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 Liberal Democrat group deputy leader Councillor Jonathan Bentley.
“Whatever we do now has to be about climate change and improving the quality of life for Leeds citizens around things like air quality, recycling and cutting down on carbon.”
It might sound like the kind of pitch you’d expect from the Green Party, but the Leeds Lib Dems say they’re putting the environment at the centre of their agenda for the May local elections.
As a centrepiece to this environmental concern, the group’s deputy leader Jonathan Bentley said the recent decision by a Leeds Council planning committee to allow Leeds Bradford Airport to expand needs to be looked at by central government.
He spoke of his frustrations at what he saw as the committee’s unwillingness to rule on the national issue of climate change, rather than local planning rule. He added:
“If local planning authorities can’t make a decision on national implications, you can’t make the decision at all, and it should go to a national level.
“You can’t say that because you can only deal with local matters, you ignore the national matters and approve it anyway.
“Liberal Democrats also called for a clean air zone in 2011. Eventually the Government said they had to have one, so they were reactive to it.
“We also have very poor recycling rates, we have no kerbside glass collection, we make citizens pay for bringing their DIY rubble to the tip.
“If you look at the Labour council who say they are trying to protect and look after the disadvantaged, poor and marginalised – their conservatism is hitting those very people.
“Someone who has to pay for their own decorating because they can’t afford anyone to come in and do it for them, they have a load of waste and plasterboard to get rid of, they are charged for it. It’s the wrong people being impacted.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has been arguably the biggest social and economic challenge the country has faced since the second world war. Coun Bentley believes the past year has been a good example of why more decisions should be made on a more local level.
“I think what Covid has demonstrated was the dichotomy between local and central government and who is doing what,” he added. “It became more and more evident that actually, when we got involved at a local level, you got things done – particularly when it came to track and trace.
“I think this Government has never had much regard for local authorities, and in the early days of Covid, they bypassed them. A lot of the failures that they had early on were because of that – they didn’t get local councils and local NHS involved.
“Compare that to the way the vaccine is being rolled out, completely in the hands of the NHS – as soon as you put it into the hands of people like that, it works.”
The pandemic has meant Leeds City Council has seen its budget slashed by tens of millions of pounds for the coming year, which led to some drastic cuts in spending. But Coun Bentley still believes there is wriggle room for local authorities to be creative with their spending.
“You choose what you spend your money on and how you invest,” he said. “You can invest for the long term or take short term decisions – at the moment, it is about getting through the next 12 months with a balanced budget.
“I won’t hide the fact that government cuts, and the measures we’ve been going through for the last 10 or 15 years have had a huge impact on the council. The first stage was efficiencies – you look for them and think ‘actually, we could have done that anyway’ and save some money.
“The first few years did drive out inefficiencies, but moving on from that, it becomes more difficult. When you try to save money, the first bit is easy – you just stop buying luxuries – but then it becomes harder and harder.
“It is about choice. The council have invested money in commercial property, thinking it would give them a big income they could spend. I would rather see that investment into the green agenda or social housing.”