He leads the council responsible for some of the happiest places in the country, but farmer’s son Richard Foster says a devolution deal for Yorkshire is needed to help him maintain its strong communities. Rob Parsons reports.
Whether it’s the sight of former Ukip leader Nigel Farage clutching a pint for the benefit of a nearby camera crew or the anonymous briefings and deal-brokering at Westminster’s watering holes, the link between politicians and pubs has been reassuringly constant down the years.
And for Richard Foster, his job behind the bar at the Foresters Arms in Grassington helped kick-start a political career that just a few years later saw him elected as leader of his local council, Craven in North Yorkshire.
A farmer’s son, whose family farm was sold in 2000 just before the foot and mouth outbreak, he used to debate politics with the local ward councillor when he came into the pub after meetings.
“He said ‘I think you should take over from me’, so I then became a member of the Conservative Party,” he recalls. “My politics have always been Conservative, but I was never actually a member of the party.”
Elected in 2004, a decade leader he was chosen as Conservative leader of the district authority, which serves an area of more than 450 square miles. But as a self-employed roofer, he still picks up jobs locally.
There are certain people in government who really don’t want this and are doing whatever they can to stop it. In real terms the 18 have agreed to it, there are still issues to thrash out on it but it’s done really.Richard Foster
Presiding over a largely rural district frequently described as the happiest in the country, with virtually no unemployment and a population with little need for state intervention, 46-year-old Coun Foster has less cause to worry about the social and economic problems that his counterparts in larger authorities face.
But the district’s ageing population, partly a product of its expensive housing stock that lies beyond the reach of many younger residents, is a growing cause for concern, not just in the market town of Skipton but in rural areas too.
His council is looking at ways to build homes more quickly, but in a manner suitable for the national parks, producing a cultural offering that attracts more young people, and getting ‘hyper-fast’ broadband around the district.
The changing demographics mean the area’s high quality schools are getting fewer pupils, while bus services aren’t getting the numbers to remain economically viable.
He believes marketing is key, with the aim of “getting the idea in people’s heads and in employers’ heads that you don’t need to live and work in Leeds necessarily”.
Coun Foster says around 5,000 people drive into Craven from East Lancashire for work, with thousands more arriving from West Yorkshire, meaning more people come into the district for work than go the opposite way.
And the need to attract and keep young people in Craven is part of the motivation for two of its major projects currently in the works.
A £6m rejuvenation of Skipton Town Hall is underway, part funded by the Arts Council, with wide-ranging improvements to the building and its Concert Hall designed to turn it into a cultural hub, as well as a means of staging performances around the district.
And the authority also has millions to spend tidying up the area around Skipton railway station and nearby land, where it is hoped 14 acres of land can be put to use for businesses and housing.
“We have a lot of businesses in the local area who are struggling for space,” he says. “They want to expand, and if we don’t build it here they will expand into West Yorkshire or Lancashire. Businesses we have grown here and I want to keep them here.”
The lack of a rail link with East Lancashire remains a problem, though one with a potential end in sight after the Department for Transport announced a study into re-opening the historic Skipton to Colne line.
But a major factor in securing the improvements the district needs, like better rural bus services and money for the right kind of housing to attract the young, is a devolution deal.
Like 17 other authorities in Yorkshire, including all of those in Tory-dominated North Yorkshire, Craven backs a One Yorkshire deal that would see a single mayor elected for the region of 5.3m people.
Despite the widespread agreement, with only Sheffield and Rotherham backing a more limited deal for South Yorkshire, Coun Foster believes the only impediment to such an agreement is central government.
“[The council leaders] walk into a room and we all agree, that is definite. There might be a bit of political mickey-taking when we first walk into a room, between the rivals. We all like it, but it’s convincing government.
“There are certain people in government who really don’t want this and are doing whatever they can to stop it. In real terms the 18 have agreed to it, there are still issues to thrash out on it but it’s done really.”
He adds that while a Yorkshire mayor would likely come from the Labour Party, “that is a pill we will have to swallow”. But he adds: “It’s not guaranteed, because mayoral elections aren’t guaranteed, it’s a case of getting a strong enough candidate with the respect and track record.”
A previous attempt to establish a Leeds City Region devolution deal, taking in West Yorkshire as well as the North Yorkshire districts of Craven, Harrogate, Selby and York, was rejected because of the perceived risk that the rest of England’s largest county would be left out in the cold.
But recent attempts by Conservative North Yorkshire MP Kevin Hollinrake to persuade him of the merits of a similar deal for the districts around York were met with similarly short shrift.
“We have looked at it from Craven’s point of view, and it’s ‘no’,” he said. “If you tried to explain to someone here what the Leeds City Region deal was, you’d struggle but you’d have far more chance of explaining what that was and having a Leeds mayor than having a mayor who lives in York, even though it’s North Yorkshire.
“But if you talk to someone round here about having a Yorkshire mayor, they would say ‘yeah that makes sense, I live in Yorkshire, I understand that’.”
Craven’s Conservative group took control not long after Coun Foster was elected, at which point the authority had severe financial difficulties. After bringing in what he describes as a commercial mindset, with charges for services that were previously free, it now has £1m in reserves.
Coun Foster says the self-sufficient character of the district’s residents mean they require the council for little.
He said: “We live in a good place. If you want to be a council leader it is probably one of the easiest places... we have really strong communities. That is what we are frightened with about losing the young people that the older people won’t be able to keep those communities going just the same.”