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Formerly dysfunctional
English city improves
under new leadership

London, 19 July 2014:
An English elected mayor has seen her council progress from one of the worst in the country to having been approved by the central government as strongly improved. Doncaster in Yorkshire, England, had previously been placed under strict controls by the UK government following dysfunctional governance and a series of high profile children’s services failures, including the deaths of seven children in the town on account of abuse or neglect.

A review by local government experts found the council was now “functioning well”, with staff reporting a “sea change” in its workings. The council had previously been placed under central control four years following a damning report by government inspectors, which found it was “failing”. In addition to the seven deaths of children on account of the failure of social services staff to spot them as at-risk, two young boys were tortured by other children in the town in a case, which shocked the country.

In response the UK government placed the council under central government control, with the then elected mayor Peter Davies (independent) losing responsibility to a team of commissioners and children’s services later hived off to an independent body. The recent review has been welcomed by the council as a positive sign of its recovery. Mayor Ros Jones (Labour), elected last year, said: “In the past the council has let down the people of Doncaster. However, we now have clear plans and much improved governance.”

“We’re under no illusion that we still have more work to do but we are in a much better place now than we were previously. Our focus on continuing to do things better and differently remains sharp.” she added. The council was a byword for local government corruption in the 1990s following a series of scandals known as ‘Donnygate’, while in recent years it has seen a steady turnover of elected mayors, including so-called ‘maverick mayor’ Peter Davies elected for one term in 2009 on a series of slash and burn spending pledges and eccentric policies around ‘eradicating political correctness’ at the council. Since then Jones, a former local authority finance official, has been elected and governed alongside a respected chief official Jo Miller, herself appointed by central government to lead the turnaround.


English mayors’
use of Twitter
still in its infancy

London, 1 July 2014:
While most leading politicians insist that social media plays an important part in their efforts to communicate with voters, Britain’s elected mayors only make half-hearted use of sites such as Twitter. Only the British capital’s mayor Boris Johnson can claim that a sizeable proportion of Londoners follows his tweets, even though many of his 900,000 plus followers are probably admirers from across the country and indeed the world. Of England’s 16 elected mayors, eleven maintain personal Twitter accounts to respond to and address their fellow citizens. With a following of 934,000, London’s Boris Johnson potentially reaches more than eleven per cent of residents while, with a reach-score of 4.5 per cent, Bristol Mayor George Ferguson is distant second to his colleague in London.

Boris Johnson started tweeting almost immediately after he defeated Ken Livingstone in May 2008. Other mayors like Bristol’s George Ferguson or Liverpool’s Joe Anderson signed up to Twitter more recently. The Mayor of Mansfield’s love for Twitter only lasted from March to August 2011.

With Twitter’s unspoken etiquette of ‘I follow you and then you follow me’, one of the reasons for Boris Johnson’s success in attracting followers is the large number of individuals and organisations (3,871) he proclaims to follow. Other mayors, with the exception of Tower Hamlet’s Lutfur Rahman, all track less than one thousand Twitterers.

While English mayors with Twitter pages follow predominantly individuals and organisations with local connections, some are also keen to track the tweets of national and international people of prominence. Boris Johnson is a fan of Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and also follows the tweets of the UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron as well as those of Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch and actor Danny DeVito. Liverpool’s mayor follows Michael Bloomberg and Richard Branson on Twitter, while among the Twitter pages Bristol Mayor George Ferguson follows include those of J K Rowling, Arianne Huffington and Kevin Spacey.

English mayors on Twitter
Mayor
On Twitter since
Following
Followers
Population reach
Boris Johnson, London May 2008
3,871
934,000
11.1%
George Ferguson. Bristol December 2011
503
19,400
4.5%
Dave Hodgson, Bedford September 2009
414
2,540
3.2%
Joe Anderson, Liverpool February 2012
751
14,500
3.1%
Dorothy Thornhill, Watford July 2009
477
2,333
2.6%
Lutfur Rahman, Tower Hamlets December 2010
1,723
3,494
1.4%
Ros Jones, Doncaster n/a
916
1,545
1.2%
Ian Stewart, Salford March 2012
690
2,004
0.9%
Tony Egginton, Mansfield March 2011
370
531
0.7%
Steve Bullock, Lewisham April 2009
131
1,345
0.5%
Norma Redfearn, North Tyneside February 2012
374
628
0.3%
Research: 30 June 2014

