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 Conservative group leader (and Calverley & Farsley ward member) Councillor Andrew Carter.
“The survival of businesses must be top of our agenda – I don’t think stimulating business is prioritised high enough, and unemployment would be devastating to families in the city.”
To say it’s been a strange year in the corridors of power of Leeds City Council would be an understatement – the very phrase ‘corridors of power’ now feels like an anachronism itself, what with the organisation’s hairpin turn towards home working and online meetings during 2020.
But the leader of the authority’s main opposition group believes now is not the time to indulge in reflection, and that there is work to be done.
Cllr Carter has faith that the the city’s economy will ultimately bounce back from the pandemic, but warned the effects of the pandemic pose an immediate threat to the city’s hospitality businesses, for which more state protection should be put in place.
“I have been dealing a lot with local businesses and the (support grants) getting through to them,” he said. “It’s desperate times for the hospitality sector and personal care – Leeds has fallen short in some respects. The people who are dealing with applications for money are under huge pressure and I cannot think we have done enough to bolster their resources to pay out in a timely fashion.
“By and large, the performance of key workers and NHS has been exceptional – we are a major city, but we haven’t escaped the huge damage done to the economy.
“The survival of businesses must now be at the top of our agenda.
“The support that the city of Leeds has received is over £600m, so nobody can say that Leeds has not received from the government the funding it needs. Giving the funding direct to people in the business context is critical.”
City centres everywhere have been hit by the demise of high street brands such as Burton and Debenhams and, even if the lifting of lockdown restructions over the summer goes to plan, we are likely to see a very different city centre in the near future.
So how else can you help prop up the city centre’s economy? Coun Carter’s answer is simple – have more people live there.
“We need to encourage people, not just students, to live there,” he added. “We need to create green space and we need to bring people into the city centre who are in work, not just students.
“The student economy is important, but what is important as well is that people spending money can come back in.
“We have to do it for the city’s future, for individual prosperity, for jobs, and in an environmentally friendly way. But we need to judge everything by getting people back into work and getting businesses back on their feet.
“It’s the taxes that businesses pay that enable us to fund the NHS and education, so lets get our priorities right.”
Coun Carter has been vocal in his criticisms over the past few years of the way the Labour-run council spends its money, particularly when it comes to what he calls ‘vanity projects’.
“There is no way we should be closing down council facilities and spending £10m on something like the city of culture,” he said. “It makes no sense and damages far more people than necessary.
“I would ask people look round the city of Leeds at some of the schemes funded in the last five years and ask themselves if they are necessary. I would put money on the majority of those schemes being contributors to an extra £18m worth of debt a year that council tax payers are funding.
“It’s the easiest thing in the world to spend other people’s money – it’s something that needs to be prioritised. We need to clamp down on what I call the vanity schemes.”
Leeds City Council currently functions with 99 councillors, meaning 50 are needed by one party for an overall majority – which ultimately puts them in charge. Labour currently has 56, but 19 of its councillors are up for re-election.
However, the Conservatives only hold 23 seats in the council, so even in the highly unlikely event that they won every single seat up for grabs on polling day, it would still leave them two short of an overall majority.
So their target is to leave Labour short of an overall majority. Is Coun Carter confident?
“More and more people are realising that, so I am quietly optimistic. Can Labour lose overall control? Yes, they absolutely can. Will we gain seats? I believe so. Will that alter how the council is run? Yes it will.”
A list of candidates in the six West Leeds wards from all parties can be found here.
Tomorrow, Richard Beecham speaks to Leeds Liberal Democrat leader Stewart Golton.