In search of a compromise on the Mayor’s inauguration

Painted HallPlease note this post is from my previous blog. To read my posts during the 2017 General Election campaign click here.

Last night I attended the Mayor’s inauguration in the magnificent Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College. It’s fair to say I’ll never be the kind of councillor who goes in for the pomp and ceremony that attaches itself to local democracy, which is often rather over the top – but it was an interesting experience nonetheless (the highlight being the wonderful choir from Ealdham Primary School, where I’m a governor, who had been invited by the new Mayor and Mayoress after their long-standing connection with the school. They were terrific!)

Despite the controversy that has raged over the cost of this event over the years, as a new councillor, I wanted to attend this year to make my own judgement.

For those who have never been invited (which is, let’s face it, almost everybody in the borough – on which, more later), the inauguration marks the passing of the baton of civic leadership from one Mayor to the next, in front of an audience of several hundred guests. These include the Lord Lieutenant, members of both Houses of Parliament, members of the armed forces and judiciary, the local GLA member, councillors and a host of invited community representatives, business leaders, activists and volunteers.

The hour-long ceremony hears from the outgoing Mayor (in last night’s case, Cllr Angela Cornforth), the Leader of the Council (newly-elected Labour Leader Cllr Denise Hyland) and the incoming holder of the office (Cllr Mick Hayes).  It is a non-political event (although Cllr Hyland’s talk of government cuts, in my view, skirted pretty close to injecting some overt partisanship into proceedings, as opposed to the covert variety that I’m sure is a staple) and is designed to celebrate the Mayor’s year, past and future, including the raising of money for the Mayor’s chosen charities.  The whole thing is followed by a reception in the beautiful rooms and corridors underneath the Hall.

The aforementioned controversy over the annual event rests on two points – 1) cost and 2) exclusivity. An FOI request in 2010 revealed an outrageous cost to the hard-pressed council taxpayer of nearly £30,000 – seemingly since reduced to somewhere in the region of £12-13,000 with the Old Royal Naval College now providing the venue for free. Of course, a cost to the taxpayer of anything even approaching this level is clearly unacceptable, especially in these straightened times (and certainly made Cllr Hyland’s talk of the financial constraints being imposed on the council in her speech seem rather an odd choice).  It seems totally perverse to spend £12-13,000 of taxpayer’s money celebrating the arrival of the new Mayor, one of whose main duties is to then spend the year raising funds for charity.

A compromise needs to be found to settle the matter, which to me seems as simple as drastically cutting the cost by keeping the ceremony but ditching the reception held afterwards, with its plethora of free food and drink. Last night, this part of the evening struck this open-minded observer as excessive, to say the least.

With the second charge – that the event is little more than a backslapping session, I have a little less sympathy. While it’s certainly not something I will ever be as enthusiastic about as some of my fellow councillors, the civic side of the council’s affairs is an important one.  Retaining some of the traditions that we have is a sensible means of ensuring our borough-wide community continues to cohere, and the Mayor’s inauguration should have a place in that.

The Office held by the Mayor does provide a valuable community leadership role that we should all support (as, in fact, we on the Conservative benches did by voting for Cllr Hayes’ appointment at the Annual Meeting of the council). I think it’s right that the inauguration ceremony brings together community activists, volunteers, charity workers and business representatives and that their hard work is recognised in some way.

I see no reason, however, why the ceremony has to be limited to these few residents alone.  As my friend and predecessor Nigel Fletcher argued last night on Twitter, we must involve the people of the borough in celebrating the passing from one Mayor to another – and unfortunately last night’s event did not do that.  It instead involved a small group who had been invited by the Mayor to attend, with many people who by the same measure should have had an invitation, inevitably, left out.  That’s to say nothing of members of the public at large, who are granted no access at all – understandably leaving the impression of a civic occasion held by, and for, a privileged few.

Why, instead, can we not hold a public ceremony, open to all by first-come first-serve pre-registration? That’s not to say selected individuals cannot be invited to attend personally by the Mayor in recognition of their contribution to the community – just not to the exclusion of others who, we may find, wish to take a look for themselves at one of the key events in our local democratic calendar.

Opening up the occasion to the public – and drastically cutting the cost by scrapping the reception – would be one small but significant step towards the new era of openness the new administration has promised.  Until this happens, I for one will find it difficult to attend in good conscience – and I think a growing number of others will feel the same.

Nevertheless, I wish the new Mayor (and Mayoress, with whom I have spent many a long evening at school governors’ meetings over the years) every success in the coming year.  Let’s hope that a compromise can be found in time for next year’s inauguration, so we can instead all focus on the positives of the occasion.

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