Stoke-on-Trent is the only city in the UK to try the elected mayoral system and then reject it. Neil Elkes spoke to Roger Ibbs, a former Conservative councillor in the Potteries who stood for the post of mayor and then campaigned to remove it.
The last decade has been a time of political turmoil and chaos for local government in Stoke-on-Trent.
In 2002 it was one of the first councils to go for an elected mayor following a referendum. In common with many mayoral authorities in the north of England it had been dominated by an at times dysfunctional Labour Party – beset with squabbles and in-fighting.
Stoke was also unique as the only one to choose the now discredited mayor and council manager model – with all executive power shared by the mayor and chief executive. No cabinet.
The first term of independent mayor Mike Woolfe was characterised by open hostility with the city council, and often deadlock.
Labour’s Mark Meredith won the second mayoral election and his term saw bridges built and a cabinet of all parties created to share power.
By then the Democracy4Stoke campaign was up and running and it was only a matter of time before the referendum to scrap the mayor was secured and a vote of 21,231 to 14,592 on a 19 per cent turnout backed a return to the council leader.
As Conservative group leader in Stoke throughout much of this time, and runner up to Meredith in the 2005 mayoral election, Roger Ibbs, who held a cabinet post during Meredith’s term, is well placed to comment on Stoke’s experience and issue words of warning to Birmingham.
He was also involved a major scandal over the closure of the Dimensions Swimming Pool, arrested in controversial circumstances then later exonerated. He also resigned from the Conservative Party and is now an independent politician.
“My advice is be very careful of an elected mayor. If you pick the right person it could work, if not you are in for years of chaos. I am not in favour of elected mayors.”
He said Stoke sleepwalked into a mayoral system which was more suited to smaller boroughs, not big cities.
“I don’t think anybody knew what they were voting for, this system placed a lot of power in the hands of the council manager.”
On one occasion the council manager sparked protests from councillors who had agreed to sell the council’s stake in the Britannia Stadium.
He allowed the club to pay in three annual interest-free instalments, delaying money which councillors wanted ploughed into local regeneration projects.
Mr Ibbs said councillors were generally better at picking a leader.