Stuart Drummond, former Mayor of Hartlepool, England

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Stuart Drummond
Former Mayor of Hartlepool
By Andrew Stevens

28 March 2011: Unusually for a civic leader, Hartlepool’s elected mayor is recognisable to most of the UK population, having been elected in 2002 on the back of a joke campaign, which attracted international attention. While Stuart Drummond may have once sought office for less than political reasons, his status as England’s only three term elected mayor shows that voters in the North East town are satisfied with his administration. Here the mayor discusses his learning curve and how he manages as an independent mayor in a party political environment. Stuart Drummond was awarded 10th place in World Mayor 2010.

Update May 2013: Hartlepool has abolished the position of mayor and reverted back to committee-style of local government.

| History | Politics | The rookie mayor | Twice re-elected | Success |

The town of Hartlepool formed from fairly inauspicious beginnings as a Saxon abbey and medieval fishing village. Its name is a portmanteau of Hart (referring to deer) and pool (a reference to the natural harbour), thought to be from Roman times, and was built up during the early 20th century on the fortunes on the local docks and steelworks which had sprung up overnight with the arrival of the railways in the 1880s.

One hundred years later and both were in heavy decline as the town fared badly under the deindustrialisation of the Thatcher era (1979 to 1990). During the last local government reorganisation in 1996, its estranged status from the rest of Teesside (8 miles of farmland separates the settlements) meant that even advocates of a single consolidated Teesside city region council didn’t bother to include it in their plans.

The town remains most famous for its struggling football team and the quaint but probably inaccurate legend that during the Napoleonic war its inhabitants summarily hung a monkey washed up from a shipwreck, in the belief that it was a French spy (Hartlepudlians, myself included, are still known in the UK as “monkey-hangers”). More recent water-borne arrivals have come in the form of the fleet of toxic ‘ghost ships’ from the US Navy, being dismantled for scrap in a former dockyard.

Those drafting the new Labour government’s policies on local government envisaged a new generation of big city mayors taking shape in England’s major metropolitan centres, strong figures from outside the usual ranks of party placemen. While Hartlepool certainly didn’t fit this pattern, there was a certain logic to the town opting to replace the council’s creaking committee system , which had in 2000 shifted from solid Labour representation in the town hall to an unstable dual ‘co-leadership’ of Liberal Democrats and Conservatives.

Hartlepool’s most famous MP (1992-2004) and key Blair lieutenant (or ‘architect of New Labour’, if you prefer) Peter Mandelson (now UK Business Secretary Baron Mandelson of Foy and Hartlepool) talked up the town’s prospects under the new mayoral system, one of four created during a wave of referendums in October 2001. As befits its national reputation, the tendency of voters in the town being content to vote for anything (a donkey, or a monkey even) wearing a red Labour rosette has often been cited, though in fact the town has only elected Labour MPs since the second world war, following the massive expansion of social housing in the port town. Weary cynicism among the local electorate against this sense of being taken for granted was compounded during the late 1990s when the newly ‘independent’ (from the ‘hated’ Cleveland county) unitary borough’s Labour leader began naming civic buildings and streets after himself.

Though perhaps not to the political tastes of the reduced rump of councillors in the town’s Labour group, the elected mayor system provided a potential opportunity for the party to retake control of the town hall. Local Labour bosses had other ideas however and sought a candidate outside of the usual ranks, settling on a local businessman. The party had some justification in feeling that the recent loss of the town hall was just a blip aligned to mid-term dissatisfaction with Tony Blair’s Labour government. The other parties fielded their local leaders as mayoral candidates, hoping perhaps to retain enough councillors to deny any Labour mayor a majority on the council. Labour had long taken Hartlepool for granted, assuming perpetual governance on the basis of party loyalty on its many council estates – even during one of the most polarised and bitterly-fought national by-election campaigns in living memory, at the height of the Iraq war the town returned a Labour MP.

The rookie mayor
It is at this point that we can set the scene for the entry of Stuart Drummond. Drummond, in 2002 a 28-year old call centre worker and part time mascot for the local football club (as a monkey, naturally). As ‘H’Angus the Monkey’ Drummond was known to football fans as the club’s mascot, usually donning a monkey costume each week to cheer on players from the side of the pitch. A joke candidacy and a manifesto pledge to provide free bananas in schools provided some colour to a drab municipal race, but his victory was not anticipated. Unsurprisingly, the political establishment greeted his ‘joke’ election with derision and the media utter bemusement. Against such charges, the mayor pointed to his background as a cruise liner waiter and his diploma in business and finance, acquiring people skills in a global setting.

Looking back, after his third election victory last year, Drummond is now more relaxed about this initial rough ride: “There were just as many, if not much more, positive press articles following my first election as there were negative. Granted, they were mainly the foreign press but perhaps that is an indictment on the British press. I would like to think I have proved the doubters wrong and even the likes of The Guardian, who were extremely damning, have printed some really good stuff about Hartlepool.”

