We are all in it together - new Hartlepool leader Akers-Belcher

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THE new leader of Hartlepool Borough Council has today outlined his vision for the town and said the new system of governance is about “shared responsibility”.

Labour group leader Christopher Akers-Belcher has taken over the reins as council leader as part of major changes to the way the local authority is run.

The directly-elected post of Mayor, previously held by Stuart Drummond, has been scrapped in favour of a committee system with a council leader.

Coun Akers-Belcher, who takes the top job because he is leader of the largest political group on Hartlepool Council, admits the authority is facing a “significant challenge” making further cuts of around £20m over the next three years.

He told the Mail: “Hartlepool Borough Council is experiencing a historic change as we democratically move from the mayoral model of governance to our new committee system.

“The new style of governance is about shared responsibility, by all councillors, to plan for the future to meet the collective community aims of the residents of our town.

“With the significant financial challenges we face in Hartlepool, we will be required to make some very difficult decisions, accommodating the present conditions but changing for what will be an unpredictable future.”

He said through that they must retain a “vibrant and strong council” which remains committed to achieving equality.

As leader of the council, Coun Akers-Belcher will receive a special responsibility allowance (SRA) of £17,301 on top of the basic allowance of £5,767.

Coun Akers-Belcher said he believes the new committee system will mean decisions are made more quickly and he is confident the governance arrangements will save around £140,000 a year, compared to the directly-elected mayor and cabinet system.

The 45-year-old dad-of-four and grandad-of-one, from Westbrooke Avenue, Hartlepool, has 22 years experience in local government including 15 years at Easington Council in the benefits and counter fraud team.

Coun Akers-Belcher, who also worked as benefits manager at Hartlepool Council for seven years, said: “Unquestionably our greatest resource in the council is the workforce that works tirelessly providing a wide range of support, expertise and talent.

“We shall as a council need to continue to challenge the barriers that prevent all staff from realising their full potential.

“At the heart of our success is basic competence as a council, providing quality services and value for money.”

He called on people to put “trust” in the new model of governance in a bid to create a “stronger, safer and more prosperous Hartlepool”.

Coun Akers-Belcher first became a councillor in 2009 and said he never dreamed he would become leader of the council within four years.

Former Hartlepool United mascot Stuart Drummond was Mayor of Hartlepool for 11 years, from 2002, before a referendum late last year voted to scrap the mayoral system in favour of the committee structure.

Cuncillor Akers-Belcher outlined his main priorities for Hartlepool:

• Education and improving school attainment levels within secondary schools in Hartlepool is the main priority.

He said: “That is high on the priority list and the first thing we will look at.”

• A greater focus on providing services and creating jobs through projects like the council’s Empty Homes scheme.

He said: “We want to be the largest employer in the town, delivering services.”

Coun Akers-Belcher added that the council had already brought 50 out of the targeted 100 houses and said that was a “solid investment”.

• Re-examining council plans to buy Jacksons Landing, at Hartlepool Marina, the former Odeon cinema and the Longscar Centre at Seaton Carew to ensure the plans are “viable and robust”.

He said: “These buildings do blight people’s perceptions of Hartlepool and those are three that have just rumbled on over the last couple of years.”

• Revisit the Mill House Master Plan proposals and the potential sale of the council-owned Victoria Park to Hartlepool United Football Club.

Coun Akers-Belcher said: “It is whether the people of Hartlepool want that.

“At the moment it is owned by the people of Hartlepool because it is a council-owned asset.”

• Collaboration. Coun Akers-Belcher said he “embraces” the idea of collaborating services with neighbouring local authorities, rather than sharing staff, as long as the best service is being provided.

• He said he would even consider free swimming sessions for certain groups during the summer holidays to promote health and wellbeing or free car parking for residents at Christmas time to help boost the local economy.