On May 7 Morecambe people will go to the polls to elect a new town council. GREG LAMBERT reports.
Morecambe Town Council has only existed since 2009. But it has crammed more controversy into those six years than many parish councils manage in their life spans.
The town council was approved by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government in 2007, after he received a petition of 2,496 local people.
Many disillusioned residents wanted a town council because they believed Lancaster City Council favours city over resort and wanted a strong group to stand up for Morecambe. But the town council divided opinion from the get-go. Some said it would be value for money because cash would be spent on the resort. Others questioned why local tax payers were funding an extra tier of local government.
At first, residents were asked to pay a extra charge on council tax bills to raise £220,500 per year for Morecambe Town Council. This has now reduced to £175,000 after a law change.
The first elections were held in June 2009 to elect 26 Morecambe councillors. All seats, bar one Liberal Democrat, were won by Morecambe Bay Independents (MBIs).
Then MBI leader, Evelyn Archer, was the first chairman. Coun Archer had campaigned strongly for the council to be set up in the first place. But divisions in the MBIs soon cast the council in a negative light.
In March 2010, following what was described as “a procedural matter”, Coun Archer was forced to step down as chairman after a vote of no-confidence and the late Roger Plumb took over.
Mrs Archer said: “Some councillors want it to be an extension of the city council rather than for the people of Morecambe.”
Coun Archer then accused six MBI town councillors of bullying the former town clerk. The complaint, and a counter-complaint against Coun Archer, were both thrown out. But a six-month enquiry cost almost £17,000.
Council meetings were regularly heated. In March 2011, Coun Plumb called police to restore order in the public gallery. Then after numerous bouts of public sniping, in 2012 a troubleshooter from the independent standards committee was called in to warn all councillors about their behaviour.
Meanwhile, the 2011 elections had seen the MBIs retain control. They won 16 seats, Labour took five, the Lib Dems one, and Evelyn Archer’s breakaway Independence 4 Morecambe group won four.
The war between Coun Archer and the MBIs re-ignited in 2012 when the MBIs registered the term ‘Independence 4 Morecambe’ with the Electoral Commission, blocking Coun Archer’s group from standing under the I4M name in a by-election.
But perhaps the biggest controversy has been Morecambe festivals. For four straight years, decisions on who gets money to run events caused uproar. One of the most controversial decisions was to turn down the returning Morecambe Carnival’s request for £7,000 and instead offer £1,500. The carnival committee refused this sum and the event went ahead successfully without town council cash.
In July 2014, matters came to a head when the festivals and events committee voted to pick just three events to fund in 2015, despite receiving 24 grant applications. Labour described these plans as “disastrous” and full council threw them out, instead setting up a working group. This seemed to do the trick, as the subsequent decisions caused little discord.
In recent months the council seems to have settled into a period of relative peace. It has helped to fund Police Community Support Officers, organised litter picks, put money towards Christmas streetlights and hopes to bring back the bandstand to Happy Mount Park, spruce up Morecambe railway station and upgrade the war memorial.
But critics still believe it should be doing more. Some think it shouldn’t exist at all.
The town council lists its main objectives as tackling dog fouling and litter, help improve tourism and give money to festivals, assist with community safety, and provide a strong voice for Morecambe.
Next week Morecambe people will vote on who will provide that voice. Many will hope it shouts loud and harmoniously for Morecambe, instead of in petty squabbles across the town hall chamber.