Mike Hughes enjoys lunch with Peter Box, Wakefield Council Leader and chair of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority.
‘Hello Peter – how are you?’
A usual greeting for a BQ lunch guest, but the reply is honest – ‘Not good’. Peter Box has trapped nerves in his back and rather than the throwaway line ‘Fine’ he tells it like it is, which is typical of the man himself.
He has been in his council role for more than 18 years and regularly shows it with a passion for the area and its people that he serves. He is a plain speaker (most of which we can repeat here) and has led his town to many highlights, including the opening of the Hepworth Wakefield art gallery and City Fields, a 375 acre ‘urban extension’ with 2,500 new homes as well as leisure, retail and commercial sites.
He’s a busy man, but you get the sense as we talk at Rogerthorpe Manor out in the countryside just a few miles from Pontefract Castle that he is enjoying every moment in a place to which he has a deep attachment.
“I see Wakefield as a city on a human scale,” he tells me, a glass of Diet Coke – which stays untouched for most of the meal – on his side of the table. “It is a very compact city and the district as a whole is very diverse, with several largish towns like Pontefract and Hemsworth and little villages like Badsworth. The challenge is that if you have one city at the centre then how do you make sure that everyone benefits and you don’t find all the resources going to the centre.
“You have to make sure that the rivalries we have always had with our distinct communities doesn’t undermine what we have to do and doesn’t become a weakness rather than a strength.
“We are regarded as a post-industrial area and yet 60% of the district is green, which makes us a surprising place where our reputation as a strong mining area precedes us, but at the same time we have tried to show that is not just our only heritage, we also have Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore - two of the greatest sculptors of the 20th Century.
“We are proud of that so we now have the Hepworth Gallery, which is world-renowned. I like the fact that we have both ends of the spectrum represented in Wakefield.” The proud tributes roll off his tongue very comfortably. He knows it is his job to promote the area, but even if it wasn’t he would want to do it anyway, as if he only has your attention for a few moments and has to make sure you go away with as much positive feedback as possible.
“We like to think we punch above our weight,” he continues. “We are a relatively small city, with the population of the borough as a whole at only about a third of a million and yet we have excellent GCSE results and outperform some of our bigger neighbours for economic growth, to name just a couple of things.
“Both myself and our chief executive Joanne Roney – one of the best chief execs in local government – have a great relationship together and we try to show that we are not seen as insular. We are self-aware, not afraid of criticism or the challenges posed in terms of service delivery, and always wanting to improve.”
That need to progress the fortunes of the area almost always means the challenge of unity between rival councils who must – sometimes – put deeply-rooted differences behind them and work for the greater good. The new local authorities are often more Forced than Combined.
The West Yorkshire Combined Authority of which he is chair brings together Bradford, Calderdale, Kirklees, Leeds, Wakefield and York as well as the Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership.
“The biggest rivalry we had to deal with was an industrial and sporting one between Leeds and Bradford, but we have got over that and the relationship is the best I have ever known in my 18 years. We are able to work together because we know we need to now, looking at shared services we can do jointly that we can’t do separately, and it is based on personal friendship – no doubt at all about that.
“We have all been around a while and have matured together, so we know each other and have a lovely relationship, but at the same time we know we can do business together and got the biggest Growth Deal of all in 2014 and have said to Government that if they match our ambition we will consider any form of government including a mayor.”
As well as the friendships and unity, there is a bite to this 69-year-old leader. Just mention HS2 where Transport Secretary Chris Grayling’s preferred route bypasses Wakefield and Barnsley - and take a step backwards.
“We oppose it. But it is deeper than just the route it will take. We think that to spend £65bn on a railway that will cover 185 miles is simply not a good investment. If you take Wakefield as an example, at the moment we have two trains to London every hour and I can get to London in an hour and 55. It has been said that if HS2 were to go ahead that would be reduced to one train an hour, so we get a reduction.
“To be able to use HS2 you have to drive to Leeds through the morning nightmare, then pay to park and walk across the city to catch a train to then go back down South again. So it would take longer to get to London than it does now.
“No one ever thought a government would take it on because of the cost involved, but George Osborne is said to have a love of hi-vis jackets, which is true of many politicians who like the idea of these mega projects which get to a stage where it is impossible to pull out.
“The Government would be far better advised to invest in East-West links connecting cities right across from Hull to Liverpool. There is also a migration of our best talent down to London so if there is a shorter journey time from some parts, then it is easier for people to move away from the North.
“I do not accept that business people are going to wake up one morning and say it is now 20 minutes easier to get to Leeds... that’s the place to invest.”
Being the sort of person he is with a blend of passion and pragmatism, he was never going to set fire to the HS2 plans and walk away, rather he will squeeze the absolute best deal out of it for Wakefield - every last sentence, sub-clause and diversion - rather than stay silent and be steamrollered into the newly-broken ground.
