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Sir Richard Leese: interview with the supreme leader

Jonathan Schofield interviews the Council Leader about poverty, transport, working with the Conservatives, personal salary and leadership

Written by . Published on February 5th 2010.

Sir Richard Leese: interview with the supreme leader

This is a massive article, the longest we've ever put up on Manchester Confidential. It's split into bite-sized chapters so you can visit the theme of discussion which most interests you. This is one of the beauties of the internet, editors can go either brief and sound-bite or chuck it all up. Given the nature of this interview, and what it says about city council policy and the leader, we think we should go long.

Thanks to those readers who sent us questions and sorry I couldn't include them all in the hour long interview. Also apologies for the delay in delivering the interview. One thing to bear in mind is that given the allotted time space we talked about strategic thinking and the big ideas rather than specifics.

Still this gives a good insight into what makes our Council Leader tick. It also makes you wonder what comes next? He will have to retire at some point, and while some may have their doubts about him, what I felt in this interview was his sincerity, his intelligence and even, occasionally his wit. As a London journalist said to me during the last Manchester International Festival, “who've you got lined up for leader after Leese? Will they be as good?” That remains a huge question which has yet to be answered. Sir Richard Leese thinks big, as did Graham Stringer before him, the last thing this city needs is a small-minded provincial oik to take us back to the bad old days.

Just a few things to note, JS is Jonathan Schofield, SRL is Sir Richard Leese and 'Manchester' and the 'city' refers to the City of Manchester administrative area not Greater Manchester.

Chapter One: state of the city, economic strengths, poverty levels, a bit of history, boundary changes.

JS: What's the state of the city compared to 1996 when you became Council Leader?
SRL: Economically we're far more successful. For most of the last decade, putting the recession aside, we had economic growth which matched that in the South East. In the recession we've not gone backwards as fast as anyone else which suggests there's a resilience in the economy that wasn't here previously. Two things, we want to do is maintain that economic position and make sure that Manchester people benefit from it. Over the last recordable period the reduction in levels of deprivation have been greater here than in any other area of the North West.

JS: Why hasn't our economy dipped so steeply? What are our strengths?
SRL: We have a more diverse economy and we've had growth in financial and professional services, new media, ICT, retail, leisure and tourism. Some are impacted on by recession more than others but because we have that diversity we are more resilient.

JS: Where does that modern economic diversity stem from?
SRL: In Manchester we recognised back in the eighties that if we're going to have job growth then it needed to come from the private sector. It wasn't the city council which was directly going to create those jobs we needed. We decided that the role of the city council would be in creating the circumstances supporting the circumstances in which other people can create employment. There are elements of luck in the economic cycle as well.

JS: Manchester has high indicators of deprivation, what can we do to improve these sorry stats?
SRL: We need people to be economically active. We have a large number of workless people, particularly those on incapacity benefit, who with the right level of support should be in work. We are working to do a number of things differently. We know that for those people on incapacity and people growing up in the city, the economy of the future is about high skills: we have to improve education and training, and boost those skill levels across the city. We also have to improve the physical environment where people live so they want to settle there and invest in it.

JS: Does Manchester's lowly position in deprivation indicators personally embarrass you?
SRL: It appalls me, it isn't a question of embarrassment. There's a background to this. When I came into politics it was at the end of the late 70s and early 80s and the manufacturing base was being destroyed but not by us (Labour). That was through a Tory government which saw manufacturing as an economic and political irrelevance.

JS: But that type of heavy manufacturing was going anyway wasn't it, Britain could no longer compete?
SRL: We do still have manufacturing in this city. But of course I wouldn't support a lame duck policy of propping up redundant industry, yet managed correctly we might have had a lot more manufacturing than we do presently. Moving on to today. Twenty years ago the traditional industries were destroyed on an enormous scale and it's taken us that time to rebuild a completely different economy that vastly improves the life chances for people.

