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People in Politics: Keith Wakefield, The Local Authority Leader


Cllr Keith Wakefield, Leader of Leeds City Council, tells us how local government is not full of faceless bureaucrats in bowler hats but a place of innovation ready for more powers.

How would you sum up what the Leader of Leeds City Council does?

KW: It’s about helping to protect and improve the quality of life for people. I believe we can transform lives and the work we do touches people’s lives everyday such as nurseries, elderly care and school meals to name a few. I like to think I lead a City not a Council and it’s the best job I’ve ever had.

You’ve been elected since 1988, so why did you get into politics back then?

KW: I was a politics lecturer, and took courses on local government and the British Constitution but really it was more practical than this. I had worked in local government in Birmingham as a manual worker and became involved in a strike over pay in 1969. It had a great impact on me as a young person during a highly politicised time and really showed me the inequalities that existed.

How do you back up your claim that the north of England is being hit harder than the south?

KW: Simply by looking at the way funding is allocated. Just take transport, 86% is spent in London and the South East – an extraordinary inequality. We’ve seen the third richest authority, Wokingham in Berkshire, see an increase of 1.8% whilst Leeds has a cut of 15.8%.

BP: Do you think this is purely political?

KW: I think there’s a mixture of motives. A key one is that the criteria measuring deprivation was taken out. Labour Councils have fared worse; Northern Councils have been hit harder.

BP: What about HS2 is that a step in the right direction?

KW: It is if they get it right. I’m supportive and it will be powerful as long as it means better connectivity and regeneration; not just slightly quicker travel times.

You recently claimed, “We’re becoming more like the civic entrepreneurs who founded local government” what did you mean by this?

KW: People always think local government is full of faceless bureaucrats wearing bowler hats. Not me. There is great innovation being created in public services and the things we have changed are tremendous. We have Data Mills holding open data from right across the city. This means we can understand and plan better services. There are now 37 Neighbourhood Networks, locally driven to help older people live independently but avoid social isolation. I always tell people who get elected to a local authority, you’re not just there to do casework, you’re the democratic guardian of the people you represent so think ambitiously.

BP: So, a bit more than emptying the bins then.

KW: Yeah, just a bit.

You stated ‘we need more ability to shape our own destiny locally”– what powers would you like to see devolved?

KW: Fiscal. Although they talk about devolving transport, skills and housing if we were able to keep just business rates alone it would mean £700 million for the City. In other countries local government receives 15-40% of the tax they generate, for us it is around 5%. 

The approach by central government departments is almost colonial and it’s time the English devolution question was answered. Look at the passion, and high turnout, generated in the Scottish Referendum because people genuinely thought they were shaping their own policies and character where they live. (KW also believes young people are under-estimated and should be allowed to vote at 16 and 17)

Who is your political hero?

KW: (With no hesitation) Nelson Mandela. He had a belief that if you stuck to your principles or sacrificed your freedom you could help to change the world. I don’t know anyone else who has done this more than Mandela.BP: What was it like when he visited Leeds?

KW: You see someone who appears so ordinary but is in fact real greatness standing before you. I was a bit hypnotised by his presence to be honest. We are twinned with Durban, South Africa and the response we got on a visit by local people was overwhelming – it’s really moved on a lot.

What is your 2015 General Election prediction?

KW: I think Labour will win on the grounds that people want to protect the most valuable asset we have ever created – the NHS. We’ll see a Labour majority, but not a large one. Your vote matters more than any year.

BP: What about your area?

KW: I think despite austerity our vote will hold up in Northern cities through examples like Leeds where we’ve created up to 30,000 jobs.

So, what’s your single biggest challenge for 2015?

KW: (pauses for a few seconds to mentally sift through the issues) To get meaningful devolution, with any party and I think we’re winning the debate. I’m not in favour of an English parliament or looking for a Yorkshire Assembly. We want to use the existing structures we have to empower people. At the moment we are being over-managed and micro-managed by Whitehall but I say look at the Tour de France Grand Depart, Leeds Arena and the Trinity Quarter. It clearly says, give us an opportunity to shine and we do.

About Local Authorities in England

There are 353 councils or local authorities in England employing more than two million people. These include schoolteachers, social services, the police and many other office and manual workers. Education is the largest locally provided service.

About Leeds City Council.

Situated in the middle of the United Kingdom, with a diverse population of 751,500, Leeds is the third largest and one of the fastest growing cities in the UK. Divided into 33 wards, the people of Leeds elect 99 councillors to run the authority and it is currently led by the Labour Group who’s leader is Councillor Keith Wakefield. 

The Executive Board is the principal decision making body of the Council, chaired by the Leader of the Council. The Board comprises of eight Executive Members with portfolio responsibilities relating to Finance and Inequality; Children and Families; Neighbourhoods, Planning and Personnel; Digital & Creative Technologies, Culture and Skills; Transport and the Economy; Cleaner, Stronger and Safer Communities; Adult Social Care; and Health and Wellbeing. HS2 is a high speed rail project being run by central government that aims to provide greater connectivity between the south, midlands and north of England.