Wakefield council leader's plan for a 'more socialist agenda' after 11 years waiting in the wings

As former Prime Minister Gordon Brown can testify, it’s not always easy making your mark in a big job after years waiting in the wings.

By Rob Parsons
Saturday, 22nd February 2020, 5:45 am
Updated Monday, 24th February 2020, 12:44 pm

The Chancellor spent a decade coveting Tony Blair’s job but lasted less than three years when he was handed the reins as he failed to right the sinking ship of the New Labour project.

So it’s perhaps no surprise that Denise Jeffery, elected as leader of Labour-run Wakefield council in October, is looking to put her own stamp on the role after 11 years as deputy to long-serving Peter Box.

Mr Box, who stepped down in October to take over as chair of tourism agency Welcome to Yorkshire, had dominated the local political scene for more than two decades as one of the country’s longest serving council leaders.

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Wakefield council leader Denise Jeffery with deputy Jack Hemingway. Pic: Jonathan Gawthorpe

And speaking from her new office at Wakefield Town Hall, Coun Jeffery admits she had long hoped to be leader but didn’t think she’d get the chance. “Peter had been there for so long”, she says. “I thought we would never move him but he decided to work on something else.”

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Key to her new approach is her insistence that she is part of a “leadership team” with her deputy Jack Hemingway, who sits alongside her during her interview with The Yorkshire Post.

Wakefield council leader Denise Jeffery. Pic: Jonathan Gawthorpe

Though the pair are decades apart in age, they both came to the posts via jobs with trade union Unison and insist their views are closely aligned, taking the authority in a more socialist and green direction.

Coun Jeffery became a councillor in the 1980s, running for election as an attempt to get recognition for Unison from then-council leader Sir Jack Smart. Her deputy, a father of two young children, first became a councillor in 2012 and after a year out working for the union returned in the Stanley and Outwood East ward in 2017.

The pair had worked together in the council’s regeneration department and had already started formulating plans of what they’d do if they took over the authority.

“We both have the same ideas,” says Coun Jeffery. “When we sat down to talk about what we wanted to do we said, ‘I thought of that and I thought of that’, so we both want to change how we do things in the council. We’ve got more of a socialist agenda.”

In practice this means that while the council is still interested in regeneration, the leadership team is putting more of a focus on looking after its struggling residents.

”We’ve set up new portfolios for poverty and we want to deal with holiday hunger for kids,” says Coun Jeffery as she lists off her priorities.

“We want to help with the homeless situation. We’ve got a lot of rough sleepers. We’re looking at how we can take people off the streets and deal with it. And we’re wanting to build our own council housing again. We’re wanting to obviously invest and deal with all those things, but we have got a real socialist agenda for changing how we look after people.”

A key part of their new approach - and perhaps the most likely to raise the eyebrows of other local leaders - is putting climate change right at the top of the agenda.

An action plan to be published next month - alongside a climate summit - will include the creation of eco-friendly homes as part of the council’s plans to build its own social housing, the planting of thousands of trees and cutting the amount of electricity used in the district’s street lights.

But in a sign that they might go further with this agenda than others, they have been working with Extinction Rebellion, the global environmental movement whose eye-catching protests have made the headlines in Yorkshire and around the globe.

Coun Hemingway describes the group as a “critical friend”, adding: “We’re not going to agree on everything and all their demands, but we found that to be quite positive relationship.

"They’ve come forward some suggestions. we’ve not been able to get them all on board, we have taken some on board.”

The change of tack by the council is striking in a period when the Conservatives are making major gains in the district, ousting Wakefield MP Mary Creagh in the December General Election and severely denting the majorities of her Labour neighbours Yvette Cooper and Jon Trickett.

Coun Jeffery describes the election as a “real wake-up call to Labour”, adding: “We could see it coming, the Brexit issue and other things. But that’s why we feel now that our agenda is to look after the people of this district.”

Key to this is securing a devolution deal with the Government that will bring millions of pounds of investment and new powers to Wakefield and the rest of West Yorkshire, with a meeting scheduled next week with Minister Simon Clarke to move things forward.

Funding for day-to-day services remains an issue, with a council tax rise of 3.99 per cent contributing to what Coun Jeffery describes as a “budget for growth”. But she admits: “As next year comes, if we don’t get the funding that we’re anticipating [from devolution] then there will be serious issues.”

Coun Jeffery and Wakefield council have distanced themselves from other West Yorkshire leaders in refusing to support HS2.

They point out that the high speed rail scheme would not benefit Wakefield as locals would need to get to Leeds to access it, but that it would rip up large sections of the local countryside and impact on Grade I listed Nostell Priory.

Ahead of Boris Johnson's announcement that the scheme would go ahead, though with the northern leg to Leeds under review, she wrote to the PM setting out her position.

The Prime Minister responded in a letter earlier this month, saying that there will be more consultation on Phase 2b of the scheme. "I'm not holding any hopes out but at least it was an acknowledgement of how we felt," said Coun Jeffery.

Though she is reluctant to say her long her term as leader might last, Coun Jeffery is already looking to the future and has been mentoring her deputy and other younger councillors to take over.

”I’m glad I’m having my chance but Jack and his age group are the future for Wakefield,” she says. “I’ve been mentoring about three, four of them. And I see that as my legacy, handing on to a younger generation.”