Being Keane: Meet Britain's youngest council leader

As Westminster searches for a fresh face to lead the Conservatives, in North Yorkshire the party already has a young star rising quickly through its ranks.

Ryedale Council leader Keane Duncan

At 24, Ryedale District Council’s leader Keane Duncan is the youngest local authority chief in the country.

Barely out of university and working full-time as a journalist in the Tees Valley, Duncan fell into the role after winning a council seat in his hometown of Norton.

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“I stood for election for the first time at the age of 20 for the district council,” he explains.

“That was four years ago and I was still in my second year of university when I stood.

“It was basically in a ward that hadn’t typically been Conservative in the past and we ended up winning and being successful, which I was really happy about.

“I stood for the county council two years later, which is the Norton division. I was successful at that. I got stuck into some of the issues up there and then this time stood again for district council and was elected leader of the Conservatives and now leader of the council.

“One thing led to another. It’s something I really enjoyed doing and it’s rewarding as well, alongside my professional work it’s something that I really enjoy. It’s busy, very busy, as you can imagine, fitting everything in.”

Like all local authority leaders, Duncan will have many challenges to face in his first few months at the helm.

In Ryedale, one of those challenges will be to build functioning political alliances in a council which is under no overall control. In May’s local elections, the Conservatives won 12 seats out the 30 which were up for grabs and the authority has been without a leader for the last two years.

“Compromise is going to be important,” he says.

“Obviously the Conservatives don’t have overall control of the council. We are going to have to work with other parties. I am one of those people who don’t get bogged down with party politics, or I try not to.

“I am happy to work with anybody from any political persuasion or no political persuasion at all in order to get things done.

“Ryedale has always operated more by consensus that other councils because we don’t have a cabinet system, we don’t have executive members. We are on the old committee system, in effect.

“So, all the parties do work together in terms of setting the direction of the council. I think we can do more than what we have done, certainly, and I am keen to increase collaboration and make sure that all councillors feel that they are listened to and have got a say in what the council is doing.”

For Duncan, one of his first big battles could be over how local government is structured in the region, with plans to work more closely with neighbouring authorities under serious consideration.

“I think it would be wrong for us not to look into the way that we are structured as councils across North Yorkshire and how we may be able to make some savings,” he says.

“So, that could be going down the unitary path. It could be more joint working. Ryedale has got joint working relationships with a number of councils, primarily North Yorkshire County Council. We think that’s working well for us at the moment, but it’s one obviously that we are keeping an eye on.

“I’m a North Yorkshire county councillor as well, so that helps in terms of that co-operation.”

Turning to the wider issue of devolution in Yorkshire, Duncan says he is new to the debate but finds the lack of progress frustrating.

“In Tees Valley they have got a directly elected mayor who has got not insignificant amounts of funding to be able to put into key projects. And I feel like we are missing out in Ryedale. I feel like there are projects and we could benefit from that cash.

“I am keen for us to get the ball moving, but obviously it is very difficult for authorities to get together to come up with a plan, not only that we can agree with but also that fits in with the Government’s agenda for devolution.”

The council leader believes that more frank conversations between local and national government could be key to breaking the deadlock on the issue.

“I think we need clarity so we know what model the Government would like us to be looking at. And if we can get a handle on that, obviously that would steer how us as local authority leaders – that might steer our discussions and see what is actually workable.

“The One Yorkshire option to me – there is that really strong identity that people have got with Yorkshire as a county and that seemed to be the direction that things were heading in, and obviously the Government didn’t seem happy with that model.

“So, we need to look again and see where we go from here. If we are serious about devolution, how can we deliver it? And that is about us being honest, I think, and also central government being honest with us.”

He adds that the recent wave of new council leaders and new councillors installed across Yorkshire after May’s local elections could bring the fresh momentum that the devolution agenda needs.

“That could always, perhaps, lead to positive things happening on that front.”