With the scant central government funding available to town hall leaders soon set to disappear, leaders like Hambleton’s Mark Robson are under more pressure than ever to make themselves self-sufficient. Rob Parsons reports.
There are a couple of hi-vis jackets in the back of Hambleton council leader Mark Robson’s car as he arrives to pick up The Yorkshire Post’s correspondent from Thirsk station on a chilly November morning.
Along with a pair of steel toe-capped boots and a hard hat, the council-branded garments are on constant standby in case they’re needed for a photo shoot to illustrate one of the many development schemes on the go in his rural North Yorkshire district.
This morning alone there are two, one at the site of a new junction to serve the 925-home Sowerby Gateway housing scheme south of Thirsk and another a few minutes later at a nearby sports village development.
Not everyone is happy with what is going on and as Coun Robson has his picture taken in Thirsk town centre, this time for the YP, he is accosted by a resident angry at the Highways Agency’s decision to close a local road near the Sowerby Gateway junction.
“I said to him ‘you are very critical about it, but you will be one of the first people to use it”, the council leader says later. “We had to delay the photograph while he had a rant and I put him right”.
One of only five people to lead Conservative-run Hambleton council since its formation in the 1970s, Coun Robson speaks with some pride at the progress being made on major council-led projects around his district.
A bridge and access road at the flood-hit Dalton Industrial Estate near Thirsk opened earlier this year and will safeguard 1,000 jobs on the estate, he says, while last month planners approved a scheme to transform the historic prison site in Northallerton into leisure and retail area featuring cinema, shops and civic square.
Having taken over the leadership six years go, Coun Robson wants to make the second-tier authority more commercially-focused and self-sufficient, with the already scant levels of central government funding soon set to disappear entirely.
“When I took over as leader in six years this May, we weren’t open for business, we didn’t do tourism, it was difficult”, he tells The Yorkshire Post over coffee at the The Golden Fleece Hotel in Thirsk. “We were ahead of our game ahead of some authorities but we weren’t doing what I felt was key projects.
“It was the leadership prior to that who didn’t go down that road. We were out there doing a lot of projects but over the last six years I have ramped it up to a point where we are doing things like tourism.
“We didn’t do commercialisation. I need to look at opportunities because a lot of authorities only have a financial strategy of three years, a lot of that is because they wouldn’t want to look beyond three years because of the unknown.
“Hambleton district has a ten-year financial strategy that we update every year and we are in a very good financial situation. I am working on the fact that within 18 months to two years, we won’t receive government grants like we have in the past. We work now as being a self-sufficient authority, not relying on those grants, which we are doing now, and I haven’t cut any of the services we provide.”
A recent high-profile intervention, where the council bought the Lambert Memorial Hospital in Thirsk from NHS Property Services for a below-market price of around £350,000, came to fruition after discussions at the highest level of government.
The Victorian premises was closed more than three years ago, but once legal work has taken place and a 10 per cent deposit paid the council will hold events to get the views of locals before deciding what it can be used for to benefit the community.
Coun Robson shows no signs of hiding his district’s light under a bushel and is keen to point out that the £104 council tax charge by his authority for a Band D property is less than half that of nearby Richmondshire.
And describing the multi-million pound investment in local leisure centres to aid the district’s ageing population, he says: “Despite (Craven council leader) Richard Foster saying Craven is a really nice place to live, I’m sure it is, but my opinion is that Hambleton is even nicer.”
Hambleton council recently invested hundreds of thousands of pounds on state-of-the-art CCTV cameras to provide security and reassurance in the district at a time when other authorities are cutting back.
And Coun Robson says he is unimpressed by the proposals outlined by police commissioner Julia Mulligan that would see councils relinquish control of their cameras and adopt a single control room managed by a trust.
“It costs us an authority about £100,000 a year for the CCTV we have. For, that is a small price to pay for the reassurance and security of our residents. So why would I do it? But there is a process to go through and we haven’t quite got there yet.”
Despite both being Conservatives, Coun Robson has previously clashed publicly with Mrs Mulligan, most notably over her controversial but ultimately successful plan to take over the governance of the local fire service.
“She is under a lot of pressure at the moment but we all have to be re-selected and her election will be in May 2020”, he warns, in reference to the recent claims of bullying upheld against the crime commissioner.
“The process of selecting her as Conservative candidate will take place, I would expect, in June or July of next year, so we will see where that goes.”
Though he is part of the ‘coalition of the willing’ of local leaders backing a One Yorkshire devolution deal, Coun Robson is sceptical about the benefits of a region-wide transfer of power.
He and other North Yorkshire leaders are set for talks in the coming days with Northern Powerhouse Minister Jake Berry over the future of devolution locally.
“I am a little bit sceptical as to where we will go with this and how it will work” he says.
“I am sure there are benefits there to be had, however I’ll need to see some evidence of benefits to the people of Hambleton, other than having another tier of council tax will pay, which is what will happen, despite whatever they try and say.”
Born and raised in Sowerby, Coun Robson took on the leadership of the council having previously run his own motorsport company for 15 years, with a number of local rally car champions among his clients.
This background makes him impatient when it comes to dealing with the inertia sometimes associated with local government.
“A lot of authorities can be accused of, why do something in a week when you can make it last six months,” he says. “It certainly doesn’t work like that at Hambleton.
“That is part of my background, dealing with a motorsport company is time critical, let’s get on with it, there is no point leaving it for six months because I will still be on the case wanting it delivered.”