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`It has to depend on ability, not quotas or gender'

Ian Stubbs, 53, is an electrician who has served on Scarborough Borough Council for 19 years, and was mayor in 1995. He thought Tony Blair's speech "inspirational - if you were beginning to question whether we were moving the right way, it gave me all the answers".

But he had some doubts about the details. "I don't think in all honesty you can look at the numbers of women or ethnic minorities in isolation and say there aren't enough," he said. "It has to depend on ability and the quality of the candidates. It sells women short if you say it's just a matter of having 40 or 50 per cent.

"The leader of Scarborough Borough Council is a woman and she isn't there because of quotas or because of her gender. She's the best person for the job."

He regards himself as a young councillor but, at 54 this year, is approaching the over-55 group the Prime Minister cited as being prevalent in local government. "Traditionally, people have kept out of politics until they have retired, but nobody should be debarred from politics by people saying you haven't the experience."

Whatever age, you do have to be committed to do the job properly, he said. He sees the argument for having full-time councillors, but is less convinced about the need for a chief executive-style mayor for towns. "With elected mayors, talking about London is one thing, talking about the region I represent is another."

`Young people aren't going to wait years for their turn'

Anna Sofat, 38, is a marketing manager and mother-of-two who has served on Rochester upon Medway City Council for three years.

As an Indian and a woman, she welcomed the push to encourage more women and ethnic minorities into local government, where older white men are still the norm. "Local councillors tend to be people who have been involved with local parties for years. Once they get in they tend to stay there," she said.

"Having more women does give it a different perspective. Women are less confrontational than the men." But local authorities need more than a change in their physical complexion, she said. "If young people are going to come into local councils, I don't think many of them are going to be willing to hang around for years waiting for their turn to come as happens now. Ability has to come into it."

Ms Sofat also believes local government itself needs re-thinking. "For a long time now, power has been taken away from local government. Budgets are determined from the centre and there is very little room for manoeuvre." She wants councils to be able to raise more money locally if residents want that.

"A lot of people get involved with the Labour Party to try to improve the lot of people who can't help themselves," she said. "I welcome a lot of the changes that are being introduced, but hope we don't lose sight of what we're about."