He has cut his salary, returned the mayoral car and severed twinning links with five foreign towns. But Peter Davies, Doncaster’s accidental mayor, has barely started his town hall revolution.
“I am planning to bring the car back into Doncaster,” he pronounces in an interview with the Financial Times. “We want people to come in their cars into the town.
“People will not use the buses: they are poor and expensive. People in cars spend more than people on buses, why wouldn’t we want them?”
Mr Davies’ election win in June, as one of 11 directly elected mayors nationwide, came as a surprise even to him. He polled more than 24,000 votes for the English Democrats, an obscure party set up in 2002 to campaign against British membership of the European Union.
He saw his candidature purely as a way to boost its profile in the European elections. “There was no plan to win,” he admits, but says on reflection it was obvious why he did. “I was the only one with a distinct set of policies. All the rest were talking waffle and their policies were almost interchangeable.”
The inconvenient truth for mainstream politicians is that Mr Davies’ views – pro-capital punishment, anti-immigration and EU – chime with many Britons. The mayor says he is a creature of politicians’ “contempt” for the voters. He admits that reversing 20 years of government policy, including scrapping the town’s “quality bus corridor”, will not be easy. “We have arrayed against us the climate change alarmists and green fools, who want us all to eat lettuce and live in caves.”
Her Majesty’s Government may also have something to say. It granted £15.3m to create the bus corridor and may ask for the money back if it is changed.
However for now, at least, he seems to be riding high, helped both by the parliamentary expenses scandal and the legacy of 35 years of Labour rule in Doncaster. The “Donnygate” affair ended in 2004 after 42 convictions for fraud, including 21 councillors found guilty, with a former planning committee chairman sent to jail for taking bribes from a developer.
Martin Winter, the ex-Labour Independent who preceded Mr Davies as mayor, decided not to run again after a government inquiry found that child protection services were failing.
While Doncaster might have a unique political past its present political set-up could spread. The Conservatives want mayors in 12 of the biggest cities in the UK. Such contests have traditionally thrown up mavericks, from Ray Mallon, the hardline former police officer known as “Robocop” in Middlesbrough, to Boris Johnson in London.
Mr Davies has become a national figure, dubbed the “Boris of the North” and the “Marmite mayor” – because you either love him or hate him. They still seem to like him in Doncaster, a South Yorkshire town of 300,000 emerging from hard times brought on by the closure of nearby engineering works and collieries. An English Democrat candidate lost the by-election for a council seat on Thursday night to Labour by just 86 votes.
The Conservatives did not stand and their support for the mayor’s policy has been crucial, with half his cabinet from the party.
Labour, which still forms the largest council group with 25 members, has tried to embarrass the Conservatives over their involvement, passing a resolution dissociating the council from the mayor’s more intemperate comments – such as describing climate change as a “scam”. Local MPs such as Caroline Flint and Ed Miliband have called on David Cameron, Conservative leader, to tell his councillors to desert Mr Davies.
However, his hair-shirt, “common sense” policies are not so different from those being advocated by the Tories at Westminster.
His leased Toyota Prius has gone, saving £6,000 a year. Apart from his £30,000 salary – reduced at his behest from £73,000 – he claims a pension after a career teaching politics and religious affairs. He also rents out 80 acres of farmland and has part-ownership of four racehorses, paid for by his betting winnings.
However, he says he is battling an entrenched bureaucracy and mindset: “It is like turning round an ocean liner. You make a decision and find out three months later it hasn’t been made. There is no hunger for change in this place.”
What keeps him going is daily contact with local people – and the 400-plus congratulatory e-mails. One woman from Rochdale wrote: “I wish you were our mayor. In fact I wish you were prime minister.”