JS: You mentioned physical changes before in the areas where people live but that won't fundamentally make their situation better if there simply are no jobs in those areas.
SRL:It's not just what happens physically of course, that is part of it. We have to make people feel their areas have a future. I measure this personally at the meetings I have with residents throughout the various Manchester neighbourhoods. We also monitor this at a Council level. This is people's perception of life in the city, how do they feel about Manchester - so it's not just about the new buildings and environmental works but a much broader idea. In this we outperform all the other Greater Manchester authorities and the other Core Cities (an organisation of leading English cities outside London, including Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds, Newcastle, Bristol, Nottingham and Sheffield).

JS: For historical reasons Manchester's wealthy suburbs, the ones that often service the city centre with higher management positions, lie outside the administrative area. Would you like the boundaries changed to allow the City of Manchester to subsume these areas with so many people who work in Manchester but don't live there - give the city more economic punch?
SRL: The City of Manchester does have peculiar boundaries and the bulk of our suburbs are elsewhere but I don't want to substantially change our boundaries. In many ways it's a manageable size of around 450,000 people. First, I need to concentrate on those things I can do to change the quality of life rather than worrying about what won't happen. Second, we need to recognise that the economy of Manchester is a Greater Manchester economy. That is why the City Region Status has been achieved which will help us deliver sub-regional changes in lifestyles and economy without formal boundary changes.

Chapter Two: City Region Status, Shameless v Cold Feet, Residents Wages.

JS: How important is City Region Status?
SRL: I've been campaigning with others for over a decade to take a city regional approach to Greater Manchester. We now have on the table, governmental devolution to a sub-regional level that is without precedent. It will to an extent we've never had previously give us the tools not just to improve the economy of the Greater Manchester city region but through skills, education, transport, improve the opportunities of people to benefit from that input.

JS: Is this just a form of Greater Manchester Council which was dissolved in the 1980s?
SRL: Absolutely not. The powers of each local authority remain with that local authority, this is a cooperative arrangement about dealing with issues best dealt with at a sub-regional level.

JS: Maybe we're getting ahead of ourselves. What is city region status?
SRL: In the agreement with government we will have an employment and skills board, a single education budget, the planning and public funding of housing and similar powers to transport for London. We're also running a number of pilot schemes on low carbon economies so we can retro-fit domestic and commercial properties to make them cheaper to run and less environmentally damaging. Also we're looking at how we can join up local authority services and those provided by central government and its agencies. Within that the most significant work is to see if we can make progess on data sharing which, believe it or not, is one of the biggest obstacles to joined up service delivery and to improving lives.

JS: When we will see a benefit through City Region Status?
SRL: The work the boroughs do together over many years is one of the reasons why Manchester collectively punches above its weight in the UK economy. It's why it's recognised internationally after London and the South East as the biggest economic growth point in the UK. We're the only place outside that area where the economic growth potential would be seen at a global level. I don't think we should underestimate what we've already achieved. At the same time we have several hundred thousand people, I think it's around 400,000, who have low levels of literacy or numeracy and who are not equipped to benefit in the modern economy. So while we've got real successes, we've also got a really difficult task to accomplish. What the City Region does, with no guarantees, is give us stronger tools, for greater potential to tackle those issues, some of which are pretty intractable.

JS: They are intractable aren't they, with lots of generational poverty thrown in? Are you repelled by the image Shameless gives of Manchester?
SRL: Yes. I think Cold Feet rather than Shameless is more of the image we want. Although remember, both are TV programmes not real life. In some sections of the community we have values which have extended over several generations in some case four, which is effectively a culture of we don't work. We have to break that cycle. For a healthy society in Manchester work has to become the norm - being economically active has to become the norm. Our Residents Wages scheme...

JS: What is that?
SRL: We've identified the three areas of the city with the most worklessness. It may seem obvious but the people who live next door to those who are workless tend to be themselves workless. Residents Wages is a non-institutional approach about getting the council, police and health together with the Department for Work and Pensions - those bodies which tend to be involved with these families - operating in a joined up way with a single point of contact. This about how you provide the impetus to get people who should be economically active economically active again, how you get people who should be at school in school and how you help people eligible for further education, college and training to take up those opportunities. These are problems that nobody has succeeded with in the industrial world but that's what we're hoping will help.

Chapter Three: transport policy, Congestion Charge, car parking, airport growth.

