Leeds Chamber wants elected mayor with ‘big character, passion and business background’

Gerald Jennings and Paula Dillon. Picture by James Hardisty
Gerald Jennings and Paula Dillon. Picture by James Hardisty
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THE LEEDS Chamber of Commerce wants to see an elected mayor with a big character, a passion for the city region and a background in business.

Local authorities in West Yorkshire are in talks with Government about the transfer of spending powers in return for electing a mayor.

Gerald Jennings, president of the chamber, told The Yorkshire Post: “I think there’s a strong argument to say that we need someone with business experience and business acumen who can voice the concerns of business.”

But he warned that a business person might lack the necessary experience to manage the political manoeuvring required to be mayor for the city region, which means that a politican could inevitably take the role. “Ideally we need that paragon who can do both,” he said.

Mr Jennings added that Labour could choose a businessman as a candidate if its suits the party’s agenda. He said: “You don’t necessarily have to have a businessman standing up and saying ‘I’m going to do it and I’ve got the money’. It would cost quite a bit of money to do.”

Mr Jennings, a former director at FTSE 100 property giant Land Securities, said “passion, commitment and belief” should be the most important characteristics of the mayor to help counter “naysayers” who argue that the role will just be a mouthpiece for politicians.

Paula Dillon, vice president of the chamber and a prominent Leeds lawyer, said: “It has to be someone who can lead and get consensus across a massive diversity of points of view and interests. By definition, someone who could do that will have to be pretty adept.”

She added: “It will be a tough call, given the geography, to find somebody who can appeal right across the board. They will have to be a big character.”

Mr Jennings said he is confident that local authorities will agree a devolution deal with the Treasury ahead of the Chancellor’s autumn statement and spending review at the end of this month.

Ms Dillon said the chamber’s 2,500 member businesses - which represent 250,000 employees - want the devolution package to deliver the ability for the city region to set its own agenda in the provision of skills training.

Mr Jennings said skills training is fragmented across the city region with businesses facing “a bewildering array” of providers and funding streams.

He added: “We are clearly short of skills. It is one of the key issues our members tell us. The skilled workforce we want now and for the future just isn’t there. Why aren’t we getting enough of that skilled labour force coming out of schools that we need?”

The chamber consulted members on their views about the high-speed rail link between London and Leeds and where they thought the new HS2 station should be built.

Mr Jennings said the chamber discussed their responses with Sir David Higgins and the HS2 company, the Department for Transport, the West Yorkshire Combined Authority and the Local Enterprise Partnership.

He claimed that Leeds has reached a consensus on the shape of the station - it will be T-shaped with the HS2 platforms next to the existing station - which Sir David should present to the Chancellor this week.

Leeds is thought to be the busiest station outside of London with 28m passengers a year, compared to the 29m at London King’s Cross.

Mr Jennings added: “Growth over the next 30 years is projected to be 114 per cent so it will take it to 60m people using Leeds train station every year with the arrival of HS2 and HS3 and all those increased services.

“Physically it has to expand. That means we have an opportunity to redevelop the station and create some iconic statement for the city and the city region, a landmark iconic development.”

Mr Jennings and Ms Dillon want more businesses in Leeds and the surrounding region to get involved with shaping the future of the city and helping to strengthen the marketing of Leeds for inward investment.

Mr Jennings said: “We want to make sure people are aware of the work the chamber has done, is doing and, more critically, what it is capable of.”

Meanwhile, Ms Dillon is set to become the first female president of Leeds Chamber of Commerce since it was founded in 1785.

She is one of the best-known property lawyers in Leeds and a partner at Bond Dickinson.

Ms Dillon said: “It’s quite difficult to get women to put themselves forward for these sorts of roles. I would not have considered myself for it.”

Mr Jennings said there is a perception that chambers can be dominated by white middle-aged men.

Ms Dillon added: “Women will let other people go ahead of them in the queue while they get on with the job. If I hadn’t been asked to do it, it would never have crossed my mind to do it and now I don’t know why because I absolutely love it.”