THE new leader of Leeds City Council has spoken of the “great honour and huge responsibility” of being elected into the top job and vowed to work hard to protect people of Leeds from what will be “challenging times ahead”.
Former deputy leader Coun Judith Blake has taken over from Coun Keith Wakefield, who stood down in April after 12 years at the helm.
She is the first female to ever be elected as leader of Leeds City Council - a statistic she calls “quite extraordinary”.
“When you think about how long we have had a council in Leeds and that there hasn’t been a single woman elected before. But then you look at other big local authorities and they are pretty much in the same boat, although there is a female leader in Sheffield. So things are starting to change.
“It’s a great honour and a huge responsibilty as well.”
Her elected deputies are Lucinda Yeadon and James Lewis, councillors since 2008 and 2003 respectively.
Coun Blake said it’s a “really positive” team, adding: “It’s time to bring in new talent in the group. They have a lot of experience between them in different areas.”
With Leeds being a Labour-run council, she said the results of the general election last week were “quite devastating”.
“There will be some tough and challenging changes in policy direction coming our way. But we have had a very strong showing in the local elections. Even though the results went against us nationally, we have the confidence of local community and that’s the basis in which we will work.”
As leader of the council, Coun Blake has inherited what her predecessor called “near-impossible” cuts to spending, with the budget for 2015-16 having already been slashed by £45.5m.
By March 2016, Leeds will have received approximately £180m less in total core funding over the last five years - a drop of more than 40 per cent.
Fearing more budget pressures in the future, she said: “Coupled with cuts to welfare, it’s going to mean very difficult times ahead for a significant number of people living in Leeds. But I will work with all relevant partners in the city to make sure that we’re going to protect people as far as we possible can.
“Inevitably there will be some very, very difficult decisions that we have to make. But we will make decisions, as far as we are able, to make sure we prevent attacks on our frontline services and services that people rely on.”
Coun Blake said, as well as addressing the skills shortage in the city and arguing for more investment in the further education sector, one of the main challenges facing the Leeds is the extent of inequality.
“We would love to get to the point where everyone had equality of opportunity, so everyone was able to maximise their talents.
“We know that we still have work do around educational attainment and health outcomes - they are two divides between people living in different parts of the city. Along with the relentless ongoing battle that some families living in poverty in the city have, they will be main themes running throughout what we do in the future.”
She said, on a regional level, an urgent issue will be to continue the devolution debate after Leeds and its West Yorkshire neighbours reached an agreement with the last Government, shortly before the election, on taking more control over their own affairs.
“We are going to be engaging in urgent talks to make sure what is on offer stays on offer and obviously where we would like further discussion about more powers.”
Coun Blake also pledged to move on the city’s ambitions - including the bid for European Capital of Culture 2023 which could “showcase Leeds to the world”.
“It’s most important to tell people about the great things we do and what a fabulous place Leeds is to work and live in.
“I think Capital of Culture is a fantastic opportunity to showcase what we do well in Leeds and also to make sure that we can involve our communities in a fantastic project to celebrate and promote the diversity of our city,” she said.
Coun James Lewis said: “I am pleased to be elected deputy leader and it’s a great honour for someone who grew up in Leeds. I am confident that the new team will continue to build on Leeds’ position as a major city in the UK.
“It has been a hard week for the Labour party and our biggest challenge moving forward will be to continue to provide the best services for the people of Leeds under the continuation of savage cuts from Whitehall.
“I know that under Judith’s leadership we will continue to push for greater devolution and forge closer working relationships between the West Yorkshire districts, both areas I have worked on as chair of Metro.
“I am under no illusion that there are difficult times ahead but I am up for the challenge and confident that the team the Labour Group has put in place will be compassionate and determined as we take the council and the city forward.”
Coun Lucinda Yeadon said: “The overwhelming feeling I have today is one of privilege. Leeds has been my home for my entire life and to have the opportunity to serve as the council’s deputy leader is immensely exciting. There is a big job to do, we will continue to face a really tough task dealing with the cuts handed down to us by the Government but this new team is full of energy and ideas for the future.
“Leeds is a city that leads the way and we’ve demonstrated that again by becoming one of only two UK core cities currently led by a woman! Judith is a brilliant choice and I can’t wait to get started in supporting her to take this great city of ours forward.”