May’s local elections saw the Liberal Democrats take control of political affairs in the city of York, with history teacher Keith Aspden installed as the council’s new leader. He spoke to Ben Barnett about their challenges ahead.
For generations, talented northerners have headed south to fulfil career aspirations in the capital, but the journey of the new leader of City of York Council took him in the opposite direction.
Born and raised in south-west London, university brought Keith Aspden to the city he now calls home. He soon stepped into politics, becoming a Liberal Democrat councillor for the leafy suburb of Fulford at the age of just 21.
Fifteen years on and Coun Aspden has emerged as leader of an authority of one of the North’s most historic and visited cities, after the Lib Dems formed a coalition with the Green Party to assume control following May’s elections.
It was the latest fluctuation in fortunes in the city’s political scene, which prior to this summer had seen control of the council change hands three times since 2007 and a turbulent Tory-Lib Dem administration in place for four years. But even in the febrile national climate the surprise turnaround – with Coun Aspden’s party gaining 10 seats and the Conservatives reduced to just two – was more dramatic than even seasoned observers predicted.
The Lib Dems also made gains in the European Parliament elections, picking up 15 new MEPs including one in Yorkshire. And at a local level the party topped the polls in York, a result the 37-year-old describes as a “flash of orange in a sea of [Brexit Party] turquoise”.
It’s a time of great promise for Liberal Democrats following the ill-fated national coalition with the Conservatives between 2010 and 2015.
But Coun Aspden, a former University of York student and a qualified history teacher, says that at local level his party has “always been a viable option” and were able to take advantage of the widespread dissatisfaction which saw both Labour and the Conservatives punished at the ballot box. Reflecting on the latest coalition with the Green Party, he says: “As Liberal Democrats we like by instinct to work with other people with other experiences and views, it improves the decision you come out with in the end.
“But of course you don’t always agree but that is part of the deal, you are talking about big decisions for York and being willing to talk to other people and move things forward.
“We know the scale of the change and ambition we have is not going to be easy, so working together to overcome the challenges we face on some of those big policy changes is better than working individually.”
Though they don’t agree on everything, a shared passion for both ruling parties is the pursuit of clean air and reduced carbon emissions. On the latter point, they have pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030, eight years earlier than the target set by officials in the Leeds City Region and a full two decades before the goal set by Theresa May for the country at large.
Among the measures the coalition hopes will achieve this aim is ploughing in more money to promote cycling and walking and setting up a climate change scrutiny committee to come up with recommendations.
“It is not about forcing people to live their lives in a particular way but making sure there are viable options for walking, for cycling, for getting on a bus in a clean air zone,” he says.
As a wealthy city – which Coun Aspden says has the most educated population in the North – his administration has different opportunities and challenges to those facing some of his fellow Yorkshire leaders. Though unemployment rates are low, he wants to bring more high value jobs to the city with the help of the flagship York Central and Castle Gateway projects.
And with what he describes as “a divide between those able to get better jobs and some communities that don’t access it in the same way”, he stresses the important of “inclusive growth” to make sure everyone benefits from the city’s success.
He adds that, like other leaders, he is concerned about how his authority will cope with the ever-increasing burden of adult and children’s social care while still providing basic services that locals expect. He is faced with silence from central government on the issue and still doesn’t know whether councils will be able to use an ‘adult social care precept’ from council tax from next year.
A supporter of the Power Up The North campaign launched by The Yorkshire Post and others to address regional inequality, he says local authorities in northern England are “finally beginning to get their act together and shouting with one voice”.
And he agrees with his Tory predecessor Ian Gillies that devolution of vital powers and funding over a wider Yorkshire geography is the way forward. Talks on devolution remain in abeyance, with a One Yorkshire deal seemingly rejected by Ministers and senior Tories pushing devolution on the basis of smaller city regions.
“I have been having lots of meetings since I became leader with neighbouring authorities and there is a huge amount of interest from Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem local authorities about keeping those ideas alive,” says Coun Aspden.
“It goes back to the point about going back to the Government with those viable ideas and saying ‘you have no excuse now not to devolve power and funding and responsibility to us because we can deliver for our communities better than you can’.”
‘Biggest scheme since the railway’
Coun Aspden describes the York Central development, which would bring 2,500 homes and 86,600 square metres of office space to an area behind York railway station, as a “huge opportunity” which is important to get right.
He admits that progress on the scheme has not been as quick as many would like. But with the Government saying last month that it would not ‘call in’ the decision to grant planning permission, leaders are now just waiting for infrastructure funding to be released.
He said: “York Central is an opportunity to put the next development in York’s future in the most major development since the Romans and the development of the railways to the history of York.”