Outgoing mayor felt 'carefully watched' in the role and wants it to modernise

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Cllr Alan Dowson reflects on his time as mayor and his next steps as he enrols as a student at 85

“I feel that I’ve been carefully watched,” Peterborough’s outgoing mayor has said of his time in the role.

Cllr Alan Dowson (Labour, Fletton and Woodson) completed his year in the position, usually bestowed to Peterborough City Council’s (PCC) longest-serving councillor, in May this year.

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But he felt that he was watched, both by the council and its administration, throughout it, he said, so that he didn’t say anything deemed "too political".

Cllr Alan Dowson and Cllr Shabina Qayyum in the mayor's parlourCllr Alan Dowson and Cllr Shabina Qayyum in the mayor's parlour
Cllr Alan Dowson and Cllr Shabina Qayyum in the mayor's parlour

Cllr Dowson is now calling on the council to update and expand the role of mayor, which he doesn’t feel should be purely ceremonial, so that those who take it up can more easily support the causes they’re passionate about.

“I think the role of mayor should be a unifier for the various diverse groups which make up our city,” he said, “through various actions such as opening the Town Hall to the public more and possibly bringing in schools for civic learning”.

He himself felt restricted in who he could invite into the mayor’s parlour, he said, and how he could spend his allowance.

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“In one instance, I wanted to invite the railway workers association’s children’s group and was told, well, that’s a union,” Cllr Dowson said. “Really, it was just children.”

New Mayor and Mayoress Nick Sandford and Bella Saltmarsh with predecessors Alan Dowson and Shabina QayyumNew Mayor and Mayoress Nick Sandford and Bella Saltmarsh with predecessors Alan Dowson and Shabina Qayyum
New Mayor and Mayoress Nick Sandford and Bella Saltmarsh with predecessors Alan Dowson and Shabina Qayyum

Inviting residents from villages with poor bus services to talk about some of their issues was also “viewed as a dicey thing”, he added.

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Meanwhile, the “apparent outrage” over his failure to wear a 19th century hat and flea collar (traditionally worn so that people could spot fleas on the mayor’s clothing) to read out King Charles III’s proclamation was “mainly down to the establishment refusing to progress into modern times” and ditch outdated dress codes, he said.

A PCC spokesperson said that it’s important for the mayor to remain impartial and above party politics.

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“The role of mayor has to remain above party politics which we know from experience can be difficult for members who choose to take on this ceremonial role,” the spokesperson said.

“The advice of our officers is always in line with our constitution which clearly states that the mayor must remain impartial at all times.”

Cllr Dowson says he won't stand for election again

Cllr Dowson, who has been “on the council for 50 odd years, on and off”, won’t stand for election again, he said, meaning his time with PCC will end in 2026.

The 85-year-old said that his year as mayor was among the most “physically and mentally challenging” and that “there should be some sort of age limit” in future.

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But the experience was also exciting and rewarding, he said, particularly the opportunity to raise money for charity.

Cllr Dowson and his team raised £25,000 for food banks, school breakfast clubs, a rural hospital taxi service, homelessness charities and Peterborough disability charity Little Miracles among others.

He also took the unprecedented step of adding his own mayor’s allowance of £6,000 into the charity pot, he said.

Overseeing the fundraising effort was Cllr Shabina Qayyum (Labour, East), mayoress during Cllr Dowson’s term, who says it was “incredibly special” to be able to support people “from the very young to the very elderly”.

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“I’ve had a very different journey as an ethnic minority woman in politics and just to be given the opportunity in this role was a huge privilege,” she said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better team on the charities committee and the huge exposure to different communities we had and the lives we’ve impacted from the very young to the very elderly has been very special.”

Cllr Dowson was succeeded by Cllr Nick Sandford (Liberal Democrats, Paston and Walton) as mayor while Cllr Qayyum has been succeeded by alderman Bella Saltmarsh.

85-year-old will now enrol as a master’s student

But Cllr Dowson isn’t planning on a quiet retirement any time soon.

In fact, his plan now is to become a student again in his mid-80s, studying a two-year course part time on thought and culture from 1945 at the University of York to help him write an autobiography.

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“From this year, being mayor, I’ve got some hilarious moments, from meeting the people, like the bag lady who used the mayor’s car and the policeman who told me to bugger off when I inquired about arresting one of my residents,” he said.

“I’ve also been in the navy – Danish – and the army and the air force and watched hydrogen bombs go off, so I think I could write an autobiography but I need some guidance.

“I don’t wish to just disappear into the wilderness. I think there’s something to be left over.”

Cllr Dowson is also campaigning for greater provision of adult education for others in Peterborough

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The city was once a “leading community education provider”, he said, but over the last two decades it’s become a “pretty poor cousin” of the city which offered hundreds of courses through the Peterborough College of Adult Education at Brook Street.

This still offers adult courses, and the Peterborough Civic Society and u3a (University of the Third Age) do some “excellent work” too, Cllr Dowson said, but he’d like to see adult education reach even more people to combat loneliness and help older people keep mentally and physically well.

He has organised events to promote this, and made several suggestions to PCC, including the creation of a sub-committee to draw up an action plan for adult education and a free booklet detailing all the courses available in Peterborough.

There could then be open days in the Town Hall, he said, and a week dedicated to raising awareness of the courses on offer, with any expenses paid for with their existing community leadership fund allowance to be spent on projects in their community.

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“I walk around my ward during the week and at 11 o’clock in the morning I see people sat around on their third cup of coffee, alone, when they should be out mixing with other people,” Cllr Dowson said.

“It’s sad we’ve had a loss of service in Peterborough but I hope we do something about it in future.”

As leader of PCC’s administration, Cllr Wayne Fitzgerald (Conservatives, West) has been approached for comment on Cllr Dowson’s remarks.

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