Bay's mayor is someone taking responsibility
HERE we go again. A spat between our Torbay MP Adrian Sanders and our Torbay mayor Gordon Oliver has opened up yet another debate on that familiar old subject of whether or not Torbay would be better off without a directly elected mayor.
You would think folk might have better things to do at a time like this, especially as the mayoral matter cannot be sorted until another referendum is held, which the law does not allow until the summer of 2015.
Even then, I am not so certain the electors of Torbay will be in a hurry to go back to the system they had before.
In Doncaster, where the current mayor is very far from being 'top of the pops', the electors voted in their recent referendum, against most forecasts, to keep their mayoral system.
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It seems once electors are given the power of choosing who should call the shots, they are not so keen to give that power back to their councillors.
The whole point of a mayoral system — you might say I learnt this the hard way — is when the electors fall out of love with their town hall leader, they can then give him (or her) the order of the boot.
In other places the leader of the council is elected by councillors with the de facto decision generally being made behind closed doors and based upon a lot of 'you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours' deal making, hardly the best way of getting things done.
Seven years on from adopting the mayoral system, I would suggest quite a lot has been achieved.
But let's start by looking at things which have happened which have not been to all tastes and show how having a directly elected mayor does at least provide the electorate with somebody who is accountable.
Some years ago — before we had an elected mayor — chains suddenly appeared around Paignton Green.
Nobody came forward to explain why this had happened, who had made the decision or where the money had come from.
A few years later the cross was taken down at the crematorium chapel.
Again, no formal decision appeared to have been taken, nobody had been consulted and no councillor came forward to explain things.
Quite simply, nobody was accountable and councillors — and council officers — could hide behind one another.
Now, of course, there is a bit of a furore over the covered up palm tree which adorns the gateway to Torquay.
Some are 'for', some are 'against' and the purpose of this essay is not to take sides, but simply to make the point in a mayoral system there is nowhere to hide.
The mayor has to take responsibility and explain what is going on.
What he is doing may not be universally popular but at least we have somebody in the town hall who is accountable, unlike before.
More positively, I would say Torbay has moved forward since 2005.
Torbay Council had been labelled pretty much a basket case by the Audit Commission in 2002. The 2005 referendum was held against a backdrop of councillors, having awarded themselves big increases in their allowances, then closing half the loos and setting a council tax rise so high the Government had to step in and cap it.
Less well known were the poor quality services then provided: two of our secondary schools were among the worst performing in the land; adult social care, the youth service, and the supporting people programme for the most vulnerable were all poorly judged.
Riviera Housing was simply not looking after our former council housing stock — or their tenants —, few council structures had been surveyed, never mind maintained.
I inherited a £2million projected overspend for 2005/06, a £6million black hole for 2006/07 and no useable reserves to cushion the blow.
Hardly a glowing endorsement of what had gone before.
During my term of office I was hugely proud of the improving services provided by the council, new ways of working in the public sector and the outcomes for residents of the Bay.
Crime fell substantially — this had been a huge issue in 2005 but hardly mentioned in the 2011 election —, our secondary schools are now among the most improved/top performing in the UK, the integrated model of delivery of adult social care regarded nationally as a model of best practice, re cycling rates are up dramatically, use of public transport likewise and Torbay is the only upper tier authority to register an increase in participation in certain cultural activities, such was the success of the Hirst and Gormley exhibitions.
Our public spaces have been improved, green flags awarded for parks and children's play facilities transformed throughout the Bay, not just on Paignton Green.
The Geopark accolade has really added to a sense of pride in the Bay and our English Riviera Tourism Company goes from strength to strength.
It was the icing on the cake for Torbay to be awarded from central Government £1.75million performance reward money — one of the largest payouts — towards the end of my term of office.
Hundreds of millions of pounds of investment, both public and private, has come into the Bay in recent years as a result of the Mayoral Vision and other initiatives.
We have delivered the new Fish Quay at Brixham, the Sea Change projects at Berry Head and Cockington, the infrastructure for the new business park at Whiterock, the re-build of Torquay Community College and Kings Ash School, the new Paignton Library, the restoration of the Palace Theatre, the My Place youth facility at Parkfield, the restoration of Torre Abbey, Rock Walk, the second phase of the Beacon Quay regeneration project, the Town Dock, the centre for new businesses at Lymington Road, Edginswell Business Park, five new hotels, the Dunboyne supported living complex for older people, 600-plus affordable homes, millions of pounds of highways improvements — £4million at Tweenaway alone... never mind a start on the £100million South Devon Link Road.
You might not like the mayor but having an elected mayor has made a huge difference for Torbay.