War of words as Wakefield's Tory MP accuses Labour council of 'culture of arrogance'

A chasm has opened up in relations between a Conservative Yorkshire MP and his constituency’s Labour-run council as he accused the local authority of having a “culture of arrogance”.

Imran Ahmad Khan, who was elected as Wakefield’s first Conservative MP in 90 years in December, has said Wakefield Council has a “democratic deficit” which he likened to the “unelected and unresponsive bureaucrats in Brussels determining things without enough democratic oversight”.

And he said he felt that due to being a Tory MP, following a history of Labour representatives, the council was being “pig-headed” and “brusque” in dealing with him and his efforts to support businesses.

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But council leader Denise Jeffrey, who previously admitted her council had “more of a socialist agenda”, hit back accusing the MP of making “political posturing his priority” and said in responding to coronavirus “there are no politics at play here and we must all come together for this district”.

Wakefield Conservative MP Imran Ahmad Khan, left, and the leader of Labour-run Wakefield Council Denise Jeffrey, right. Photos: JPI Media

In a scathing attack on the Labour-run council Mr Khan said: “At the moment they don’t like the fact that since their creation in 1974, they are now being held to account, they’ve now got somebody from the other side. And their initial reaction has been to close the door in my face, and close the door in the face of Wakefield businesses.”

Mr Khan said: “It’s that culture of arrogance where, it appears to me and appears to my friends and colleagues and constituents, that the citizen is an irritant to endure rather than the raison d'être of their office.

“That’s not how it works, I’m afraid, and now you have got a Conservative Member of Parliament in Wakefield - who has only got one objective, to serve Wakefield - I’m afraid they ain’t going to have what they had before.

“The balance of power in Wakefield has changed, it’s gone from officialdom to the people. And as the people’s representative, I will do what I can to hold them to account.”

But Coun Jeffrey said: “When it comes to supporting the Wakefield district economy and local businesses the council’s approach is explicitly cross party.”

She said Conservative and Liberal Democrat members were on the council’s economic recovery board and she added: “I took that decision with the belief that all major parties within the Wakefield district were equally committed to the success of the local economy and local businesses and that we could jointly pursue those objectives without seeking party political advantage.”

She said she was “incredibly disappointed” at Mr Khan’s intervention.

The row came to light amid emails seen by The Yorkshire Post which showed Mr Khan was informed Wakefield Council’s corporate director of regeneration and economic growth Tom Stannard, service director for economic growth and skills Clare Elliott, and economic development service manager Mike Denby would not attend a meeting focussed on business support and continuity in light of coronavirus the day before it was due to take place due to “other council commitments”.

The meetings have been organised weekly, and then fortnightly, by Mr Khan’s office since the outbreak began and aimed to give businesses a direct line of communication with the council.

But Mr Khan said the refusal of top council figures to appear was “an insult to the business community” and came just a day after the authority asked for the MP’s help in securing £84.2m in government support.

In an email Mr Stannard said they “simply have a very wide range of completing priorities in diaries now relating both to economic recovery work and the day-to-day business of running Council services and operations”, and that it would not be possible for council representatives to attend the weekly meetings.

Council figures show advice had been provided to more than 1,400 businesses since the start of the pandemic, and had paid out to 5,567 businesses with grant payments totalling £63.6m.

Webinars had also been introduced, as well as an online business resilience survey, and the council said its own Successful Business Board had shaped the district’s six-month response to coronavirus.

Coun Jeffrey said “We are doing everything we can to support business to access funding and get it to those that need it most, as quickly as possible.”

But Mr Khan said: “It’s a slap in the face to me, it’s a slap in the face to those 50-odd captains of Wakefield’s ship of industry and commerce.

“We need a new deal for Wakefield, these are things we have an opportunity to do not, if the Member of Parliament, supported by the people of Wakefield, working hand in glove with the council, appeal to the Chancellor and the Prime Minister and say ‘this is what we’re doing together as one people, as Wakefield, and we need the support to get this done’.”

He said businesses had also been frustrated by the council’s procedures for administering discretionary funds handed down by government, intended to help organisations who had fallen through the cracks of various government coronavirus schemes and which were key to Wakefield’s recovery.

The council said it had asked those requesting help for bank statements to prove they had been adversely affected by the pandemic, and had capped the amount which could be given at £10,000, when government guidance said a £25,000 payment is also possible.

Mr Khan said: “Even though the government guidelines basically give discretion to them, they are increasingly making these rules that don’t need to be made.”

He added: “It needs to be based upon what people’s needs are, because if you do it on bank accounts and statements and so on, that tells you what they were doing three months ago, not today.”

But the council said government guidance asks that businesses prove that coronavirus has had a negative impact, and that bank statements were a form of evidence they could easily source. They said the statements would also help prevent fraud whereas a future financial forecast may not.

They added 61 per cent (£2.1m) of their discretionary funding had been paid out, with another £700,000 to be paid before the end of the week.

Coun Jeffrey added: “The stats speak for themselves, we are getting the funding out of the doors as quickly as we can, if fact across the Leeds City Region Wakefield has moved more money, more quickly.

“The funding provided by government was only ever going to stretch so far, which is why government gave clear guidance, strongly recommending an approach that we, and our colleagues in West Yorkshire, have followed.”

A fiery letter released by Mr Khan on Friday opposing council plans to pedestrianise key parts of the city centre, only served to fan the flames, as he claimed every piece of correspondence received on proposals had been critical of the plans which he said would “kill businesses” in the centre.

He said the fact the consultation period was cut from 21 days to 10 “proves Wakefield Metropolitan District Council are willing to push an agenda with no accountability or care for those who live and work within its controlling grip”.

And Mr Khan said the meeting with businesses would have been “a perfect opportunity to have a period of consultation with Wakefield’s businesses, but they chose not to”.

On the proposals, Coun Jeffrey said they were “looking at the different ways we can make experimental and temporary use of our space, in line with government advice and guidance”.

She added: “Councils across the UK are leading the response to this crisis and we want to work constructively with the government. I am always open to dialogue and suggestions around supporting businesses and growing our economy, from whatever party.

“What our businesses and residents need is a united front, working together, something we very much have at a local councillor level and something we need from our MP.”

Mr Khan said: “For the first time they’ve actually got a Wakefield lad who wants to roll up his sleeves and work and strive for Wakefield. This is not about politics, this is about working together.”

He added: “And I’m happy to have my knuckles bloodied and bruised knowing on doors and winning over central Government but we need to do it all together.”