Baroness Pinnock was the first woman to lead a West Yorkshire council, and now she is calling on Ministers to break down their own barrier of ‘fear’ and grant the One Yorkshire devolution deal the region demands. Arj Singh reports.
Few Westminster dwellers can say they have ending up leading the organisation that committed the injustice which sparked their interest in politics in the first place.
But Baroness Kath Pinnock did just that, becoming the first female leader of Kirklees Council years after successfully protesting against its decision to close her children’s school.
The Liberal Democrat peer described the campaign as “such a great time”, with a group of parents demonstrating with posters, stickers and petitions, even going as far as taking their children to a council meeting to demand they keep the school open.
“And actually we won.
“I thought hey, this has whetted my appetite.”
It was an appetite which led her to become the first woman leader of Kirklees Council in 2000, of which she says “it didn’t feel like I was breaking down barriers but I suppose I was”, and eventually to the House of Lords.
It was there where she recently made headlines by accusing the Government of being scared of Yorkshire – an attempt to get Ministers to break through their own barrier and begin talks on a regional devolution deal.
Originally from Shropshire, the 72 year-old may not have been the most obvious tubthumper for a county-wide devolution but she has lived in West Yorkshire for 40 years after moving for a teaching job and to be with her husband Andrew.
And as a Councillor for Cleckheaton since 1987, she has seen first-hand how a city-based devolution model will not work for areas like hers, arguing that One Yorkshire is “brilliant” as it solves the problem of how to empower the region’s towns, villages and rural areas.
But Ministers could fear the power of a region with a bigger population and economy than Scotland, she says.
“It can be quite a powerful, strong, influential place and do they want another Scotland on their hands?
“I would because for once we would be able to try and sort out some of the fundamental problems facing Yorkshire.
“But the Government knows it would drain power from them and it would set off others thinking if Yorkshire can do it... and all of a sudden you’ve created strong areas elsewhere.”
Her comments reveal the magnitude of the decision Ministers must make, but she insists the huge potential realignment of power would be worth it, suggesting the Government could learn some lessons from the likes of Germany, which has much stronger regional representation.
“Most European countries are astounded at the way we operate.
“It releases that local energy, enthusiasm and understanding, it allows creative thinking about solving the problems.
“They should grasp it and say let’s go with that – but you should take responsibility and if you get it wrong then you are responsible not us.”
The former teacher believes that as well as improving transport and attracting investment, a devolution deal could help Yorkshire bridge the north-south divide in school attainment.
And Lady Pinnock is absolutely scathing about the Government’s current treatment of education, describing Chancellor Philip Hammond’s Budget pledge of a relatively small one-off £400m payment for schools to “buy the little extras” as “a huge insult to teachers everywhere”.
The peer still sits on a governing body of a school in Cleckheaton and says: “I know they are short of teachers and equipment because of the funding crisis in schools.
“So to scatter £400m across 20,000 schools, what are we supposed to do, say hooray, Santa’s come or something?”
Moreover, she describes the Department for Education’s claims about school funding, which have earned a rebuke from the statistics watchdog, as “despicable”.
She says: “If as a government you have decided you are not going to fund education, you’ve got to put your hands up and say we’ve made that decision, we’re not going to put anymore funding in because we think x and y are more important, not just fiddle the figures to make it look as though you have.
“That just makes it worse.”
Lady Pinnock is generally uneasy with the cuts public services have faced since 2010, despite many being approved by her own party during the coalition years, which were “difficult” as a Lib Dem fighting for re-election in West Yorkshire as Sir Nick Clegg shared jokes with David Cameron in Number 10’s rose garden.
She insists the Lib Dems are slowly clawing their way back but admits “we’re still suffering I think because of it.”
But while her party has only 12 MPs it is far more influential in the Lords, where it is in fact Yorkshire which is under-represented to the point where peers are “amazed that things are different” in the North.
The attitudes towards the North in the unelected chamber just highlight the need for devolution, she says.
“Somebody I respect, a very knowledgeable guy on business rates and so on, was saying the trouble in Yorkshire and other parts of the North is they have these long rows of terraced housing that are derelict and nobody wants to live in. If they are thinking like that, someone who is very knowledgeable and who I respect, then there’s no chance is there?”
‘#MeToo right to tackle secrecy’
Baroness Pinnock jokes about when she first became a councillor in West Yorkshire in the 1980s and 1990s, when she would often be the only woman at meetings.
That kind of gender divide would create uproar today, but for her “It never bothered me. I always thought I’ve got things to do and I’ll get on with them.”
Asked if she was ever “mansplained” to, she replies: “If they try it they don’t do it again”.
And she praises the modern feminist #MeToo movement in calling out sexual misconduct.
“If people behave badly they should be called out, including women, there shouldn’t be a cabal of secrecy that protects people who don’t behave in a courteous and professional way.”