Cllr John Fareham is the Leader of the Conservative Group on Hull City Council. He was first elected in 1983.
Conservatism in Hull has been a training ground for MPs of late. Andrew Percy was a councillor here. Lia Nicci-Townend and Dehenna Davison Fareham each contested Hull North constituency before succeeding elsewhere.
This year Hull almost became blue, with even the East Hull seat reduced to a marginal of 1,239 (compared with 18,723 when I stood in 1992) and the Brexit Party trailing us in all three seats.
Whichever way the result is analysed, the Liberal Democrats, who were running the Council as recently as 2011, collapsed and barely held their deposit. Yet they remain, on the Council, the majority Opposition Group having improved their vote at the most recent council elections. We legally remain a Group at two members but one seat falls vacant this year and municipal politics lacks a binary dividing issue such as Brexit. Unity is generally a good thing, if you are a one nation Conservative. But it can lead to stagnation and paralysis.
Hull is a post-industrial City which has done rather well from Conservative central governments. An endless procession of Ministers (all too busy to see the local Party or even the Group) sweep into the City waving cheques for improving roads to the docks, Green energy initiatives, City Centre remodelling, housing initiatives, and assisting investment in once-local company Reckitts. All this under the umbrella of the City of Culture, itself rejected when there was a Labour Government – just as little happened under them apart from the PFI fuelled frenzy of poor financing – despite at any one time, two Hull MPs being Ministers. Even the Council blazons a banner, somewhat ironically on an empty shop, proclaiming “Over £3 billion Public and Private Sector Investment in Hull since 2013”.
With Boris Johnson talking about remodelling expenditure assessments to remove or reduce the economic benefit weighting to reward the newly blue wall seats in the north (no doubt further displeasing the Conservative South-East as net taxation contributors) Hull can no doubt expect to see yet more public funding. Though Cllr Hale ( in some ways the Derek Hatton of Hull as a combative left-wing Deputy Leader behind a conciliatory moderate leader) repeatedly talks about huge cuts to Hull City Council, he makes the machine politician’s standard conflation of the City and the Council. The Labour leadership is however pragmatic, increasingly more so, and will embrace funding opportunities; but they suffer from a form of political priapism around big projects and the City Centre.
Labour in Hull still lean to spending money on “their” estates (in my 33 years of public service some areas are now ‘on investment’ for a third time – and still remain a dubious asset as even some Labour members will agree privately) and do like a “Major Project”. The City centre is improving. But Labour seem incapable of spotting the irony that they proclaim times are hard and then spend millions buying buildings. Away from the City Centre, and the sprawling outer council estates, Labour seem to lack a clear vision for the rest of the City. Those who do not go into the City centre daily, do not see local neighbourhood facilities booming, the arts rolling out as part of a regeneration strategy harnessed to cultural revitalisation. Inadequate roads from the 1930s still form part of an inner ring road – in a city of barely 27 square miles who even thinks an inner-ring road on parked-up 1930s streets makes any form of sense?
There is no over-arching transport vision, apart from the obligatory nod to not-driving by councillors and officers who largely drive, and there is no sub-regional strategy for urban and suburban transport such as trams to connect Labour Hull with the Conservative-controlled local Council (East Riding of Yorkshire) who surround us on all land borders. ERYC, at the southern end particularly, draw their cultural, economic, and (increasingly less so) retail identity from Hull, both councils tenuously connected by two train lines and a few arterial roads, all lacking cohesion and strategic thought, let alone surplus capacity. The Cassandras of woe in the local media breathlessly report almost daily the latest accident blocking the A63 (is it just me or do the Police take ever longer to free up roads?) But still, we do little to lighten the loading – a major project overlooked.
This is the classic dilemma – in public service we should do the right thing, which often means rewarding Labour for years of failure and, in the process, often underwriting their continued control of a council – especially when Ministers are all too often too lazy to take a briefing on the reality behind the warm smiles and the outstretched hand. We will fight on a positive city-wide agenda: respecting and empowering the individual, strengthening all communities, investing evenly across the City. The Liberal Democrats will trot out the same tired clichés about “Labour’s Guildhall bosses” and money spent on a cabinet somewhere in a Grade 2* Guildhall, but may yet increase their vote further.
We will hope to expand on the street stalls, ad vans, and pub meet ‘n’ greets, as well as campaign on the streets. In the General Election, box counts suggested we won seven local government wards – six more than we usually do. People are getting out of the habit of voting Labour, the Lib-Dems are increasingly stale. We may lack a clear binary policy as emotive as “Brexit” but we will work to present a clear alternative to the two stale old Guildhall parties.