Box stands down with call for better connections to the public

Wakefield Council leader Peter Box
Wakefield Council leader Peter Box

PETER BOX has brought down the curtain on his three-year tenure at the head of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority with a call for the organisation to do more to connect with the public.

Coun Box, the leader of Wakefield Council, pointed to major investment in areas including transport and skills across the area as evidence of the authority’s achievements since it was formed in 2014.

But he acknowledged that the public is still getting to know the organisation and the role it has in growing the area’s economy.

“Sometimes I think one of the things about, I guess Yorkshire in a way, is that we can be self-deprecating, we don’t shout about how good we are. I know that from experience in my own city,” he told The Yorkshire Post.

“If you look at Wakefield we have just had some money from the combined authority to build the eastern relief road. That’s going to be a huge economic benefit to the people of Wakefield, it’s going to create some 3,000 jobs and it’s going to create 2,500 new homes so there’s huge potential and already it’s taken some pressure of the highway network.

“I tell everybody that that has been provided not by the council but by the combined authority. I think perhaps we need to do more of that so that those schemes that have been funded by the combined authority should be badged as such.

“If I was to be self-critical of us, perhaps it would be that we’ve not connected in the way a local authority can with the people we represent and I think that’s something that needs to be done better in the future.”

The combined authority grew out of the former West Yorkshire Passenger Transport Authority as council leaders moved to co-operate more in areas such as skills and attracting investment.

It has an annual budget of more than £300m, is investing a £1bn transport fund and is the lead body for a ‘growth deal’ agreed with the Government to boost the local economy worth £1bn.

Coun Box said: “The fact we were created at all is an achievement, we’ve come together, we’ve put aside a lot of those rivalries that did exist between Bradford and Leeds and Leeds and Wakefield and worked for the greater good.”

Coun Box admitted he was “disappointed” to be stepping down before the area had been able to secure a ‘devolution deal’ from the Government similar to that enjoyed by areas such as Manchester and Tees Valley giving them more control over their own affairs.

Yorkshire’s devolution drive has been hampered by disagreements over which districts should join together to strike deals.

Coun Box said: “Where do we go from here? My view is that there is nobody that has been more critical of this government and its relationship with local government than me but I think when the Northern Powerhouse Minister made the point that devolution is based on cities he was quite right.

“That’s what it was set up to do, to increase economic growth based on cities and their immediate regions and for me that is where we will get the most growth in the shortest time. So I believe that a Leeds City Region deal is one that offers the best opportunity to do that and one my authority wholeheartedly supports.

“I think once you start to move onto a bigger geography you lose focus and you create a much larger bureaucracy. I am not sure the public are thrilled at the idea of even more politicians and even more bureaucracy being created.

“In my experience what the public want are their existing political representatives to work together smarter rather than creating something else. I think eventually you might see a larger geography but to begin with I think you start with what we’ve got where we’ve shown we can make a difference, shown that we can be successful.”

Coun Box said he had come to the conclusion that “something’s got to give” after he was recently appointed chairman of the Key Cities group of councils.

Key Cities was founded four years ago to give towns and smaller cities a national voice amid concerns from some council leaders that attention was overlyfocused on the likes of Manchester and Birmingham.

Coun Box said the organisation was making the case that smaller cities were seeing faster rates of economic growth and had already secured promises from the Government that they will play a key role in its industrial strategy.