Fringe Box



Opinion: Why We Students Support an Elected Mayor Referendum

Published on: 28 Jul, 2015
Updated on: 30 Jul, 2015

Town & Gown 2by Mustie Smith

President, University of Surrey Students’ Union

Most of the comments on the petition to have a referendum on whether Guildford should have an elected mayor, or not, have been made as further salvoes in the fight between two opposing factions in the bitter argument about Guildford’s Local Plan.

But I don’t want to be part of that fight. I want to discuss the pros and cons of having an elected mayor and why we as a Students’ Union support the petition.

Opinion Logo 2The first point to note is that this is a petition to have a referendum; this is not a petition to introduce an elected mayor. There will be plenty of opportunity, should the bid for a referendum be successful, for arguments on the merits or otherwise of a mayoral system.

The second point to consider is the system as it currently ‘works’. Any reader who is interested should watch the webcast of the most recent full council meeting of Guildford Borough Council.

After two hours of less than stimulating debate, ask yourself the question: “Is Guildford borough in any way better now than it was at the start of the meeting?” With the exception of the opportunity for the people of Chilworth, Shalford and St Martha’s who presented their views on their parish council boundaries, it was largely pointless.

Having watched it I defy anyone to believe that a full council system is an effective and decisive form of governance.

It is fair to say that the leadership of the borough has come under criticism in recent months for many reasons, and it is also fair to say there is a general vagueness around accountability for some of the actions of the council.

Who is actually in charge? The leader? The Executive?

Or is it the whole council? The Conservatives have a near monopoly on council seats, yet when appointing their own to positions they are accused of being ‘party political’.

On the other hand, opposing voices represent an important part of the community and as part of a minority they are destined to suffer a frustrating term of office unable to affect change for those who elected them.

We are challenged as a union to encourage voter registration and turnout and to ensure that our students play an active part in local and national democracy.

This is not something that can be switched on and off when it suits. Our students need a council leadership that cares about: the security of footpaths, the standards of rented accommodation, the provision of local transport and cycle ways, and more.

We do not want our students to accept the view that while they are resident in this borough, contributing to the local economy by paying at least £9,000 per annum in fees, as well as rent and living expenses that they are not full members of this community.

Someone who has lived in this borough for 40 weeks has the same rights as someone who has lived here for 40 years, and they have every right to express their view on how their community is run.

A very important study to note, is the one undertaken by the Universities of Bristol and UWE [University of the West of England] which looked at the change in Bristol after the introduction of an elected mayor.

Prior to this change, 24% of the city believed there was ‘visible leadership’, the same survey after the mayor’s introduction rose to almost 70%.

An elected mayor may not be the answer to all of these problems, it may not be what everyone in the borough wants, but it is absolutely right to have the debate and put the question to the electorate. And that is why the Students’ Union at the University of Surrey firmly supports the referendum.

Share This Post

Responses to Opinion: Why We Students Support an Elected Mayor Referendum

  1. Dave Middleton Reply

    July 28, 2015 at 9:54 pm

    “Someone who has lived in this borough for 40 weeks has the same rights as someone who has lived here for 40 years, and they have every right to express their view on how their community is run.”

    I would say to Mr Smith, that I’m sorry but I disagree with that statement.

    If you are merely transiting through a community, as most students at the university are, before returning to their home town, or country, why should you be able to influence things that may affect the permanent community of a town?

    To me it’s rather like saying if you rent a room in a house you should be able to make changes to how the host family live their lives and that surely can’t be right?

    Please don’t think that I’m anti-student, I’m not, after all, their future taxes will be paying my old age pension in a couple of decades.

    • Ben Clewer Reply

      July 29, 2015 at 10:04 am

      In regard to Mr Middleton’s comment about transistioning through, he is indeed right that this true for the majority of students. However, the issues students raise about the community will be the same (or very similar) for the next set of students that will be passing through.

      So whilst we may not be directly affecting ourselves in the short term with decisions about the community’s future, we are, in fact, representing all future students and thus representing a permanent stake in the community.

      It works in the same style as school governors, their children may not be there for more than a few years, but they want to ensure that all future children have an improved experience. We merely wish the same for future Guildford residents, be they students or not.

      I would like to add as a final note, that not all of us wish to simply transistion through and there are those of us (including myself) who intend to work in the Guildford area upon leaving university.

      I know a large group of highly intellectual students now permanently working over at the Research Park after recently completing their degrees. This too is my intention and personally, I want to help make the town a better experience for all.

