Great Yarmouth council set for U-turn on mayor referendum

Great Yarmouth councillors are tonight likely to grasp the opportunity to put themselves back on the right side of the law – and allow a referendum to decide whether the borough gets a directly elected mayor to go ahead on May 5.

In an extraordinary cross-party rebellion, 28 councillors defied legal advice at last month's full council meeting and refused to approve a draft constitution for public consultation ahead of the referendum.

The council's legal officer Chris Skinner had told the councillors it was their legal duty to approve it as the necessary petition of 3,500 signatures calling for a referendum had been successfully raised.

The act of defiance left the 28 dissenting councillors who voted against the constitution, or abstained, facing a standards committee inquiry and it seemed to rule out a May 5 referendum on the grounds of insuffi-cient time for public consultation.

However, the government's department for communities and local government has ruled that the referendum can still go ahead on May 5, relying on public consultation that took place last year, if the constitution is approved at tonight's meeting.

Mr Skinner had been preparing a monitoring officer's report – formally stating the council's unlawful position – but that has now been deferred.

He said: 'If everything is put right I will need to reconsider if the council has acted unlawfully and it is quite possible my monitoring officer's report will be withdrawn.'

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However, Mr Skinner confirmed the councillors still faced a preliminary standards committee inquiry on March 11 to consider if they have brought the authority into disrepute; that would only be cancelled if the members of public who had made complaints withdrew them.

Following last month's meeting when he abstained on the constitution, council leader Barry Coleman highl-ighted the fierce cross-party opposition to having a directly elected mayor on the grounds that the �70,000-a-year post would be a waste of money.

However, last night he said he now felt that approving the constitution would be the way forward, but the issue still had to be discussed among his Tory party colleagues.

Labour leader Mick Castle, who is leading the campaign for a directly-elected mayor in face of opposition from his own party, said councillors had no right to stop a referendum that would let the public decide whether they wanted a directly-elected mayor.

stephen.pullinger@archant.co.uk