Mary Creagh: '˜I want to bring Wakefield out of Leeds's shadow and into the future'
It's probably not often that Wakefield and Coventry get discussed in the same sentence.
But for Labour MP Mary Creagh, who has represented the West Yorkshire city for the last 12 years, it is the similarities between her home city and her adopted one which helped forge her political and professional destiny.
Ms Creagh grew up during the Thatcher years in the Midlands city, summing it up as “10 per cent unemployment, The Specials’ Ghost Town, UB40 and One in Ten”, referencing two working class anthems.
“It was a very difficult time,” she recalls, and one that inspired her to get into politics from an early age.
“I could have gone for a seat in London but I chose not to because I wanted to represent somewhere that felt more like my home,” she says of her decision to stand - successfully - in Wakefield in 2005.
“Coventry was a city in the shadow of Birmingham, very badly affected - in the same way that Wakefield lost its mines, Coventry lost the car factories and there was a lot of industrial decline that happened very quickly.
“I wanted to represent a place that still made things, and did things, and that was coming back from a very difficult place.”
Her unabashed mission is to bring Wakefield out of the shadow of Leeds, and put it on the map in its own right.
“It’s a brilliant place to represent,” she says. “But we are not on the weather map and we weren’t on the strategic Transport for the North plan.
“My first [thought] was ‘where’s Wakefield? You’ve got Beverley on there!
“It’s because we are so close to Leeds that we are not in there.”
Asked if she supports a One Yorkshire devolution deal - and why Wakefield seemingly dragged its heels so much before finally getting behind it - she says council leader Peter Box “rightly wants to make sure that Wakefield is protected, that we don’t get subsumed and lost in some bigger area”.
She is full of praise for her local authority counterpart, crediting him with rejuvenating the city by bringing in major projects such as the new link road, 3,000 new homes in the east of the city, and great advances in skills and innovation.
She believes the arrival of the Hepworth Gallery and the Rhubarb Festival have also been game changers for the area.
“We’ve got more businesses opening in Wakefield than the national average so we have done well over the last seven years, in spite of the extreme cuts that local government has had to endure. The cultural life of the city and the built environment is a lot better than it was. When I came here 12 years ago, there was only one coffee shop in the city centre.”
However the politician is not complacent, and admits Wakefield is at somewhat of a juncture, as it bids to bridge its proud past with a bright, hopeful future.
“This city has to find a new role for itself, which has sometimes been a painful road,” she says, adding that performing arts, engineering and the low carbon economy are going to be key drivers for future success.
Ms Creagh’s own proudest constituency achievement to date has been campaigning successfully to get Pinderfields Hospital built.
Another personal source of pride is helping prevent the closure and relocation to Leeds of the Cathedral Academy drama school. It is now being rebuilt on land just yards from her offices as part of a £10m scheme.
Ms Creagh’s early political career was in Islington, North London, where she spent seven years as a councillor and Labour group leader - and campaigned alongside the local MP, a certain Mr Jeremy Corbyn.
“I knocked on doors for Jeremy and ran a campaign office for him in the 1997 General Election,” she recalls.
Asked her views on the man and his leadership, she is slightly guarded.
She went head to head with him for the top job in 2015, but withdrew from the race early on.
“I think Jeremy is a good MP, he has certainly cemented his position in the party,” she said.
“My politics are different to his. His position is secure and we now need to put all our energies and focus on stopping a Tory hard Brexit.”
Brexit and foreign policy are the areas where Ms Creagh openly differs from her party leader, admitting she is more “hawkish” in her approach to international affairs - she voted for air strikes in Syria - and “perhaps more pro-European than Jeremy”.
The latter is perhaps an understatement.
Ms Creagh is a passionate Europhile and ardent Remainer who speaks several languages and spent five years living and working in Brussels.
So how does she reconcile this with representing a city that voted overwhelmingly for Brexit (63 per cent)?
She insists the “risks are becoming clearer” to people, and while many local businesses have been “remarkably resilient”, others are also starting to feel the looming threat of extra tariffs and costs.
WINS ON KEY GREEN ISSUES
A passionate advocate of environmental issues, Mary Creagh was formerly Shadow DEFRA Secretary and campaigned hard on flood defence funding cuts.
She is currently chair of the Parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee, which recently proposed the introduction of a 25p ‘Latte levy’ to reduce the billions of coffee cups that get thrown away every year in the UK.
She strongly opposed Government plans in 2011 to sell off 85 per cent of public forestry, ultimately forcing the plans to be scrapped.
Ministers recently announced renewed plans for a “Northern Forest” in West Yorkshire along the M62. Ms Creagh welcomed the chance to “bring forests closer to people”.
“We have got very little here in Yorkshire as well, so it’s a good thing,” she said.
“But it’s copying a Labour big idea, which is often what the Tories do.”