Coun Box, who has been in charge of Wakefield Council since 1998 and was first elected as a councillor in 1983, is to stand down as leader at the end of November. He will remain as a councillor in the Altofts and Whitwood ward but will stand down ahead of next May’s local elections.
He announced his decision to Labour members today and said he had already been planning to step down prior to becoming the new chairman of Welcome to Yorkshire last week. But he added that his new role has led him to move his departure date forward.
Coun Box was given the role at the troubled tourism agency last week after local council leaders demanded Welcome to Yorkshire’s interim chair Keith Stewart was replaced as a condition of providing further public funds to the organisation.
Last year, Coun Box narrowly survived a vote of no confidence in his leadership at Wakefield Council held by his own party after coming under pressure following a damning Ofsted report into children’s services which found “serious and widespread” failures in the department.
He has previously cited the building of The Hepworth Gallery and Trinity Walk shopping centre in Wakefield as examples of regeneration work achieved under his watch in the West Yorkshire city.
Coun Box said today: “I had always intended not to seek re-election in May 2020 and to step down as leader at that time.
“But after being given the opportunity to chair Welcome to Yorkshire, I have decided to leave my role as leader of Wakefield Council at the end of November to enable me to give Welcome to Yorkshire the attention it needs. I am determined to make the necessary changes at the organisation as quickly as possible and restore public confidence.
“It has been a great privilege to serve the residents of this district as leader, particularly those in my ward of Altofts and Whitwood, and I have thoroughly enjoyed the last 21 years. I shall miss taking on the future challenges faced by the Council, but most of all I shall miss working with residents and communities and seeing the positive difference we can make to people’s lives.
Coun Box added: “The last ten years of Government austerity have been some of the most challenging. We have delivered significant financial efficiencies from every corner of the council and been forced to stretch public money to go further than ever before.
“We have always been committed to delivering value for money and doing the best with what we have got and I am pleased that we have been able to continue to invest in the future of this district.”
After taking over at Welcome to Yorkshire last week, Coun Box has promised to increase transparency at the privately-run tourist agency, which receives millions of pounds in public sector funding each year.
The organisation has struggled to recover from the fallout from the resignation of ex-chief executive Sir Gary Verity in March, with subsequent independent inquiries determining his behaviour towards staff had “fallen short” of expected standards after bullying allegations were made, while it was found he had claimed around £26,000 in ‘personal’ expenses “not incurred wholly for the benefit of Welcome to Yorkshire”.
It has recently been revealed that Welcome to Yorkshire has taken out a £500,000 loan from North Yorkshire County Council to cover “one-off costs”, while delays in implementing promised governance reforms have been blamed on “cash-flow issues”.
A group of North and West Yorkshire council leaders agreed on Monday to provide it with another £1m in public money on the condition leadership changes were made.
With a replacement chief executive for Sir Gary yet to be hired, Kirklees Council chief executive Jacqui Gedman is currently providing “strategic support” to the organisation.
Coun Box said: “Having been involved in local government for so long I am looking forward to this new role I have been asked to take on.”
Wakefield Council’s Chief Executive Merran McRae said: “It has been a privilege to work with Coun Box over the last two years. His strong commitment to this district, all our residents and this Council has been very clear to see.
“Under his leadership there has been significant regeneration and a huge focus on supporting economic growth, resulting in the district having one of the ten fastest-growing local economies in the UK today.
“I am very pleased that he will remain as Leader until November, giving us the necessary time to ensure there is a smooth transition.”