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Saturday, 20 December 2014

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Hundreds back campaign for directly-elected Carlisle mayor

Hundreds of people have given their names to kickstart a campaign for Carlisle to get a directly-elected mayor.

MP John Stevenson is leading a push for a referendum to be held to decide whether the city should get a new political leader – the same role Boris Johnson has in London.

The Conservative is convinced that the shake-up would be better for the people and could form part of a package of wider reforms to revitalise local government in Cumbria and cut costs across the board.

But he faces heavy opposition from key Labour Party figures, including the city council’s leader, Colin Glover, and Lee Sheriff, the councillor vying to steal his seat at next year’s general election.

They argue that the move makes no sense with holding a referendum a waste of money. Mr Stevenson has spent part of the summer laying the foundations for his elected mayor campaign, gathering the first signatures for a petition that could lead to a referendum at places including the Cumberland and Dalston agricultural shows. That tally sits at between 400 and 500 so far. He would need 4,200 signatures to trigger a referendum.

The MP, however, says the campaign is gathering momentum.

“To get 4,200 signatures is quite a challenge. We’ve decided it will be a gradual, rather than a big push process,” Mr Stevenson said.

He has been asking questions on whether people think there should be a directly-elected mayor as part of surveys of constituents.

And while admitting responses show many people are against the move, Mr Stevenson says there are many who remain unsure. It’s these people that he and his campaigners hope to convince to support change. He added: “It’s down to explaining to people what the role would mean and explaining what an elected mayor could do. People can make their judgement from that. That’s why I want a referendum to help the people of Carlisle decide.”

Mr Stevenson would like a referendum held on the same date as the general election in May, arguing to do so would make holding the ballot more cost effective and likely to mean a bigger turnout from voters.

To do that, his petition is likely to need to reach its signature target by February. The push for elected mayors in Cumbria was boosted by the success of the Time for Change campaign, which saw a 7,000 majority in support of a mayor for Copeland to replace council leader Elaine Woodburn and her ruling executive. It’s looking increasingly likely that ballot will be held on general election day.

Mr Stevenson argues that a directly-elected mayor, who people recognise as being responsible for their area, would streamline the decision-making process.

He argues that having a figurehead would also be better were the two-tier council system currently governing Cumbria – where district councils are responsible for some services and the county council others – to be scrapped and replaced by possibly two unitary authorities – something he is among the key advocates for.

“There is growing recognition that councils have to change. The days of having 54 councillors has passed, just as time has passed for having two councils,” Mr Stevenson said. “A referendum is a way of trying to get people involved in local government, something that is sometimes sadly neglected.”

Mr Glover confirmed the Labour-led authority has no plans to call a referendum on the issue.

“To go for a directly elected mayor while we have two tiers of local authority is ridiculous.”

Ms Sheriff added: “This is not a pressing issue for the people of Carlisle. They have more pressing issues to worry about – the cost of living, things like that.

“The big thing for me is the expense of it – the expense of having a referendum on something that people don’t seem that interested in.”

Although Carlisle has a mayor – Labour’s Steven Bowditch – the role is purely ceremonial, with the city council being led by Mr Glover, selected as leader by his party members and his executive.

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