New Wakefield Council leader discusses how she got into politics and indicates how long she intends to serve

The new leader of Wakefield Council has outlined her priorities in her first interview since taking the role.

Tuesday, 17th December 2019, 9:25 am
Updated Tuesday, 17th December 2019, 9:53 am
Councillor Jeffery took over as leader on December 1.

Denise Jeffery, succeeded Peter Box on December 1, after more than a decade as deputy leader.

Now in charge full time, Coun Jeffery believes she can “unite the Labour group” after unrest within the local party last year.

Speaking before last week's General Election, Coun Jeffery explained she would serve for "one or two years", before handing over to a "new generation".

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Speaking last week, the new leader said she was enjoying the role.

And she said making progress on the council's climate emergency pledge was top of her agenda.

Asked about how she had had to adapt to becoming leader, she said: “It’s not been too much of an adjustment.

"I’ve been used to getting on with things for a long time because I’d step in if ever Peter was away in London, but I have found that there’s much more reading to do and there’s more reports to keep across. "

Jokingly, she added: "I used to be able to blame Peter if something went wrong but I can’t do that anymore!

Coun Jeffery has been an elected member for more than 30 years.

“I’ve always been a risk taker, now you have to sort of rein it in a bit."

She certainly took a risk when, as a young planning officer working for Wakefield Council in the 1970s, she threatened to march on the town hall in protest at her colleagues working in a freezing office without any heating.

“There was ice on the inside of the window,” she recalled of her then workplace at Newton Bar. “It got to the point where we couldn’t stand it anymore. We’d stuck it out for a week but by then we were so fed up.

"One day we said if we didn’t have heating by 2pm we’d march on the Town Hall. When we came back from that meeting, we had heating. It caused a bit of a stir."

The moment propelled Coun Jeffery's career in politics. She rose through the ranks of trade union Unison afterwards, later being elected as a councillor for Castleford Central and Glasshoughton in 1987.

Coun Jeffery was appointed interim leader after Coun Box's departure to take up a new role as chair of Welcome to Yorkshire.

She has now been installed as permanent leader, but is reluctant to say how long exactly she will serve in the role.

She explained: "I don’t want to put a date on it, because I think once people know you’re going it makes you a lame duck leader. But at the same time I don’t want the younger ones to think I’m never going to leave.

"It will be one or two years and then I'll hand over to a new generation.

"I want to unite the Labour group, after what happened last year, and I think I can do that.”

Tackling the problems facing the district's high streets is another priority, with the death of retailers hurting footfall in town and city centres.

Coun Jeffery's supporters believe it is a challenge she is well placed to take on, having been in charge of economic growth in the district for most of this century. They credit her with securing the signature of Debenham's for the Trinity Walk development in 2007.

“Talking to the people behind Trinity Walk at the time, we said we didn’t want it without a department store," Coun Jeffery reflected. "At the time we were really losing people to White Rose. We worked hard for it and it paid off."

All the same, the council's promise to become a carbon neutral organisation by 2030 will now be placed at the heart of all operations, and will be considered as part of every single new policy.

Coun Jeffery added: "Regeneration matters, because it brings more to the area. If we build houses it brings in money and we can spend that on other things, but we have to do things differently now.

"We have to do something. We have to take this very seriously."

Local Democracy Reporting Service