Ian Gillies interview: '˜York used to be all about railways and chocolate but now it's digital and arts'

He has taken over the leadership of York's council at a pivotal time for the future of the historic city. And with an electon looming next year, former policeman Ian Gillies is a 'man in a hurry' to get things moving. Rob Parsons reports.

Ian Gillies, leader of York City Council.

As someone who spent a number of years driving a taxi around the streets of York prior to becoming a councillor, it’s perhaps not surprising that Ian Gillies describes himself as a “man in a hurry”.

A policeman for 13 years, serving in swinging Chelsea in the 1960s before moving back to Yorkshire, he spent the next two decades in the financial services industry in the era when Thatcherite economics ruled the roost.

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“When I was in business in the late 70s and early 80s, Margaret Thatcher made it clear that if you worked hard, hopefully you would get your due rewards,” he tells The Yorkshire Post. “I worked hard, and generally got my due reward.”

310518 Ian Gillies Leader of York City Council .

Despite some ups and downs in business he was able to retire at the age of 53, the start of a period where he bought a taxi, became chairman of a local taxi firm and in his words “just messed around”.

“It wasn’t a career as such, it was something to do,” he says. “If I’m being honest I bought it cheap and sold it expensive.”

Elected to City of York Council in 2007 as a Conservative, little over a decade later he holds the reins of power at a potentially pivotal time, both for the future of the area and his party’s own ambitions.

The former leader of the city’s Tory group assumed leadership of the council in February following a vote of no confidence in Conservative David Carr, who weeks earlier has caused dismay by removing the authority’s education portfolio holder in a ‘conflict of interest’ row.

“That was his choice, and I supported his authority to do it”, he says. “Whether I would have done it differently or not is neither here nor there.

“Even in the no confidence vote I did support David, but what he did was resign [from the Conservative group] without telling me, and he was sitting next to me at the full council meeting, and he didn’t even tell me what he was going to do, and I felt let down by that.”

More generally, Coun Gillies says he had concerns over the direction of the Conservatives in York with local elections only a year away, saying leaders “were willing to accept the status quo and let the officers lead”.

“My job was to make the Conservative Party, and especially the Conservative group, fit for purpose in terms of policies and manifestos ahead of next May.

“In doing that, I have had to grasp things by the throat and pull them forward. We have made some significant progress in the last few weeks.”

He adds: “I am a man in a hurry in a way, because I need to move things forward before the next election, if only to put a marker down, and a direction to follow.

“With all the stuff we are doing, I want to move the city forward for the benefit of the city, not necessarily in a massively political way.”

Pre-eminent in city concerns is the future of its Local Plan, which sets out where homes can be built and businesses can expand for the next 15 years.

Attempts by both Labour and the current Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition to get a working document over the line have been mired in difficulties, and in 2014 Coun Gillies used his casting vote as Lord Mayor to get an earlier version scrapped.

The going has been so slow that in November, then-Local Government Secretary Sajid Javid singled the authority and several others out for their failure to make progress. The Local Plan was finally sent through to the Government last month with days to spare before the deadline, and will soon be subjected to the rigours of a inquiry by a planning inspector.

“There’s no doubt there will be changes, obviously, but how severe those changes will be I don’t know,” says Coun Gillies. “I hope that we have done enough that it doesn’t just get thrown out.”

The public nature of the rebuke brought the councillor into conflict with Whitehall, and it’s clear there’s still an element of resentment about the way things were handled.

“I got a letter from Sajid Javid and I was so annoyed with it that I rang him up, and I got his head of planning, a chap called Simon Gallagher and I said ‘don’t you bloody tell me, if you want it you can have it’. “In the end he said ‘we have got to work together’ and I think he saw our point of view. I said ‘we will get you the plan before the end of May if you promise to work hand in glove with us’.

“I’m not going to complain. He didn’t understand all the reasons, but we are where we are. We had a meeting in January and we told him we would submit it by the end of May and they agreed with that, so I didn’t need letters telling me that.”

Inextricably linked with the need to build the best part of 1,000 homes a year in a city with constraints on its growth are a number of key developments the council has in the works, as well as its focus on super-fast digital connections that has seen York described as the UK’s first ‘gigabit city’.

Coun Gillies talks with enthusiasm about the York Central scheme on a 180-acre site, which officials say will host 2,500 homes and significant commercial activity. He hopes to attract a major organisation such as Channel 4 or a Government department.

A masterplan for the Castle Gateway area around Clifford’s Tower, Piccadilly and St George’s Fields has been published, and he says things are “well on the way” with the creation of a community stadium.

It emerged last month that York council bosses wanted the authority to turn the former Bootham Park psychiatric hospital into a centre providing a variety of health services on a drop-in basis.

The site is in public ownership, and City of York Council has opened discussions with NHS officials about acquiring it. Coun Gillies admits: “We would have to get it for next to nothing, I wouldn’t pay silly money for it.”

It was put on the market in January this year and money raised will be ploughed back into the NHS. Coun Gillies hopes that rather than turned into luxury flats, it could be used for the benefit of the city and says the NHS is duty-bound to consider allowing another public sector organisation to take it.

He hopes the need to build so many homes won’t fundamentally change the character of the historic city, admitting that 20,000 homes is a “big ask” but adding that “York is a city that has always evolved”.

“Twenty-five years ago we were railways and chocolate, where are we now? We are still railways to a large extent and we’ve still got Nestle, but we’ve changed to digital companies, the UNESCO City of Media Arts, and the gigabit city, that type of thing.”