With the election clock ticking, York’s Conservatives have a new man in charge. He tells political reporter MARK STEAD he wants to lead a party which listens.
CHRIS Steward says he loves a challenge. It may be just as well. Less than three years since becoming a councillor, the 34-year-old has taken leadership of City of York Council’s Conservative group with less than 18 months to go to the local elections.
The Rural West councillor doesn’t lack confidence, though.
“I’m clear on the challenge of changing control of the council and the way it’s run,” he says. “And I’m relishing it.”
The York-born stockbroker, whose predecessor, Coun Ian Gillies, will be the 2014/15 Lord Mayor, is scathing of Labour’s record, but knows attacks alone won’t defeat them.
“Labour is incredibly unpopular and has made many decisions we wouldn’t have taken – cutting basic services, increasing council tax for political reasons and needlessly interfering over things like Lendal Bridge and Union Terrace,” he says.
“But it’s not enough. We have to show why people should vote for us. Our group works very hard and has the expertise to run the council properly. Where we possibly haven’t done so well is in getting our message across. We’re the only effective opposition to the Local Plan, we’d have kept council tax low, and we’d put people at the forefront of our decision-making.
“We want to be seen as the true opposition, the party which can deliver the change other parties can’t.”
Coun Steward claims Labour have been deaf to residents’ wishes, while his party will listen. “22,000 people opposed Union Terrace’s sale,” he says. “Yet the only reason we didn’t lose a city asset is because York St John University pulled out.
“Listening to people then, and on other things, would have been right. Labour haven’t been prepared to do that. It would help them to ask themselves whether they can be right and the rest of the world can be wrong.”
He believes Labour have “done good things” on bus improvements, but schemes like the Lendal Bridge trial – which the Tories would scrap – symbolise an “anti-car administration”.
“York has major transport and congestion issues, but we need to use the carrot not the stick and incentivise public transport, not tell drivers ‘if you want to use your car, we’ll make it difficult for you or tax you’.”
City-wide 20mph limits are “pointless”, he says, using up money which could fix roads. “We wouldn’t increase speeds again on roads which were already 20mph as I don’t think people living on them would want that, but we wouldn’t roll out 20mph further unless there’s evidence communities want it.”
York’s economic and transport-funding links, he believes, should lie primarily with North Yorkshire, not West Yorkshire, authorities – “It’s hard to see the outer ring road being a priority for West Yorkshire” – and he says building 1,100 homes a year through York’s Local Plan is too much. The Tories prefer 750.
“We support jobs and hundreds of new homes a year, but the extent of the development proposed is not viable.”
He’s new to political leadership, but Coun Steward knows what to expect if the flak flies.
It flew last year when he said the UK didn’t need food banks and people shouldn’t donate to them. He admits writing “a rather stupid email” but maintains his point was that British poverty is not on the scale seen elsewhere in the world.
“However, York undoubtedly has relative poverty, people are suffering, and we must address that.”
So, what does he expect next May? “Our aim, like every party, is a majority. After that, it’s about being the largest party, in a position to lead from the front.
“Labour talk about making tough decisions, but most of their decisions aren’t tough, just wrong. A Conservative council would deliver the basic services people expect it to deliver, support vulnerable people, ensure York’s local economy is in a strong position – and not do many of the things Labour have done.”