A NEW mayor of Colchester was due to be installed tomorrow but because of the lockdown as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, this is not going to happen. In this first instalment, Sir Bob Russell, who is a former mayor, writes a critical commentary and puts this into historic context.

The borough of Ipswich is the nearest to Colchester which has a mayor and our Suffolk neighbours have decided the best thing to do while the country continues to operate under the lockdown is for their mayor to continue for a further 12 months.

That seems to be the wisest way forward and Ipswich is not alone in this.

Colchester Council, however, has decided – but who actually made the decision? – thatmayor Nick Cope should continue only until October and for him to then be replaced by councillor Robert Davidson.

My research has revealed that Colchester is the only one of 14 boroughs and districts in Essex to make such a decision.

Colchester is on its own on this.

But who made the decision? Legally, it was made not by councillors but by a council officer, monitoring officer Andrew Weavers, using the emergency powers granted by the Government to local authorities for the duration of the pandemic restrictions.

Does anyone seriously believe limitations imposed by the coronavirus outbreak count as an emergency when it comes to who is mayor?

It is not as if enemy forces are poised to invade, as they were in in 1940, which is the last time the annual election of a new mayor of Colchester did not take place and the incumbent stayed in office.

These are challenging times for just about everyone, including councils, for whom appreciation is deserved for the way the workforce has continued to provide services – visibly, notably the refuse collection – which are so important to civilised society.

That, however, is not a justification for scrapping the basics of democratic decision-making and democratic accountability.

My inquiries confirm that all 51 councillors did not make the decision.

That decision goes into the history books as the first time since the office was created 385 years ago in 1635 (in the reign of King Charles I) that an officer (not councillors) has declared who the next mayor will be and when the current mayor steps aside.

The same year also saw the creation by the king of the post of High Steward, to enforce the king’s wishes on Colchester, but even King Charles did not appoint the mayor.

Then, and in the subsequent centuries, it was councillors who did so… until history was broken this month.

How did this extraordinary state of affairs arise?

Eight councillors in the cabinet, the current mayor and the proposed next mayor, were consulted – I have no idea who initiated that consultation, nor why it was conducted in such a limited way as it was – and this led to the councillor who chairs the scrutiny committee (councillor Beverly Davies) giving the go-head for Mr Weavers to make the decision.

All 51 councillors were not involved. They were told via their group leaders what was proposed.

They then got an e-mail saying: “A decision has been taken by the monitoring officer pursuant to the provisions of rule 18 of the council procedure rules, following consultation with the chairman of the scrutiny panel and the mayor.”

This decision has been published on the website and will be implemented with immediate effect.

I have read what rule 18 says. It starts with the words “matters of urgency.” Is the appointment of a mayor in five months’ time a “matter of urgency”?

Why could it not wait until things become more clear?

And why is it that no other council in Essex, plus Ipswich, has done what Colchester has done?