Kim Groves: PM's rail promise was positive but we need a real commitment to the North on transport
A mother-of-two with a wealth of life experience before entering local politics, Leeds councillor Kim Groves now has a key role in making the county’s transport system fit for the 21st century. Rob Parsons went to meet her.
Kim Groves didn’t have to look far for inspiration about a career in politics while growing up in inner-city South Leeds.
Brought up in a working class area with a local community activist as a mother, the names of the streets where she lived, Disraeli Street, named after the 19th century Tory Prime Minister and Gaitskell Walk, in honour of post-war Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell, were perhaps an indication of what was to come.
But despite now having a hugely influential role in the development of key services across West Yorkshire as the chair of the combined authority’s transport committee, the Leeds city councillor was late to enter local politics in an official capacity. Leaving school with few qualifications, she went to work with a mail order company, staying there for more than a decade before having her two children.
After a period bringing up her daughter and son, now aged 30 and 26 and both university graduates, she went into retail and worked her way up to sales manager and was employed at House of Fraser and Debenhams.
Eventually the opportunity to stand as a Labour councillor in her local ward of Middleton and Belle Isle came up in 2010.
With her son only aged 16, it was earlier than she had wanted, but she put herself forward and was duly elected.
The work is enjoyable but not always easy, as she acknowledges during her interview with The Yorkshire Post at the combined authority’s base in Leeds.
“You only have to look at my social media to know that it can be challenging,” she says, after being tagged into a post on Facebook about bins not being collected. “There is lots of need, you have to do the very best you can for them, you are not going to be able to solve everything.”
While being opinionated and frequently involved in local projects, she brought with her a wealth of life skills and experience.
“You can put yourself in a place when you can remember times when you were growing up, I can remember my dad coming out of the building trade, because it had gone under, going to Monk Bridge on nights, and still doing the very best for us, even though there were four of us, and how challenging those times were for our parents but we still felt loved and cared for.”
Continuing the theme she talks about the importance of social capital, the networks of relationships among people enabling society to function effectively. Not everyone comes from a loving family, she suggests, and society needs to give those people as much support as possible.
“I think life is quite fast paced, these days, it is quite intense with young people having to take exams at an early age. Children being in a world where it is all about technology, it can be challenging.”
The first woman to chair the West Yorkshire Combined Authority’s transport committee, the start of her time in that role coincided with the disastrous introduction of new timetables on the North’s railways which plunged services in her patch into disarray.
Meanwhile, the county’s privatised local bus services, by far the biggest mover of people in West Yorkshire, face challenging times with falling levels of patronage combined with diminishing budgets and council levies.
Since taking up the job, Coun Groves has made it her mission to get into the weeds of both rail and bus travel, setting up a rail operators’ forum to find out what was needed to grow their routes.
And although work is still ongoing on how services in both areas can be configured, she believes the heart of the problem is a continued lack of investment in the North.
Addressing the problem is all the more important given the impact transport has on a host of other areas, including work and skills, health, education, climate change and housing.
“People want a transport system that is reliable and affordable, it needs to work for them,” she says. “We need to open up the North so young people have more opportunities, they don’t have to think ‘this is where I am limited to’.
“We all know there has been a lack of investment in the railways in this country and you can’t believe you are having a conversation about HS2, Northern Powerhouse Rail, the Trans-Pennine Route Upgrade, when young people go to Europe and just say ‘it works so well over there, why haven’t we got to that space?’.”
Northern leaders hoping for a few more crumbs from Whitehall’s table were given a boost when Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke about the importance of infrastructure and promised to deliver the Manchester-Leeds leg of the high speed Northern Powerhouse Rail network. Coun Groves is cautious about getting too carried away given the historic lack of focus on the North at the expense of London, where Mr Johnson served as mayor.
“The words sounded positive, but there wasn’t the level of detail that I saw,” she said. “We need that level of detail, we need to know what they are committing to, the people of the North. I think fantastic, if that commitment is really to offer hope to the people of the North and they are really serious about re-balancing the economy.
“But let’s not shy away from it, it is going to be big investment, because it has been lacking for so many years.”
Active transport: It takes time for people to change their ways
Coun Groves says there has been a sea-change in West Yorkshire’s active travel, with cycling and walking routes springing up across the region and more than a million people using the local cycle super highways.
The task now is to inform people about where they are, she says, adding: “There are some fantastic ones. People don’t know what is on their own doorstep, including me.”
In the longer term, she wants to make towns and cities more accessible for walking and cycling to edge out the car.
“It takes time for people to change their ways,” she says. “If young people get into cycling at an early age and enjoy it you have more chance of them carrying that on.”