Star Interview: “Most people are all about today - somebody has to look ahead”: Sheffield’s longest-serving councillor on sport, strikes and Corbyn

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Half of Sheffield loathes Peter Price – and the rest think he is a saviour.

Harsh, perhaps, but that is how the city’s longest-serving councillor believes he is judged.

Peter Price at Sheffield Town Hall. Picture: Dean Atkins

Peter Price at Sheffield Town Hall. Picture: Dean Atkins

Peter, a Labour politician for 45 years, was one of the most enthusiastic backers of the 1991 World Student Games in Sheffield, driven by a faith in the regenerative power of sport.

Nearly £150 million was spent on building venues, and disquiet over repayments rumbles on to this day.

“It’s madness,” he exclaims. “It cost a lot of money, but the Commonwealth Games was 300 bloody million. Manchester got praised to hell and we got criticised.”

Don Valley may have been bulldozed – “It broke my heart, though on reflection it was the right decision” – but Peter maintains it was all worthwhile. Sheffield was designated the first National City of Sport and the resultant buzz spurred on other developments, the councillor for Brightside and Shiregreen contends.

“I call it the Silicon Valley of sport, starting at Ponds Forge and going right out to the Arena. It was my baby, my dream. Of course, everybody vanished when the pressure started. But I didn’t mind.”

Peter has just turned 80. There’s no-one older in Sheffield’s council chamber – presumably this makes the former deputy leader and ex-Lord Mayor, who chaired Sport England Yorkshire for seven years, feel like a survivor?

“The Star called me a ‘hot-headed militant’ in the early days,” he recalls. “Then it became ‘maverick’, then ‘old-fashioned left-winger’, and now it’s ‘veteran’.”

He celebrated with a trip to the Lake District; 52 people went, including family, friends and Labour comrades. Things got giddy – council chief Julie Dore helped to perform a special song written in Price’s honour.

A birthday video was compiled by Peter’s grandchildren – home movie clips were set to The Jam’s Town Called Malice encompassing a life in politics, his globe-trotting fundraisers for Macmillan Cancer Support in memory of late wife Janet and a surprise, glowing tribute from party leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Corbyn praised his councillor for ‘dedicating his life to a socialist vision’, and the respect is mutual.

“I’m a big fan,” he says decisively. “A straight, honest bloke. He’s not couched with all this suit and tie stuff, the image of a politician – he’s the opposite. I’ve got a lot of time for him.”

Peter was born in Pitsmoor, and can dimly remember the Sheffield Blitz when his parents’ home took a hit from a bomb. “Everything was on fire,” he says.

He was the oldest of three brothers; Ken, the middle child, was an Olympic weightlifter who died in a car crash. His father was a steelworker and his mother juggled odd jobs with housework. “If she didn’t have my dad’s tea on his knee when he walked in it was too late, he’d have fallen asleep. He’d be too exhausted, coming from the works. A different world.”

Peter gained a place at City Grammar School but, aged 12, he developed a benign tumour that required radiotherapy at Weston Park Hospital. “It just grew down my nostril, and down the back of my throat. I couldn’t breathe for two years. It bled quite profusely. It must have frightened my parents to death.”

He wasn’t well-behaved at school. “The class comedian, looking back,” he says, quietly. “Silly cracks and jokes. It’s never left me.”

This is true – in 2006 the Sheffield Wednesday fan mistakenly sent a round-robin email referring to rival club Sheffield United as animals and said their ‘pig muck’ would have to be cleaned up after an open top bus tour. An apology was forthcoming. “I was trying to be humorous. Most people saw the funny side.”

He was dissuaded from entering the steel industry – “My dad hated it, all the dirt and muck and heat” – and left City Grammar at 16 for a role at Sheffield University’s laboratories.

“I’ve never been ambitious. I’ve always drifted into things. What got me into politics is that I worked in the only department of the university that had 100 per cent union membership. As soon as I got the job the chief technician said ‘fill that in’, and it was a union form.”

