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‘I want to get things done’ - James Alexander
9:21am Friday 4th May 2012 in Features
James Alexander is a young man in a hurry. A year after becoming one of the most youthful council leaders in the country, he talks to STEPHEN LEWIS about his adopted city’s fear of change – and the challenges of the years ahead.
JAMES Alexander has a young man’s hunger to make things happen. Pinned to the wall next to his desk in the council leader’s room at the Guildhall is a list of the manifesto commitments his Labour group made for the council elections a year ago.
A growing number of those commitments have ticks beside them – “get rid of the ftr purple buses”, tick; “seek to increase apprenticeships”, tick; “set up a Fairness Commission”, tick; “cut council waste to keep council tax low”, tick. Each of those ticks, he says, represents a commitment that has been delivered on. “We have delivered just under one third of manifesto commitments in our first year.”
Not everyone would necessarily agree that all the commitments the council leader has put a tick next to have truly been delivered. Is a council tax rise of 2.9 per cent this year really low, for example – especially when the Labour group rejected a £1.8 million Government grant which would have allowed it to be frozen?
The Labour group put forward a pretty good argument for rejecting that grant, saying that accepting it and freezing council tax this year would result in a much bigger council tax rise being needed next year. But still, compared to no rise at all, 2.9 per cent isn’t really low.
Nevertheless, the record on delivery of manifesto pledges set out on that wall looks impressive: and it suggests that this is a council leader determined to get on and do things.
Sometimes, however, that determination manifests itself as impatience – such as when Coun Alexander gets on to the topic of York’s resistance to change.
He accepts that it is easy enough to make election promises when you are in opposition, and that delivering on them when you are in power will inevitably take time, because you have to get do things properly, go through all the correct administrative hoops, get everyone on board.
But he clearly feels frustrated by the pace at which local government moves. The fear of change is a cultural problem in York, he says – and not only in the city, but in parts of his own council, too. “The biggest change that the city centre has seen in years is the demolition of some toilets,” he says, referring to the former ‘splash palace’ in Parliament Street. “You can see how difficult it is to get things done.”
He can perhaps be forgiven his tetchiness. It is, after all, just a week since plans for a new community stadium – and the associated shopping development that would make it possible – at Monks Cross were dealt a significant blow, by his own council.
Those plans have been lodged by developer Oakgate, but Coun Alexander makes no secret of the fact that he supports them.
Yet a written memorandum from his council’s highways department that was made public last week said that the proposal was “unacceptable” because of its “significantly harmful impacts” on York’s roads and transport policy. About 4,000 cars could travel to or from the development at peak times, the report said – about the same as the combined morning rush-hour traffic in Strensall, Haxby and Wigginton.
Coun Alexander doesn’t blame his highways team for making these observations: they were only doing their jobs by pointing out issues of concern. But, in line with their remit, they were looking only at the traffic and transport impact of the scheme, Coun Alexander says: not at the wider picture.
There is no doubt that the Monks Cross development would have a negative impact, not only on traffic but also on businesses in the city centre, he admits. Everyone acknowledges that – not least Drivers Jonas Deloitte, the property experts commissioned by the city council to look at the impact of the development. Their report, released this week, suggested that city centre businesses would lose £50 million of trade in one year if the proposed John Lewis and Marks & Spencer stores at Monks Cross are approved.
But by its very nature, this development was always going to have some negative consequences, Coun Alexander says. That is the only reason the developers are offering to pay for a community stadium, as recompense. The proposed scheme is “an enabling development – something that planning permission would not normally be granted for”, he says. “If it was all hunky dory, if everything was fine, there wouldn’t be a stadium.”
The question planners will have to grapple with when they meet to consider the scheme on May 17 is whether that negative impact is a price worth paying for York to get its stadium.
Coun Alexander makes it clear that he thinks it is, although he isn’t on the planning committee. He believes York should get over its fear of change and embrace the scheme.
“York has been dreaming of a stadium for the past ten years,” he says. “There is no Plan B. If this doesn’t happen… that’s it. We’re out.”
