Local democracy reporter Richard Beecham is speaking to senior councillors from each of the main political groups on Leeds City Council to find out what their priorities are for the forthcoming local elections on May 6. Today it’s the turn of Labour’s deputy group leader Coun Debra Coupar.
“It’s one of the worst experiences of my life, and I’m sure of many other people.”
In any other time, that could be seen as an overly dramatic assessment of a situation, but following the impact 2020 has on all of our lives, the age of the overstatement seems to be over.
Coun Debra Coupar had to keep things ticking over more than most – she was and still is the deputy leader of the second largest unitary council in the country – a council tasked not only with navigating the social impact of the virus, but also with counting the cost of the pandemic during the recovery.
“I’ve never been through or even read about anything similar through history,” she said. “It has been the worst experience for me and my family, and everything it has impacted upon – their work, their lives, their children.
“But that, for me, is a really good test as a deputy leader of a council.”
Indeed, Covid has eaten into the council’s revenues and spending so much, that it has had to make cuts to the forthcoming year’s budgets of around £87m.
Coun Coupar said:
“To face both Covid and the financial hit in the same year was an extremely difficult ask for all the council and everyone who works for it. It’s the worst crisis since the war – I don’t remember the war, so it’s the worst thing I’ve seen in my lifetime.”
But she believes there is light at the end of the tunnel, as demonstrated by the positive can-do spirit of the people of Leeds and the local services that have helped people through the past year.
“It shown how local authorities can make a difference,” she added. “When we are asked to do it, we deliver. In Leeds, our public health colleagues have worked with the NHS to create a mass vaccination, and we also did good work on the testing.
“We are in touch with our communities, and we engage with them. When it comes to a crisis, we know exactly what do to.”
But it’s not just Covid that has eaten into council finances. Coun Coupar claims spending cuts from central Government since 2010 have amounted to £2bn of lost spending power overall.
“It sounds like Monopoly money – it’s not a tangible figure that people can comprehend – in fact, it is around £230m a year since 2010.
“(2021/22) was a difficult budget to bring in – we made those choices but we made them thinking about valuing public service, good jobs, climate change and our other priorities.”
But could the council be more savvy with its money? Opposition councillors have recently decried the council’s decision to spend millions of pounds on the Leeds 2023 project – which aims to bring a year of cultural events to the city, following the disqualification of its European Capital of Culture bid due to the Brexit vote.
Coun Coupar said:
“Once we weren’t allowed to continue with that bid, a large number of businesses and organisations wanted to continue the work to make Leeds a capital of culture.
“I think it’s the right thing to do – I don’t think you pull the drawbridge up and give up on everything when times are challenging.
“If we look at what other cities have gained from having a year of culture, Hull delivered great benefits to its local communities.”
One of the big stories in Leeds at the moment is the recent planning approval given by a council committee for the controversial £150m expansion of Leeds Bradford Airport. Central government is expected to decide whether to hold an inquiry into the plans, although it is unknown when such a decision will be made.
Coun Coupar said:
“The Secretary of State calling it in is for them to decide what they want to do about aviation in regional airports. When we think about climate change and a greener future, aviation should be dealt with on a national level.
“I don’t think planning decisions should be decided nationally, but there should be policy about aviation on a national level.
“There is a huge conversation about the future of aviation in terms of climate change, so for me the government is a bit lacking in coming forward on policy for aviation.
“We also have to remember that airports are not all bad – a lot of people work at LBA so we need to think about jobs and the people who work there. There is always a fine balance with these things.”
So while on the subject of transport, what’s the latest on Leeds’s fabled mass transit scheme?
“We’ve been on a rollercoaster ride for many years in this city, but we should never give up,” she said. “We are the biggest city in Europe without a mass transit system, and we need good public transport, to allow people to get out fo their cars. It makes life better for all of us in the city.”