Opinion: I’m glad Bedford Borough has a Tory mayor, but not for the reasons you might think

Tom Wooton (Conservative) was elected at Mayor of Bedford Borough on 4 May 2023. Image: Bedford Borough
Tom Wooton (Conservative) was elected at Mayor of Bedford Borough on 4 May 2023. Image: Bedford Borough

History was made on Friday after it was announced that Conservative Tom Wootton would be the next mayor of Bedford Borough.

Naturally, his team were delighted, and judging by the comments on social media, a lot of our readers were too.

However, he’d only been mayor for a few minutes when comments about his ability to do the job, and if he’ll be able to deliver his manifesto promises started to appear.

He won’t even start doing that properly until Tuesday, thanks to the bank holiday, and already some have made their mind up about his ability to serve the Borough.

And we know how he feels.

Ever since day one, since we said we were founding an independent newsdesk for Bedford Borough, our independence has been attacked.

We’ve had a contingent of Bedfordians claim, without any basis of fact, that we’re a Liberal Democrat mouthpiece and that we’re in the pocket of the Lib Dem mayor.

My favourite conspiratorial accusation even suggested that I, personally, am part of a house-building property conspiracy involving the Mayor, the council, Charles Wells, and the NHS.

Of course, we’ve tried our best to ignore many of these comments, and we’re certainly thicker-skinned than we were back in 2018.

Thankfully the majority of our readers understand that as he was mayor, we’re bound to have featured Dave Hodgson more. He was literally the leader of the council, the person who said “yes” or “no” to how the Borough is run, the buck stopped with him.

By the very position he was in, he was going to feature more.

What we always did though was try to include balance, asking his political opponents for their views about his claims and giving them an equal voice, and we certainly didn’t use every photo of him we were sent.

Monthly columns

One way we did this was to offer each elected Borough politician a monthly column to tell our readers about their work in the Borough, or anything else they wanted to highlight.

One of the politicians we offered this opportunity to was Richard Fuller MP (Conservative), but he has ignored countless invitations to take up the offer to reach 130,000 readers a month.

Read: Monthly and editorial columns

We, therefore, changed our tact and instead decided to create a column for the council opposition. Thankfully, the leader of Bedford Borough Conservatives, Cllr Graeme Coombes, did see the value of this column.

Coupling this with our accurate and balanced reporting, we were then criticised by the Lib Dems.

In fact when speaking to former-mayor Dave, ahead of his exclusive interview with us after his loss on Friday night, I said that we’d enjoyed working with him. He responded, “Well your reporting hasn’t always reflected that”.

When I pointed out our reporting is always balanced, he just smirked.

We’re dammed if we do, dammed if we don’t.

That’s, however, the beauty of local news and I love it. We’re not here to please the people we report upon. In fact, my old editor from my Chiltern FM days used to tell me, “If you’re not pissing people off, you’re not doing your job properly”.

We don’t work for the council and we certainly don’t work for the mayor, whoever they may be.

We also don’t run political spin, having moved hundreds of media releases from all parties to our ‘rejected’ folder, because the claims are simply too self-serving.

The recent self-congratulatory claim about the quality of Bedford’s roads is a perfect example.

Read: “How bad must the other roads be?” report says Bedford has some of the best roads in the country

Instead, as the only news source based in the Borough, we’ll report on what is happening in our patch with accuracy and balance.

We don’t copy and paste media releases, we don’t publish a story without trying to get balance, and we certainly don’t add personal opinions in our articles – unless it’s clearly marked as an opinion piece.

Now he’s mayor, Tom will be offered exactly the same opportunities that Dave was.

He’ll be given the Bedford Borough Mayor’s monthly column and we’ll report on the work of his team in much the same way as we did with Dave because he’s the mayor.

We’ll also remove libellous comments about him on our social pages, not because we don’t allow criticism of a mayor, but because it is the law.

Tom now has the biggest bullhorn and now has the support of the council’s media team to talk about what his council is doing.

As we did with Dave, we’ll be asking councillors from other parties for their views on his claims, continuing to provide balance and allowing our readers to make up their own minds.

Big shoes to fill

Tom, does indeed have big shoes to fill, and big promises to keep.

He is coming into a role that has never been run by a Conservative before and has a lot to prove and fears to alleviate. He said to us himself, “he’s here to serve everyone” and his actions will need to prove that.

Will we call him out if his claims aren’t accurate or if he’s not keeping his promises? Absolutely. Will we congratulate him and give him credit when he does well? You bet.

Right now, at the start of his mayorship, we’ll even go so far as to wish him luck in achieving all he has promised.

What the Bedford Independent’s editorial team won’t be doing though is using our personal opinion to influence the angle of our content. We’ve never done that, and we never will.

On Tuesday, Tom will no doubt be excited, but I imagine he’ll also be nervous, just as I imagine a lot of council staff will be.

Many people working at the council have only known one mayor and they themselves will have to put aside their political opinions and adapt to a new way of doing things.

And that’s the beauty of local democracy, when the electorate wants change, they can vote for it, just as if they are happy with the ways things are going they can keep the status quo.

The Bedford Independent was the only newsdesk based in the borough to attend the local elections.

Sadly, that will be small comfort to those who may have voted for someone other than Tom.

The change from Supplementary Vote System to First Past the Post means Tom won with about 11% of the electorate voting for him – when you take into account that around 140,300 people in Bedford Borough are of voting age and that Tom secured 15,747 votes.

Was my vote one of them? Well, that’s none of your business.

I take great pride in once being told by Richard Fuller MP, “I can’t quite work out what political side you’re on”, because as a responsible news gatherer, journalist, and editor, my personal opinion must never influence the angle of our independent reporting.

For now, it’s fair to say we are looking forward to working with Tom. He has become mayor when our Borough faces significant challenges both due to local and national issues.

Whether he has solutions or not remains to be seen, but we’ll be there watching and making sure our 130,000 monthly readers know what’s happening with the trusted, accurate and balanced reporting they’ve come to expect.