Sheffield Council leader: ‘I have my life in perspective’
Councillor Julie Dore has led Sheffield City Council for nearly a decade.
“I never wanted to be a politician,” she admits. “A lot of people aspire to be politicians from early ages and progress through it as a career but I’ve never had that aspiration. I already had a young family and a career I loved. Politics for me was about changing people’s lives and making a difference.”
Her office overlooks the Peace Gardens and although quite bare, two things stick out. A signed Sheffield Wednesday shirt hangs on the wall, which she won for about £150 at auction for her mum, a season ticket holder, and next to it, a signed United top gifted by the owner who did not want to be outmatched by their rivals.
Eventually, she hopes fill the room with drawings by local schoolchildren and a mural by a Sheffield-based artist. But there have been more pressing matters over the past several years.
After quitting a job she loved to take up the most responsible role in the city she has since spent the past seven years making difficult decisions and leading the Steel city through ‘devastating’ austerity, one of the most controversial PFI contracts in history and overseeing plans for the fastest rail in Europe, to name a few.
Coun Dore was brought up on the Wybourn before moving to Arbourthorne to start secondary school. Growing up in a large family, she often discussed politics with her relatives.
At 16 she left Hurfield School and joined the Young Socialist Party before she became a member of Labour at 18 and trained to be a quantity surveyor.
After marrying and having two children, she stood in her ward’s by-election in 2010, amidst a difficult time for Labour when the Liberal Democrats dominated seats.
She said: “I’ve always wanted to help support and achieve a Labour government because I think governments make far more difference to people’s lives than local authorities, as locally powers are few and far between.
“At the time in Heeley we only had one remaining Labour councillor out of 15. I was asked to give them good competition, we didn’t expect to win as all the odds were against us, but we won.”
As well as being a councillor and surveyor coun Dore took on roles as governor of Springs Academy, trustee of a charity for young homeless people and worked at South Yorkshire Housing Association, which kept her too busy to join the cabinet.
Instead, she focused on improving policy such as housing and young people through committee and work in her ward.
She said: “Arbourthorne is full of people who are salt of the earth, it’s a genuinely working-class area full of characters. It has its challenges but there are some really good people.
“It makes it easier when you are embedded in the ward because more people know you and your family, you are more accessible and they believe you are one of them.
“I enjoyed being a ward councillor very much because you make changes to lots of individual lives as you do lots of case work and can get involved in policy making.
“When I became leader, it was difficult to focus on any particular policy area so rather than get deep down into one issue you have to get involved with everything.”
Coun Dore now lives just outside the ward in Gleadless with her two sons and husband of 32 years, with whom she is still ‘madly in love.’
The working days are long and, especially as leader, demands sacrificing personal life.
She said: “I used to be a social bee, buzzing around, going to the theatre and seeing friends and my wonderful, extensive family but, the biggest sacrifice has been missing out on social gatherings.
“I’m fortunate to have some very close friends on council rather than just colleagues so that has helped enormously.”
When not running the city, coun Dore said she enjoys staying in with her dressing gown, a couple of bottles of beer, a few snacks and an old movie, favourites being Jungle Book, Fargo and The Sound of Music.
A lot of her personal time is also spent caring for her son, Tom, who has autism.
She said: “To be a leader of the fourth largest city outside of London and have all the responsibilities, but then also be a carer is difficult.
“Even though caring has that added responsibility and can be very intensive and drain on you emotionally, it gives me a better perspective.
“There’s half a million people out there who are prepared to criticise me, and a lot of them do in a nasty way. In any field, if you are an artist, celebrity, journalist, or whoever, if you stick your head above the parapet, and say something somebody doesn’t like then ‘wow’ the avalanche hits. But it doesn’t get to me because I know what matters most is supporting and helping people and doing your best.”
Since becoming leader in 2011, central government have slashed the council’s grant by almost 50 per cent, causing them to cut to the bone and overspend in social care.
As a result, the council have scraped to protect essential services and avoid going bust, like Northamptonshire Council who declared bankruptcy earlier this year.
At a recent budget meeting, coun Olivia Blake, cabinet member for finance, said Sheffield is not yet at that stage but is not far from it.
“One of the reasons why I took the leadership on was because we knew the scale of cuts that were coming, and have kept coming,” coun Dore said.
“At the start, one of our biggest challenges was trying to manage people’s expectations from those years of plenty in public services, knowing we have a shrinking budget and other cuts would be made.
“Local government is the bedrock of public services, if you don’t fund local councils it will cost on more expensive services. When you look at public spending, the most is on the NHS, the justice system in prisons and policing, mental health and welfare.
“So, our challenge is to continue delivering those services people need and expect like waste and highways management, parks and culture but also protecting the most vulnerable like safeguarding children, people with disabilities, homelessness, people suffering domestic violence and social care.
“You can’t describe it as a highlight because who would have wanted to do it? But I do think we have managed it very well and created a good environment for everyone and still grow the economy, and I’m proud of some of our policies we have introduced to manage that.”
Amidst the extreme financial pressures, the council has introduced things like anti-slavery and living wage policies and grown opportunities for apprenticeships.
But it has not been easy. Cuts Sheffield Council, and others across the country, have had to make have left some communities without parts of their life that they were once dependant on.
Coun Dore said: “There’s a difference between what you want and what you need, but either way, something you depend on or come to expect becomes precious to you, like early years provision so you can go to work or reading groups in libraries. Any threat to that you will blame whoever you think is taking it away from you, so the council for making the decision.
“In some cases we had to have a major conversation with the public about how we find joint solutions because if we can’t find friends of parks or library groups then resources will have to close. By working together with them they then realise it’s government who are causing us to make these decisions.
“One of the highlights is that with the wider public we came up with solutions so no libraries or parks closed. And things like that is how we have survived.”
Whether dealing with issues around cuts to funding or trees, coun Dore still says it is the best job in the world.
“As well as protecting the most vulnerable we have still managed to invest in parks and culture but, the recession and austerity meant it’s taken longer but we are still on the up. A city needs to be a great place to live, work, learn and enjoy, and that’s always been my mantra.”