Peter became the trade union secretary, and led a strike in 1973 that took 80 members out of the labs for five weeks as part of a national dispute.

“It shut the university down really, there was no research carried out. I was public enemy number one. It was where I got my thick skin.”

Nevertheless, he dismisses the idea unions had genuine power. “If you bring everybody out, you’ve got no chance. People will only put up with it for so long. It takes a lot of discipline. A good management will always beat a trade union if they’re clever enough, I think anyway.”

But he quickly adds: “The miners are a unique bunch of people. Not many other workforces could have done that and kept them all together. There’s too much pressure from homes and family life.”

Peter became a councillor shortly afterwards. He was motivated early on by a successful campaign to save the Longley Park open air swimming pool from closure; ironically, five years later he was forced to shut it anyway as chair of the leisure committee.

Which brings us back to sport – Peter had always loved football, cycling and cricket, and thought Sheffield’s facilities were poor.

“We hadn’t got an all-weather track, we hadn’t got anything other than football pitches in parks. I argued the case and we got Woodbourn Road Athletics Stadium and then two years later we got Don Valley Stadium.”

Peter speaks so rapidly it’s sometimes hard to keep up. He brings the student games up many times – it cropped up again at a budget meeting the day before, which clearly rankled with him.

“It was all to be paid for within 22 years, which it would have been, but in our wisdom, because it was an off the shelf agreement with banks, it was flexible.”

The deal has been refinanced, he stresses. “Ever since then we’ve used that money to support revenue. It’s ideal for the opposition. It was a unanimous decision by the council, by the way.”

Sheffield failed, he says, in not securing sponsorship. “All the top athletes were there and the media ignored it virtually. You had people in Moscow watching it live and you couldn’t see it in London.”

Did he not, at any point, think ‘we shouldn’t be doing this’?

“No. Don Valley was like a moonscape, all the factories had been demolished and it needed a catalyst. Once you start putting events on, people come. A lot of thought went into it. We were totally about steel and manufacturing; once that fell we were in trouble.”

Peter was later chair of regeneration, and saw many controversial projects in their infancy, from Supertram to Meadowhall. He was awarded an MBE in 2004. “I think people have very little vision. Most people are all about today, they don’t want interruptions. Somebody has to look ahead.”

He had death threats when King Edward’s swimming pool in Broomhill was threatened with closure.

“I’ve still got the letter now. In newspaper cut-out letters it said ‘Close King Ted’s and you are dead’. I thought it was a bit of a joke but the police took it seriously.”

A father of four, with eight grandchildren, Peter lost Janet to cancer in 2000. They were married for 40 years, and in the wake of her death he has raised over £100,000 for Macmillan. The charity missions have been ambitious – he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro aged 70 and in 2016 cycled across Zambia, riding 350 miles in six days.

No doubt this is what inspired another of Peter’s birthday gifts, a figurine depicting him as Superman in flight.

Is he happy with that description?

“You can’t beat a bit of flattery.”

‘We had bust-ups but always kept close’

Peter Price was once part of the so-called Brightside Mafia – a group of top Sheffield councillors all from the same area.

Other members of the group included David Blunkett, Clive Betts and Roger Barton.

“They were quite a powerful bunch. They either lived there, or represented the area. It’s strange. They were safe seats, to be fair.”

The colleagues ‘always stuck together’ personally, if not always politically. “Other cities’ Labour groups split but we had the social side. Although we fell out, and had big bust-ups, we always kept close outside of political debates.”

Blunkett and Betts went on to be MPs and Roger Barton became an MEP. Did Westminster not appeal to Peter?

“It’s not my scene, no. I had different ideas – just turn up for the big votes, pair up with a Tory, let them do what they want and I’ll work in the community.”

He was nearly selected as a Labour candidate in 1987. “Blunkett beat me by four votes for the Brightside seat. I should have won it.”