Hartlepool makes history with first gay couple to be council leader and mayor

Christopher and Stephen Akers-Belcher
Christopher and Stephen Akers-Belcher

A PAIR of Hartlepool councillors are set to make history by becoming the first civil partnership in the country to hold the positions of leader of council and ceremonial mayor.

Labour councillors Christopher Akers-Belcher and Stephen Akers-Belcher have spoken of their “pride” to hold the top two positions at Hartlepool Borough Council under major changes to the way the authority is run.

Christopher, who is Labour group leader, will become leader of the council from Monday while partner Stephen, who is currently chairman of the council, is set to be confirmed as ceremonial mayor next week.

The pair have been in a civil partnership for seven years after a ceremony at Lumley Castle and a reception at the Staincliffe Hotel at Seaton Carew.

Christopher, who represents the Foggy Furze ward, said: “We are really proud to be the first civil partnership in the country to hold both roles and it just shows how progressive Hartlepool has become.

“It has got to the point were nobody really cares about our sexual orientation, all people are really concerned about is whether we can do the job.

“People assume we morph into the same person when you are a couple, but the roles are very different and we are both really looking forward to the challenge.”

He added that the lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender (LGBT) community in town was also proud to have a gay couple holding such prominent roles.

The 45-year-old dad-of-four and grandad-of-one, from Westbrooke Avenue, Hartlepool, added: “The LGBT is an integral part of the community in Hartlepool and no longer just perceived as the minority.”

Manor House councillor Stephen said: “I am proud to do the role and the fact that we are a couple is second to that.

“It will be great to go back to having a ceremonial mayor and it is an honour to be the last chairman of the council and the first ceremonial mayor under the new system.”

The 33-year-old added: “Obviously it is quite unusual for a couple to hold both roles, but we are very different people.

“We are a couple, but we have different views and that is healthy.

“We are not joined at the hip and there are times when I vote against him and he votes against me.

“But nobody is in the doghouse at the end of the day or sleeping on the sofa at night.”

Stephen added: “I’m gay and proud of that, but I don’t see it as an issue and don’t like to wear it as a label.”

From Monday, the role of directly-elected mayor, currently held by Mayor Stuart Drummond, will cease to exist and instead there will be a committee system and leader of council after a referendum voted in favour of scrapping the current system.

The changes to the way the council is run will also see the return of a ceremonial Mayor of Hartlepool who will be chosen annually from among the councillors to represent the borough at civic functions.

Stephen is set to be confirmed as ceremonial mayor, which is a similar role to the chairman of council, at the Annual Council meeting next Thursday, May 9.

Conservative group leader Ray Wells and Putting Hartlepool First leader, Geoff Lilley, have both confirmed to the Mail they won’t be putting forward nominations.