JS: Let's change to transport policy. With tht Congestion Charge you said there was no Plan B: given the current levels of investment in Metrolink and other areas, maybe that wasn't true.
SRL: No I stand by that. There was no Plan B. It's a lost opportunity and congestion charging will probably come back in the future in a different form, it just won't come back with £1.5bn of government money attached to it. That's without precedent, to wave goodbye to that amount of real money.

JS: So what did you do after the overwhelming no vote?
SRL: What we did post-Congestion Charge is say right what do we do now in a period of recession? We approached government and pointed out elements of transport policy that pass Department of Transport requirements and Treasury benefit cost analyses and we re-prioritised according to economic impact. We said we could deliver these in 12-18 months. Since we weren't going to get the £1.5bn how could we finance them? Well we haven't got any more government money but they've brought money forward from future years in order to fund a programme quickly because we could demonstrate these were, as they say, shovel-ready. The second major way of funding these was through an increased Council Tax levy over 6 years, 3% a year, to pay for the investment in transport. So we've gone from a £3bn scheme where the local contribution would come from a Congestion Charge to a £1.5bn scheme where most of it is being paid for by every Council Tax payer in the conurbation. Just imagine if we could have gone to the people of Greater Manchester and have asked do you want £3bn for transport improvements that you can either pay through a congestion charge or through the Council Tax?

JS: Maybe you should have asked that question in the referendum?
SRL: We couldn't ask that question because that wasn't an option available from government in the referendum, it was seen as a leading question. Nothing comes for free but it might have been better if we had been able to ask directly which way people wanted to pay for it.

The Leader exhorts his people forward to 'Enhanced Life Chances'JS: Changing the subject but keeping with transport. Is there any notion of high car-parking charges to keep people out of the city centre who drive cars for maybe environmental reasons?SRL: No. There are issues about signposting people to car parks, so the further from the core you are the cheaper it goes. It's about making it clear about what the options are. When we talk to the retail or leisure sector they're quite clear, that they want car parking spaces, which to a large extent we can't set the charges for. Physically we have rather more spaces than the Trafford Centre remember. Yet we also have a large workforce in the city centre. We do need to make sure that commuters don't occupy all the spaces all day that shoppers and visitors need to use. Another thing we are looking at is that many of the car parks are in peripheral development areas of the city centre on surface car parks. When those get taken up in future developments we want to have a policy about how to replace them.

JS: You don't hate the car then as a Council?
SRL: I drove in today. Course I don't hate the car.

JS: Given Manchester's 'green city' aspirations, do you think the development of Manchester Airport goes against those principles? We like the notion of airport development but we have been asked about this from readers.
SRL: Emissions for per 100km travelled in a plane are less than those of a car per passenger. UK aviation emissions are something like 6% of the transport total, the private car and commercial vehilces are far bigger in their impact. As for the growth of Manchester Airport there is an assumption that if we were to curtail that growth it would curtail the growth of aviation. It wouldn't. Obviously. People would fly from somewhere else. People might just take shuttles to say Amsterdam and the environmental impact would be even worse. The growth of the airport is about more international destinations from where we can grow business rather than flights to Majorca. Also when you have capacity you don't have any choice over expansion. Also aviation emissions need to be tackled, but internationally. If I were to fly to Pittsburgh via New York, to which country do the emissions belong? There has to be an international way of tackling that. Nationally this is why, partly, I support the high speed rail link. That would get rid of a lot of domestic aviation altogether. We need better alternatives.

Chapter Four: role of Council Leader, the one party state of Soviet Manchester, working with the Tories.

JS: Let's take a look at your role. Some people think the Council Leader is some Godhead figure that is all powerful? Does that surprise you?
SRL: One of the problems of local government is that we are only able to do what Parliament says we can do. This is different from other parts of Europe for instance which have powers of 'general competence' which allows them to do everything we're told we can't. That's why we want City Region Status. But I am staggered at times by what powers people think the Council and Council Leader have got. There are severe limitations to what we can do.

JS: What is the role then?
SRL: First off we are elected by people and argue on their behalf. That's the representative role. Secondly we look after services. Thirdly is civic or community leadership. The council exists for Manchester and nothing else. We are elected and that gives us a moral authority to bring lots of players together to give people direction to help the city progress.

