Kent Barker questions whether there is any longer much point to keeping a Mayor who has, over the years, been stripped of all authority and most of the trappings of office

When John Collier first became Mayor of Hastings 300 years ago, the job carried some real power and responsibility.  The mayor was both leader and chief executive officer of the council. He was the King’s legal representative, the chief magistrate and the coroner. In neighbouring Rye, Mayor James Lamb even sat as the judge in a murder trial in 1743, convicted the prisoner John Breads, and had him hanged and gibbeted.

Retiring Hastings Mayor Judy Rogers who’s just completed a two-year term of office, undoubtedly wouldn’t have wanted such responsibility.  In fact initially she didn’t want to do the job at all and turned it down when approached.  Four months later she’d had a change of heart and says she hasn’t regretted it for a moment. “It’s a real privilege and a massive honour.” she says. “I enjoyed being there for the people of Hastings and I’d consider doing it again.”

There are certainly precedents for multiple terms in the office.  John Collier was mayor five times, and his son-in-law Edward Milward rather hogged the job, taking it on 25 times after 1757.   But back then it had some real power. Today it’s purely ceremonial. In her two-year term Councillor Rogers attended 715 official engagements at a cost to the council tax paper of a relatively modest £8,000 a year. 

“Even though I was the visible representative of the council, no one ever gave me any grief about council decisions,” she says. “In fact once they’d done away with the mayoral car I had to drive myself and find somewhere to park and then walk to the engagement wearing the chain of office etc.  And people actually came up to me, some were members of the homeless community, and offered to escort me to where I was going.”

People in Hastings clearly love dressing up and so decking out in a tricorn hat and red cloak and white gloves (attire that John Collier would probably have recognised) isn’t that exceptional.  But is it in any way relevant to modern life?  Indeed is the role and office of mayor basically past its sell-by date? The mayormaking ceremony has been massively reduced over the years (see sidebar) and it’s now held in the council chamber as the start of an ordinary  meeting.  Even two years ago it took place in St Mary in the Castle, but that was deemed too expensive – a decision one detects that Judy Rodgers rather regrets.  But if you strip out virtually all the ceremony and force your mayor to fish around in her purse for change for the parking meter, then surely you might as well do away with the whole charade, mightn’t you?

“Certainly not.” she says. “Apart from constantly meeting people and opening things, the mayor is automatically patron and president of any number of organisations from The Hastings Philharmonic to the Twinning Association and the Ladies Miniature Golf Club. It’s a question of being there for the people of Hastings.”

There are now 23 directly elected mayors in the UK and they do have some real power to push though reforms and speak up for their area.   Would such a model suit Hastings?  There remains considerable debate around the country as to whether a leader elected by members of the council is better than mayoral leader directly elected by voters.  But it could just be that the Local Government Act eighteen years ago which empowered local authorities to hold referenda on whether they wanted directly elected mayors might sound the death knell for ceremonial mayors and give the heads of local authorities back the sort of power they had in the 18th century.  Though whether we would want our council leader actually holding trials and executing miscreants is less certain. 

Former Hasings Mayor John Collier

Hastings Mayormaking
17th Century
“In the morning very early the brazen horn is sounded by serjeants at mace in divers places in the town to prepare the assembly for the election.

Presently the mayor and jurats with the clerk and other officers of the court do meet in a place of purpose prepared for them, to sit in the hundred place now called Wynning  Lane in which place of ancient continuance the said election and Hundred Court hath been performed…

Then shall the serjeant from the mouth of the clerk pronounce these words ‘All manner of persons that have to do with the election of the King’s Majesty’s head officer of this town and port of Hastings, for this year to come, now give your attendance, upon pain and penalty that may fall thereon … Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! Mr Mayor and his brethren strictly charge and command, in his Majesty’s name, that none of you be so hardy as to approach the said electors by one hundred foot, upon pain of losing his upper garment: and that every man lay from his person all weapons, upon pain of losing the same; and that every man keep his Majesty’s peace, and that no man disturb this election nor give his voice in choosing his majesty’s head officer, but such one be thereunto assigned, upon pain of imprisonment and to be fined at the will and pleasure of Mr Mayor and his brethren”.
• From The History and Antiquities of the Town and Port of Hastings by William George Moss.

Former Hastings Mayor Cllr Judy Rogers

Hastings Mayormaking
21st Century
Welcome by Town Crier / Mayoral party take seats in council chamber/ Election of the Mayor for the new municipal year / Retiring Mayor, Councillor Judy Rogers, will call for nominations and will declare the name of the Mayor for the new municipal year / the newly elected Mayor will read out loud, and sign the declaration of acceptance of office.
• Extracts from Council Annual Meeting Agenda 16th May, 2018

 

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