Leaders clash over elected Mayor referendum

Observatory comp
Burnley Town Hall, by Peter Seavers
Observatory comp Burnley Town Hall, by Peter Seavers

A row has broken out between the leader of Burnley Borough Council and Burnley’s former MP over the possibility of a new elected Mayor for the borough.

Council leader Coun. Mark Townsend tabled a motion at the latest full council meeting to allow councillors to discuss financial and accountability concerns about the possibility of a directly elected Mayor for Burnley.

Why the leader of the Lib Dems has no concerns at all about a new £1m. politician for Burnley when the council already has to save £4m. over the coming years is a mystery.

Burnley Council leader Coun. Mark Townsend

As reported in the Burnley Express, a referendum will be held on May 4th to decide whether Burnley should have an elected Mayor to replace the current position of council leader.

Critics have described the referendum, triggered by a petition prepared by property landlord Mr Geoffrey Berg, as a waste of money.

However, former Burnley Liberal Democrat MP Coun. Gordon Birtwistle and his party colleague, the current civic Mayor of Burnley Coun. Jeff Sumner, were the only two councillors not to vote on the motion.

Coun. Townsend said: “At the December full council meeting all but two councillors, one being Mayor Coun. Jeff Sumner and the other being Lib Dem leader Coun. Gordon Birtwistle, agreed a motion expressing financial and accountability concerns about the possibility of a directly elected Mayor for Burnley.

“An elected Mayor would be an additional politician for Burnley with an estimated annual salary of £50,000 plus other add ons that could ultimately cost the Council Tax payers of Burnley more than £1m.

“Why the leader of the Lib Dems has no concerns at all about a new £1m. politician for Burnley when the council already has to save £4m. over the coming years is a mystery as he didn’t explain himself at the meeting.

“We can only assume that he believes £1m. is a price worth paying for whatever his personal agenda may be.”

Coun. Birtwistle would not be drawn on his personal opinion over an elected Mayor but said it would be up to the people of Burnley to decide on May 4th.

Should the referendum go in favour of an elected Mayor, Coun. Birtwistle has not ruled himself out of standing.

He said: “I chose not to vote on the motion because it was irrelevant. By law we have to hold a referendum and so it is up to the people of Burnley to decide.

“A number of people have asked if I would put my name forward and I haven’t ruled that out. I don’t know where Coun. Townsend is getting his figures from, I think he is plucking them out of the air. He’s upset because he might lose his position.”

However, the leader hit back and said that £1m. was “a prudent” estimate and could actually cost tax payers more.

Coun. Townsend said: “All but two councillors seemingly agree that an elected Mayor would bring issues of cost, accountability and a potential threat to our current civic Mayor role.

“I believe it’s a complete waste of money at a time when we are having to make cost-saving measures across the board. It also been triggered by Mr Berg, a Prestwich-based out-of-town landlord who was unhappy with the council.”

Burnley will hold a referendum because of a petition prepared by Mr Berg who was unhappy with Burnley Council’s Selective Landlord Licensing scheme.

That petition was signed by more than 4,000 residents, enough to trigger a referendum.

The council said it is still looking into the details, but the referendum is likely to cost around £80,000. If the referendum results in a “yes” vote, the cost of the subsequent actual election for Mayor would be approximately £110,000 followed by an annual salary over 10 years, the time an elected Mayor system would last.

Mayor Jeff Sumner told the Express he abstained from the vote because it would be inappropriate considering his position as Mayor.