Could ‘independents day’ come to Leeds on May 6?

We speak to senior councillors from each of the main political groups on Leeds City Council to find out what their priorities are for the forthcoming local elections on May 6. Today it’s the turn of the Garforth and Swillington Independents leader Mark Dobson, and the Morley Borough Independents leader Robert Finnigan..
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Leeds communities know more than most the power that independent political groups can wield.

The district has two main groups of independent councillors – the Morley Borough Independents, which boasts five councillors; and the Garforth and Swillington Independents, which currently has three.

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As well as a reflection of the independent spirit of both areas, both groups see themselves as important tools in the holding to account of Leeds City Council’s ruling Labour group.

Mark Dobson is head of the Garforth and Swillington Independents.Mark Dobson is head of the Garforth and Swillington Independents.
Mark Dobson is head of the Garforth and Swillington Independents.

The biggest challenge of the past year has undoubtedly been the Covid-19 pandemic, so how do the independent groups believe the city as a whole has responded?

Coun Mark Dobson is the leader of the Garforth and Swillington Independents, having formed the group back in 2017 after leaving the Labour Party.

He said: “I think the way Leeds has stepped up to this has been remarkable. I have nothing but praise for people working in the NHS.

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“We still have concerns about infection rates in West Yorkshire, but equally, if you follow the numbers we are going in the right direction. It’s turned the world on its head, but let’s all hope there is now light at the end of the tunnel.

Coun Robert Finnigan is leader of the Morley Borough Independents.Coun Robert Finnigan is leader of the Morley Borough Independents.
Coun Robert Finnigan is leader of the Morley Borough Independents.

“You are not going to politicise these issues – only a fool would politicise the pandemic- we have been seeing far too much carping from the sidelines, and I think people wanted and expected a more collegient approach from parties at national level.”

Coun Dobson believes that, while the council’s efforts to support a post-Covid economy are admirable, he believes the Labour group is too focussed on helping Leeds city centre businesses, and criticises the council’s decision to spend money on a year of cultural events in Leeds during 2023.

“The economy is a very fragile thing,” he added. “There will have to be an element of supporting that economy – but the entire focus of the administration seems to be on the city centre.

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“The Garforth and Swillington ward is a prime example. Leeds is quite unique in that it has a relatively small city centre and a number of satellite towns and villages. I think the district centres that support work and businesses is just as vital in Garforth, Swillington, Pudsey and Wetherby as it is in the city centre.

“I wonder sometimes if the current administration seems to be incredibly Leeds-centric in terms of the geography. People have just been given a tax hike of 4.99 per cent, but Leeds 2023 is still going ahead at a cost of £11m.

“Post-pandemic, there needs to be a more equitable spread of where the council spends its money, not only to provide services, but to kickstart our economy.

“Leeds has thriving towns – Garforth, Morley, Pudsey, Wetherby. We cannot allow huge conurbations in this city to wither on the vine.”

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Robert Finnigan is leader of the Morley Borough Independents – a political group aimed at representing the interests of its eponymous settlement set up in 2004.

On the issue of Covid, Coun Finnigan said: “If anything the past year has led to us being more deeply integrated into our communities.

“The stuff we have done over the last year has been much more important to our communities. Leeds City Council wasn’t playing a blinder when it came to Morley Town Centre – we came up with our own programme.

“A bit like my school reports – must try harder! I would give them no more than a C minus. At a local level, if we have a flare up in our patch, unless we found out from another source, we rarely found out from Leeds City Council.

“We have been a left behind town.”

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He added talks were ongoing to increase the number of local authority housing in Morley, and that plans for extra care council housing were in early stages.

“We have a lot of new housing, and we are at a point where we get affordable housing on there, we stress the fact that we need family housing and houses to rent. We don’t need any more owner occupation in Morley – that’s not what we need.”

So what is the long-term future for Morley as a part of Leeds City Council?

“If you are asking my ambition, I would pull them out. I would run our own affairs. If I was to run a referendum across Morley, I reckon I could do better than a 52/48 split to get us out. We could have ‘Mexit’!

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“I suspect most of the residents in Morley would support being their own unitary authority. It’s technically possible, but very difficult, and you would have to get support of central government.

“The people of Morley have said time and time again, and I am often asked ‘when are you getting us out of Leeds?’. They don’t feel part of Leeds, they have their own sense of communities. The old-timers would say it was better before (local government reorganisation in) 1974, but from my point of view it is about more accountability.”

The local elections will take place on May 6.