The Sketch: Eden District Council


Mary Robinson might just turn out to be the best Mayor that Cumbria County Council never had.

She was in action on Thursday night, chairing Eden District Council.

Mary is short-haired, slight of stature and a no nonsense woman. Rifling through the 18-item agenda with a haste that left the room spinning.

Arriving for just her second meeting since her appointment to the top chair, she thudded down the municipal carpet like Robocop.

Duff. Duff. Duff.


Mary Robbo took charge at the town hall in the way the SAS turn over embassies. With guts, grenades and gunfire.

I have never seen the wooden gavel get so much action.


Tory bad boy John Lynch – innocently waxing his tash at the back of the class – got a duster in his ear for daring to whisper to the councillor sitting next to him.

Independent Mike Tonkin, 71, was standing up and mid-way through a sentence when the loudest crack of the night rang out.

He hit the deck on all fours, going into a commando roll. His eyeballs darting around the chamber for the Sniper.

Realising he was not the target, Mike recovered his composure and got to his feet.

“I thought I’d been shot,” he sighed, patting his thumping ticker with relief.

It was one of those moments in local politics when the council laughs as one.

They all have a funny bone. 

THWACCCCKK. A bluebottle bought it in mid-air.

Mary blew smoke from the end of her gavel.

“You have 20 seconds to comply.”


Mary is back on the Eden District Council beat after being burned out of her Independent watchtower in the County Council elections.

Back in May, Mary lost her Alston and East Fellside seat in a Labour ambush high up in Bear Country.

Four years of Mary devotedly trailing up and down the North Pennines at all hours of the day for interminably turgid meetings about the future of the cottage hospital. 

All for nowt….

Dark when she sent off, dark when she got home. This is the life for many a Cumbrian councillor, and most of them do it uncomplainingly and then are cruelly ousted at election time through no fault of their own.

Mary lost the pre-election Poster War that springs up on the A686, the long, twisting moor road where Mammoths roam in winter and rattlesnakes hide in the Cat’s Eyes.

Mary’s seat fell to a Corbyn disciple and an energetic world changer, a couple of decades her junior.

Claire Driver’s the name. A councillor on a mission with somewhere to be.

As the result sank in, Mary said: “It’s all very well making promises, but you’ve got to keep them.”

Back in 2012, Mary ran as an Indie for the role of Cumbria Police and Crime Commissioner.

She believed the post should be non-political. The public did not agree. 

Mary lost and burned a few thousand pounds of her own cash in the process.

Such is life for an Independent.

With no party finances to rely on and a shortage of shoe leather, the hard slog is all your own.


But Thursday night looks like the start of a new run of form for Mary whose natural twinkle and easy charm is perfect for civic occasions.

She could not have looked prouder than when she hoisted the flag for Armed Forces Day.

But that is not to assume that she will be a ceremonial pushover during council meetings.

Sir. Rupert Hooper, the uber-smooth chief executive, will need to watch out. Mary man-marked him on Thursday.

Within five seconds of him rising to his feet and launching into his immaculate legal patter, most of the chamber was hypnotised and the other half was eating onions out of his hands.

Robocop sat quietly watching it all go on.

After about five minutes of listening to Sir. Rupert skilfully reverse park out of a question, Mary elbowed him in the ribs.

“That’s not the answer to the councillor’s question,” Mary glared, turning Dimbleby for a moment.

Sir. Rupert smiled, knowing he had been busted.


Sometime around Agenda Item 11, I lost consciousness.

Amended Portfolio Holder Meeting Dates

But I woke up as someone in the chamber said: “We are unreplacing street lights.”

Or did I dream this phrase? I had been looking out of the window at the time to admire the huge church steeple framed against a setting sun.

Pat Godwin, another Independent, complained that Alston has only got two street lights on Front Street, and a thousand cobbles to break your ankle on.

When the clocks go back, Front Street is plunged into darkness for the start of “Alston On Ice.” It lasts as long as winter…which is about nine months in the North Pennines.

The shopkeepers on this vertical main strip do their best to salt the pavements but in England’s highest market town, the living is freezy.

Bust your ankle at the wrong time of night in Alston and it could be a long, cold wait for an ambulance. There’s a big question mark over the cottage hospital and hosses are slow over the Moor.

Sometimes, the snow is so deep even the rescue helicopters – piloted by ex-Army flightmen – cannot land.

The town sooth-sayer might sort you out with a capful of Calpol and a Murray Mint to suck on, but if  you need painkillers, they’re not trained.

Let’s hope you brought your coat.

You’d be just as well being stretchered over to the Turk’s Head and being hooked up to a litre of Whisky until the cavalry arrives.

In 2017, street lights may seem like a basic necessity in a place like Alston.

Not so.

Apparently, councils are not legally bound to provide them and that’s all that seems to matter these days.

Do we legally have to provide it? That’s the bottom line.

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