by Aliraza Manji
Gair Rhydd spoke to Huw Thomas, Leader of the Council and the Cardiff Labour Group. Councillor Thomas was elected as Leader of the Council in May 2017 and has served as a Labour councillor for Splott since 2012. During his time in office, he has worked in the Cabinet as the member for Culture and Sport and has since worked in the Cabinet pushing through various reforms ranging from education to new house-building projects and currently, his transport and environment changes.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself before you became a councillor?
My career path is not to be recommended. I got a degree in music and then I did a Master’s in International Politics. Then I worked for Airbus for four years – that is what brought me down to South Wales as it was based in Newport. I’m a project manager by vocation and spent three years working as a project manager for Sustrans, a transport charity. I first got elected as a councillor in 2012 for the ward of Splott which is where I have lived for the last 12 years. In the 2012 local elections, there was a huge turnover in seats with Labour going from 14 seats to 46 seats. So, I went straight to the Cabinet on day two of being elected looking after culture and sport. I carried on working professionally, I was head of Christian Aid in Wales for a number of years and after the last local government election in 2017 I became the leader in Cardiff and you do not turn the capital city of Wales down.
What enticed you about being a councillor and getting involved in local politics?
I’ve always been interested in politics back to when I was in school and I guess I saw it as a way of making a difference and achieving a change. My take on this country and this world is that it is too unequal and in my life, I want to do something about that. Politics seemed to be a good way of doing something about that and actually, local government is the coalface you are dealing with real people and real issues every day of the week. I’ve had people come around to my house since becoming a councillor needing some assistance. I saw it as a really good opportunity to gain experience and help people around me; the community that I lived in. That is why I put my name forward and was lucky enough to be selected by the Labour Party and elected by the people of Splott.
You’ve represented your ward of Splott since 2012. What is it about this role that you enjoy most of all?
As a local Councillor, there is a huge amount of variety. You do not know what issues you will be dealing with from one week to the next. You are very much on the coalface; so, the issues are immediate, people are ringing you. Myself and two ward colleagues in Splott we hold three surgeries a month; we live in the community; our mobile phones and addresses are on the public domain so we are in a lot of contact. An area like Splott is probably the biggest single area of deprivation in Wales and there are some really challenging issues; we deal with issues of housing, poverty and people unable to get work.
There is a frustration because sometimes I am unable to help simply because of the way the system is designed and particularly, now we are into the tenth year of public-sector austerity. The funding that councils have to make a difference ten years ago does not exist anymore.
You were elected Leader of the Council in May 2017. As a councillor and leader what has been your greatest achievement to date?
How long have you got? There are a number of things that I am really proud off and there a number of things that are a work in process and I am looking forward to seeing through. I’ll start with education: we are in the process of delivering the single biggest investment into our schools that this city has ever seen; a figure of about £450,000,000 is what we are committing into education in the city. I talked earlier about seeing the country as too unequal, well I think the shortest way out of poverty is a good education, that’s why we are spending millions on raising the standards of education in the city and we want to make sure that every school is a good school. So, we will have more green-rated schools in Cardiff now than there ever have been.
That is what I am most proud of, but there is so much more going on. We have a program to build council houses. It is the first time we have built council houses on this scale since the 1980s. By 2022, we will have delivered over 1,000 council homes to people in Cardiff with a plan for a 1,000 after that. There are the changes we are bringing into the transport system with the first cycleway that this city has ever seen. We have our events program we held the Champions League Final in 2017, for a city the size of Cardiff; that is remarkable!
Why is local democracy still important?
You cannot get more local for decision making than local government. When a library closes, or a leisure centre closes, it is the local council that locks the door. You are dealing with issues that fundamentally affect quality of life. Things that people enjoy. It is an unappreciated fact that so much of what concerns people is delivered by local government. You’ll hear MPs and AMs talk and engage on those issues, but actually, it is local government delivering those services. I think it is fundamentally important for people to have a say in how those services that matter the most to them are delivered. That is why local democracy is so important.
