New Sheffield Council leader says he is keen to act on cost-of-living crisis as top priority
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Tom Hunt, aged 36, only joined the council last year to represent Walkley ward for Labour and now finds himself elected to the leadership role after a tumultuous few months for local politics. His predecessor Cllr Terry Fox was recently forced to step down by the central party, which has also put Sheffield Labour into ‘special measures’.
Issues such as the damning Lowcock Report into the street trees scandal, the high cost and delays for Fargate Container Park, the controversial city centre clean air zone and red line plans for Abbeydale and Ecclesall Roads have all worked to undermine trust in the council and Labour.
In the past Cllr Hunt has worked as a political researcher for Sheffield Central MP Paul Blomfield and he is currently deputy director of the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute, based at the University of Sheffield. He focuses on the issues of trade unions and working conditions.
Cllr Hunt was elected as leader last week (May 17) for the council that remains in no overall control following the May 4 elections. Labour has the biggest group of councillors, followed by the LibDems and Greens.
Cllr Hunt said he is feeling “extremely positive” about his new role: “It’s an absolute privilege and honour to be elected to lead Sheffield City Council.
“It is a huge task that is before us but I know that we are coming in with fresh energy with the Labour team leading this council alongside the other parties, with fresh ideas, fresh energy on my first day of delivering priorities for the people of Sheffield.
“Top of the list is the cost-of-living crisis. Life for many people in the city is hard right now and three million people are struggling to pay their bills across the country.
“We are working to make sure that throughout all the different committees and functions we will do all we can to navigate this cost-of-living crisis. Last year the council was in the position where unfortunately we had to set up warm banks during the winter to keep people warm.”
Cllr Hunt said that he will be meeting up with the cross-party council cost-of-living task force, which will be looking ahead to see what help might still be needed this winter, as well as during the school holidays, where many families need additional support.
Also at the top of his list is public transport. Cllr Hunt said: “Whenever I am out talking to people across the city, the state of public transport comes up time and time again.
“We are looking at the process of bringing buses under public control. We are working very closely with the Mayor (Oliver Coppard) to prepare for improving buses in our city.
“I spoke to someone on the doorstep during the elections a few weeks ago. They were looking to give up a job they loved. She couldn’t confidently rely on buses to get there and couldn’t afford the petrol for driving there.
“This is representative of what buses mean for the city.”
Cllr Hunt said that the project to bring buses back under public control would have full support during his leadership of the council.
He is also keen to take action on tackling climate change, including retrofitting homes and buildings to make sure they are warmer and more energy efficient and ensuring that the council vehicle fleet becomes all electric.
“Whatever it is, I will be making sure that we are taking this seriously – this is not negotiable. This is not just a nice thing to do, it is our children’s future we have got at stake.
“If this generation of leaders doesn’t get this right, we will all have to look our grandchildren in the eye and admit we didn’t do enough. This is a top priority, no matter what political party we represent.”
Cllr Hunt said that he accepts there is a lot of work to do to restore public faith in the council. “I really want to make sure that in this city council we are doing politics in an open and transparent and competent way.
“Too often people look at local politics and think it’s just politicians chucking rocks at each other and getting into rows.”
He said that he believes politicians from different parties have lots of issues that they could come together on, adding: “There’s no overall control in the city council, it doesn’t mean we can’t get things done.”
He favours working with other parties to identify what they could collaborate on and “looking to do what’s best for the people of Sheffield, not scoring political points”.
“We need to do things to meet people’s priorities – first and foremost tackling cost of living. How we approach this on a day-to-day basis must be done openly and done in a spirit of cooperation.”
Cllr Hunt said he is keen to take on the challenge of rebuilding trust in the council, adding: “People are right to say that on day one we will listen politely but we want to see action. I am telling you how our team are going to approach things as we assume leadership of this council.
“People are rightly going to want to see results. When I’m telling people about the cost-of-living crisis is just words – words don’t pay bills. I’m under no illusions that people will rightly hold me to account over the coming months, saying what have you done?
“I’m in politics to get things done. I’m impatient to make things change. I stood for the council last year and the leadership this year because first and foremost we need to change people’s lives.
“People are having tough times. I want to step up and do my part with my Labour colleagues and do everything I can to help.
“There is so much talent in this city – we’re a city historically of makers, innovators and creators. That is as true today as it always has been. Under my leadership of this council I want to do everything I can for that talent to get every chance to flourish.”