London’s Boris Johnson follows on Twitter:
Matteo Renzi, Italian Prime Minister
Bertrand Delanoe, Former Mayor of Paris
Raymond Blank, Celebrity chef
Mo Farah, Olympic Gold medal winner
David Cameron, UK Prime Minister
Bill Gates, Founder of Microsoft
Brian Paddick, Former Liberal Democrat candidate for London Mayor
Rupert Murdoch, Media mogul
David Miliband, Former UK foreign minister
Danny DeVito, Actor
Alan Rusbridger, Editor of The Guardian newspaper
William Hague, UK Foreign Minister

Liverpool’s Joe Anderson follows on Twitter
Daniel Finkelstein, Political commentator
Vince Cable, UK Business Secretary
Edwina Currie, Former Tory minister
John Prescott, Former UK Deputy Prime Minister
Kenneth Dalglish, Football manager
Mike Bloomberg, Former Mayor of New York
Alastair Campbell, Former spokesman for Tony Blair
George Ferguson, Mayor of Bristol
Tom Menino, Former Mayor of Boston
George Osborne, UK Chancellor of the Exchequer (Finance Minister)
Boris Johnson, Mayor of London
Ed Miliband, Leader of the Labour Party
David Cameron, UK Prime Minister
Richard Branson, Entrepreneur

Bristol’s George Ferguson follows on Twitter
J K Rowling, Author of Harry Potter
Paddy Ashdown, Former leader of the Liberal Democrats
Arianna Huffington, Founder of the Huffington Post
Jamie Oliver, Celebrity chef
Joe Anderson, Mayor of Liverpool
Nick Clegg, UK Deputy Prime Minister
Ed Miliband, Leader of the Labour Party
David Cameron, UK Prime Minister
John Prescott, Former UK Deputy Prime Minister
Rupert Murdoch, Media mogul
Kevin Spacey, Actor
Caroline Lucas, Britain’s only Green MP
Richard Branson, Entrepreneur


High Court petitioned
to overturn election of
London borough mayor

London, 18 June 2014:
A legal challenge has been brought against the London borough of Tower Hamlets’ independent elected mayor Lutfur Rahman following claims of electoral fraud in last month’s mayoral election.  The petition to the English High Court seeks to overturn the 22 May election result.  The legal challenge, lodged by four voters, cites both the mayor and the council’s chief election official, who denies any wrongdoing.

The challenge by the litigants alleges Mayor Rahman and his campaign were guilty of numerous electoral offences, including casting fraudulent votes and impersonating voters.  As well as alleging that campaigners for Rahman made repeat false allegations against his principal challenger, Labour’s John Biggs, the petition alleges the council’s chief election official John Williams allowed Mr Rahman’s supporters to unlawfully enter and interfere with polling stations and the election count.

The petition was initiated by a failed council seat candidate for the ‘Red Flag Anti-Corruption Party’, Andy Erlam, who is seeking to have Mr Rahman’s re-election overturned.  Mr Erlam was previously a Labour Party member and a political adviser to a local government minister in the Labour government of Gordon Brown.  He is represented by law firm Steel and Shamash, solicitors to the London Labour Party, though it is understood that Labour is not officially supporting the effort to invalidate the election.

Unusually for a UK local election, the borough issued a protocol ahead of the May poll, signed by the council, the local police and the UK Electoral Commission, to guarantee a “free and fair election” and ensure any allegations of malpractice were reported and investigated.  It is understood that 84 allegations of unlawful practice have been passed to the Metropolitan Police, who are carrying out investigations into eight, with two men arrested so far.  The Electoral Commission is also carrying out its own formal investigation into the election.

Separately the Daily Telegraph newspaper has alleged that two ineligible council candidates stood for election on behalf of Mr Rahman’s Tower Hamlets First independent group.  Rahman was re-elected to a second term as mayor for the borough following a bitterly contested election against his Labour challenger, though with a reduced majority.  A delayed council seat election is due on 3 July, which will determine if Mr Rahman’s party has a majority on the finely-balanced council.


