CHRIS TITLEY profiles the rise and fall of former council leader Rod Hills.

COMBATIVE, controversial, colourful - Rod Hills was never far from a headline during his long career in York politics.

But in recent years, it was accusations about his private life which kept him on the front page. This was a particularly painful fate for someone who had always been fiercely protective of his privacy.

Rodney Hills was known as a socialist firebrand in the days when Labour politicians would take pride in such a description. He became the first Labour leader of York City Council for a decade in 1984, a position he was to hold for 18 years.

He was not from York nor from a left-wing background. But he was to become both a loyal servant to the city and to the Labour Party.

Born in Leicester, he was raised on the south coast at Folkestone, Kent, the son of a local Conservative politician and a nurse. His father died when he was 13, a source of lifelong regret to Mr Hills: he missed the chance to have a series of lively political debates with his dad, he once confessed.

Perhaps that is why he rarely passed the chance for a political argument in adulthood. Anyone who saw him in the Guildhall would know he spoke with passion and conviction.

He became a socialist at school and joined the Labour Party in 1965, aged 19, after coming north to study at the University of York. Although he never claimed to be particularly academic at school - he failed the 11-plus - Mr Hills went on to work there as a lecturer in economic and social history, and was the author of local history books.

The lecturer proved willing to serve the York Labour Party in any number of capacities. In 1979, he began to represent Bootham ward on the city council. Two years later, he joined North Yorkshire County Council, representing Clifton.

He was a youth officer, press officer, vice-chairman, and then chairman of York Labour Party between 1977 and 1980.

But he really took hold of York politics when he led the Labour group to power in 1984, against the national trend which had seen Margaret Thatcher consolidate Conservative power in Whitehall.

From that point on, Mr Hills dominated York. His priority was very much to protect grassroots local services such as education, housing and welfare.

Early in his council career, he said he was against "spending the ratepayers' money on more festivals and tourists".

By the time he took office, he had modified his stance slightly, dismissing suggestions that the York Festival was under threat from Labour. "We want to bring the best to York, that means jazz, opera, literature, brass bands and a whole range of other activities."

But his first step was to set up an industrial enterprise board charged with spearheading the city's drive for jobs, and not just "casual, seasonal and extremely low-paid" tourism work.

He was also a crusader for the rail industry, and worked to ensure that York never became what he feared it might: a city-wide railway museum.

As leader, Coun Hills was never one to shirk from saying what he felt. And his tough talking, allied to a somewhat brusque manner, rubbed some up the wrong way. He once thought his speed of tongue could take him to the Bar, but it landed him in hot water more than once. During the Mayor-making ceremony in 1984, he upset many there by referring to them as comrades. It was meant to be a joke, but he had to apologise for it.

Later he locked horns with the York Civic Trust. The body set up in the aftermath of the last war to preserve the best of the city was subject to a fierce attack by the council leader in 1990. Coun Hills, who most likely suspected that the trust, like the York Festival, was elitist, described it as a "planning mafia" being used by right-wingers. It was an unpleasant spat, but the two sides later made up.

Two years earlier, the then Tory MP Conal Gregory had threatened to sue Mr Hills. Of the honourable member, the council leader said in 1990: "I do despise him for the way he fails to support people in this city." He did not repent even when threatened by a writ: "Sue and be damned," he said, echoing the Duke of Wellington.

It was one of the contradictions of Mr Hills' character that while he was so combative in a public meeting, he was very uncomfortable being interviewed by the press. He was dismayed by the trend which saw personalities rather than policies at the centre of political coverage.

Even after his party underwent an image reversal, and New Labour MPs were seen in sharp suits with red roses in the lapels, Mr Hills stuck to his own personal style. When he came to power he only had two ties (one for the Labour Party, one for Kent Cricket Club); and when the Evening Press asked him to take part in a jokey fashion makeover alongside the other group leaders, he slammed down the phone in disgust.

All the wrangles and rows detract from Rod Hills' impressive achievements. Labour remained in control of the council throughout his time at the helm. He oversaw the immense task of transforming York into a unitary authority, something he fully approved of as a fierce critic of the two-tier county and district council system.

City of York Council subsequently won many plaudits for its services. It enabled the Science City initiative and ensured that the jobs lost from the traditional confectionery and railway sectors were replaced.

For years, Mr Hills managed to keep his private life just that. He was married to Liz for 14 years, and they had two sons. They divorced and he later married fellow Labour councillor Carol Wallace. She died in an accident at their home in 2000. He later lived with former prostitute Fay Simpson at his home.

The last years of his life were overtaken by accusations about his private life. He was sensationally arrested and charged with a string of offences, including blackmail. He fought to clear his name and did so, but received little backing from his former friends in the Labour Party, whom he accused of betrayal. That the party which he had served so loyally turned its back on him must have been a bitter pill to swallow.

He was most recently in the news for turning down the chance to become an honorary alderman.

So what will be his legacy? It is too soon to tell. But when asked 18 years ago what his obituary should be, he chose one word: "Consistency".