Lib Dems chief pledges more power to the people

With less than a month to the local elections, Peter Kay meets the outspoken Sheffield politician aiming to radically change the way the city is run

The Liberal Democrats are pushing to take control of a city council on which Labour is currently the biggest party, but has no majority.

It's all very tight – and could remain so after the elections on May 1.

However, after six years leading the opposition, Paul Scriven clearly sees the prize within reach.

Read more: 'Council should own up to mistakes'

Not that he can be prompted into forecasting the shape of the new council.

"I have got a very clear rule as leader of the Liberal Democrats – never give predictions about the number of seats. That would show an arrogance and take for granted the views of the people of Sheffield.

"But this year does offer the chance for change. People are feeling very warm towards the Liberal Democrats and feel that Sheffield can go much further now that Labour is running out of steam. There is a positive feeling towards us across the city."

The powers and budgets of town hall may be tied down these days by central government, but Coun Scriven is busy working on an ambitious agenda.

One of his main criticisms of the current regime is that too many decisions are taken by councillors and officers in what he sees as isolation from public opinion.

"We are going to do away with the top down, 'We're not going to listen' culture with the dictats from the Town Hall. We are going to radically change the way the city is run, although people have got to bear with us. It's not going to happen overnight."

Maybe not, but Coun Scriven says he is determined to make changes within the first year, notably to devolve real power to communities.

The existing system of council area panels would be beefed up to allow local people to influence policies on issues such as parks, libraries and street cleaning. Panels would have their own budgets to allow them, for example, to decide whether libraries should open on Sundays or which part of the neighbourhood should be cleaned up. They could even employ their own community workforces.

Communities, not the town hall, should decide targets, which should have as much importance as those set by central government, argues the Lib Dem leader.

And he can argue very forcefully, so much so that his style has ruffled plenty of feathers at the Town Hall and elsewhere in recent years.

He clashed famously with former council chief executive Sir Bob Kerslake over the influence of council officers, which he believed was undermining the democratic process. Similarly, he has had run-ins with city centre regeneration companies Sheffield One and Creative Sheffield, again on the question of their democratic authority.

He makes no apology for his brunt approach.

"My style is to speak up for the ordinary citizen. At times that means ruffling the feathers of the great and good.

As a democratically elected councillor, that's my role, to say what ordinary people are saying.

"As leader of the council I would still shout up for Sheffield, but when things aren't at their best I would say so.

"I think the present administration has been too timid at a time when people have said: 'We want something better'."

Coun Scriven's political opponents – and he has plenty given that he has been selected to contest the Central constituency for the Lib Dems at the next general election – say his style is too confrontational.

He upsets too many people, they say. They question whether he could carry the support of the business community. And they claim he lacks vision.

"He fails to see the bigger picture," said one critic. "He's always into the minutiae. He can't see the wood for the trees. His style is aggressive yah-boo politics, and he finds it easier to make enemies than friends."

Coun Scriven insists he has a good relationship with the local business community, and points to his experience as a senior manager in the public and private sectors – he was once the youngest hospital manager in the country.

THIS time next month Sheffield could be pointing in a new political direction.

While criticising the influence of Sheffield's establishment of council and business leaders, he maintains that he would listen to what they have to say if he becomes leader. But crucially he envisages taking advice from a much wider circle, nationally and internationally, he says.

Such circles are a long way from the council estate in Huddersfield where he was brought up. Some of his contemporaries remained trapped in the deprivation, which, he says, continues to fuel his demand for social justice.

He is one of the many people who came to Sheffield through work and fell in love with the place and its people.

He lives in Hunters Bar with his partner of 13 years, a doctor in Derbyshire. "I'm not a gay politician, I'm a politician who happens to be gay."

Coun Scriven was elected to the council in Sheffield in 2000, during the Lib Dems' three-year regime and, at the age of 42, he is relishing the opportunity to make his own mark on Sheffield politics as leader of the controlling group.

Whether he makes it in May will depend on the outcome of voting in key seats such as Stocksbridge, Dore and Totley, Hillsborough, Gleadless Valley, Walkley, East Ecclesfield and Central.

If he does become council leader, he will be working alongside a new chief executive, with the appointment of a permanent successor to Sir Bob Kerslake on hold until after the elections.

Whatever happens, change is in the air, and Paul Scriven hopes to be in the thick of it.

"I am driven to get the best for the city and to ensure that people are empowered to get the best for their families. I am determined to change the way the city works and to put people in control of their lives."

The current composition of the council is: 41 Labour, 39 Lib Dem, two Greens, one Conservative, one Independent. .