      Ben Clewer is part of the Community Zone at the University of Surrey Students’ Union

  2. Lisa Wright Reply

    July 28, 2015 at 10:23 pm

    I assumed the petition from Ms Juneja, asking the public to consider whether they would like a mayor, was being promoted solely to block the other petition from Local Democracy Ltd which asks for a referendum to see whether the electorate would prefer a return to a committee system of voting.

    Should Ms Juneja’s petition be submitted first, no other petition will be accepted for 10 years thus keeping the current Executive in place or electing a Mayor (with considerable power).

    Whilst I am sure the Students’ Union have their members best interests in mind, with all the recent shenanigans surrounding the University of Surrey’s Blackwell Farm proposals and recalling, if I’m not mistaken, Mr Smith speaking in favour of that development at a GBC meeting last year, I too am a little suspicious of the reasons for promoting an elected mayor.

    Unfortunately for the residents of Guildford, as I understand it, GBC have declined to hold a three way referendum.

    One thing is sure, there is more to this than we are all privy to.

  3. Bernard Parke Reply

    July 28, 2015 at 10:33 pm

    Yes, but the taxes we have paid through out our working life has mostly paid for their education.

  4. Susan Parker Reply

    July 28, 2015 at 11:12 pm

    Sadly Mr Smith does not appear to know what he is campaigning for.

    He states: “The first point to note is that this is a petition to have a referendum; this is not a petition to introduce an elected mayor. There will be plenty of opportunity, should the bid for a referendum be successful, for arguments on the merits or otherwise of a mayoral system.”

    This is unfortunately not true. If the mayoral petition is successful, and is submitted before the alternative petition for the committee system, it will rule out any possible future return to that committee system for a minimum period of 10 years. The only alternatives, under the arcane legal rules that are applied under the Localism Act, will be the mayoral system or the status quo.

    Within GGG we think that there are merits to a committee system, since it means that all elected representatives can participate in local democracy. At present, as noted by Mr Smith, minority parties do not get any chance to influence policy.

    Under the committee system all councillors vote to decide policy, rather than just the Executive (which is the case at present). It is unfortunate that there cannot, apparently, be a three-way vote or choice for the public. The council’s Monitoring Officer has explained that the first petition to get just over 5,000 valid signatures could determine policy in Guildford for the next 10 years.

    I do hope that the students who are campaigning are not unduly influenced by being paid to collect signatures. Perhaps signatories of the mayoral petition should realise that those collecting signatures are being paid by the number of signatures collected?

    I should state that I am a Guildford Greenbelt Group borough councillor for Send ward. I am also a director of Local Democracy Ltd, which has an alternative petition to reintroduce the committee system (but which does not pay to collect signatures).

  5. Janette Panton Reply

    July 29, 2015 at 11:54 am

    If the University of Surrey students are really that concerned with the future of Guildford, why do they have to be paid to collect signatures? I feel sure that most would not have collected signatures without the lure of payment. To my mind this is not showing concern for the future of Guildford.

    I am appalled that GBC have declined to hold a 3-way referendum. As someone recently commented, democracy certainly does appear to have died within our borough council. I really do hope they will reconsider this and give Guildford a choice.

  6. Roland McKinney Reply

    July 29, 2015 at 12:41 pm

    With regard to the financial contribution that students make to Guildford, some of the fees paid to the university may leak out into the wider community, but against this, students do not pay council tax.

    Their occupation of homes across Guildford (thought to be about 1,000) results in a loss of council tax of about £2 million a year, as well as making it much more difficult for young people who work in Guildford to find somewhere to live – and this competition for a place to live pushes up rents.

    In addition, students use the services provided by the council – such as the collection of rubbish and recyclables – paid by council tax collected from those resident in the borough for more than 30 weeks a year.

    Mustie Smith should perhaps have another look at the official university time table. According to this, undergraduates spend 30 weeks a year, not 40, at the university. It’s difficult to maintain that they should have the same rights as long term (council tax paying) residents, despite what Ben Clewer says, above.

    Finally, I’d suggest that if the council were to debate the topics that Mustie Smith says are important to students, such as the security of footpaths, the standards of rented accommodation, the provision of local transport and cycle ways I doubt that the debates would be more stimulating than those observed.

    This is because they are not “debates” in any true sense, in many cases councillors read carefully scripted and choreographed contributions; and close their ears to any other views.

    An elected mayor would not change this, in fact it would probably be even worse. The fault for the poor quality of debate is with the council leadership, which does not wish to hear any opposing views, no matter how sensible. Consequently, real debate is not tolerated.

    • Tom Handforth Reply

      July 29, 2015 at 2:41 pm

      Roland McKinney writes as if he has done a lot of research into this. Can he confirm the facts he gives with proof?