JS: Do you think people depend too much on the Council, even the business leaders and seek your approval rather than just going about things themselves: we've experienced this in the on-going campaign we've got trying to improve Castlefield?
SRL: Absolutely. There is a dependency culture and there is an assumption that you don't have to do anything for yourself anymore right across the city in all sectors. When I was looking at our neighbourhood strategy, the definition of a healthy neighbourhood was defined by the effectiveness of the council and other public sector services, and I said that's wrong a good neighbourhood is defined by the lack of need of all those services. We want neighbourhoods to be more independent, we want business to be independent.

JS: Unlike in say the United States with their mayors, there is no need for you to give up, you could go on forever. It's curious that at Manchester United we have the longest running Premier League manager with Sir Alex Ferguson, and in the Council we have the longest running big city leader with Sir Richard Leese? Of course in LA for example you'd have to step down after two four year terms. Might the English city way lead to complacency?
SRL: Well it's worth bearing in mind that I have to be elected every four years as a councillor, and I have to be elected every year as leader. Of course we've seen in some places people do become complacent. But often the best way to view this is from the outside. External commentators have seen the plus side, saying that one of Manchester's strengths is strong leadership and also continuity of leadership. I would say this of course but we have gained from that continuity. And there is no complacency here whatsoever, I'm probably the Council's biggest critic.

JS: But you do have a good demographic don't you? Manchester is a one-party state.
SRL: I had an exchange in a pub recently in the city centre, this person said, “I think you're doing a good job in Manchester, I'm a Conservative from Trafford but if lived in Manchester I'd vote Labour in loca elections.”

JS: But do you think that the little Soviet of Manchester, with Uncle Joe being played by Sir Richard Leese, has been important because security of tenure means you can plan ahead?
SRL: In terms of growing the economy of a city which we started doing with Hulme City Challenge in 1990-91 you have to think in the long term if you're going to make a difference. It's the same with New East Manchester it's a twenty year plan, not set in concrete, but a recognition that to make the scale of change we need it will take time.

JS: How would you work with a future Conservative government?
SRL: I will be doing everything I can to ensure we don't have a Conservative Government. But when I became leader in 1996 we had a Conservative government so I had to work successfully with that government. I mentioned Hulme regeneration and we worked with the Conservatives on delivering the successes there. I think it will be a lot harder working under a Conservative government, but the one thing that is certain is that they will want to reduce unemployment, they will want to improve education and cut crime, there will be a common agenda.

JS: But the budgets for public services will implode, there are long term problems in the country's economy. Where will the money be coming from to improve services, make people economically active as you say?
SRL: It is a major challenge and our budget for the next three years starting this April we started on last April because we recognised that budgets are likely to be far more constrained. It is not an option to ditch our objectives and priorities, we have to find new ways of meeting those. That's the job we've set ourselves. I'm not pretending that this will be an easy task, and I'm not pretending it won't have a negative impact, just as the recession has slowed down what we want to do in those areas we've targeted to improve. There are advantages for having been around for a long time, I've been there before and had to deliver in very difficult circumstances.

JS: So you're still bullish?
SRL: Of course. You are either going forwards or going backwards. Despite the recession Manchester is still going forwards and whatever happens with the City Council's budget, in that civic leadership role, we can still drive the city onwards.

Chapter Five: parliamentary ambitions, biggest achievement, Manchester International Festival, the Leader's salary, charismatic leadership and the joy of leadership

JS: And you? Do you ever want to go to Parliament, occupy those backbenches and then get into a Labour cabinet?
SRL: No. I guess if I was 20-25 years younger I might think about. But the prospect of being backbencher is like dying early. It's three and half, four days in London with nothing to do, no power, can't change anything. The prospect of being in opposition makes it worse because then you've really got no power. One of the advantages of being Leader in this Local Authority is you can do things that make a difference to people's lives and see the results.

