'I'm a risk-taker so I've thrown caution to the wind' - Wakefield Council leader Denise Jeffery reflects on first year in charge

Two major floods, two major fires, Brexit, a General Election and the arrival of a city's first Tory MP for 88 years. We haven't even mentioned a global pandemic.

Tuesday, 1st December 2020, 11:09 am
'Enjoying it': Coun Jeffery says she loves the job despite an eventful and challenging first year in office.

To say Wakefield has had an eventful last 12 months would be an understatement.

The woman tasked with responding to all of the above has been Denise Jeffery.

Having waited patiently for more than a decade to become the leader of the local Labour-run council, she took the reins a year ago this week.

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Coun Jeffery served as deputy leader for 11 years before taking the top job last December.

It's fair to say that in those 12 months she's had to confront more problems than most would have to handle in 12 years, but the smile and the job satisfaction remain firmly intact.

If crisis after crisis and clocking off at 9.30pm have worn her down at all, she's not showing it.

"I am enjoying it," she says with genuine enthusiasm. "I've just done the best I can. I've dealt with one thing, and then moved onto another.

"I’ve been coming in and working from the town hall every day.

The council leader with deputy Jack Hemingway.

"It’s not that I’m a control freak, but if I was working from home I’d feel I wasn’t the leader of the council! I like being here."

Despite Covid, the philosophy of the new administration hasn't changed.

Coun Jeffery's oft-repeated mantra, "Looking after our people", has meant an unashamedly "socialist agenda" - ploughing cash into foodbanks, refurbishing parks, revamps for ageing facilities and help for flood victims.

All of that has meant massively loosening the purse strings, which in many quarters is a relief after a decade of austerity.

A huge fire broke out at Speedibake cupcake factory at the start of the year, shortly after the new regime was installed. Picture courtesy of Tony Tabner.

Although Coun Jeffery believes the investments will pay off, she admits she's been urged to "be more cautious".

"I said to you last year that I'm a risk taker and so I took a decision to spend money even though perhaps people will say, “Should you be spending that?” she explains with a chuckle.

"I want to put money into parks, I want to put money into the rest of the district. I’m in a rush, so I’ve thrown caution to the wind and I've just got on with it."

Naturally gregarious, the new leader has been frustrated by social distancing and is far from alone in finding it "difficult doing everything by Zoom".

'A fiasco': The council leader's brutally honest assessment of the pedestrianisation of Northgate in the summer.

Nonetheless, she feels she's put her own stamp on the hotseat, which was occupied for 21 years by her predecessor, Peter Box.

"I'm a social person and I like talking to people," she says.

"My husband and I went to Thornes Park on Saturday for a walk and we couldn't get round because so many people wanted to talk. But you have to make time for people and I enjoy that.

"You can't be aloof sitting here. You have to get out. I keep my phone on my knee in the evenings and I think people are a bit surprised when I pick up!

"I have a mentor who ran Nottingham Council for many years and he called me 'everybody's auntie'. That's what I want to be - not an auntie, but I want to look after people and be available.

"We were a well-run organisation before and financially we’re in a good position compared to others, but I wanted to be a different style of leader to Peter."

The council's Labour group too, with its 47 members, has settled down a bit and "pulled together" in Coun Jeffery's words, after the unrest in the twilight years of Mr Box's reign.

"I don't know if they'll be happy with me forever but I think they're happy at the moment," she smiles.

Councillors speak privately of a "better mood" and "more consensus" at party meetings.

That's not to say the authority hasn't had its fair share of criticism this year.

Political opponents have had their pound of flesh too. New Conservative MP Imran Ahmad Khan didn't hold back when he described the council as "arrogant" and "pig-headed" following a row in July.

The council leader responded then with "disappointment" at those jibes, although it's understood tensions between the two have since cooled.

Unprompted, Coun Jeffery also admits to a mistake when Northgate in the city centre was briefly pedestrianised during the summer.

The idea had been to give pubs and restaurants more space to seat customers outside, but led to criticism from shops that saw their incomes crash through the floor and a swift U-turn followed.

Branding the saga a "fiasco", she says: "That was wrong. We'd not done it properly.

"I went to visit every shop on Northgate, spoke to them all and took responsibility for it.

"I think they were pleased I'd come to see them. If you do something wrong you have to take responsibility.

"It's better to say, 'Look we tried it and it didn't work', and I think that went down well with them."

With a Covid vaccine on the horizon and the prospect of an end to the pandemic in sight, there's hope 2021 will give the world a break.

In Wakefield, it certainly won't take much for next 12 months to be quieter than the last 12.

Local Democracy Reporting Service