How the mayors of Bedford Borough have left their mark

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The first directly-elected Mayor of Bedford Borough, Frank Branston. Image: Bedford Borough Council
The first directly-elected Mayor of Bedford Borough, Frank Branston. Image: Bedford Borough Council

With its creation in 1974, Bedford Borough Council is 50 years old this year. To help mark their anniversary, we’ve given them a chance to look back at how our local authority has evolved and impacted the area we live.

In the second of three articles, provided by Bedford Borough Council, we look at the mayors of Bedford Borough.

With the formation of, what was then, Bedford District Council, the previous council’s outgoing mayor felt in no doubt that he would be the last “proper” Mayor of Bedford.

Judith Cunningham Bedford Borough's final ceremonial mayor. Image: Bedford Borough Council
Judith Cunningham Bedford Borough’s final ceremonial mayor. Image: Bedford Borough Council

Cllr Graham Bates told the Bedfordshire Times, “I was visiting some pensioners recently, and one of them said to me ‘Oh you’re the last proper mayor, aren’t you?’ It struck me then, how sad it was.”

One of his last duties was to represent the council for the unveiling of a £1.2million inner relief road – better known today as Longholme Way and Rope Walk.

A crowd of 300 people joined him to see Bedford’s first new road bridge in 90 years.

Ironically, he shared the news pages that week with a young journalist making a name for himself.

Directly-elected mayor

Frank Branston, the chief reporter of the Bedfordshire Times and the Bedford Record, was in the news himself as he had just been named Provincial Journalist of the Year.

The judges highlighted Frank’s, “Outspoken campaign to expose and reform conditions in his local government area”.

30 years later Frank was still pushing hard to reform local government and by 2002 he was the owner of another local newspaper, the Bedfordshire On Sunday.

At this time, the UK Government introduced directly-elected mayors with executive powers.

Mayors no longer needed to be ceremonial figureheads but could lead the way in local government. Only major cities were expected to adopt this system – but Frank was determined that Bedford should have one too.

Mayor Dave Hodgson served as a directly-elected Mayor for 13 years. Image: Bedford Borough Council.
Mayor Dave Hodgson served as a directly-elected Mayor for 13 years. Image: Bedford Borough Council.

Frank’s newspaper launched a public campaign that there should be an elected Mayor of Bedford, the public agreed via a referendum, and who was the first person elected to the post?

Frank Branston of course, who was then re-elected in 2007 as a member of the Better Bedford Party.

Frank’s mark on history wasn’t over, as his time saw yet another shake-up of local government when the former county council, who Frank seemed to be constantly locking horns with, was abolished in 2009, its powers handed to the Borough Council.

Even County Hall was renamed as Borough Hall when the council headquarters moved across the river. But sadly, he didn’t get to enjoy the new single-authority Bedford Borough for long as he died just a few months later.

Mayor Tom Wootton was elected in 2023. Image: Bedford Borough Council.
Mayor Tom Wootton was elected in 2023. Image: Bedford Borough Council.

Frank was succeeded by Dave Hodgson, who was the Borough’s directly elected mayor for an unprecedented 13-and-a-half years.

Like his predecessor, Mayor Hodgson (Liberal Democrats) controlled the council through a coalition with other parties and various Independents.

Most recently, the present Mayor, Tom Wootton (Conservative), took office following last year’s election in May 2023.

In 2009, a 3.2 mile (5.1km) stretch of road linking the A421 at Marsh Leys with the A428 was opened and named The Branston Way in honour of Bedford’s first directly-elected mayor. It was officially opened by his widow Marlies.

You can read more about the Mayors of Bedford from the 13th century to today at the Beds Archives.

 
 
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