Austerity and the rising cost of adult social care are among the challenges facing the region’s longest-serving council leader. Rob Parsons reports.
He first stood for election as a local councillor in 1979, the year Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister and ushered in nearly two decades of Conservative rule.
The best part of half a century later, with 13 successful election campaigns of his own under his belt and no defeats, Stephen Parnaby stands as Yorkshire’s longest-serving council leader.
The authority he leads, East Riding of Yorkshire Council, was formed with him in the top role in 1996, replacing the unpopular configuration of Humberside County Council serving alongside districts.
Reaching its current position from its early beginnings, with no reserves or capital programme, is an achievement he counts among his most successful.
In his 48 years in local politics he’s seen governments and local structures come and go, as well as the challenges involved, but he says his appetite for the role remains.
People want to become experts in something, but I don’t actually, I just want to know if it works, is it working and is this what’s best.Stephen Parnaby
Raised and educated locally, he has run a number of businesses to supplement his council work and was made an OBE in 2008 for services to local government.Asked by The Yorkshire Post if he has any plans to retire, he insists not and goes on to outline his approach to local government.
“I like to think I adapt to change,” he says. “The world has changed dramatically. We couldn’t have done the things we have done without modern technology, and I haven’t got a clue how these things work and I don’t need to.
“I couldn’t drive a gritter lorry or do a lot of things that our workforce do, and I don’t need to understand the technology. All I need to know is ‘what can it deliver’. Sometimes people lose sight of that, they all want to become experts in something, but I don’t actually, I just want to know if it works, is it working and is this what’s best.”
Like most other council leaders, he cites austerity as his biggest challenge of the last seven years, with £12m in savings to find from his budget in the next three years on top of the £140m a year in cuts made since 2010.
East Riding started making cuts a year earlier than other authorities and tried to save more than necessary each year, to create a cushion. As a result, he says, the council has sold properties and merged services but has not closed any or stopped them, instead delivering them in a different way.
But he identifies the rapidly growing cost of caring for the district’s elderly and vulnerable as a major concern. “Adult social care is the biggest factor facing local authorities, no question about that,” he says.
“The good news is that people are living longer, the bad news is that when people live longer they cost more money to the health service, they cost more money to local authorities.
“Because we are quite a pleasant, attractive area, we attract quite a lot of people who want to retire and come and live here. People like living near the coast, they like living in market towns.
“That is good because they have plenty of disposable income, but then as time moves on they need care, either on a daily basis or gradually. That is by far our biggest strain on budgets.”
At local level, the future of the River Humber in the next 50 to 100 years, amid a rising risk of floods, is something he says needs to be prepared for now.
His tenure hasn’t been without criticism, and when ‘Stephen Parnaby’ is entered into Google a number of articles pop up with allegations about his conduct. He was accused of breaching the councillor’s code of conduct earlier this year, before being cleared in an internal standards probe.
“My view is that people have their own agendas...when you boil it down it tends to be political opponents of some type,” he says.
“I don’t let it get to me, in fact most of the time I don’t even read it, I don’t mean to sound clever when I say that, I have better things to be doing.
“For the things you have mentioned, no evidence has come to light, no-one has brought anything forward, it just pure political banter really in that sense.”
Life as a councillor was very different in 1979 when he first took office. “Then it was an afternoon a week and you didn’t get involved in the policies, the strategies”, he says,
“It was very much the town hall regime, the town clerk, wig on, the gown on for the full council meetings, and the officers ran the authority, the members did a lot of pontificating but didn’t have huge amounts of influence.
“There was a lot of them, and gradually over the years the number of members has reduced and it has become more of a partnership.”