Three-year ‘revolution’ ends

Sheffield Local elections count at the English Institute of Sport, Attercliffe, Sheffield...... Paul Scriven Lib Dem leader of Council 'See Story Jeni Harvey  Picture Chris Lawton '05 May   2011
Sheffield Local elections count at the English Institute of Sport, Attercliffe, Sheffield...... Paul Scriven Lib Dem leader of Council 'See Story Jeni Harvey Picture Chris Lawton '05 May 2011

OVER the past three years, Paul Scriven has dominated Sheffield politics.

As the Liberal Democrat leader of the council, he has been at the heart of every debate, controversy or issue.

From community matters to multi-million pound budgets, negotiations with central government to a business delegation to China, the voice of Paul Scriven could always be heard.

It has been an exceptionally high-profile leadership – to the irritation of critics inside and outside the town hall, who say he is confrontational and domineering.

From the start, council staff were firmly reminded of their role as public servants. Highways officers, for example, were criticised publicly when they presented what were regarded as unnecessary obstacles. Early on, it was made clear to headteachers that they had to make the grade or be prepared to leave the job.

A town hall revolution was promised.

Coun Scriven always said he took his cue from the people who voted his party into office. It was a “listening” council. And there is little doubt that he was extremely astute at picking up on public opinion.

Under one initiative, if there was a road scheme that drove residents crazy, they should let the council know and, if at all possible, it would be changed.

He was a Lib Dem politician with an instinct for heeding the grass roots – one of the themes of the past three years was the increasing importance of community assemblies – and one who led from the front with an unswerving degree of conviction.

He was committed to untangling the red tape to get the job done – a breath of fresh air, said his supporters.

His enemies thought he wielded too much personal influence and were often infuriated by what they saw as his constant eye to make political and populist points.

Now, in the wake of the return of a Labour council, he is stepping down as Lib Dem leader after nine years, the last three as leader of the council.

“I have thought long and hard about this decision but I think that after nearly a decade, it’s time to move on and pass the baton to someone else. I want to be able to pursue other interests and it’s also time for my partner, family and friends to come first.

“My decision has been made easier knowing that amongst my colleagues there are a number who would make an excellent leader of the Liberal Democrat group and continue to fight for Sheffield.

“I am still totally committed to continue serving the people of Broomhill as their councillor, to Sheffield and to the Liberal Democrats both locally and nationally.”

Coun Scriven, aged 45, is from Huddersfield and came to Sheffield in 1998. The first openly gay leader of the council, he lives with his partner in Hunters Bar.

Before entering politics, he was a senior manager in the NHS, helped to set up a division of a plc working with the NHS, and he ran his own travel company to South East Asia. He maintained that it was his managerial experiences that helped him get to grips with improving council efficiency against a backdrop of smaller budgets.

His decision to stand down was accompanied by a list of ‘achievements’ – an improvement in education results a doubling of the number of parks and green spaces with ‘Green Flag’ status, more than 13,000 homes with free insulation and a vastly improved kerbside recycling service.

Sheffield had gone from being the worst place to do business in South Yorkshire to the best, helping to generate thousands of new jobs, it was claimed.

It had also avoided the decimation of council services and jobs seen in some Labour authorities – a rallying cry endorsed by Deputy Prime Minister and Hallam MP Nick Clegg, who was being widely blamed for the Lib Dems’ poor performance across the country.

This time last year, Coun Scriven was very close to becoming MP for Sheffield Central, losing by 165 votes to Labour.

His parliamentary ambitions thwarted, he is now no longer leader of the council and he is considering “a couple of options” over what to do next while continuing to represent Broomhill. He has denied there is a seat waiting in the House of Lords.

Typically, though, Coun Scriven was not going without making a point or two.

“I love the city of Sheffield which I have come to adopt as my home,” he said. “As the son of a dustbin man from an estate in Huddersfield, it is hard to believe that I had the honour of serving this great city as the leader of the Sheffield Liberal Democrats for nearly a decade and of the council for a wonderful three years.

“I will be forever grateful to the people of Sheffield for giving me the opportunity. I know, like many in the city do, that the Liberal Democrats hand Sheffield on to Labour as a city that is much stronger, more confident and better place to live, work, invest, study and visit than it was three years ago.”

The Paul Scriven era is over, and it looks as though former cabinet colleagues Shaffaq Mohammed and Colin Ross and possibly Andrew Sangar and Ian Auckland will compete in a ballot of the opposition group on Monday night.

Candidates will have just three minutes to sell themselves to fellow councillors before a vote is carried out using a system of proportional representation similar to AV.

Whoever is chosen will have the job of replacing a big political character.