Cllr Neville Patten, the Conservative leader of Wolverhampton City Council, says football success isn't the only cause for celebration in his city – despite the "hypocritical mudslinging" of the Labour opposition.
One of the first things that visitors to the Leader’s Office at Wolverhampton have commented on in the last fifteen months is the view that it offers over the golden lattices of the Molineux Stadium towards the Staffordshire Moorlands. Now that the Wolves are back where they belong in Premiership again, I have probably the most enviable view from an office window in the City.
This excellent vista has played a more important role in the fifteen months of our administration in this City than might at first have been supposed. It has become a symbol of a new confidence in Wolverhampton that, after 35 of the last 40 years under Labour control, has been most welcome. However, it has been hard won.
The 2008 Elections landed with 27 Conservatives, 5 Liberal Democrats and 28 Labour and, although we weren’t the largest party, the LibDems voted to support my name going forward as Leader, and to support my
nominations to the Cabinet. A purely Conservative administration was therefore able to take office on 15th May last year.
However, like many a year in the Wolves’ long history, we have had to be on our guard. First of all, Wolverhampton already had a reputation for being one of those Councils where the “call in” is used extensively, often to the consternation of some. This tradition was begun by the Conservatives in opposition here and, while this is not an unhealthy thing in itself, the mathematics means that a lot of the decisions the Cabinet makes are drawn into a Scrutiny Board where not only the vote of the single LibDem (who chairs the Board as part of the alliance agreement) is important to keeping our programme on track, but also basic party discipline on our own part is vital.
This has not quite been on the same level of whipping that once ended up with veteran Labour MP Arthur Broughton being wheeled into the House of Commons in a hospital bed, but it has meant that there have been times when the facility of being able to substitute for absent members on Scrutiny Board has been very useful indeed. Margins are tight and everyone understands that they need to pull their weight.
Margins have been even tighter in financial terms. When the Pandora’s box of Labour financial management in this City was laid bare to us fifteen months ago, there was a funding gap of £41 million pounds to March 2011. There was also a long history of hyperinflationary Council Tax increases that betrayed poor financial discipline by the other side, which the Conservatives had pledged to bring to an end.
Tackling this mess has meant a series of very difficult decisions, some of which have been highly emotive, but which have become the subject of some of the most hypocritical mud slinging from Labour I have heard in my 17 years as a Councillor. What they conveniently forget as they barrack us across the Chamber is that the closure of any facility – though what we are closing isn’t fit for purpose, anyway – would not be so necessary were it not for their laxity in office.
Fortunately, their jibes are easily slapped down, but more difficult has been the exercise of carrying out essential rationalisation measures to back-office staffing, without affecting front-line services and also without wrecking staff morale. We are fortunate in that some members of the Cabinet have solid professional experience in balancing these aspects in other places of work.
However, positive developments are beginning to show. We’ve already delivered on the pledge to bring plastic and cardboard recycling on line and, despite one or two teething troubles (as there always are), Wulfrunians now accept this service as a way of life, just as they took to the initially controversial wheelie-bins over 20 years ago. The new City Archives are also open to the public, just one of a number of public facilities which are part of that new confidence I talked about earlier: the Civic Hall, Grand Theatre and other major entertainment venues are brimming with optimism and steps are now being taken to put them on a sound commercial footing in the long-term. Although controversial to start with, the new Queen Square fountain has opened up the heart of the City Centre in a way which nobody could have imagined when it was first pedestrianised over 30 years ago.
Most importantly of all, I think, is the new dialogue which this Council has struck up under our leadership with the business community in the City. This is the biggest cultural change which we have had to bring in and is almost unprecedented in Wolverhampton. Regional bodies such as AWM (our RDA) and GOWM (Central Government’s local outpost) have noticed this and there is renewed interest in Wolverhampton as a centre for business, helped by prospects of a new transport interchange and of major commercial developments such as the Summer Row city centre retail core and the i54 business park near the junction with the M54. For the first time in years, Wolverhampton is being regarded as a centre for business.
Again, as I started this piece, the success of the Old Gold and Black of the Wolves will mean that the city’s footfall is likely to increase considerably this year, just as it did in 2003-2004 on the Wolves’ last trip to the top flight. This time, we are confident that that increase in visitor numbers will be a more permanent affair and that many more people from outside will see that, at last, Wolverhampton is a city which appears to be going places.
Keeping everything on track will require continued discipline on the part of everyone in the team, but the will and the way are very much there.