Cost of living crisis: Leeds leader James Lewis on his worries that people don't know how bad it will get
James Lewis, the leader of Leeds City Council, knows the clouds are gathering over the city as the cost of living crisis takes a hold.
With energy bills set to soar in the autumn, there’s a very real prospect that people in Leeds who have never had to rely on welfare before - even during the darkest days of the pandemic - will struggle.
“The really tricky thing is that everyone is going to be affected by it,” he says. “My council ward is full of ex-miners, and people are on a miner’s pension scheme that meant they thought they’d be alright for the rest of their lives. And sadly now, that’s not going to be the case.
“We’re starting to see people who never thought they’d need help and assistance facing hard times and requiring support.
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“And that’s a massive challenge.
“The worrying factor is the sheer number of people who have the potential to be dragged into a position where they don’t have enough money and will have to be reliant on the welfare system and foodbanks.
“I don’t think sat here on a warm July day, we quite appreciate the gathering storm around us.”
It’s fair to say that the beginning of Labour Mr Lewis’s tenure as leader of the city council has been tumultuous. Elected in the middle of the third coronavirus lockdown in February 2021, he spent the first few months getting to grips with one of the most high profile roles in local government from home - and admits that even now he is meeting some colleagues in person for the first time.
Lessons learned by the council during that time will have to feed into its strategy to tackle the crisis in coming months, he says.
“We’re looking at some of the lessons learned from the pandemic about how to reach people, give practical support, using our voluntary sector partners and charities in the city to help with that.
“We’ve got a small amount of money from central government to support households but I frankly don’t think it’s enough. Given we don’t know who is going to be hit - it’s going to be people who might not normally come to us - we don’t know what the scale of the crisis will be.
“This is of course at a time where the council have our own gas and electricity bills to pay - and we’ll see our bills shooting up too.”
Mr Lewis, 44, calls the ex-mining village of Kippax home and has served as a councillor for Leeds since 2003. His ward is an unusual pocket of West Yorkshire which combines Labour heartland territory with some of the county’s most expensive villages. There hasn’t been a pit in the immediate area since Allerton Bywater colliery closed in 1992.
“The influence of the mining industries is very strong in the area in terms of the history.
“But now a lot of focus is on helping people remember and celebrate traditions
“For someone moving into the area now, it’s a very green area and its industrial history might be lost. Mining is part of the history and it’s a connection lots of people have to the area. It’s what brought a lot of people here, and it’s ingrained.
“But in terms of the levelling up debate on the back of 12 years of austerity, we’ve been through it once already in our area.
“Physical regeneration - landscaping, new roads - have a really lasting impact but some of the more social and economic impact requires more than just one-off spending.
“Unless long term funding commitments are put in place, the impact gets lost.”
That levelling up question is one that Mr Lewis, alongside his fellow council leaders and metropolitan mayors, will be putting to our new Prime Minister when they arrive into Downing Street.
His feathers have already been ruffled by Liz Truss, who has repeatedly spoken of the poor education she received at Roundhay School. Mr Lewis was himself educated at a similar time at another comprehensive school in Boston Spa.
“Parts of Leeds were very deprived in the 1980s,” he remembers. “Public services were very run down. So in some ways it’s not an inaccurate portrayal, but what really jars with people is the implication that staff that worked in Roundhay School - where money was short - somehow had low standards and expectations.
“That certainly isn’t my recollection of the period. Teachers set very high standards.”
As a Labour politician, it’s unsurprising that despite his gripe with Ms Truss’s comments, he won’t back Mr Sunak over her to be the next Prime Minister when pressed.
“The frustrating thing is they were both very senior members of the Government over a long period where little happened,” he says.
“I don’t hear a lot to suggest there will be a change.
“Levelling up is one of those terms where saying it doesn’t mean it happens. I was sceptical under the last Prime Minister. One off pots of money mean you don’t get that lasting change.”
His scepticism is particularly evident when contemplating the state of the region’s rails. particularly between Leeds and Manchester.
“I’m quoted - probably in The Yorkshire Post - about welcoming Transpennine line electrification in, I think it was 2011 - and nothing’s happened,” he smiles wryly.
“I won’t believe it until I see it on some of these projects.”
James Lewis, is, as you would expect, firmly behind Leeds’ bid to host the Eurovision song contest when it comes to the UK next year.
But he admitted that his real dream for the city is to see his beloved Leeds United host a Champions’ League match.
The council had grand plans to celebrate their return to the Premier League in 2020 - all scuppered due to the pandemic.
He said: “During lockdown it gave people something to really focus on and be proud of, and we’ve never had the opportunity to celebrate that.
“It gave people such a lift - and we’ve never really marked that.
“But hopefully after hanging in the Premier League last season, the club will now get rooted in the league.”