New campaign sets out major shake-up of local democracy
Major changes to the way Wearside is run – including giving Washington its own council once more – are set out in a new campaign by city politicians.
Sunderland Conservatives have launched a campaign to create a new Washington Town Council and directly elected Mayor of Sunderland, which they say would improve local democracy.
Councillor Antony Mullen, leader of the Sunderland Conservatives, said his group was asking Wearsiders to put their names to two petitions in a drive to ensure “every resident’s vote counts” in the city.
“Allowing people to decide who runs the city under a system in which every person’s vote counts equally, regardless of whether they live in the city centre or the outskirts of Washington or Houghton, will restore trust in local politics,” he said.
"For the people of Washington, we are offering the chance for them to feel like decisions are made closer to home, not in the Civic Centre."
It isn’t the first time the issue of giving more powers to Washington, which some feel is left playing second fiddle to Sunderland, has been mooted in recent years.
In 2016, a petition was posted in the Restoring Washington Facebook page calling for the new town to break away from Sunderland City Council altogether, with a feeling public money was going towards Sunderland city centre and areas closer to it, rather than Washington.
The area was run by Washington Urban District Council until the 1970s, when changes in local government saw it subsumed by the Sunderland Metropolitan Borough Council, now Sunderland City Council.
Cllr Mullen said both the Washington and mayoral proposals would help improve trust between voters and those elected to public office in Sunderland.
“Our proposed reforms are intended to strengthen local democracy, to make people’s voices heard, and to give people a direct say over who runs our city,” he said.
"There is a meaningful debate to be had about how we run our city. I encourage those who want more democracy, more of a say and more influence to sign our petitions."
The elected mayor model would see the post of council leader replaced with an elected Mayor of Sunderland, who would be chosen by all voters in the city.
At present, the leader is chosen by councillors, meaning the leader of the ruling political group tends to occupy the top post on the council – currently Sunderland Labour Group leader Cllr Graeme Miller, a representative for Washington.
The present Mayor of Sunderland is a ceremonial role, chosen by councillors as a figurehead to represent the authority, and to chair full council meetings.
Cllr Miller is not impressed by the proposals, and took aim at the Conservatives’ performance nationally.
He said: “Why would our residents, who already ‘have a direct say over who runs the city’, welcome another tier of beaurocracy, another tier of council tax and another tier of cost to run a mayor’s office? Especially when speed of decision making is so crucial?
“Labour is a party that absolutely believes in democracy however to bring up such proposals when we’re already dealing with the Covid crisis is absolutely tone-deaf and ill-judged.
“At the end of the day, if the residents of Sunderland wish to have a referendum on a mayor, or on Washington having its own town council, so be it. That is local democracy in action and – as a party – we fully support the views of our residents.
“This is nothing but a smoke and mirrors trick to distract people from the scandal that is this Government’s failure to provide food vouchers to our most vulnerable residents, and once again line the pockets of the private companies.”
Wearside Lib Dems leader Niall Hodson was also sceptical
about the push for an elected Mayor of Sunderland.
"This could be an expensive exercise which no-one wants and that would only replace one out-of-touch council leader with another. Power should be given to local communities, not one all-powerful council leader,” he said.
"I'm not sure the public care too much about the way Sunderland council is structured.
They want the council to stop wasting money on vanity projects and inflated allowances for those running the council – with investment instead going to decent basic services like keeping the streets clean, repairing roads and pavements and sorting out our city centre."
Washington Lib Dems spokesperson Carlton West added: "Lib Dems support the idea of a Town Council so decisions about Washington can be made in Washington, with our town being the only focus of these decisions.
"Whilst people might be happy to pay a bit extra so long as we get investment that we have missed out on for so long, we must make sure that this doesn't just end up with an extra layer of councillors and an additional council tax bill for local people who could end up having to pay two sets of taxes – one to Sunderland City and another to Washington Town Council."
Cllr Mullen said 5% of voters in Sunderland would need to sign up to the mayoral petition to trigger a local referendum. The petition is at: https://www.sunderlandconservatives.org.uk/petition-directly-elected-mayor
He said the Washington Town Council petition would need 7.5% of voters living in the new town’s council wards to sign up in order to force a governance review which would ‘set the foundations for the formation of the new local body’. Visit: https://www.sunderlandconservatives.org.uk/ petition-washington-towncouncil
It is unclear what powers and budgets the new town council would have. But Sunderland does have an example of such an authority, Hetton Town Council, which has a body of councillors making local decisions for the area.