York council leader Ian Gilles is not standing for re-election on May 2. He told STEPHEN LEWIS why

IAN Gillies has never been one to mince his words. But the former policeman turned Tory leader of City of York Council has to bite his tongue to keep his frustration about the state of local politics from spilling over.

"It can be very tribal," he says. "Very... challenging."

We've met over coffee to talk about his reasons for deciding not to stand in next month's council elections: a decision which means that, from May 2, he won't even be a city councillor, let alone council leader.

He took over as leader of a fractious Tory/ Liberal Democrat ruling coalition early last year, when previous Tory council leader David Carr sensationally quit the Conservative Party, accusing some within the council's Conservative group of committing an 'act of betrayal' against him.

Cllr Carr is one of a number of former Tory councillors who will be standing as an independent on May 2. But it's not exactly all sweetness and light in the city's other political parties, either. Former Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors will also be standing as independents this time around.

Cllr Gillies, a former Conservative group leader and one-time Lord Mayor, was clearly seen as a safe pair of hands when he took over as head of the Tory group and as council leader last year.

But, while he insists he's perfectly willing to try to work with members of other political groups in the interests of getting things done, he admits it has been hard work.

"The Liberal Democrats are not natural bedfellows for us," he says. "And the situation in my own group has been very challenging."

He says that when he took over as group and council leader last year, he intimated to other group members that it would only be until the next election.

But it is clear his frustrations run deep.

A couple of years ago he even thought of setting up a new centrist party in York, so as to escape some of the traditional party tribalism and infighting. It would have been effectively a collection of independents - none of them 'extremists' - whose viewpoints were similar enough for them to work together to get things through, he says.

That never happened, and he ended up leading the Tory group again and becoming council leader.

But he has begun to seriously question whether party politics should have a place in local government.

"Do we really need political parties in local government? No. I'm a Conservative: that's what I am. But as far as this city is concerned, what matters is what is best for the city. Whipped party politics (ie a system where councillors have to obey their party line) isn't really necessary in a local environment."

What you need, he says, is intelligent, able people from all kinds of backgrounds who are willing to work together to get things done. "Is that Utopian? I don't see why. You'd still have debates and arguments. But it wouldn't be so tribal."

Party politics isn't the only thing that has frustrated him to the point of persuading him not to stand again, however.

York Press:

Cllr Ian Gillies, when he was Lord Mayor, holding up the Tour de Yorkshire trophy before the race arrived in York

The glacial pace of the move towards Yorkshire devolution has also got to him.

He places the blame for that squarely at the feet of Whitehall.

Sheffield has gone its own merry way. But council leaders in Leeds, Bradford, North Yorkshire and York all want to have a single tier of government for Yorkshire, with an elected mayor at its head, he says.

That would mean more money for the region - and more powers for regional decision-making on things such as transport. Yorkshire could become a real financial powerhouse. "I want that for Yorkshire and for York," he says.

A proposal for such such a devolved regional government is now sitting with the Treasury. But the government has been slow to respond, and keeps drip-feeding suggestions that it would prefer smaller devolved authorities, such as one for West Yorkshire and one for York and North Yorkshire, he says.

He believes there's only one reason for that. A regional government made up of West Yorkshire, North Yorkshire, York and Humberside combined would have a population bigger than Scotland, he points out. "I think the government is scared of the size of Yorkshire."

He is also deeply frustrated about Brexit. National politicians have let people down badly, Cllr Gilles says. "There was a vote taken. Why haven't they delivered?"

Some claim those who voted to leave didn't know what they were voting for, he says. "That's insulting to people."

Actually, a large part of the vote was a vote against the ruling political establishment, he says. "And it is that very establishment that are the ones now blocking it."

So does he think that leaving Europe would be in the best interests of York and the wider region? "It would be good for the country."

It wouldn't be good to have a no deal exit, he stresses. We must ensure there's a managed departure. "We need to sort out the Irish border and make sure we can still do business with Europe.

"But why pay all this money in (to Europe) when we're not benefitting? Why can't we trade with other people? Why can't we do what we want to do?"

This trio of frustrations - with local politics, with devolution, and about Brexit - have all contributed to his decision not to stand for election.

There are personal reasons, too - among them, the fact that he will be 73 by the time of the election.

He is proud of what has been achieved in recent years in York, he says - a draft local plan now with government inspectors, and movement on York Central, on the Castle Gateway, and on York's new community stadium.

"I believe York is on the cusp of something great," he says.

And what about the prospects for York Conservatives at the election?

He chooses his words carefully. "I don't want to decry them," he says. "But I think there will be a lot of people who won't vote in the local elections." Who knows? in other words.

His own part in local politics is over, at least for now. And once he ceases to be a councillor and council leader, he will also give up his place on various other local and regional bodies - as a director of the York BID, for example, and as vice-chair of Transport for the North. But he's not ruling out a return to public life altogether.

Julia Mulligan will not be automatically re-selected as the Tory candidate for North Yorkshire Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner when that post comes up for election next year.

Cllr Gillies is a former policeman. Could he be tempted to throw his hat in the ring?

"I rule nothing out," he says.

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York Press:

Cllr Gillies admits he's frustrated by criticism of the York Central plans as lacking in ambition and quality.

The plans that have been approved are in outline only. That was necessary to ensure York didn't lose the £76 million from the Housing Investment Fund which will be vital to put in place infrastructure such as the new road bridge at Water End, and - with other funding from the city council, the West Yorkshire Transport Fund and others - to clean up the site.

But, apart from a general idea of housing numbers and office space, all the detail of what will go in at York Central has yet to be decided, he says. "That will be for future planners to rule on."

He gestures at the coffee bar in which we are sitting. "If you imagine this is York Central, all we've done is clear the tables and hoover the carpet."

There will be scope to be as ambitious as we like when detailed plans are brought forward, he says. But he adds a rider.

"I'm proud that we've got as far as we have. Is it perfect? Probably not. But you are never going to satisfy everybody - the people that want clean air, cyclists, pedestrians, people that want a bus station, or a tram." These are all things that could possibly be looked at in future, he says. But there will be one key question. "Who pays for it?"


After decades of delays and disagreement, a draft version of the York Local Plan is now with government inspectors.

The plan being prepared by the council's Conservative/ Lib Dem coalition was delayed when the MoD announced it was planning to sell Strensall and Imphal barracks; and it was delayed yet again when the government changed the way estimates of housing need were calculated.

"But we've done our bit now," Cllr Gillies says, with evident satisfaction. "It is with the inspectors, and it is their plan now."


York Press:

It has been notoriously difficult to pin down a date for the opening of the city's long awaited community stadium.

Can Cllr Gillies give a date?

"I would hope that it would be ready by October," he says. He pauses, then re-phrases that. "I would be disappointed if it wasn't ready in the autumn."