Mayor of Venice arrested
against background of
rampant corruption in Italy

Venice, 5 June 2014:
The Mayor of Venice spent last night under house arrest after being arrested yesterday over allegations that he used public money for political purposes. In addition to Giorgio Orsini, Italian police authorities also arrested 35 other municipal officials and business people. The centre-left mayor, who was elected in 2010, is allegedly being investigated for corruption, extortion and money laundering. However, his lawyers described the allegations as ridiculous and not credible. The former governor of the Venice region, Giancarlo Galan, who is now a senator for Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right Forza Italia party, is also under investigation.

The corruption allegations are linked to the Moses Project, which is being built to protect Venice from rising flood levels. The first of the 78 underwater barriers was installed last year. The barriers, housed in tanks anchored to the seafloor, are designed to rise to the surface when high waters threaten the city. Work on the barriers started eleven years ago and is scheduled to finish in 2016. Last July, the Italian police arrested the president of the consortium of Italian industries charged with building the work, amid a corruption scandal linked to the project. He has since been released.

Sources close to the investigating authorities say that the police looking into allegations that 20m euros  in public funds was sent to foreign bank accounts and used to finance political parties.

Massimo Cacciari, a former mayor of Venice, told journalists that the way Italy organises large construction projects makes it all too easy for greedy officials and business people to defraud the state. “Everything is centralised and concentrated in the hands of very few people and organisations. They can do whatever they want to do,” he said.

Earlier this year, a report by the EU commission alleged that corruption in Italy was more widespread than in any other member country. The report asserted that the reason for the high level of corruption in Italy was the country’s notoriously close links between politics, business and organised crime. The findings also claimed that public officials in Italy lacked integrity when it comes to pursuing corruption.

In 2012, politicians in half of all regions were investigated in connection with corruption. In some 200 communities local council had to be dissolved because of Mafia infiltration or because councillors were subject to fraud inquiries. At national level, 30 members of parliament were investigated in connection with dubious financial practices, often in relation with political donations from ‘unorthodox’ sources.


Berliners reject housing
development on former
city centre airport site

Berlin, 27 May 2014:
Berlin residents have rejected plans to build housing on part of the city’s iconic former Tempelhof Airport. The airport, which was built by the Nazis between 1936 and 1941 and became a symbol of West Berlin’s determination not to succumb to pressure from the Soviet Union during its blockade of the city in 1948, closed in 2008 and was opened as a public park two years later. The Berlin Senate (Berlin government) proposed to build affordable housing on the southern fringes of the former airport site, which is roughly the size of New York’s Central Park. Last Sunday Berliners rejected the plan in a rare public referendum.
 
A clearly disappointed Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit said, after the results were announced, that Berliners wanted affordable housing but obviously not on their doorsteps. The city had planned to build 4,700 apartments, retail and other commercial units as well as a public library. A Senate spokesman said that some of the apartments would have been let at between six and eight euros per square meter per month in a part of the city where private landlords demand in excess of 10 euros. “The development would have allowed less wealthy people to live in an attractive city centre area,” Berlin’s mayor said.
 
The Senate did not expect to lose the referendum and has no plan B for the site. It now seems that Tempelhof will be left as it is with no development taking place for the foreseeable future.


Former heavyweight
world boxing champion
wins Kiev mayoral bout

Kiev, 26 May 2014:
The victory of chocolate tycoon Petro Poroshenko in the first round of yesterday’s Ukrainian presidential elections would not have been so resounding, had it not been for the decision of former world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko not to contest the presidency but run for mayor of Kiev instead. He won yesterday’s mayoral election, which was held alongside the presidential contest, with 57 per cent of the vote. Unlike Poroshenko, who served in a number of post-Soviet-era governments, Vitali Klitschko has never been linked to any corruption scandals.

After yesterday’s victory, Vitali Klitschko, whose brother Wladimir is the current world heavyweight boxing champion, attended a victory rally together with president-elect Poroshenko and pledged to work together to build a new Ukraine. Yesterday’s first-round win, with 57 per cent of the vote, give Klitscho a strong mandate to introduce drastic changes to Kiew’s local government.

The Ukraine capital’s previous mayor, Volodymyr Makeyenko, only held the post for two months. The current interim government blamed him for some of the mayhem, which caused the death of many protesters during the events in Maidan square earlier this year. He was dismissed in March. Leonid Chernovetskyi - mayor from 2006 to 2012 - made international headlines when he announced that he intended to fly in outer space with his cat.

