Mayor of Wigan reflects on marathon stint as first citizen

When Coun Steve Dawber takes off his mayoral chain in May he will be left to reflect on a time in office like no other.
Coun Steve DawberCoun Steve Dawber
Coun Steve Dawber

Coun Dawber will spend a full two years in his role, having been in the figurehead role throughout the borough’s battle with the Covid-19 pandemic.

He has seen enormous changes, both to his own position and the way the council and Wigan as a whole has had to work while being hit by the novel coronavirus.

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And he says he is keeping his fingers crossed that there will be a positive future, despite the obvious and considerable challenges ahead, once the borough emerges from the pandemic.

Marking Remembrance Day in WiganMarking Remembrance Day in Wigan
Marking Remembrance Day in Wigan

Coun Dawber, who represents Wigan West ward in the council chamber, says his marathon stint as first citizen feels like it has had two distinct halves.

He said: “It feels like two completely different years, one as the mayor and one as a virtual mayor.

“I will be looking back with some sadness but this is a fantastic job to do.

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“I will also look back with great admiration and respect for the people who despite these difficulties have still managed to go out and help people who are worse off than themselves.

Coun Dawber wearing his rainbow Pride suitCoun Dawber wearing his rainbow Pride suit
Coun Dawber wearing his rainbow Pride suit

“That has really come through during this pandemic, how many people are prepared to help.

“It is good to meet those people and thank them if I get the chance.

“You do think ‘why me?’ in this situation but it has been a huge honour to be mayor through this.”

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Coun Dawber reflected that there are so many positives and negatives to come from Covid-19 that the pandemic’s legacy on the borough is far from clear.

Coun Yvonne Klieve will become the mayor in MayCoun Yvonne Klieve will become the mayor in May
Coun Yvonne Klieve will become the mayor in May

He is concerned that some community groups will not survive their current financial problems due to the coronavirus regulations and says their plight is at the centre of his thoughts.

However, he also cannot help but be optimistic about how many new groups have sprung up to provide grass-roots support in communities’ hour of need.

Similarly, he says performing his civic duties on important dates in the calendar in a pandemic is a poignant and strange experience, but one which is also curiously accessible thanks to the wonders of modern technology.

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He said: “Remembrance Sunday is always a very moving ceremony. It was very strange to be in the churchyard with very few people there.

“The crowds have been getting bigger for it in recent years but this year there could have been more people than ever sitting watching it at home. Filming it gave more people the chance to take part in something they otherwise wouldn’t be able to do.

“I don’t think we’ve realised the full potential of technology for us yet.”

Despite that, Coun Dawber said his enjoyment of big public events in 2019 makes this year’s Covid-secure versions all the sadder.

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He also admits there are some things which he believes will never quite be the same in virtual formats.

He made a spectacular sartorial statement in support of Pride in 2019 by donning an eye-catching rainbow suit and presided over Wigan’s Christmas festivities, something he says was particularly missed in 2020.

He said: “I really enjoyed doing the Christmas lights switch-on and the Santa parade, which bring the crowds out in the town centre and are really community spirited.

“They haven’t been able to take place in 2020 and that is a huge disappointment. A few things have been cancelled.

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“There are also things like meeting the community groups in the Mayor’s parlour. That means an awful lot to people, getting their certificate which thanks them for all their voluntary work.

“I’ve been able to do those virtually but I am not sure people feel it’s the same.”

In terms of his role as first citizen Coun Dawber said the pandemic actually increased his workload.

When the council was unable to meet due to coronavirus decisions which would normally be voted on in the chamber had to be approved by the mayor instead.

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However, his diary of public and community engagements during the pandemic has been a fraction of the usual mayoral workload, which involves visiting events, opening facilities and making speeches from early in the morning until evening.

Coun Dawber is the first mayor in the borough in decades to serve for more than 12 months, with he and his counterpart in Oldham standing out among Greater Manchester first citizens for how long they have had to remain in their roles.

Coun Dawber says he believes there will be permanent changes after Covid-19 but suggested it is too early to fully grasp what those will be.

One area he is hoping for rapid improvements to a current dismal situation is in the difficulties faced by young people as the jobs market has collapsed and unemployment soared.

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Coun Dawber served notice of his intentions to make the next generation a key part of his time as mayor when he made his son Oliver his consort.

He said: “Oliver has been studying bricklaying and now there’s absolutely nothing out there for younger ones. I’m very affected by what has happened to young people.

“I’m hoping things will improve dramatically. The whole construction industry has been knocked back and businesses are holding back on things at the moment because they don’t know what’s happening.

“When all this is over and we are in a more secure position I’m hoping for a surge in work to complete everything they should have been done, and there will be places that can be filled by young people.

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“My heart also goes out to businesses. They’ve got employees to look after and when they’ve been shut one week and then allowed to open and then shut again it must be extremely difficult.”

At the end of a very unorthodox mayoral term the handover to the next mayor is also somewhat unusual.

When Coun Dawber took on the role in 2019 his deputy was Wigan Central ward representative Coun Michael McLoughlin.

However, he has decided not to step up into the position of mayor which means Coun Dawber will be succeeded by Coun Yvonne Klieve, who would have been Coun McLoughlin’s deputy this year, instead.

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Coun Klieve, who represents Golborne and Lowton West ward, said: “I’m really excited and looking forward to it. I’m keen on representing the whole of the borough and I was surprised but very pleased to be nominated.

“I am probably going to be one of the first mayors not to have had a year as deputy, but circumstances have not allowed for it.”

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