Leeds council elections 2016: Countdown to the big vote begins

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“Politics is the best way that people have to influence things in a city like Leeds – so get involved.”

So says Tom Riordan, chief executive of Leeds City Council and returning officer for this Thursday’s local elections.

On Thursday 538,000 Leeds people will have the chance to make their votes count.

One third of the city’s 99 council seats are being fought for, one of every three seats in each of 33 wards.

Simultaneously, we – along with the rest of the region - are being asked to elect the next police and crime commissioner for West Yorkshire.

But despite a huge electorate, patterns of low turnout in previous years would suggest that less than half of eligible Leeds adults will actually venture out of the house to vote.

Last year’s local elections – no doubt buoyed by the simultaneous General Election - had a total voter turnout of 64.3 per cent.

But the year before, it was just under 35 per cent, a number that is much closer to the norm for council ballots.

Across the city, 328 polling stations will be set up in church, community and school halls, with a total of 716 ballot boxes collecting those all important slips of paper. Then, as the count begins, 1,300 volunteers will take on the mammoth task of sifting through them. A total of 100,000 postal voting forms have also gone out in Leeds.

Mr Riordan will be overseeing proceedings and announcing the results on Friday.

He is hopeful that with the headline-dominating EU Referendum due next month, turnout might again be bolstered.

“A lot of the national media is focusing on the referendum, but locally it does mean more people are talking about politics,” he says.

“We just encourage everybody who can vote to vote.”

Asked why it is important 
for people to vote in the local elections, he says: “When you think about the range of things that councils are responsible for – the planning system; what 
happens with houses being built; the transport system and people getting round the city; the role of the council in providing public services like collecting the bins and sweeping the streets, the things that really matter to people locally – the council has a lot of responsibilty for that.

“And it is responsible for managing people’s hard earned council tax.

“So it’s really important people vote and get engaged.”

He admits it’s “a pity” that local election turnout is not traditionally higher, but stresses that it’s up to politicians and policy makers to help people “make the connection between the things that matter to them and politics”.

To persuade people to come out and vote, he says, it’s important to “get the language right, and make the direct link between things that bother them and they are passionate about and want to happen, and to show them that this is the route to change things”.

Mr Riordan is hopeful that a new generation of politically engaged voters - and the rise of social media as a genuine open arena for political debate - could help reverse the tide of apparent apathy in local elections.

“There’s an increasing realisation of the impact that policy can have on people’s lives,” he said. “And I think that’s a good thing, that young people especially are becoming more engaged.

“It’s important we have as much opportunity as possible for people to engage and to exert their democratic right.”

>See tomorrow’s Yorkshire Evening Post in print for a full list of the who is standing in which ward in the Leeds local elections 2016.