Vitali Klitschko was born into a military family in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia and moved around the country before settling in Ukraine in 1984. In addition to residing in Kiev, he also lived for many years in Hamburg, Germany. During the Orange revolution of 2004, both Klitschko brothers supported the presidential candidate Victor Yushchenko. In 2006 and again in 2008, Vitali contested Kiev’s mayoral elections but was defeated by Leonid Chernovetskyi.

Mayoral elections were yesterday also held in Odessa, Ukraine’s third largest city. The vote was marred by a number of irregularities. The headquarters of both leading contenders – one pro-Russia, the other pro-Europe - pronounced their candidates as winner and accused each other of stuffing ballot boxes with fake papers. An independent observer said the number of voters in the lists for mayoral elections turned out to be greater than that at presidential polls, with the lists mentioning children, foreigners and even dead souls. The German news magazine Der Spiegel linked one candidate to organised crime and claimed the other had had connections to the Chechnya mafia. A date for a run-off election has yet to be announced.


Comparison of north-east
England with Detroit derided
as sensationalist journalism

Newcastle, 14 May 2014:
The headline of a widely discussed article this week asks prominently whether the north-east of England will become Britain’s Detroit. But apart from quoting a ‘left-wing writer from Northumberland’, the piece by The Guardian features writer Andy Beckett failed to offer any comparison between the bankrupt US city and the English region, which includes cities like Newcastle, Durham, Middlesbrough, Darlington and Gateshead. Instead the author concentrated on the region’s high unemployment, cuts to public spending and patchy record of regeneration, as well as “fiercely followed, rarely successful football clubs”. The article has attracted widespread derision for what many consider a deliberatively provocative and tendentious editorial slant.

Beckett’s ‘misery’ agenda article notes the North East’s unemployment rate, at 10 per cent the highest of any UK region, and massive drops in public spending by central government, again the country’s severest.  However, for the rest of the article, Beckett selectively quotes an array of London-based sources offering negative and pessimistic opinions to back up its central premise that the cities of the North East will be the “UK’s Detroit”, from left-wing writers to right-wing think tanks advocating decampment of populations from the “beyond hope” cities of the north.

One of the authority figures interviewed for Beckett’s article, Newcastle’s Member of Parliament Chi Onwurah took to Twitter to slate the ‘lazy’ and ‘imbalanced’ piece: “They quote me on challenges but they skipped all I said about NE opportunities in ICT, creative, coal, science.” Her Labour party colleague, Newcastle city council leader Nick Forbes was also in agreement: “Complete rubbish spouted in today's Guardian about the NE. Challenges - yes. But teetering on the brink? Nowhere near.”

The Guardian piece follows a recent and similarly wide-derided report in the London Economist, as reported by City Mayors, which described the North East’s cities and towns as “quietly decaying” and welfare dependent unworthy recipients of “heroic” but “misguided” government-funded regeneration programmes.  Beyond the local civic outrage, even the Financial Times considered the Economist’s intervention as unhelpful and disparaging in writing off entire communities.  Beckett however approvingly quotes from the earlier piece.

Though the region enjoyed a political boom as the constituency base of UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and several of his cabinet allies in the 1990s and early 2000s, its economic base was steadily eroded following deindustrialisation in the 1970s – the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher’s response in the 1980s was to create development corporations to oversee heavily-subsidised waterfront yachting marinas and business parks, now mostly occupied by low wage call centres. 

Beckett’s piece was not entirely negatively received: American urban policy guru Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution tweeted that it was a “smart piece about the hard realities facing older industrial cities”, a view echoed among other US commentators.  However, in the UK many commentators inside and outside the region argued that the piece had spectacularly failed to acknowledge the region’s economic successes and growth areas as this would detract from the imposed editorial narrative.  Within 24 hours of the article going live, an online petition calling for Beckett to revisit the region and write a more balanced piece was launched.  An earlier “inevitable decline” Guardian article seeking to portray the UK’s financially-stricken cities as facing “Detroit-style” collapse was also rounded on as sensationalist.


Local politicians accused
of fearing public backlash
for helping Roma migrants

Brussels, 6 May 2014:
In a report condemning the European Union for its failure to curb violence, bigotry and intimidation of Roma people, Amnesty International asserts that all too often municipal government and local police, rather than protecting Roma, participate in and fuel the aggression and discrimination through raids, arbitrary detention and deliberate inaction. While EU officials reject much of Amnesty’s criticism and point to funds specially earmarked for Roma, they say that the problem will not be solved as long as local officials remain terrified of a public backlash for helping Roma. Ivan Ivanov, director of the European Roma Information Office, a clearinghouse and advocacy group, said that he was told by several mayors that they were not racist but if they called for programmes to house and educate Roma, they would be thrown out of office.

