Mayoral frontrunner

Leicester's elected mayor says that a proposed new generation of top local politicians need more powers to drive forward their cities.

Soulsby: "A mayor can bring together potential partners in a way that is more difficult for a council leader". Neville Chadwick photo
Soulsby: "A mayor can bring together potential partners in a way that is more difficult for a council leader". Neville Chadwick photo

Leicester City Council's main building, it would appear, is falling apart at the seams. The inside of the authority's ageing headquarters is criss-crossed with red lines denoting areas deemed unsafe by engineers. Its days are numbered.

The man who must decide whether to tear down the 1960s hulk and what to replace it with is the city's recently elected mayor, Sir Peter Soulsby, whose spartan office is on the seventh floor.

Soulsby met Planning only weeks after the death from cancer of his wife of 42 years. In his tribute, he described her as his "rock during the ups and downs of my political career".

Almost all of that career has been spent at the heart of Leicester politics. A Leicester city councillor for 30 years, council leader for 17 and Labour MP for Leicester South for six more, he has an impressive record of political involvement in the city.

Soulsby was elected mayor last May, a year ahead of planned referendums in 11 other English cities on whether they too want to follow the controversial elected mayoral model. Speaking to Planning ahead of this interview, critics of the model pointed to a lack of public interest, questions about whether mayors can achieve more than council leaders and concerns that mayors will encourage "careerism" at the expense of an urge to serve the public.

Soulsby has little time for such arguments. "I have long been firmly convinced that big cities need clear, transparent, accountable leadership and that the system we've had over recent years just hasn't been able to deliver that," he says.

Much of the debate around the elected mayoral system focuses on power, and whether mayors will be granted too much or too little to make a difference. A government consultation on the powers elected mayors should have ended earlier this month. Despite concerns in some quarters that devolving too much authority could encourage corruption or mismanagement, the government proposes that significant - although as yet undefined - new powers will be on offer to any newly elected mayor come the summer.

In its analysis of the consultation, the government said respondents had put forward a "wide range" of ideas about powers that might be devolved, with a "particular focus on planning, transport, employment, economic growth, health and policing".

Although Soulsby says he is pleased that the government is looking at handing more capabilities to mayors and local government in general, he maintains that the issue is about more than just power. "It's not just the statutory powers of mayors that make a difference, it is the expectation that mayors will provide leadership more generally," he says.

Soulsby has already wielded his existing powers. In a cabinet shake-up before Christmas, he took on the council's regeneration and economic regeneration portfolio after the previous holder stepped down. "I decided to take that on because I wanted to drive it forward personally," he says. The move came as a wider review of the council's senior management continues. As part of this, it was recently revealed that the council's planning, culture, transport and property directors are likely to lose their jobs as part of a review intended to save £1.1 million year on year from its top two tiers of senior management.

There has also been a court wrangle between the council and its former chief executive Sheila Lock, who claimed unfair dismissal when Soulsby announced plans last summer to merge her remit with his own. In November, a judge rejected her bid to challenge the scrapping of the post but, on appeal in January, a second judge decided her case should go to a full judicial review. Soulsby maintains the council has acted properly. "We took very careful legal advice and I'm confident we made sure all proper processes were in place", he said in a statement.

Soulsby has no statutory planning powers, so he cannot intervene directly in planning decisions. But he does have a key role in drawing up planning policy and setting overall council strategy. One example of this is a temporary moratorium on student housing introduced in November. This stemmed from a student housing summit held in 2011 that was one of the 100 pledges the mayor promised would be fulfilled in his first 100 days in power. At the request of Soulsby and his team, new detailed planning advice is being drawn up to give the council more control over student housing schemes.

Soulsby says he has a "passion" for the built environment and talks animatedly about taking a "lead role" in developing a heritage partnership with the local civic society to improve access to historic sites. "This is probably quite a good example of the things a mayor can do so much better than a council leader. You can bring together potential partners in a way that is more difficult for someone who is clearly more identified as a council leader," he says.

Another of Soulsby's 100 pledges was to work to ensure "new and more secure protections for the city's green spaces". He intervened in a row over the development of football pitches on meadows to the south of the city. "Within days of being elected, I'd found a solution, working with the football foundation to develop an alternative," he says.

However, he insists he is not against all development. "There are lots of areas in and around the city that are appropriate for further development and I welcome and encourage that," he says. All this is likely to feed into a review of the council's existing core strategy that he says the authority is considering. "We've got to the point where we want to look and see if it is still fit for purpose," he says.

A council spokesman adds that the mayor has asked officers to review the core strategy against his economic development, city centre improvement and transport priorities. "Should this require a revision, an option may be to combine the core strategy and site allocations documents," he says.

Soulsby's interest in planning and regeneration stems partly from experience. During his time as council leader, he chaired Leicester's City Challenge regeneration programme - launched by former Conservative Prime Minister John Major in 1991 - which he says brought more than £400 million worth of jobs and regeneration to the city.

He speaks highly of the initiative, which he says was "very successful in regenerating the whole of the west end of the city". It is programmes such as this that he says he would like to be able to lead on as mayor. When asked what powers he would like to take on from central government, he puts local transport top, with pump-priming funding to kick-start development in regeneration areas second.

With the referendums on whether to create elected mayors in other cities looming, Soulsby is reluctant to say how many elected mayors he thinks will eventually be in place. "It's difficult to predict what will happen. I just know that having an elected mayor is right for Leicester, it works here and I'm held to account. I think there's a recognition in Leicester that having an elected mayor enables us to develop a vision for the future of the city together."

As for the redevelopment of the council offices, Soulsby says he has made a decision. "It is a political no-brainer to pull it down, but whatever we do we are not going to replace it with a glass and marble palace. In the present climate - if ever - glass and marble palaces are not acceptable."


CV highlights

1973 Elected as a Leicester city councillor
1981 Becomes leader of the council
1999 Knighted for services to Leicester
2005 Wins the parliamentary seat of Leicester South
May 2011 Stands down as an MP to run for elected mayor, winning election
against ten other candidates in May

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