The consequences of that could be devastating for the city, he believes – and not only in terms of the impact on sport. “If it doesn’t go ahead, I’m not confident that any investment would happen in this city for a generation.”
Coun Alexander seems to feel that the reluctance on the part of many to embrace the Monks Cross scheme is symptomatic of a wider resistance to change.
But if York is to thrive in the future, the city has to overcome that anti-change culture, he believes.
Yes, York is a very special place and that quality needs to be preserved.
“But that doesn’t mean we can bury our heads in the sand. There are people in Westfield who are in the poorest ten per cent in the country. Not enough is being done for them.”
The way to get economic growth, to create jobs and opportunities, is to develop new initiatives and embrace change, he believes.
His bullishness about this has landed his administration in difficulties several times this year.
There was the row over the Union Terrace car park; over closure of the Beckfield Lane waste recycling tip; and over the Labour group’s decision to reverse the road ‘improvements’ at the Clifton Green junction.
You can see the frustration when he talks about the latter. During the election campaign a year ago, it was very clear that public opinion was in favour of restoring the left-hand vehicle lane, he says. That is why the Labour group pledged to do so. “And yet people all of a sudden have become upset about what we were elected to do!”
He has several times over the past year been accused by opposition politicians of being anti-democratic – for example, over the late release of budget papers; and for his decision to scrap public ‘decision sessions’ for individual cabinet members, which opposition councillors say will result in some decisions being made behind closed doors. His response to the latter was that the move would reduce bureaucracy – and that the big decisions would continue to be made in public.
All in all, it has not been an easy first year. But then being council leader never is easy.
He admits that at times he has found the criticism being levelled at him difficult to take. I’m not the best person at taking personal criticism. But I’ve learned to live with it. I think I’m developing a thicker skin!”
Above all, he claims that a year on, he has learned some lessons.
“I recognise now that you cannot just go ahead and do stuff,” he says. “You have to think about how you announce things. You have to take people along with you.”
Only time will tell whether he has really learned how to do that.
James Alexander on...
• Union Terrace
Coun Alexander admits that he handled the decision to sell the Union Terrace car park to York St John University badly. It was one of his administration’s first big measures. “I was keen to show that we were willing to deliver, to make decisions and get on with things. But we went at it too quickly. The way we announced it… it came out of the blue for many people.”
He still believes selling the car park to St John would have been the right thing to do, however. It is a successful, growing university that is a good employer and provides many jobs, he points out.
Had the university itself not pulled out of the scheme, the council would have gone ahead with the sale, he insists. “We never backed down. We were willing to proceed.”
Despite the way it all ended, he hopes that willingness to go ahead on the council’s part will have sent out a ‘powerful message’ to potential developers interested in investing in the city.
• Beckfield Lane
Coun Alexander comes across as a bit dismissive over public anger at the sale of the Beckfield Lane waste disposal site. “It is hard to get motivated about an argument that we have already won,” he says.
Closure of the site was one of the measures the Labour group proposed in its budget to save money. It would save £130,000 over two years, the group said.
Closure was originally scheduled for April 15, but had to be delayed after almost 2,900 people signed a petition in protest, forcing a special meeting of the full council to debate the issue.
Opposition councillors claimed the budget decision to close the site was made “without all the relevant information”, although Coun Alexander insists there was proper debate.
The decision to close the site was voted through at the special council meeting. That meeting was really a waste of time, Coun Alexander says. “Only two members of the public spoke.”
He doesn’t believe closure of the site will lead to fly-tipping. The bottom line, he says, is that the council cannot do everything. People don’t want libraries to close, and nor do they want to pay more in council tax.
• Police commissioners
Coun Alexander is against the idea of directly elected police commissioners, he says, because it will inevitably lead to “politicians meddling in day-to-day police matters”.
He doesn’t want to see that happen.
Despite his opposition, however, the reality is that police commissioners are coming. For that reason, Labour has chosen a candidate for the post – Heworth councillor Ruth Potter. “We have selected her as the Labour candidate for North Yorkshire.”