The worst attack on Roma communities occurred in Slovakia, where some 400 mayors joined the movement Zobudme Sa! (Let's Wake Up!) to co-ordinate shutting down Roma neighbourhoods, using health and safety regulations. “About 12 Slovakian cities have sealed off Roma communities by building walls.”

Last September, in Eforie, Romania, local government ordered the demolition of 20 houses belonging to Roma. City officials said the 105 Roma in the razed enclave - some of whom had lived for decades in concrete houses - were terrorising the area by piling up garbage and stealing. But neighbours, who lived near the enclave, said Roma only began causing problems after they had been evicted and crammed into the decrepit school building. Local government has subsequently proposed to house the Roma in shipping-container-type units.

Even in liberal Sweden, some local government officials have become wary of Roma refugees. While voicing sympathy for the plight of Roma who have set up a camp outside Stockholm, Lotta Edholm, the city’s mayor for education, said we normally try to take care of people like that in Swedish society but sooner or later we will have to ask them to leave. “We are not used to beggars in our streets and the slum settlement itself is dangerous and presents hygiene problems.”

Some mayors, however, have successfully integrated Roma communities into their towns. Shortly after being elected, Tzonko Tzoney, the Mayor of Kavarna, Bulgaria, improved the town’s Roma neighbourhood. He offered residents land and building materials for homes, but only if they committed to keeping them clean and adhered to city regulations. “. Kavarna's Roma neighbourhood is now nicknamed ‘Beverly Hills’, for its spiffiness, and Roma unemployment in the town is less than 10 per cent, compared with 33 per cent throughout the EU.” But Mayor Tzoney warns that similar efforts elsewhere fail because of ‘anti-Gypsy’ sentiments. “As soon as the local elections are held, all the populist parties build their campaigns on the backs of the Roma and abuse them,” Mr. Tzonev said.

Ghent, Belgium, has become a favourite destination for Roma from Kosice, one of the Slovak cities, which demolished housing where they lived. The Belgian city’s mayor , Daniel Termont, favours immigration and says migrants are an enrichment not a threat, but accuses authorities in Eastern Europe of abusing the EU’s freedom-of-movement laws. “They are designed to enable Europeans to work, study and visit other European countries, not to escape a poor country where you are sent away or mistreated.” A spokesman for the Ghent mayor said that the city had put a lot of effort into helping Roma migrants. "But with no training, no knowledge of the language, it's very difficult. Their children don't go to school. They think they can rely on our social system, but this is simply impossible for thousands of people."

Mayor Termont said Roma migrants were often stuck in a vicious circle. “Their children don’t go to school, their administrative situation is not ok, they don’t have a job, they don’t speak the language. It’s impossible to make progress." But according to research by the Roma organisation Opre Roma, minority migrants want to integrate. "The main conclusion was that the Roma want to integrate, but that it is very difficult. Often they have had very limited schooling, which reduces their capabilities in finding a job. And it isn't easy to learn a new language when you're illiterate," explained Elias Hemelsoet from Opre Roma.

According to estimates by the EU Fundamental Rights Agency there are some 11 million Roma in Europe. One third of them are unemployed, 20 per cent have no health insurance and 80 per cent live below the poverty line. Viviane. Reding, a vice president of the European Commission, said the problem might not be solved as long as local officials were terrified of a public backlash for helping Roma. “That means the EU ultimately may have to issue its own Europe-wide rules,” she explained.





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Formerly dysfunctional English city improves under new leadership
(Photo: Doncaster Mayor Ros Jones)


English mayors’ use of Twitter still in its infancy



High Court petitioned to overturn election of London borough mayor (Photo: Tower Hamlet Mayor Lutfur Rahman)


Mayor of Venice arrested against background of widespread corruption in Italy



Berliners reject housing development on former city centre airport site



Former heavyweight world boxing champion wins Kiev mayoral bout



Comparison of north-east England with Detroit derided as sensationalist journalism (Photo: Angel of the North by Antony Gormley)


Local politicians accused of fearing public backlash for helping Roma migrants