'The city and community are our bond' - Sheffield Council stalwarts from rival parties reflect on their time as councillors as they prepare to step down
The Town Hall has been their home for a combined 62 years, they’re political rivals in public and good friends behind the scenes.
Now Labour councillor Pat Midgley and Liberal Democrat councillor David Baker have both decided to call time on their political careers and stand down next May.
David, 82, has been a councillor for 29 years. He served eight years in South Wortley, took a break, then stood again and won Birley in 1999. A vacancy came up in Stannington, a new name for his old South Wortley ward, and in his words, he “returned home”.
Pat politely declines to reveal her age but has served 33 years. She was elected in 1987 for Nether Edge and represented it for eight years before moving to Manor ward.
When a joint interview is suggested, both are delighted and happily reminisce as they share a flapjack.
There’s genuine affection between the pair and a mutual trust and appreciation. When Pat was Lord Mayor, David was her deputy around 2001 and over coffee, he repeatedly reminds his modest colleague of her achievements, cheerleading on a political rival.
“We’ve always got on well,” says Pat. “The city and the community are our bond but we come to issues in a different way and we have different views of how to get there.
“Families can argue bitterly at times but they still have a bond. When necessary there’s been a uniformed front for the sake of the city.”
The council chamber can often seem like a pantomime but David says it’s very different backstage.
“When the public listen to the council chamber and there are election campaigns they are seeing the image we have to portray because this council has a confrontational political system but the majority of us are good friends.
“There is not a single bad councillor. They are all there because they want the best for their communities and city. We have councillors from different parties in the same ward and they ring each other up and say something is happening. There is a far bigger bond between the parties than the public are aware of.”
Pat remembers the days when the council was ‘more good natured’ and David agrees.
“There was a lot more personal barracking but it was all good-hearted.
“I remember former Leader Mike Bower once came in a bobble hat and someone shouted out ‘Noddy’ so the next meeting he wore plastic ears like Big Ears.
“There were lots of laughs and banter about everybody whereas now there is an edge and calling out all the time during full council.”
The Town Hall as a building has also changed dramatically over the years. David recalls: “Council meetings went on and on. We used to start at 2pm, break for a three course meal at the Town Hall restaurant and then carry on and sit until 12.30pm at night.
“There were Lord Mayor’s attendants, a laundry, printing department and huge restaurant for members of the public.”
David, a former chef and catering manager, became involved in politics after setting up a campaign group for lower rates. He did some leafleting for the Lib Dems and before he knew it, was standing for election.
“I was promised it was only a couple of days a month but people don’t realise we get paid a pittance for 10 to 12 hour days.
“I was earning £6 an hour for the hours I was putting in as a Cabinet member and as a councillor you get considerably less.
“On top of that, there’s the political side. Most of us are active members of a political party and have commitments to that party with meetings and leafleting, all of which takes more time.
“It takes your life over. All my personal friends are within the political system,” - David’s wife is Sheffield Lib Dem Leader Coun Penny Baker.
Pat became political after an embarrassing episode at school where a teacher criticised her accent. The sting never left and when she was older she stood for council and has had a lifelong passion for improving education - she’s been a school governor for more than 50 years.
She said: “I remember thinking the episode at school was extremely unfair and I thought about it a lot. There was a lot of inequality in education.
“I have three children with my husband Don and I used to be really upset that we both couldn’t go to party meetings. I became a school governor as education was a passion.
“I’m unique in all my friends because they talk about being steady with their pension but I don’t have a pension.
“We know when we come in as councillors there’s no time to plan for retirement and you can be out in one day. Most people have time to prepare if they leave a job. In politics your life can be taken away in one day.
“Planning for the future never even occurs to you. When you retire, you’ll still be involved in politics and community issues, you just turn over the page.”
Pat is looking forward to spending more time with her husband while David is upfront about having prostate cancer and says it shouldn’t be glossed over.
“I’m conscious that cancer can be hush hush and it shouldn’t be as it’s a treatable illness and one in four of us have it. I’m telling everybody this is what I have and I’m being treated and people understand then when I don’t come to a meeting or can’t do something. It’s important that people discuss it.”
When asked about their best achievements David says: “I introduced community assemblies and was a huge step forward with delegated decisions and I’m really proud of that. Pat was one of three councillors who came to the meeting to discuss them.”
Pat is more reluctant and David gently encourages her. “You have achieved a lot and have done so much, You have a lot of moments to be proud of.” She admits Sheffield becoming a City of Sanctuary was one defining moment.
As they prepare to leave, both laugh over funny memories. David remembers: “As Lord Mayor I was keen to give the military Freedom of the City. I was reviewing all the soldiers on a podium when a smartly dressed elderly gentleman came up and said may I stand with you?
“I thought who’s this but said of course and he then introduced himself as the Duke of Wellington!”
One particular meeting sticks in Pat’s mind. “When Mike Bower became leader he did something unusual and made a lot of women committee chairmen.
“I was given environment and my first meeting was with the union where a load of men came with toilet rolls to complain that officers got proper toilet paper but they had scratchy sheets!”
They’ve still some way to go to beat Coun Peter Price, who has 47 years under his belt, but David and Pat are stalwarts in the truest sense and will be missed.