Who do you want to lead our council?

Burnley Express editor Chris Daggett chairs a debate between Burnley Council leader Mark Townsend (left) and property landlord Geoffrey Berg
Burnley Express editor Chris Daggett chairs a debate between Burnley Council leader Mark Townsend (left) and property landlord Geoffrey Berg

Voters will go to the polls in less than a month’s time to decide whether they want a directly-elected, paid Mayor to run the borough council.

If the bid is backed, it would mean that the Mayor would replace the current council leader and oversee council policies and spending with the help of a Cabinet made up of councillors.

The referendum has come about after a 4,000-plus petition was collated by a Burnley property landlord.

And on Wednesday evening the current leader of Burnley Council, Coun. Mark Townsend, took part in a special Mayoral Referendum public debate with the property owner Mr Geoffrey Berg, who lives in Prestwich.

Members of the public and local politicians of all colours gathered in the Burnley Miners’ Club, Plumbe Street, for a good old-fashioned deliberation, chaired by Burnley Express editor Chris Daggett.

During the lively debate, Coun. Townsend accused Mr Berg of handing Burnley tax-payers a potential bill of £1m. over the next 10 years should the referendum go in favour of a Mayor.

The impassioned leader said: “I have been on Burnley Council since 2004 and not one person in that time has suggested we should have extra politicians.

“This is going to cost us £1m. You cannot guarantee change through having an elected Mayor.”

Mr Berg, who owns a house in the Trinity ward of Burnley, opened the debate by admitting that the council’s Selective Landlord Licensing scheme, which had been extended to Trinity, had triggered his petition, calling it “a scandal”.

His other motivation, he claimed, was that Burnley’s Council Tax rate was higher than eight neighbouring boroughs.

Mr Berg said: “I believe having a directly-elected Mayor would transfer power from a small group to the people at large. It would be a systemic change, though, not a magic potion.

“The people would be the final arbiter of who runs the council. A Mayor could appeal over the heads of the party to the electors. That would indeed be local power.”

Mr Berg then went on to elaborate his personal opposition to the landlord licensing scheme.

“From my point of view, the landlord licensing scheme is a scandal. In Trinity, it has made things go from bad to worse,” he said. “It seriously devalues homes in the area causing a vicious spiral of decline.”

But “the people” gathered at the debate took exception to Mr Berg’s attack of the scheme and of Trinity. One resident of the ward said she was personally insulted.

Coun. Townsend also disputed Mr Berg’s claim that the scheme had devalued properties by stating that in Trinity, Queensgate and Gannow transactions had gone up 16% and house prices increased by 14.5% between 2014 and 2016.

Mr Berg’s other issue, around Council Tax, was also put down by the council leader.

Coun. Townsend said: “Not one directly elected Mayor elsewhere in the country has set a lower Council Tax than Burnley. If we had the same rate as our nearest neighbours Rossendale we would have to find savings of £680,000 next year.

“Mr Berg’s argument is complete nonsense. Council Tax is worked out on Band D properties, and in Burnley we have lots of Band A houses. That is the harsh financial reality of leadership and governance.”

Burnley and Lancashire County Coun. Marcus Johnstone highlighted the borough of Copeland, which currently has an elected Mayor.

He said: “Copeland cut its Council Tax rates by having to cut services massively. One way would be to reduce the green services budget – in other words close a park.

“The idea of an elected Mayor is completely and utterly inappropriate for a district council.”

Mr Berg ended the debate by stating that an elected Mayor would be a change worth making.

He said: "Any elected Mayor would be accountable to the people and not their cronies."

Asked how he would reduce Council Tax, Mr Berg said he would reduce the number of staff employed by the council.

Coun. Townsend hit back and revealed that only 17% of Council Tax goes to Burnley Council.

He said: "I think we perform miracles. Mr Berg talks of accountability and independence, but an elected Mayor would still have to deals with councillors. Also, in my position as leader I could be replaced any time by my party.

"An elected Mayor would be there for four years, and the system would be in place for 10 years. The bottom line is that Burnley Council asked Mr Berg to be a licensed landlord and because of that he's inflicted this referendum on us.

"We all need to get back to the real work of council - more jobs, better homes and a cleaner and greener borough. I say reject this proposition on May 4th."