Local Politics on The English Riviera
The mayoral elections for Torbay of 2011 produced a clear victory for the Conservative candidate Gordon Oliver. He had successfully wielded the knife and dispatched his rival for the Conservative candidacy (the incumbent mayor Nick Bye). His election provoked strong reactions not least from those who had worked closely with him and who felt he would be a disaster for the Bay and its towns of Torquay, Paignton and Brixham. The local newspaper, the Herald Express also seemed to feel that this was a man who lacked vision and whose term in office would see the local area slide backwards. A year on, the direst predictions have obviously not come true. The Local Authority continues to function and the ruling Conservative group appears to be as united as it is ever likely to be. Furthermore, the Council has continued to press ahead with eminently sensible policies such as the installation of parking meters at key points around the Bay. At a time of a squeeze on public spending it seems right that Torbay Council is following just about every other major town and city where free parking disappeared many years ago. Roads are a community asset and it is entirely right that where possible they can be used to generate community revenue. The current administration has also taken forward a policy of reducing the charges in town centre car parks to assist local traders. Long overdue repairs to Torquay’s promenade have now begun with a completion expected in June. The current Mayor has also safeguarded the promenade near the Pavilion from any intrusive development. Planting of new palms along the road by Torre Abbey meadows have resulted in a much enhanced appearance whilst also ensuring reduced maintenance costs because of the removal of unsightly shrubbery.
However, these modest successes cannot mask the fact that the current mayor, Gordon Oliver has apparently failed to articulate a vision for his term in office. This was something that was highlighted by the very moderate head of the Torbay Civic Society in 2011 and repeated again by him at the beginning of 2012. People just do not know where Torbay is headed under Mr Oliver. He and his senior colleagues may well blame a hostile local press for his inability to get his message across but he refused the opportunity to have a weekly column in the Bays local paper something that is perverse in the extreme for a politician. There has also been a sense that with the new administration has come a much more hostile attitude to developers. True or not, there is a perception that some big developments have been lost as a result. The issue of the English Riviera Conference Centre has also proved to be a thorny one. The previous administration had indicated a willingness to see some form of redevelopment by a private company thereby relinquishing the ratepayers of the annual 600,000 subsidy required to run it. Mr Oliver has made it clear that the taxpayers must continue to fund the centre since the collective economic benefits it brings far outweighs the costs of maintaining it. A private sector redevelopment now seems unlikely. Mr Oliver has also had a difficult time when it comes to the policy that he claims is closest to his heart; tourism. His long held antagonism towards the English Riviera Tourism Company (ERTC) and his hostility towards many involved in the industry have meant that he often appears to be on the margins when it comes to tourism. Very early into his mayoralty he tried and failed to change the policy allowing change of use for no longer viable guest houses and B&Bs, he also tried and failed to take direct control of the ERTC and to impose a distracting review on it after only one year’s operation. This effort was effectively scuppered when his own council colleagues refused to back him after effective lobbying from the industry. Many in the local tourism industry have noted Mr Oliver’s complete absence from important tourism events. There have been two conferences held by the ERTC since his election and he has attended neither, he has not attended the Devon Awards for Tourism Excellence, the South West Tourism Awards for Tourism Excellence (both of which were held at the Riviera Centre in Torquay) nor the first ever Devon Tourism Conference held at the Westpoint Centre near Exeter. Some have questioned his ability to act in the interests of the industry. A major embarrassment for the Mayor was his attempt to advertise the Bay on television. It appears that he went ahead without properly consulting the ERTC and had an advert transmitted which resulted in just 10 phone calls one of which was for the contestant line for the X Factor TV programme. Estimates as to how much this advert had cost the council taxpayers ranged from 16,000 to 8,000.
2012 provides the Mayor with a much needed opportunity to prove himself in the tourism field. He has taken control of the celebrations to mark the Queen’s diamond jubilee and has once again made it clear that he wishes to see a growth in the number of Cruise ships entering the Bay. Successes in both of these endeavours will do much to mend fences with an industry that largely remains suspicious of his intentions. One glaring paradox does exist though with the Mayor’s effort to bring Cruise Ship passengers into the Bay; he commissioned a consultation document from Councillor Hill in which there was a recommendation that the Bay pursued coaching holidays and abandoned its drive for quality. Cruise ship passengers and coach trip passengers are at opposite ends of the spectrum and this has tended to underline the muddle headed thinking of the Mayor. One curious setback for Mr Oliver is that his cherished and stated policy of abolishing the post to which he has been elected looks as if it will be thwarted since the Government seems keen to see an extension of directly elected mayors rather than their disappearance. He may therefore have the uncomfortable dilemma at the end of his period in office of having to stand down or else break a clear election promise and stand again. For fans of local politics Torbay and the English Riviera are a fascinating case study. However, Torbay offers much else to visitors; whether they are searching for a grand hotel or a more humble family guest house there is something for everyone. Torbay’s unique micro climate and all year round visitor attractions help maintain the English Riviera as one of the UK’s leading seaside resorts and make it ideal for visitors on short breaks.