      • Roland McKinney Reply

        July 31, 2015 at 12:50 am

        I’ve been asked for my research and proof. I suppose this relates to the number of HMOs, but really this was based on fag packet type calculations. If there is better data out there, I’m sure someone will let me know.

        According to the university financial report for 2013/14 the total university headcount in that year was 13,706, of which 9,997 were undergraduates. This would be a slight underestimate of the number of students in the current year.

        According to the university website, they have 4,966 rooms and 98 flats. These are available to students and new staff, but ignoring staff, and assuming rooms are single and flats are double – 5,162 students would have accommodation, leaving 8,544 seeking accommodation.

        Assuming all are in HMOs with an average of 5 per HMO would mean 1708 HMOs would be needed. But some students are local, some have different types of accommodation – but about 1,000 HMOs needed seems a conservative estimate.

        Then the GBC website gives rates for council tax – because the consideration of a house with five bedrooms implies a fairly large house, assume the average is Band E, with a current council tax rate of £1940 for 2015/16.

        So total council tax loss – about 1000 times about £2000, a total of about £2 million. However, less than 10% of this accrues to GBC, the rest goes to policing and Surrey County Council.

        As for proof that the loss of HMOs affects rents and house prices – it’s simply a question of supply and demand. Fewer family homes available to purchase or rent close to Guildford centre must have an impact on house prices and on rents.

        For the length of time at the university, in 2014/15 teaching in semester 1 started on October 6th and ended on 6th February, with a holiday from 20th December to January 9th. Some faculties held exams from January 19th and students were permitted to leave the university on January 30th. Semester 2 started on 9th February and ended on June 19th, with a holiday from 30th March to 24th April.

        This makes the teaching period 30 weeks (or 31, depending on faculty and exam schedule).

        I hope this is the detail requested.

        I’d add that the President of the Students’ Union might be better employed considering if it is appropriate for students to be associating in such a way with a recently convicted criminal.

        He could ask the university authorities why they have not built the student accommodation they committed to, units that would have provided good quality accommodation, with safe footpaths with cycle routes.

        Or they could ask why the university charges a market rate for their accommodation when so much of it is on land that was acquired at low cost, especially when compared with the cost of land today.

        These questions seem rather more relevant than pushing Ms Juneja’s agenda.

  7. Tony Edwards Reply

    July 29, 2015 at 3:15 pm

    A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing and, with the greatest respect, the President of Surrey University’s Students’ Union appears to have only a feeble grasp of the facts in this controversial issue.

    As others have pointed out, the there is probably more to this project than we know.

  8. Alan Sutherland Reply

    July 29, 2015 at 6:04 pm

    I would like to correct Roland McKinney’s misapprehension that Guildford Borough Council and Surrey County Council in some way lose out on council tax revenue owing to the exemption for students.

    Any loss in council tax revenue as a result of government policy (e.g. student exemption) is made up by central government taxation.

    I should also like to correct Bernard Parke in his statement that university students are “mostly” funded through taxation. All cohorts now studying at the University of Surrey are paying full fees (£9,000). For non EU students this may be considerably higher. When full fees were introduced, there was a corresponding cut in the level of teaching grant from the government.

    Alan Sutherland is the Chief Executive at the The University of Surrey Students’ Union

    • Neville Bryan Reply

      July 30, 2015 at 11:13 pm

      I would like to correct Mr Sutherland’s understanding of how the university is directly depriving the councils (SCC and GBC and the police) of this local tax revenue.

      There are currently around 1,400 current student HMOs in Guildford according to GBC last year. It was 1,200 in 2008, almost all in the town wards, according to the detailed analysis I have.

      If the University of Surrey had actually built the accommodation it promised in 2003, this figure would be substantially lower, around 900 lower actually at 3.15 students per house, and even more if you factor in the university’s growth beyond the 12,500 students it said it wanted in the same 2003 plan. The latest application for 953 student places, is way too little and very, very late.

      Work the numbers, and you get around the £2million per annum suggested by Mr McKinney. Yes there is government policy on HMOs, but the university is directly making the Guildford situation so much worse than it needs to be. Anyone can do the maths: 70,000 town residents, 11,500 full time under and post graduate students, that’s nearly 1 in 6 of the town’s population.

      Rather than creating a shortage of “on campus” accommodation, charged at high rates, on land it owns, perhaps the university should be building a world class campus on its Manor Park site to house all its additional students at a price they can afford, as it promised when it was allowed to take Manor Park out of the green belt, and given permission to expand, in the first place?

      Perhaps also these facts are what the student union president should be focused on, rather than allowing members to accept money to try to change politics here for those of us who will be here somewhat longer.

