99 and not out
Leeds has more councillors over the age of 80 than under the age of 35. Not that it is short of councillors. It has 99 in all, only one member fewer than the Senate of the United States.
No-one I met in the city thought that the very great size and average age of the council was a mark in its favour. Apart from the councillors I met, everyone was supportive or open-minded about the benefits of a mayor if they could deal with what Duncan McCargo, professor of politics at Leeds university, called the “shocking lack of strategy and leadership on the council for the last 20 years and the deep social divisions which separate the affluent north-west of the city from the large poor council estates of the south and east.”
A city doing well
Leeds is the financial capital of the north and one of the fastest growing cities in the country. First Direct, GE Capital, Alliance and Leicester and Direct Line are all based in the city.
In the constant trans-Pennine rivalry for private sector jobs, the city has done well. But in terms of public institutions and regeneration, the contrast is far less favourable. A survey by the Chamber of Commerce of its members shows strong support for a mayor.
“We want to see someone in charge with a national profile who can get things done, like Ken and Boris in London,” says Gary Williamson, the Chamber’s chief executive.
Instead the city has had not just a hung council for the last six years, but for most of the time a council leadership changing between Tory and Lib Dem coalition partners every six months. The equivalent of Cameron and Clegg alternating in No 10 twice a year.
A litany of failures is forthcoming. Leeds is still without a tram or rapid transit system, when most other large cities in the Midlands and the North now have one.
“Manchester’s metro keeps being extended, while our plan was downgraded from to a tram to a trolleybus, and even that is now in doubt,” says one councillor, but without much idea how even the trolleybus is going to be achieved.
The lack of a concert hall, the long-term closure of the city museum, the large number of seriously underperforming schools – so the list goes on.
However, there is little sign yet of political support for a mayor. Keith Wakefield now leads a Labour administration, and is confident of winning an overall majority in this May’s elections, which would give greater stability.
He has just carried through a massive cuts budget with a fair degree of cross-party consensus. There is also a new and popular council chief executive in Tom Riordan, the former chief executive of the recently abolished regional development agency Yorkshire Forward.
A short-distance away, Bradford also has the opportunity of electing its own mayor, but its council is viewed even more harshly for its poor record over nearly 20 years of being hung with weak political leadership.
But here too there is a popular and highly regarded council chief executive. Tony Reeves has been in the job for four years, and is described by one university leader as “the glue which holds a weak and divided council together, to get anything done at all.”
Bradford’s economic situation is grimmer than Leeds, with less of its neighbour’s success in attracting private sector employers to replace the now largely vanished wool trade. And the area covered by the city council is even more divided than Leeds socially.
It extends from a city of wide ethnic diversity, with 40 per cent of the population in the bottom tenth of national income earners, to embrace also the prosperous towns of Ilkley and Keighley, some of whose councillors want to declare independence from the metropolitan district entirely.
Tony Reeves is credited with much of the city’s recent progress with regeneration – and for forging consensus in dealing with a cuts crisis as serious as in Leeds. But therein lies a serious problem with mayoral model put forward by Eric Pickles. This would oblige any city voting for a mayor to abolish its chief executive, whether it wants to or not.
They talk about Eric Pickles a lot in Bradford. He made his name there as leader of the city council twenty years ago. Weakness and invisibility weren’t his trademarks.