to meet people affected by drugs in some of the most run-down communities.

He said: 'The future of Middlesbrough has a lot to do with perception. It's about how people feel aboutMiddlesbrough and how they feel about themselves.'

Another delegate said: 'Local people seem to be taking more control over what's happening in their area. There is always more than one way of achieving citizen engagement.'

If, as pointed out by Mr Snowden, 'our biggest challenge is to change aspirations and involvement levels', it seems Mr Mallon is doing a good job.

There is a young mayor and youth parliament, made up of people aged 11 -16. The youth parliament has a project team to develop facilities for young people and advise on sports and recreation.

The young mayor has even recruited an executive board in the same way as Mr Mallon - by interviewing candidates and choosing his favourites.

One delegate from Middlesbrough Council said: 'One of Ray Mallon's favourite pastimes is moving people on when they are making a lot of noise, but not necessarily causing trouble.'

His tactics may be seen as simplistic and populist by some but he seems to be winning the early battle for the hearts and minds of the people of Middlesbrough.

Lewisham

On the surface, nothing much has changed since Steve Bullock became the first elected mayor of Lewisham LBC.

There have been no headlines in the national papers about massive changes, the chief executive is not about to get the boot, and there hasn't been a massive cull of councillors or any dramatic budget cuts.

Mr Bullock's election in the safe Labour seat was predictable and ruffled few feathers. If he hadn't won, it would have been a 'political earthquake', he says.

Behind the scenes, the mayor is laying a foundation for improvements he expects to come to fruition by the end of his term in office.

Mr Bullock is adamant there will be no quick fixes in his plans. He says there have been no notable changes because 'that's not the way I work'.

He explains: 'I never set out to come in here on day one and change things. I set out to take the council in a particular direction where I believe that by the end of my term people will see change. I have never been a great believer in turning things on their head and saying this is a different place now - it clearly isn't.'

He adds: 'Lewisham is a council with a lot of strengths and very able members and officers. I am building on those strengths and refocusing the council's attention on certain things.'

His long-term plans include stabilising the council's finances, improving the environment and reducing the fear of crime. Sorting out serious budget problems in social services and building schools has taken his more immediate attention.

'Improving the way we deliver public services and the way the community participates in civic life are things you do not get quick fixes for,' says Mr Bullock.

One of the main reasons Mr Bullock stood for mayor was the frustration he experienced when he was council leader. Before the election, he recalls: 'The decision-making process almost didn't happen and things didn't get done. A mayor will be more decisive and accountable.'

Since occupying the hot seat, Mr Bullock concedes that some decisions remain a long-winded affair.

'There are things that could have got caught up in a long process that I have been able to cut through and say do this or that. But there are other big things where we cannot proceed any more quickly because they are so complex and that's a frustration,' he explains.

'Although I may be ready to take a decision, there are so many factors to take into account.'

While he has taken a cautionary and comprehensive approach to his mayoral term, Mr Bullock's inclusive approach with councillors and officers will reduce the likelihood of him meeting any serious opposition concerning his lack of headline-grabbing reforms.

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