New Sunderland City Council boss tells of plan for future
'˜A city does not stand still'.
Neither does politics, as demonstrated by the fact the man who made that statement has become the third leader of Sunderland City Council in less than a year.
Graeme Miller was officially voted into the top job by his fellow councillors at last week’s (Wednesday, May 16) annual meeting of the council.
The Scot replaced Harry Trueman, who had himself stepped into the breach left by the death of previous leader Paul Watson, aged 63, in November.
His appointment came just weeks after Coun Trueman had overseen the loss of four councillors on a disappointing night for the Labour Party at local elections on May 3.
Just two days later, at the Sunderland Labour group’s annual meeting, Coun Miller challenged for and won the right to the top job.
Asked why he thought he was a better option to lead the party and the council, he said: “I wouldn’t say better is the correct word, I don’t think that’s fair to Harry – I’m not Harry, Harry’s not me.
“I was promoting that we needed to change more than my opponent.
“The group is younger than it as, I’m younger than Harry and I think there was a need for the group to go in a slightly different direction.
“I think that resonated with the group because I won.”
Two issues seemed to be particularly important for voters – the state of the city’s children’s services and the future of the Vaux site.
A damning 2015 Ofsted inspection saw the council relieved of responsibility for children’s services.
But it still maintains significant influence over the former brewery site, although work has ground to a halt since the collapse of construction giant Carillion.
However, Coun Miller says he wants to take direction from the public for what should be built there.
“I want to see activity on the Vaux site, he said, ”I want more buildings on it, but it comes down to what the people of Sunderland want.
“We could have more businesses, retail, a concert venue.
“We could even put a new council building on there.”
One possible use could have been a new headquarters for national broadcaster Channel 4, but Sunderland has not followed the lead of Newcastle in submitting its own bid for the contract.
Coun Miller has inherited a council which, although Labour still maintains an iron grip, is facing increased pressure from opposition parties.
On May 3, the red share of the vote in the city fell to 47 per cent, down from 54 when voters last went to the polls in 2016.
This translated into a good night for the Conservatives, who gained two new councillors, and a better one for the Liberal Democrats, who added three – although one of them, Sandhill ward’s Lynn Appleby, is currently sitting without a party following an investigation into offensive social media posts.
But the new leader claims he isn’t overly concerned by the results, or even that it was a significant factor in his bid for the top job.
“I got no feedback from the group that that was a big thing,” he said, “we had a bad night, but you can’t consistently sustain 65 councillors out of 75.
“You fall out with residents, you lose councillors, you get them back.
“You have to accept that you will lose councillors, it’s disappointing when it happens but you then have to refocus on those areas.”
He says he sees those councillors as key to the party’s strength in the city, ‘keeping primary schools open and getting bins emptied’, as he puts it.
And asked how he will judge whether he is a success in his new role, he added: “That would be measured by our satisfactions surveys showing people are happy with our parks, streets and schools.
“Politically, it would be measured by us maintaining control of the city.”
James Harrison , Local Democracy Reporting Service