Star Interview with Richard Blackledge: From science to Sheffield’s finances for council’s deputy leader

Olivia Blake is the new Deputy Leader of Sheffield City Council
Olivia Blake is the new Deputy Leader of Sheffield City Council
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At one time Olivia Blake’s goal was to be a scientist. She’d started a PhD, was engrossed in research - and yet here she is ensconced at the Town Hall, contemplating her ascent to becoming Sheffield Council’s deputy leader aged just 27.

“Some people might think that I’m quite young to be doing the job,” she says.

“For a young woman, it’s quite an achievement. I never expected to become a politician. I’ve kind of ended up doing this. But I’m really passionate about making change and ensuring we get the best for the people of Sheffield.”

Hers has been a rapid rise through the ranks of the city’s Labour Party. Olivia was elected as a councillor for Walkley in 2014, served as a cabinet advisor for health and social care and was picked to succeed Leigh Bramall as Julie Dore’s second in command earlier this year - the first time Sheffield has had an all-female duo at the top.

Additionally, she’s now cabinet member for finance, and has begun the process of setting the council’s 2018 budget against a backdrop of huge political upheaval nationally.

In particular, Olivia’s keen to see how the outcome of the snap election - a minority Conservative Government propped up by 10 Democratic Unionist Party MPs - could work in Sheffield’s favour.

“I’ve hit the ground running. But I’ve been in the Labour Party since I was 14, and I’ve always been quite driven.”

Brought up in Otley, north of Leeds, and the youngest of four children, Olivia is the daughter of Judith Blake, leader of Leeds Council since 2015.

“It runs in the family, which is part of the reason why I said I’d never be a politician, but there you go,” she smiles.

“She was the inspiration for me. She’s another strong woman from a family of them.”

Olivia came to Sheffield in 2008 to study biomedical science at Sheffield University and ‘fell in love with the city’ - her older brother and sister have both since moved here, with only her eldest sister still in Leeds.

It was a tough decision to swap research for politics, she admits.

“Part of it is that I’m a bit more of a people person. A lot of it is hard slog in the lab, looking down a microscope, in the dark sometimes. I wanted to step away and focus on this full-time.”

But her political awakening came much earlier, aged 13, when the UK supported the US invasion of Iraq.

“I was very much against that, and I think everyone in my age group as young teenagers was really outraged. My local party stood against the national party.

“Labour lost a lot of members, but I wanted to make sure that I was able to contribute, because I felt the party was a lot broader than that and has such strong traditions.”

Then in 2010, the Coalition took power and Olivia saw ‘the way politics has a real, quick impact on people’s lives’.

“There were decisions being made about welfare, a tax on local government and, obviously, tuition fees. That was really when I became a proper activist.”

Her spell as an advisor opened her eyes to the scale of the challenge facing society around health and social care.

“The inequalities in health that we have in this city are stark and are something I’d want to focus on. I want everyone in the city to be healthier and live longer and more fulfilling lives.”

Her predecessor Bramall was also cabinet member for business and economy, acting as a cheerleader for regeneration, and Olivia wants to be an exponent of that cause too.

“I’m absolutely ready to champion the city and get more businesses starting here, coming here, and opportunities and skills for people to train.

“We try to sell ourselves as best as is possible but there should be, and will be, more opportunities coming up. I’m quite ambitious for Sheffield in the same way Leigh was.”

Olivia is a keen supporter of culture - she has been a trustee of Museums Sheffield - and is backing the bid to bring Channel 4’s headquarters to the city.

“That would be fantastic. We’ve got a great creative sector; I think C4 is a quirky outsider in terms of TV and would be quite at home here. I think we’ve got that kind of vibe.”

A ‘proud aunty of four’, Olivia lives in Upperthorpe, and her partner is Lewis Dagnall, Labour councillor for Gleadless Valley, who’s also a historian about to start a PhD in Sheffield.

They were together before becoming councillors, she points out, joking: “We do have a lot of arguments because my political views might differ from his.”

Whether these include her opinion on party leader Jeremy Corbyn is left unsaid.

“I support him 100 per cent. He’s managed to invigorate so many young people. Any engagement with politics is just fantastic.”

She makes the case that the cuts to local government - Sheffield has had to save £390m over the past seven years - were based on ideology alone.

“They were entirely politically motivated. All it’s meant is that the people of Sheffield have had to bear the brunt of a financial crisis that was not their fault.”

Olivia refuses to subscribe to the view that councils should ‘shrink and have less of a role’.

“We’re fundamentally against that. Sheffield deserves better. People don’t come into politics to make cuts. But I’d rather be here making the decisions than sitting back and doing nothing.”