The discovery of Richard III’s remains in the car park of the city’s social service department in August 2012 and the confirmation in February 2013 that those remains were indeed those of the King were moments that helped to bring Leicester to the attention of the world. A £4.5m Richard III Visitor Centre, one of the City Council’s flagship projects, was opened on 26 July 2014 on the site where the King’s remains had lain buried for 527 years.
Putting Leicester on the map, too, and arguably more dramatically as far as the nation was concerned, was Leicester City Football Club when they won the Premier League Championship in May 2016, the first time in their entire 132 year history.
Leicester City was the first city in England outside London to have an elected Mayor.
So, who runs the City?
In August 2016, Highfields Community Association (HCA) commissioned Professor Gus John to undertake a review ‘of Leicester City Council’s relationship with Highfields Community Association, with a particular focus on the period since achieving community governance status in 2010.’
Professor John’s report, In Search of Good Faith, was launched at a Press Conference held at Highfields Centre, 96 Melbourne Road, Leicester, LE2 0DS on Wednesday 30th November 2016.
‘This has been a review of one major, community based organisation and its relationship with the City Council. Insofar as it has given rise to a number of serious concerns about the dynamics of that relationship and to matters that have far wider implications for the relationship between people and those whom they elect to represent them, I hope it will be viewed as a ‘case study’ of the elected mayor system in one provincial city’.
Some of his key findings are as follows:
1. The review has established that the Highfields Community Association remains a dynamic hub of life-long learning activities and community engagement in Highfields.
2. The HCA and Highfields Centre are seen by the communities they serve as being responsive to the changing demographics in the area and to operate flexibly in meeting the diverse needs of the entire community.
3. Having operated in Highfields for over four decades, HCA has a thorough understanding of the area, its strengths and its challenges. It has a very able, committed and loyal body of staff whose focus is principally on service to the local community.
4. HCA is a city asset with a wealth of knowledge and experience and an understanding of community development and multi-ethnic engagement that Leicester could export, so that other cities and towns might be assisted in dealing with their own changing demographics and the challenges that they pose.
5. It would appear, however, that this is not how HCA is regarded by Leicester City Council (LCC) now and it was not uppermost in the minds of councillors and officers when HCA determined it had come of age and wanted to renegotiate the relationship it had with LCC and opt for community governance status.
6. HCA experienced a degree of hostility to the idea both from council officers and from politicians. That assumed major proportions once Peter Soulsby was elected Mayor, albeit he was full of praise for the work HCA did when he was a Member of Parliament for Leicester South.
7. This review has examined the detail of those engagements and has concluded that Mr Soulsby has absolutely no basis for proclaiming, as he has done to the media repeatedly:
“In all my years of experience of working with the council and in local government this has been the most difficult group I have ever experienced. “They really haven’t wanted to enter into any sensible discussion with us, behaving as if they have a right to be given this very large cheque and allowed to spend it however they wish.”
8. Not only was this patently untrue, it was irresponsible and unworthy.
9. Based on the evidence we examined, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that there was something wilful, if not vindictive and deliberately obstructive about a number of decisions taken by the Mayor’s office.
10. Some of the delays in making decisions about the Centre’s funding were not in the least surprising for a Mayor who it would appear is insistent upon micro-managing everything to do with HCA and the Highfields Centre….
11. It is even more concerning that the Mayor appears to be surrounded by a culture of fear that clearly constrains both elected representatives and officers.
12. What is interesting about the turn of events that led to councillors relocating their surgeries from the Highlights Centre to the Public Library is that it suggests that the local councillors were not as engaged with the Centre as they might have been, given that it was the main provider of services to their constituents, services which were significantly curtailed as a result of funding decisions made by the City Mayor. By their own admission, those councillors were less than robust in their support for the HCA in its negotiations with the City Council.
13. Those who disagreed with the way the City Mayor had dealt with HCA and especially the way the Mayor had used the media to discredit the management and governors of HCA felt ‘it would be suicide’, as one put it, if they were to go to other local councillors and suggest that they work in unison to intervene with the Mayor. For one thing, they felt there was not enough trust among them as a group of local councillors and that people would not be above shafting one another in order to retain or gain favour with Peter Soulsby. They cited examples of what they called ‘divide and rule strategies’ they had experienced both when Mr Soulsby was leader of the council and even more so since he became Mayor. The impression I formed, therefore, was that most of those councillors were constantly looking over their shoulders while walking on eggshells in their dealings with one another, with council officers and with their constituents.
14. I would like to think, however, that Jon Ashworth (MP, Leicester South) cannot be entirely happy with the situation in Leicester and with the fact that Mr Soulsby feels able to treat him as a Member of Parliament so dismissively and with impunity. At the very least, I would expect Mr Ashworth to spare a thought for lesser mortals in his constituency who seek to communicate and reason with Mr Soulsby, especially if he as MP for Leicester South could be treated in the dismissive manner displayed by Mayor Soulsby.
15. Finally, this report raises a number of critical issues regarding the elected mayor construct. Leicester was the first city outside London to adopt the system.
16. This has been a review of one major, community based organisation and its relationship with the City Council. Insofar as it has given rise to a number of serious concerns about the dynamics of that relationship and to matters that have far wider implications for the relationship between people and those whom they elect to represent them, I hope it will be viewed as a ‘case study’ of the elected mayor system in one provincial city.
Read the full report here.