A former housing officer who won his first council seat by 40 votes, Shabir Pandor is now Yorkshire’s newest council leader with the task of tackling stark inequality and saving local NHS services. Rob Parsons went to meet him.
Speaking to Shabir Pandor at his office in Huddersfield town centre, it’s hard not to be a little distracted by the writing and diagrams on the whiteboard behind him.
Council terminology, words and phrases, as well as an image that could be a potato but is actually an iceberg, are scattered across its surface in what he describes as a “brain dump” approach to problem-solving where he jots things down as soon as he thinks of them.
The technique is a product of his previous role as a housing project manager for Kirklees Council, the local authority he was elected to lead in May, but with a host of complicated issues facing the borough it’s one the 53-year-old continues to employ.
The iceberg relates to the ‘iceberg principle’, that for any given situation or problem only a small fraction of the relevant information is available or visible, with the rest harder to see. It’s an analogy that could easily be applied to perhaps Kirklees’ most pressing problem, that of where local residents receive urgent medical care in the face of the continued squeeze on NHS resources.
Earlier this year, controversial plans to demolish the local Huddersfield Royal Infirmary and replace it with a planned care unit, with services centralised at Calderdale Royal Hospital in Halifax, were dramatically thrown out by then-Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt.
Coun Pandor, a Labour councillor, last month joined forces with leaders from the council’s other parties to put forward a £300m plan for a new hospital serving Huddersfield and Dewsbury.
The solution would pave the way for the existing HRI to be saved in the short-term and receive extra investment, while keeping the emergency centres at Pinderfields Hospital in Wakefield and Calderdale Royal.
A decision now rests with Mr Hunt’s successor Matt Hancock, to agree the plan or an alternative from the NHS including 24/7 consultant-led A&E services at both Huddersfield and Halifax, as well as a third option presented by Calderdale Council.
Explaining the thinking behind the £300m figure Kirklees council put forward, Coun Pandor suggests this is a guideline as the final total will depend on which elements the Department of Health agrees.
But Yorkshire’s newest council leader says the proposal is about more than just the future of the hospital but health and social care services as a whole, including the GP practices whose “dilapidated” old buildings he says need more investment as well as community services and district nurses.
Describing the current configuration of the local NHS as “broken”, he says people want a solution “that doesn’t focus on organisations and structures and puts people and place first.”
He says: “I think it is a better proposal than what the NHS has put forward, the public have lost confidence in that. If there is no confidence, as local leaders we have to provide that confidence and reassurance and put in a plan, which we have done.”
A related concern is inequality across the borough, particularly in health where life expectancy varies by as much as a decade.
Coun Pandor says the disparities are to do with class and socio-economic background rather than ethnicity, adding: “I know a lot of Asian people who are mega rich and have very good lifestyles.”
Citing a recent report on the lack of progress made by leading universities in taking on students from poorer backgrounds, he suggests many are put off by debt and that vocational alternatives should be better promoted.
“The Government needs to let go of the skills agenda, it is still centralised and they should devolve it at local level. We see our local partners on a regular basis and they need to give us the resources to do the work.”
Elsewhere he says the council’s children’s services department, criticised last year by Ofsted for “serious and widespread failures”, is now improving and has fewer agency staff, with a director being recruited.
He hopes to build 10,000 homes in five years to tackle the borough’s severe housing shortage and plans to start re-investing in local town centres after years of austerity.
Raised in Batley in what he describes as a “very political” and “opinionated” family, Coun Pandor stood to be a councillor in Batley West in 2002 after being encouraged by his local MP, ultimately winning the seat by 40 votes.
“I campaigned hard and when you’re young, in your 30s, you just do things, it is more passion than logic, and that’s how I won, and that’s what keeps me going, my passion keeps me going, because if you start thinking too logically you can’t do anything.”
He adds: “You have to have a combination of a lot of things, but you have to have passion, if you have passion then everything falls into place. You have got to believe in the communities you are representing, you have got to believe in people and be a people person and you can’t shy away from putting your head above the parapet.
“As a leader you have to continue to do that, it’s what leadership is about, not always doing things that fit in nice little boxes. Now that we are coming out of the austerity programme you have got to find alternative solutions.
“As a leader you can’t just go on campaigning and jumping up and down, you’ve got to tell people what you would do and what your plans are.”