There are a number of pressing issues which Cardiff Council is looking into, namely the transport white paper entitled “Vision to 2030”. What are your thoughts on this white paper? Do you believe that it can feasibly be achieved in the £2bn strategy laid out?
I think it is deliverable. We would not have put it forward if it was not, but it hinges on partnership working; it hinges on frank, honest conversation with the Welsh Government, with partners in neighbouring authorities as well and with the public. Cardiff has not had a transport vision of this scale and we see the effect of that in the gridlock, we see it in our streets, the poor air quality and the fact that public transport is not up to scratch.
What we have put forward in this transport vision is a plan to transform it. It involves building a Cardiff Crossrail stretching from the North West corner of the city through the city centre down into the docks and out eastwards towards Newport. It involves linking up the Circle Line and the City Line with a connection in Radyr. It aims to increase the frequency of train services, building new train stations as well. A new network of bus routes looking to provide cheaper bus alternatives as well, completing the network of cycle highways which we are in the process of building now. The key to delivery will be funding. One of the things which made the headlines when announced was the idea of a “congestion charge”, we are not wedded to the congestion charge necessarily, but it is one of the options we have to look at in order to fund a programme that is going to cost between one and two billion.
According to the Council, one of the reasons for proposing this white paper is to deal with the climate emergency. According to the EU standards, Cardiff is listed on a level about to exceed climate targets so what can be done to deal with the climate emergency in Cardiff?
It is more serious than that. Cardiff declared a climate emergency last March and I was very keen when we did that. It was not simply a declaration we had to have conversations as a Council about what we will do about it. I am expecting in April to be publishing a “One Planet Cardiff” strategy which draws in everything the Council is and will do to tackle climate change and then sets a number of broader themes where we need the support of the public at large, businesses and organisations in the city to respond with the aim of becoming a carbon-neutral city over the course of the next decade.
What are your thoughts on the UCU strikes and should students be compensated for any teaching time lost?
No one goes on strike because they want to go on strike. They go on strike because they’re on the end of their tether in terms of the issue they’re calling for. My solidarity is with those people on strike. I have a great deal of sympathy for those students who have also missed out on teaching. I would ask that Cardiff University and the others engage with the issues that UCU are raising because that’s the quickest way you can get people back in the classroom teaching.
On a broader point where we’ve ended up with the marketisation of further education, I think is a real issue. I was fortunate to study music, now that was 15 years ago. I’m not sure I would confidently be making that decision if I was 17/18 now and thinking of studying a music degree and paying £9,000 a year for the privilege, even if I could afford it. I think that’s a loss because what it means is that, particularly with a humanities degree, there are only people who can afford it and who are confident of a career path that they are going into. The marketisation of higher education, I think needs to be reversed, if not this government than a future government.
“My solidarity is with those people on strike. I have a great deal of sympathy for those students who have also missed out on teaching.”
Should student landlords be held more accountable? What actions have the Cardiff Council taken in combatting this issue?
Absolutely, they should be held more accountable and there are a series of council departments that can assist in this, particularly private sector housing if your accommodation is substandard, I would encourage you to get in touch with the council and we’ll try and work with you to address those issues. I know that the local councillors who represent, in particular, Cathays and Plasnewydd deal with student issues daily so they understand these issues very well and are very effective at helping them. Contact details for all those individuals are also on the council website, but that comes back to why local democracy is important because you are electing the people who work on your behalf to sort these issues out.
In the near future, what would you like to see being implemented in Cardiff or are there any new proposals in the works?
What I’d like to start with is enabling Cardiff Council to deliver more of its agenda and that comes down to fiscal powers. For me to deliver everything I want to do I need more control over the money coming into the city.
