A HEATED debate over whether Newport should have a directly elected mayor took place at the city’s civic centre last night. The debate co-hosted by The Civic Society and Institute of Welsh Affairs (IWA) saw a panel of six give their views on whether or not the city would benefit from a directly elected mayor.
Directly elected mayors are local government leaders who have been directly elected by the people who live in a local authority area. A directly elected mayor is established instead of a council leader who is chosen by other councillors.
Speaking in favour of a directly elected mayor were Rob Southall, lecturer in Government and Politics at Coleg Gwent, Nick Webb, conservative parliamentary candidate for Newport West and Chris Evans, founder of Voice magazine and Labour councillor for Rogerstone.
Speaking against the proposal were Canon Rev Andrew Willie, who is chairman of the Civic Society and was vicar of St Marks Church in Goldtops for 15 years; Russell Deacon, lecturer in Government and Politics at Coleg Gwent and also the Administrative Director of the Welsh think tank Gorwel and Kevin Ward, editor of the South Wales Argus.
Dozens turned out for the debate chaired by Argus reporter Jennifer Mills, which saw each panel member put forward their views, before questions and arguments were welcomed from the floor.
Rob Southall was the first to speak on the issue.
“I feel that Newport needs a charismatic advocate,” he said.
“I think it would be so good for the city and would make it unique in Wales.”
Nick Webb said: “An elected mayor would be a powerful person.
“But the real power would be with the individual voter.”
He argued that a directly elected mayor would be positive for the city as it would re-engage the electorate.
Chris Evans also speaking in favour said a directly elected mayor would give the public someone they could hold to account and ‘bang the drum for Newport.’ “The buck stops with him or her,” he said.
”The position of elected mayor would bring about a change we all want to see, “An elected mayor would be about the vision, energy and real accountability to Newport.
“A directly elected mayor wouldn’t be able to hide when things go wrong.
“An elected mayor would have to reach out to people and would define our city.”
On the other side of the debate Canon Rev Andrew Willie argued that a directly elected mayor would not have time for the routine visits that the current mayor does and said that he believes accountability would pose a problem.
“I shudder to think what would have happened to a directly elected mayor if they had been a part of the controversy over the Chartist Mural,” he said.
While Russell Deacon argued that there would be no scrutiny if there was to be an elected mayor as a directly elected mayor would not be obligated to answer questions, and added such a mayor would not provide any more accountability than the current system.
Kevin Ward also against a directly elected mayor said a new set of elections would be too costly and argued that they would not be more accountable as many believe.
“There are lots of things that Newport needs. Another politician with even more power isn’t one of them,” he said.
“I believe there needs to be fewer, better and more able politicians.
“It is not about whether an elected mayor would be a new, shiny idea in this city because they are not.”
Mr Ward said that elected mayors are believed to be more accountable but said that people only have to look at the people of Rotherham to know that is not the case.
Mr Ward also argued that it is not as easy as it is made out to ‘get rid of’ a directly elected mayor as you cannot just get rid of a mayor before his current term and said an elected mayor will not solve the problem of voter apathy.
“I firmly believe that the way to change that is to engage people properly,” he said.
“I am not a betting man but if you call an election in Newport, I would be amazed if the turnout was higher than it was for the Police and Crime Commissioners.”