How coal town became UK's most rotten borough

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Indy Politics

Doncaster, which gave Britain the Flying Scotsman train and Thomas Crapper, inventor of the flushing toilet, now finds itself labelled as the 21st century epitome of a rotten borough. Such has been the talent for failure – and worse – among its representatives and administrators that Ron Rose, the playwright and former Labour councillor who first warned of corruption in the South Yorkshire town, said: "Given enough time, some of our elected councillors and salaried officers would have turned Zurich into a third-world city."

The journey to the status as a capital of municipal corruption began in the mid-1990s when allegations began of a culture of fraud and bribery among councillors in the Labour-dominated authority, which eventually became the "Donnygate" scandal.

Operation Danum, the three-year police investigation into the affair, led to 74 arrests and the conviction for fraud of 21 councillors, including two former leaders of the local authority based in Doncaster's handsome 250-year-old Mansion House.

Most of the offences related to the fiddling of expenses claims by members – one councillor was convicted of claiming for two first-class rail tickets when he had travelled standard class. But judges said the offences were symptomatic of a wholesale culture of corruption which led to more serious offences such as the bribes taken by Peter Birks, the chairman of the planning committee. Mr Birks was jailed for four years in 2002 for accepting money and gifts, including a £160,000 farm house, from the property developer Alan Hughes in return for a favourable decision on his planning applications.

The affair ended Labour's longstanding control of the council in this coalmining stronghold. Subsequent disaffection and political infighting led to a culture of drift which many blame for Doncaster's downward spiral into a "failing" local authority.

The town's former mayor Martin Winter, a Labour stalwart who eventually fell out with the party, admitted that a government inquiry into children's services prior to the Edlington attack was due to the fact that councillors had treated the issue as a "political football".