We do have some really exciting projects in the pipeline, we’re going to build an indoor arena down in Cardiff Bay which will fit around 2000 capacity, comparable to what they have in Manchester and Glasgow to attract some of the best music artists in the world to Cardiff. We’re going to complete the building of the bus station which has been a running sore on the city for far too long but we’re also going to invest with the Welsh Government, with Network Rail into Cardiff Central train station. Those are kind of the big headline projects I guess that I want to get underway in the next few years alongside, what I’ve mentioned before, the big school building projects and council housing.
For you, what is the priority for the Council? If there was one item on the agenda to tackle?
I do not think you can boil it down like that you see because there are so many different aspects that affect people’s lives and affect their lives in different ways. I’ve mentioned schools and I think that is a fundamental priority that you have to get right if you are going to change society, but actually, one-sixth of Cardiff Council’s budget is spent on social care, now if you’re not an old person or have older relatives in Cardiff you may not have a conception of how that work goes on but let me tell you for those people who receive social care from us it is an absolute lifeline. So, I don’t think you can prioritise in that regard, we deliver 750 services as a council which just shows the scale and complexity of the organisation and I think in their own unique way they’re all important.
What are your thoughts on Labour’s general election campaign? Why did Labour end up on a worse note than when it started?
I guess I can only share my own experience, which was predominantly canvassing in Cardiff. Now Cardiff is not representative of Wales, 60% of Cardiff voted Remain in the referendum vote. There was a significant degree of concern that I picked up about our position over Brexit, there was also, I’m sorry to say, a real concern over the leadership and now that clearly had been coloured by four years of media portrayal of Jeremy Corbyn but that was an image we couldn’t get away from. People would say, given the choice, between Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson they would choose Boris Johnson and I think that hurt us as well.
Do you think that was one of the reasons why Cardiff North stayed red because there was a massive campaign from the Conservatives to turn that seat blue?
I think that was a bright light on a dark night I have to say, the result in Cardiff North where Labour actually increased its majority. I think so much of that is testament to Anna McMorrin, the Labour MP who’s been steadfast in her support for the Remain cause in particular and has been known to be pro-remain despite the uncertainty about the broader Labour position. I think that galvanised not just the Labour voters but also voters of perhaps the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru who were afraid what would be unlocked by a Tory Brexit if a Tory took that seat which led to some support as well. I think that’s how we held and increased our majority in that seat.
Do you have any future ambitions, do you think about entering Parliament or the Welsh Assembly at some point?
I do get asked this quite a lot and on one level I find it an annoying question because I do think there is so much to deliver in local Government, I genuinely think being leader in Cardiff Council is one of the best roles in Wales in terms of the scope and your ability to affect change. I’m never going to say never to anything and as I said, I want to bring about positive change over the course of my career but for the time being, I’m incredibly happy and incredibly passionate and committed to delivering what is a really exciting agenda in Cardiff.
What do you get up to in your spare time?
I don’t have much spare time anymore, I’m afraid. I normally spend my time knocking doors for the Labour Party. I like to get outside, I like to get on my bike and ride in the hills and climb. Give me a map and a compass, get lost and have a great time. I’ve recently become a father for the first time back in August. That is now what my free time is made up of. He is adorable but restless, especially at night.
In the spirit of unity, can you name an example of when you had to work with an opposition councillor and why?
Yes, one of the features of local government, kind of reflecting select committees in Parliament, is scrutiny committees and these are done on a cross-party basis. So, before I became leader I sat on a select committee with Conservatives, with Liberal Democrats and you’re scrutinising the policies the administration is putting forward. I did that for a number of years, enjoyed it and it worked well.
I think actually there are really good, strong, interpersonal relationships between lots of councillors from different parties and I think there is so much negativity now in discourse. It’s almost like you have to hate people from other parties and if not then you’re maybe too close to them and I don’t accept that. I’ve met both Conservative and Liberal Democrats that I would go have a drink with down the pub after the council meeting. There are examples but I’m also very passionate about delivering our Labour agenda for the people of Cardiff and if they try to stop that, then I’ll drive it through.