Is there something in the water that has for years given Doncaster MBC such acrimonious local politics? The rest of local government has watched in wonder, and elected mayor Martin Winter (Ind) thinks he has enough material to write a thriller when he retires after next month’s election.
The council spent the 1990s mired in the Donnygate scandals, which saw councillors convicted of fraud and some of those jailed.
Creating an elected mayoralty in 2002 appeared to offer a fresh start with Mr Winter, then still in the Labour party, the first incumbent. He had been council leader after Donnygate but had not figured in it.
Seven years on, Mr Winter is an Independent, has suffered an overwhelming vote of no confidence by councillors and was embroiled in rancorous disputes over the departure of managing director Susan Law in 2007.
Finally, in March, he had the indignity of government intervention in the council’s children’s services.
In March 2009 children’s minister Beverley Hughes sent an improvement board into Doncaster’s children’s services after a report by Lord Laming. “Serious weaknesses have been identified in Doncaster’s children’s services as a whole, and in safeguarding in particular,” she said.
This followed Oftsed’s finding in December 2008 that the service was inadequate, and a public outcry over the deaths of seven children in care.
An internal inquiry was launched in April 2009 after it emerged that councillors had not been given reports written in 2005 and 2007 that voiced concerns about the children’s service.
Some might think Doncaster a poor advertisement for the mayoral system, but the two people most likely to succeed Mr Winter think it can be salvaged.
Labour candidate Sandra Holland and independent contender Mick Maye agree with Mr Winter that many problems have resulted from councillors feeling they had no clear role in a mayoral system.
Relations between Mr Winter and the councillors became so bad that he lost a confidence vote 42-8 (LGC - 15/07/2008) though the council could not force him out.
That followed an Audit Commission public interest report on Ms Law’s departure which he said showed senior Labour councillors and council officers had conspired to remove him (LGC - 04/06/2008). He then became an Independent.
When managing director Susan Law was ousted in January 2007, Alastair Robertson, secretary of the Association of Local Authority Chief Executives, warned his members: “I do not think I could advise anyoneto touch that job with a bargepole.”
Relations between Ms Law, now chief executive of Wokingham Borough Council, and the mayor deteriorated after she called police to investigate the Glass Park regeneration project, with which he had been involved. They found no grounds for action.
In May 2008 an Audit Commission public interest report made criticism of both sides and said the pair’s breakdown in relations was “partly caused by existing tensions between the mayor and a key group of Labour councillors”, which “continue to hamper the effectiveness of the council”.
He says: “In 2002 there was a Labour mayor, council, and government. You might think that a recipe for success, but the Labour group had lost executive control of the council to the mayor and wanted it back.”
He speculates that the unresolved role of councillors was an important factor in these difficulties. “I question what
the role of councillors should be. We tried decentralisation of budgets to ward level but councillors always want to make decisions until they actually have to make them, and then when they face spending decisions and budgets they blamed me,” he says.
“There is a refusal to accept that the mayor has a mandate from the whole borough. If a mayor is decisive they get called a dictator, and if they listen to people they are accused of doing u-turns.”
The experience has led Mr Winter to oppose the government’s imposition of a limited menu of governance choices on councils.
He explains: “The problem is that the government is very control freak and says what governance councils should have.
“Some places might want mayors, some don’t, whatever they have you need a structure with accountability but I think now councils should be free to choose that structure.”
Were he seeking a third term, Mr Winter says he would “move the mayor’s office physically out of the council building to make it clear the mayor is not an old-style councillor but a strategic figure”.
He would also seek a borough budget for the whole public sector, brought together through a board chaired by the mayor, with councillors overseeing devolved budgets at neighbourhood level.
Although Mr Winter was not involved in Donnygate he feels under its shadow.
“There is an issue in the psyche of Doncaster politics. My cabinet and I went to great lengths to draw a line under Donnygate but given the background here it is very easy for people to make allegations to the police, which they have to investigate. I went through three police investigations, 13 referrals to the Standards Board [for England] and five to the Audit Commission and I was exonerated by all of them.”
Cllr Maye belongs to the Independents — the council’s second-largest group — and is supported by the Liberal Democrats, the third largest.
He finished second, with 37,308 votes to Mr Winter’s 45,742, in 2005 and if he wins would support a referendum on the mayoralty’s abolition, a course enthusiastically supported by the Lib Dems.
“Why is Winter now so unpopular?” he wonders. “I don’t know, there is probably a university somewhere running a course on how one could lose popularity in such a short time.
“A mayoralty can work if you take the party politics out of it, the problem here has been that Winter was Labour, and it kept the power for itself. I would involve councillors more closely.
“The past five years has been a lot of grandiose projects, when what people want are safe streets that are clean, and places where children can play.”
Some though have wondered why Cllr Maye seeks the mayoralty if he supports an abolition referendum. “It’s called democracy, and if that’s what the people want then it’s their choice.”
Labour contender Sandra Holland distances herself from her former colleague Mr Winter.
She says: “We have seen successful mayors [elsewhere] and I think perhaps the problem in Doncaster has been one of personality rather than the system. I think the mayor stopped listening to people and I would show I was different by listening.
“The mayoral system can work if you use the scrutiny process, involve councillors, the public and officers.
“All these issues of governance are a distraction from what people want us to get on with: children’s services, adult services and regeneration are the big priorities.”
Problems in children’s services arose, she says, from their inclusion in neighbourhood devolution. “It’s fine to have grass cutting at neighbourhood level, but children’s services need to be centralised using highly qualified staff”, she says.
The Conservative standard bearer is councillor Jonathan Wood, and there are four other candidates.
Lib Dem group leader Edwin Simpson justifies standing aside for Cllr Maye as “the best chance to get rid of Labour, and he has agreed to have a cross-party cabinet and a referendum”. He adds: “I think the mayoral system is terrible, because all the power is vested in one person and councillors’ role has been very limited.”
Doncaster is an awkward example for Chris Leslie, director of the pro-mayors New Local Government Network.
He says: “In a funny way I feel some sympathy for Martin Winter’s predicament because local civic culture was not ready for a single leader.
“There had been a tradition of senior councillors collectively setting policy, and this [led to] a classic constitutional crisis.”
Mr Winter promises “a John le Carré-style exposure of all the machinations that have gone on here”, in his book. Whoever succeeds him will do well if they can avoid similar literary ambitions by 2013.
Other Mayoral contests
Two other elected mayoral contests will take place on 4 June 2009, at Hartlepool Borough Council and North Tyneside MBC. Stuart Drummond (Ind), a monkeysuited football mascot when elected in Hartlepool
in 2002, has since become a serious politician.
He was re-elected with a landslide in 2005 with 42.2% of the vote. Seven independents challenge him, pluscandidates from the three main parties, UKIP and the BNP. North Tyneside’s first elected mayor ChrisMorgan (Con) resigned in 2003 after less than a year in offi ce when he was charged with possession of indecent images of children. He was cleared the following year.
Tory Linda Arkley succeeded him but lost in 2005 by fewer than 1,000 votes to Labour’s John Harrison.
Mr Harrison and Ms Arkley are again in the field, with opponents from the Liberal Democrats, Greens, BNP and National Front.