There is a deadpan delivery for much of what he says, and one of the driest wits I have ever heard, but you quickly warm to Peter Box. If he was having more than that Diet Coke I would have enjoyed a few pints with him at the Rogerthorpe’s Jacobean Bar, to perhaps discuss more positive issues like City Fields.
“It’s amazing, is that. I have been along the road, which is not yet completed, and it is unbelievable because I have to confess I did not realise how much land was going to be opened up and how apparent it is what a change this will make for our city in terms of jobs and homes in their thousands and businesses coming to us with their proposals. And it has the added benefit of taking traffic away from the centre of the city.
“In one sense it is the biggest gamechanger in my time at the council in terms of those jobs and homes, but in terms of reputation I still suspect it is the Hepworth because it has put us on the map in the way other things don’t, with well over a million visitors here – each one bringing in an average of about £28 into the local economy.
“We use the strapline ‘Invest in the Future’ because that is what this is all about. Joanne and I took a conscious decision during the recession that we were going to invest, rather than sit back and do nothing. Right opposite the Town Hall was the former police station, which we bought because we wanted to control what was happening and it was turned into apartments. We also acquired the wonderful court house next to us which was falling into disrepair. It has been renovated and will be put back into public use.
“So when we spent £29m on a new council building we got no criticism during that recession because we explained to people that it would be their building with a library downstairs – opened by Jarvis Cocker – a museum opened by Sir David Attenborough and advice and business centres. That’s what Wakefield means by being proactive and business-friendly.”
Faced with having to save more than £170m, the council uses an addictive consultation tool called YouChoose as part of its deliberations. It puts the spending power in the hands of the people by asking them to decide the budgets of council departments to save £24m – and then shows the consequences. Slide one spending bar sharply to the left for regeneration and culture, for instance, and find out that the income that delivers is now lost, so has to be made up somewhere else.
It is an engager of opinion, an advisory tool for Peter and his team, but also an educator of how complex the job is.
“When you are looking at social regeneration, always involve people. That is leadership that listens,” he advises. “If they are there from the beginning, they have ownership and they will look after it, like the Play Forest young people have designed at Cutsyke. It has never been vandalised once because the young people look after it – it’s theirs. Last time I went one of them complained to me and I said ‘what’s wrong?’ and he said ‘we need an extra litter bin!’ Unbelievable.
“But as soon as one project is finished – even something as huge as the Hepworth, we have to immediately see what’s next. I want to see more buildings brought back into public use, like the huge Rutland Mills buildings opposite the gallery. We found that Mark Ronson wanted to invest in the North of England to help create something like the TileYard Studios, the creative hub in London where he is based.
“He was looking at Manchester, so we brought him here instead for our stage of the Tour de Yorkshire, we wined and dined him and showed him this half-derelict mill and the group he was working with have now bought it from us.
“It is deals like that where people realise we can deliver. I try to give businesses certainty, which is what they crave above everything. If we see someone with a business idea that we support, 99 times out of 100 it tends to happen.”
One of the bigger ideas still waiting to happen is the long-term provision of the right skills to keep Wakefield at the top of the list of possible locations for new businesses. It has the good GCSEs, and yet the lowest number of people with high-level skills. The reasons includes the legacy of pit workers who went straight to work out of school, but also the lack of a university for a city of this size. It is an issue that needs addressing.
“We know there are young people with excellent A-levels who want to go to university, but sometimes it is the parents who don’t have the aspirations. So if you were to ask me what is the one thing I would like to do, it would be to achieve university status for the college, which is why it has been one of our asks during the devolution discussions.
“We would develop one based on the creative industries, because of the likes of Tileyard Studios at the mill, and the Hepworth and companies like Lite Structures who stage a lot of the big concerts. We want to use the fact that this is a technology-based industry to create something unique.”
That’s a good word to end on. I hesitate to mash the two words together, but Peter Box is a unique everyman - someone the third of a million people he looks after can relate to as ‘one of us’ while at the same time being a one-off in terms of character.
I’ll just see if I can get him to the bar for an hour or two...
Rogerthorpe Manor Hotel
We were guests of the splendid Rogerthorpe Manor Hotel in Badsworth. Built in 1610, it was a private home until 1955 when it became a country club and eventually a hotel owned by local farming family the Metcalfes. It is now a Best Western Plus (a well deserved suffix) and they offered Peter and I the whole of the panelled Oak Room for our conversation.
My guest, a stickler for a light lunch, enjoyed a plate of seasonal vegetables while I chose a wild mushroom and truffle oil risotto with parmesan shavings. The Jacobean pub side of the hotel was busy for a Wednesday afternoon so we were grateful for the calm and polite service of the Oak Room.
Why not try it for yourself? The hotel is holding an open event for businesses from 3pm to 6pm on Thursday 26 January, with networking, a tour of the conference facilities and refreshments. Email Kerry at email@example.com for details.