The manifesto promise to provide free bananas was not fulfilled but he was able to increase fruit provision in schools and halt the planned closure of some of the town’s youth centres. “I may have been mocked but we are way ahead of the game when it comes to healthy eating in schools.” Ultimately, the mayor learned very quickly under a high performing council chief executive and the only wobble in his first term was being spotted visiting a strip bar after a football match in the town six months after the election (an “error of judgement” he conceded).

Twice re-elected
Drummond has since come to embody the mayoral policy in physical form – whenever local newspapers in England debate whether their town should adopt the mayoral system, it’s usually accompanied by a now ageing photo of Drummond in his monkey costume. “Many local papers contact me if their area is mulling the mayoral system,” he says, accusing one London Borough’s newspaper of “extremely lazy journalism” when I show him its article on a proposal to adopt a ‘H’Angus the Monkey-style elected mayor’. “I think I speak for all the English elected mayors when I say we still feel a bit like guinea pigs.” he adds. I enquire how he gets on with Ray Mallon in neighbouring Middlesbrough, another noted elected mayor dubbed ‘Robocop’ on account of his tough law and order policies. “Ray and I get along very well. We have a completely different style of working and leadership, which proves that the mayoral system can be successful in many different ways.”

As Drummond entered his 30s, in 2005 he faced his first significant test since the 2002 election, namely the task of securing re-election, which was by no means assured (though he polled 10,000 votes more than his Labour challenger on the day). Drummond enjoyed a fractious relationship with political opponents during his first term: “In the early days, the vast majority of councillors went out of their way to make things difficult for me. They were not happy with the outcome of the election and as each camp tried to court me and got nowhere, things got a bit fraught. That said, the more they tried to have a go or ridicule me, the more the public backed me so eventually the attacks died out as they were self defeating.”

However, he’s now a little more sanguine about the state of relations in the council chamber: “Much more than half of the council is also new, in that councillors have gained a seat since my first election, so they only know the mayoral system and have learned to work within it.” And while he prefers to get on with the job and work with who the electorate choose, he does feel that the council could save some money by having fewer representatives: “I did propose to reduce the number of councillors and would still do so tomorrow if I could. The Boundary Commission had other ideas unfortunately.”

On his own political career, he suggests his recent re-election was far from certain as the law on council communications during elections (‘purdah’) meant he was not able to defend his record: “The timing of the election wasn’t great for me. We entered the purdah period just as the news broke on the MPs’ expenses scandal. As a sitting politician, I was somewhat tarnished with the same brush and people just assumed I was fiddling expenses. I couldn’t explain that I have never claimed a penny during my time in office until after the election, which didn’t help.”

As England’s only third term elected mayor, he feels that central government has more work to do to make the policy work: “The problem now lies in the fact that perhaps it has worked too well in certain area and the public expect the mayor to be able to solve any issue and think they have the power to do so. The new government, whoever that may be, needs to really look at the responsibilities of elected mayors and increase them. In my view, the elected mayor needs accountability and responsibility for all, or at least most, of the public services in his/her local area, instead of just relying on influence and good relationship to get things done. Otherwise, people will eventually get sick of being told that there is nothing the mayor can do to help them and support for the system will disappear.”

However, in spite of his limited powers amid a larger public service bureaucracy, the mayor feels he has been a force for good in the town: "Bringing the Tall Ships race to town has got to be my proudest achievement to date - only the successful delivery of the event will surpass it. Operation Cleansweep is an initiative I brought in around the end of 2003. It has been running just about monthly ever since. It goes into a small predefined area of the town and blitzes it. About 50 or 60 people from all public agencies are out and about doing their daily tasks but in a small area. It has been very high impact and some residents groups have even been set up on the back of it to keep areas looking good. It was deemed national best practice and many other councils have followed suit. I've had a high profile campaign to tackle the problem of derelict buildings in the town and have managed to either demolish or bring back into use more than 75 in the last three years. I chair the Crime Reduction Partnership, I brought in Neighbourhood Policing as a pilot and crime is now the lowest it has ever been in Hartlepool and our NHP is deemed as the best in the country."

I ask if the race was worth the money the council spent: "Nearly a million visitors came to Hartlepool and more than £26 Million was generated within the local economy. It was certainly the biggest party the town has ever seen."

However, the mayor is somewhat downbeat about more recent events in the national economy: "The Government cuts have hit Hartlepool particularly hard. The town is heavily reliant on the public sector for both services and employment and the sheer scale of the cuts has made it impossible to prevent losses to both. That said, I prepared a budget that gained unanimous support from the full Council for the first time ever as we face up to the most challenging time that local government has ever experienced."

Since becoming a finalist for World Mayor in 2010, Drummond says his profile has soared: "In February I spoke at a conference in Vietnam on climate change and what Hartlepool and the Tees Valley are doing to tackle it. In March I attended the Global Cities summit on sustainable cities hosted by the Government of Abu Dhabi."

Drummond also told City Mayors that he supports its Code of Ethics for mayors and will seek to live by its principles while in office.

Finally, I ask him if a fourth term is on his agenda: "I have absolutely no idea at the moment but I can't see myself doing this for the rest of my life." Having performed strongly in the annual council performance ratings previously issued by central government, Drummond no doubt feels the joke is on those who doubted his ability to make the office of elected mayor work.

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