JS: On the cultural side, we need things such as Manchester International Festival, to give us profile, make us seem more than just a post-industrial city who've made headway against decline? Are you proud of the Festival?
SRL: I'm frequently asked what is your big achievement? Most of what we do is collective of course. I might be team captain but most comes from discussion and ideas that lots of people have. The biggest thing we've done collectively, public and private sector, over the last decade or so is give Manchester its self-confidence back. The belief to do things. It's an understanding of the unique characteristics of Manchester, what sort of place this is, what sort of people live here. After the Commonwealth Games we had discussions about what we had to do next to maintain the legacy of that fantastic event. The International Festival was part of what came out of that, we'd had one of those before but it was crap basically. This had to be different from other international festivals and be peculiarly Mancunian. Alex Poots (Festival Director) and his team have delivered that in spades. It is distinctive, we do have something peculiarly Mancunian.

JS: After the achievement, what about the remuneration. How much do you earn as Leader?
SRL: My allowance, that's what it's called rather than earnings, is around £55,000 a year.

JS: That seems low for a Leader in such a position given your responsibilities?
SRL: It's relatively high compared to most Mancunians. I didn't get involved in politics for what I was going to earn out of it.

JS: So why did you then? There's a probably simplistic and over-used perception as conveyed by the media that all politicians are in it for selfish reasons. Why get involved.
SRL: This ought to be true of all politicians because I wanted to change the world. For a Conservative politician it might be because you want to keep the world as it is. I got involved in Council politics because I saw bits of the world I could do something about. It's why I want to continue to be involved. I can see things in this city where I've made a difference, particularly to the quality of life of an awful lot of people. For most of the time I've earned significantly less than what I earn now. Unlike Parliament we have an independent review body that makes recommendations for allowances and so far we have accepted those recommendations. One of the worst things about any system is deciding your own pay, it looks open to abuse. It's also worth saying that Councillors don't have lots of expenses. Indeed, another advantage of being a councillor is that you live and work in the area you represent.

JS: So what is the joy of this position? You have more profile, influence and power than those backbenches we talked about after all. What do you get from being Leader?
SRL: In terms of profile I'm not bothered about that. I'm not a great believer in charismatic leadership. The increased obsession around personality is bad for politics because it is about style over substance and substance is more important. The joy comes from making a difference in accordance with a set of personal values, socialist values. The other joy is that the job I do is remarkably intellectually challenging and I love having problems to solve. There'll be a big intellectual challenge as we manage the move out of recession.

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20 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

AnonymousFebruary 8th 2010.

I don't mean to sound rude but what is the point in asking your readership for questions when from what I can see, you didn't ask a single one and certainly none of the very interesting ones put forward? This is similar to when you interviewed the head of GMP. If you want to ask your own question or be led by the questions you've been told you're allowed to ask, then fine but don't waste your readers time please. Don't make some big deal of 'The Head of....' answering the questions of Manchester Confidential readers because it's not quite true. It is a nice article, just not what we were led to believe. Thanks

Jonathan Schofield - editorFebruary 8th 2010.

We will have an interview with other heads of Manchester policy both council and non-council in the coming weeks and I hope to cover all the key areas in those interviews that I couldn't cover with Sir Richard. In the end I had to use the time to cover those key strategic questions such as the problem of deprivation. I also wanted to reveal something of his character.

AnonymousFebruary 8th 2010.

Ok, well unless you can be sure that you're able to ask your readers questions then don't ask. There were many many good questions there, rather than the usual stock questions that have been rolled out for him yet again. I read through them and didn't add any myself as I thought there was a good mix in the readers questions. This isn't the first time this has happened with Manchester Confidential. Rather than the grilling we were led to believe was in store, he was more softly poached.

TichFebruary 8th 2010.

I disagree this is a fine interview which reveals the Leader's mindset - Cold Feet not Shameless for example. The writer says there was an hour interview time. He also if you read the first few paragraphs quite admires Leese, which is fine. And there are questions there that led to surprising answers.

OryrawFebruary 8th 2010.

Liked the interview but loved the image. Can I get an image of this? Or maybe the new People's History Museum should put it up as a poster.

BoultonFebruary 8th 2010.

I like he recognises the need for people to be active and in work, I applaud him for that. He comes across as a good Labour leader not the Hatton model at all.

AnonymousFebruary 8th 2010.