      I go on holiday to France every year, but would not dream of getting involved in local politics in France. For those students who come from Guildford, fair enough to be involved, but I think the holiday example applies to all transient students who spend only a limited time in Guildford, and that is the majority.

    • Roland McKinney Reply

      August 1, 2015 at 11:57 am

      It is disingenuous to suggest that tax payers do not bear the brunt of higher education costs. Although in theory student loans will be repaid at some point in the future, based on income after graduation, in practice a considerable proportion is not expected to be recovered – with estimates ranging from 40 to 55%.

      In selling past loans to commercial companies the government has taken very considerable losses, for example, in 2013 a student loan book with a face value of £890 million was sold to a debt management company for £160 million.

      The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimated in 2014 that the total taxpayer contribution per student was just under £25,000. In her latest publication, Professor Alison Wolf suggested that this was not always money well spent.

      Regarding the makeup of “lost” council tax by tax payers, I could not find this as a line item in the university accounts, but no doubt it is there.

      Good news for GBC is not however good news for Guildford’s taxpayers. Via the tax system they have the dubious pleasure of contributing to the “lost” council tax whilst facing the local impacts of the university accommodation policy, namely higher rents and higher house prices.

      Of course, the university accommodation policy is not the only factor, but it does go some way to explain the disparity in rents between Guildford and Woking.

  9. Jason Francis Reply

    July 29, 2015 at 6:09 pm

    Personally, I completely agree with Mustie Smith, not only will a referendum provide a democratic platform for the future of the borough but will bring the debate further into the public eye.

    An elected mayor will provide a visible and accountable leadership for Guildford something that is lacking in many communities across the country.

    Suggesting the student population of Guildford should have a limited or non existent voice is ludicrous, with a greater than 10% student population any limitation on student voice on the community is not only a step backwards in community relations but also extremely undemocratic.

    Guildford is home to a variety of institutions which greatly benefits not only the local economy but also Guildford’s social and cultural offerings.

    The Students’ Union at Surrey works tirelessly to engage and involve the local community, tackling issues and allowing the fantastic facilities the university provides to benefit the wider community.

    Mr Smith and his sabbatical team should be commended for continuing the great work achieved last year. A referendum will provide the open and honest discussions needed for Guildford to grow and develop in the coming decades.

  10. Jack Evans Reply

    July 31, 2015 at 2:30 am

    As glad as I am that the Students’ Union has clarified why they chose to support the petition of a fraudulent councillor without consulting its students, I do have to disagree with some of the arguments Mr Smith makes.

    If he truly wants to promote democracy, how does he imagine this can be achieved by taking power from a multi-party (although heavily Conservative) council and giving it to a single person?

    The council, as he points out, currently gives opposing councillors the opportunity to represent an important part of the local community – i.e. those that don’t vote Conservative.

    We already have an MP for Guildford, why do we need an elected mayor as well? Can an elected mayor achieve anything other than giving more power to an individual and taking it away from the community?

    Yes the council holds discussions before coming to decisions, and often these are slow and uninspiring. That is democracy.

    If Mr Smith wants strong leadership at the expense of consensus, maybe he should start campaigning for a local dictatorship instead – although this may be a difficult sell to the students who elected him.

  11. Terry Stevenson Reply

    July 31, 2015 at 2:42 pm

    So, let me get this straight, a certain section of the community would like to disenfranchise 1/6 of the remainder of the community.

    Thank goodness the vast majority of the recently-elected Police Commissioners made it into office on only a fraction of the vote of the total electorate.

    Furthermore, I expect quite a few of those espousing the virtues of ‘consensus politics’ also use the phrase ‘designed by committee’ when trying to denigrate something or other.

  12. Adrian Atkinson Reply

    September 7, 2015 at 8:52 am

    Whether one agrees with the committee, elected mayor or Executive model of governance, what baffles me is a question: does the students’ union realise who they and their students are or were helping?

    The students’ union encouraged students to “call Monika” to take part in some “research”. The adverts posted and the union’s motion talked about an “agency”.

    The Monika referred to is the same Monika who, on at least three occasions, criminally presented forged academic qualifications. It seems that there was no agency? And it wasn’t “research”. Were the union misled or did the union mislead?

    The students’ union should be distancing themselves from an individual and her actions, someone who shows so little integrity or respect for academic institutions and the effort of every past, present and future student.

    The union should be upholding integrity (one of its official values), value honesty and should not have anything to do with someone who has criminally stuck up the proverbial two fingers up at past, present and future students of all instructions. That is where the priority of the students’ union should lie.

Leave a Comment

Please see our comments policy. All comments are moderated and may take time to appear.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *