“York council leader Ian Gilles is not standing for re-election on May 2. He told STEPHEN LEWIS why
IAN Gillies has never been one to mince his words. But the former policeman turned Tory leader of City of York Council has to bite his tongue to keep his frustration about the state of local politics from spilling over.
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“It can be very tribal,” he says. “Very… challenging.”
We’ve met over coffee to talk about his reasons for deciding not to stand in next month’s council elections: a decision which means that, from May 2, he won’t even be a city councillor, let alone council leader.
He took over as leader of a fractious Tory/ Liberal Democrat ruling coalition early last year, when previous Tory council leader David Carr sensationally quit the Conservative Party, accusing some within the council’s Conservative group of committing an ‘act of betrayal’ against him.
Cllr Carr is one of a number of former Tory councillors who will be standing as an independent on May 2. But it’s not exactly all sweetness and light in the city’s other political parties, either. Former Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors will also be standing as independents this time around.
Cllr Gillies, a former Conservative group leader and one-time Lord Mayor, was clearly seen as a safe pair of hands when he took over as head of the Tory group and as council leader last year.
But, while he insists he’s perfectly willing to try to work with members of other political groups in the interests of getting things done, he admits it has been hard work.
“The Liberal Democrats are not natural bedfellows for us,” he says. “And the situation in my own group has been very challenging.”
He says that when he took over as group and council leader last year, he intimated to other group members that it would only be until the next election.
But it is clear his frustrations run deep.
A couple of years ago he even thought of setting up a new centrist party in York, so as to escape some of the traditional party tribalism and infighting. It would have been effectively a collection of independents – none of them ‘extremists’ – whose viewpoints were similar enough for them to work together to get things through, he says.
That never happened, and he ended up leading the Tory group again and becoming council leader.
But he has begun to seriously question whether party politics should have a place in local government.
“Do we really need political parties in local government? No. I’m a Conservative: that’s what I am. But as far as this city is concerned, what matters is what is best for the city. Whipped party politics (ie a system where councillors have to obey their party line) isn’t really necessary in a local environment.”
What you need, he says, is intelligent, able people from all kinds of backgrounds who are willing to work together to get things done. “Is that Utopian? I don’t see why. You’d still have debates and arguments. But it wouldn’t be so tribal.”
Party politics isn’t the only thing that has frustrated him to the point of persuading him not to stand again, however.
The glacial pace of the move towards Yorkshire devolution has also got to him.
He places the blame for that squarely at the feet of Whitehall.
Sheffield has gone its own merry way. But council leaders in Leeds, Bradford, North Yorkshire and York all want to have a single tier of government for Yorkshire, with an elected mayor at its head, he says.
That would mean more money for the region – and more powers for regional decision-making on things such as transport. Yorkshire could become a real financial powerhouse. “I want that for Yorkshire and for York,” he says.
A proposal for such such a devolved regional government is now sitting with the Treasury. But the government has been slow to respond, and keeps drip-feeding suggestions that it would prefer smaller devolved authorities, such as one for West Yorkshire and one for York and North Yorkshire, he says.
He believes there’s only one reason for that. A regional government made up of West Yorkshire, North Yorkshire, York and Humberside combined would have a population bigger than Scotland, he points out. “I think the government is scared of the size of Yorkshire.” …
And what about the prospects for York Conservatives at the election?
He chooses his words carefully. “I don’t want to decry them,” he says. “But I think there will be a lot of people who won’t vote in the local elections.” Who knows? in other words.
His own part in local politics is over, at least for now. And once he ceases to be a councillor and council leader, he will also give up his place on various other local and regional bodies – as a director of the York BID, for example, and as vice-chair of Transport for the North. But he’s not ruling out a return to public life altogether. …”