As I said in my first comment, it is a nice article but not what we were told we were getting. I just find it slightly rude that the readers were asked and then ignored, again. It's not that a few questions were asked from the suggested ones, I don't even think any of the suggested questions were taken onboard. That's my opinion anyway. I'm quite sure if a food writer from here went to a steak restaurant, ordered steak and then got a three bean salad they would be a bit disapointed.

Jonathan Schofield - editorFebruary 8th 2010.

Last word on this, please, but the Council did read all the comments and questions so they knew of the issues that were raised. I take on board your comments about asking for questions and will review the next time we have such an interview. You can always email me direct for further discussion on jonathans@planetconfidential.co.uk

Rebecca JamesFebruary 8th 2010.

It's interesting what he says about working with the Tories and about the work shy. I feel better about him now.

MikeFebruary 8th 2010.

Good interview there MC. Seemed to cover a broad range of topics (especially given that you only had an hour) and was interesting to see how he ticks. He seemed to be pretty open and honest as well. I may not agree with everything he's done but on the whole I think the city needs someone with a forward thinking approach like his.

Stalin-goodFebruary 8th 2010.

Perfect point, well made. "When I was looking at our neighbourhood strategy, the definition of a healthy neighbourhood was defined by the effectiveness of the council and other public sector services, and I said that's wrong a good neighbourhood is defined by the lack of need of all those services."

Smyth HarperFebruary 8th 2010.

In fairness to Jonathan, anon, the questions asked in the interview reflect the broad themes of what people posted on the original article asking for questions (apart from the ones banging on about grit). What areas do you think weren't covered? If you look at the volume of questions posted on the original article, he would have needed all day to go through them all, so it's common sense he had to be selective, surely.

John HarrisFebruary 8th 2010.

He's clearly still bitter over losing the congestion charge vote. That's democracy for you Richard, although democracy is obviously not a day-to-day concern of the Manchester Labour party...<br><br>Jonathan, it's fair enough what you say about using the time to deal with "strategic" questions but it would have been nice to quiz him on a couple of the specifics that the readers threw up, since you took the trouble to ask them and they took the trouble to reply. <br><br>Personally I'd have liked to see him pressed a bit harder on car parking (where you moved on after a burst of waffle) and also on abandoned city centre development sites and the effect of the abortive buy-to-let boom on the city environment.<br><br>Good article though. I do hope you follow it up with more case specific interviews later

Jonathan Schofield - editorFebruary 8th 2010.

John, I will, we'll get all the different departments and sectors bagged this year, with specific questions.

SurburbiaFebruary 8th 2010.

What a surprise, Sir Dickie doesn't like Shameless which so accurately reflects the implosion of the working class communities around Manchester over the last thirty years. Brave words Richard, but who was in power during that period.

Smyth HarperFebruary 8th 2010.

Describing the Shameless class as "working class" is pretty offensive suburbia!

Graham SutcliffeFebruary 8th 2010.

I think if he's talking about a culture of we don't work it's not the working class but the shirking class he's talking about. Nice to hear that sort of talk though.

Edward FahyFebruary 9th 2010.

'In Manchester we recognised back in the eighties that if we're going to have job growth then it needed to come from the private sector. It wasn't the city council which was directly going to create those jobs we needed.' I'm beginning to like this man. He seems spot on in much of what he says.

RobertFebruary 10th 2010.

Appalled by deprivation! This is the man who was in favour of a super casino in one of the poorest wards in Britain (east Manchester). If Mr Leese is at all concerned about deprivation perhaps he could do something about his own council tax unit sending out court summonses to poverty stricken people who only owe £36 after paying throughout the year. £74 summons costs added - grand total £110 to find within 21 days! No reminder issued. Straight to a summons.

A total abuse of the court system and the city council's powers and downright cruel to desperate families and individuals in the current climate. Mr Leese you should be ashamed that you preside over this.

AnonymousFebruary 10th 2010.

I agree with those who feel their questions where not answered but you can always ask them yourself You do it here
Start the 'mail' dear Sir Richard, and he will send you an email back.
I know the answers to quite a lot of the detailed questions not answered and I might post some here as I update myself.

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