Paul Benfield reveals his motiva tions for standing for election to the recently established Fleetwood town council and reflects on his victory
Fleetwood, like most towns, is proud of its history – even though it only goes back to 1826 when Sir Peter Hesketh Fleetwood developed it as a fishing port and seaside resort. Being at the northern end of the Fylde Peninsular, and surrounded by water on three sides, it has an independent spirit. It received its royal charter and became a municipal borough in 1933 with its motto ‘Forward’.
Local government changes in 1974 saw it merged into the Borough of Wyre, which takes in not only the urban areas of Fleet-wood, Thornton-Cleveleys and Poulton le Fylde, but also vast tracts of countryside stretching to Garstang and the Trough of Bowland with which the town has nothing in common.
There was a feeling that the town suffered by having no town council and so a Fleetwood Action Group was set up with the aim of achieving one. I was not part of this group, being rather ambivalent as to whether a council would achieve anything.
Many supporters of the idea seemed unable to grasp the fact that a new council would not be a resurrected municipal borough, but simply a parish council with very limited powers. They seemed to think that shouting ‘Fleetwood will not be bullied’ was going to achieve something. But after a petition and a referendum it was decided that a town council should be set up.
Love thy neighbour
Discussion with fellow church leaders and others led me to think that perhaps someone with involvement in the churches of the town should stand, because the twelve Christian congregations of the town have links into many homes and institutions and their leaders are generally well respected. Jesus tells us that we are to love our neighbour, and trying to serve townspeople on the new council must come within that command.
The proposers of the council had suggested that it should not be party political and the major parties said that they would not field candidates under their banners. But rumours circulated that the BNP was going to stand. This convinced me that I ought to stand – I would have felt awful if the BNP had been elected unopposed in my ward. So it was that I attended the Civic Centre clutching my nomination papers and waited for the returning officer to declare that they were in order and my nomination valid.
There are five wards in the town. In one ward no one was nominated, in another the number nominated was the number to be elected, but in the other three wards an election had to be held. The BNP did not, in the end, stand in my ward (they did stand elsewhere but were heavily defeated), but there were four of us standing for two seats. I did not do any canvassing nor leafleting, relying on the short profile of each candidate in the Fleetwood Weekly News and the fact that I am well known in the town.
I would have felt awful if the BNP had been elected unopposed in my ward
My wife (whom I had appointed as a counting agent) and I attended the count at the Marine Hall on election night. There was a long delay while postal ballots delivered to polling stations were sorted and allocated to the correct wards. Eventually the count got under way and I was surprised to see the number of ballot papers falling out of the boxes. Over 1,000 had been issued for my ward alone. As the count progressed I became fairly confident that I had won.
The result was announced at 12.30 a.m. and I had topped the poll, which was gratifying since some years ago a church member had written to the Church Commissioners objecting to proposed pastoral re-organization on the grounds that I was not popular in the town. The other person elected was a member of my congregation – though neither of us knew that the other was standing until the election was announced.
Learning the ropes
Since the election I have filled in my nil return of election expenses, the returning officer having pointed out that failure to do so would be an ‘illegal practice’, rendering my election invalid. I am now working through my register of interests -even membership of the General Synod and Forward in Faith has to be declared.
I have received notice of the first meeting and am familiarizing myself with the Code of Conduct for Councillors, which I must sign publicly at the first meeting. From the Code I have learnt that I must not display offensive, intimidating, malicious or humiliating behaviour. I can’t help feeling that some PCCs could do with something similar.
I have enjoyed the past six weeks and I have learnt a great deal about electoral law and procedure. But whether the council is able to achieve all that its supporters hoped for remains to be seen.