Saturday Politics Interview: 'This is politics and it means change and things have to move on'
Former mayor of Kirklees and Dewsbury Labour stalwart Eric Firth, lost his council seat in the May local elections by just 71 votes. Alison Bellamy reports.
As we sit in a Polish cafe in the centre of Dewsbury, drinking ‘posh’ coffee on a drizzly afternoon, Eric Firth admits he was shell-shocked when the results from the May local elections were returned.
As one of the most publicly active councillors on Kirklees Council, who relished his role helping to regenerate the much maligned Dewsbury town centre, his reign was gone in one fell swoop.
The news came as a shock to many, including his Labour peers, council chiefs and the public, with his loss raising huge debate on social media.
“I think national events are the main cause of me losing. People are angry and rightly so; many told me they were not voting again, as their vote was not valued over Brexit. It’s a mess,” he says.
It is now seven weeks since the former Labour-Cooperative councillor lost his Dewsbury East seat, by those 71 votes.
The former shop steward at a carpet factory, was ousted by Independent candidate Alexs Lukic, who has pledged to ‘make Dewsbury better’.
Mr Lukic was chairman of the UKIP branch for Dewsbury, Batley and Spen, until he quit the party in 2017 and then decided to stand as an Independent.
He takes a breath, and I get the impression he is good at making a speech, as he says in his dulcet Dewsbury tones: “I don’t suppose I’ve done bad for a lad from the back to back houses, who went to school with holes in his shoes.”
He is not looking for sympathy by any means: “It’s a fact,” he beams, proud of his frugal Yorkshire upbringing, as he recalls playing out on the cobbles with his five siblings, in the Springfield area of Dewsbury.
His family home was demolished in the slum clearances. He lived where the gleaming new Dewsbury College now stands.
I ask him about a controversial housing development, which he voted in favour of, It will see hundreds of new homes built on a sprawling beauty spot of greenbelt land, at Chidswell, across Dewsbury and Batley.
The acres of open countryside running along Leeds Road have been the focus of campaigners for many years.
“This has been a difficult one, but it is better to be involved than not. They won on appeal. I was against it initially, but then changed my mind because at the time I felt ‘if we didn’t support it, then we couldn’t control it’, that is why I finally supported it,” he adds. “So we could shape the development and influence the design and infrastructure, as their proposals have still to go through the planning committee.
“We also have to realise that people do need homes, they are desperately needed.”
Mr Firth says it has been tough to suddenly drop commitments: “I was involved with so many projects and future plans, that it has been hard to suddenly let go. But this is politics and it means change and things have to move on. The vast majority of Dewsbury folk are brilliant.”
He also loses his position as Deputy Chair of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority Transport Committee: “I seem to be just as busy as ever and still involved in the regeneration of the town, which I am glad to say is finally coming together.
“Another annexe of Dewsbury College will open in the town centre Pioneer House in September. I have been for a walk around and it is amazing and wonderful to see this come to fruition,” adds Mr Firth.
“The Black Bull pub, which is being transformed by Mood Developments thanks to Heritage Lottery Funding, will soon be open; plus Frankie’s Burgers is being refurbished and the market re-developed. There is a lot happening.
“Dewsbury is not the poor relation to Huddersfield as people often claim. We are a much smaller town.
“Yes there are empty shops, but it is the same everywhere. The people who complain go shopping to the White Rose or Trafford Centre, but they need to use the town and the shops and make it work.
“The shops are small and the rates are too high. We need a tax break.”
Mr Firth is the new chairman of Dewsbury Forward, a working group which supports the Chamber of Trade with regeneration.
He is busy visiting businesses and looking ahead at changes to be implemented at the once thriving Dewsbury Market, which used to be a national destination for coach parties in years gone by.
In his new role as chairman, he becomes a “critical friend” of Kirklees Council, which he says he is enthusiastic about: “I know how the system works, I have contacts and feel I am passionate about Dewsbury and its welfare and future. Why would I walk way? There is so much in the pipeline still to do.”
He proudly tells me about his three grandchildren, including a young Eric Firth, aged seven: “Eric never stops talking. And Finley and Isla are brilliant too.
“Our granddaughter Isla had leukaemia and that was a really tough time for the family. She is a cheerleader now for Dewsbury Rams, and that is just great to see. They are all a delight.
He ponders when I ask about his political yearnings now: “Never say never, I might try again in four years time, but by then I will be 76.
“There is a woman in her 90s who won a seat recently, so you never know,” he says with a grimace.
Eric Firth's Memorable Moments
Eric Firth has served for 24 years on Kirklees Council, apart from the year May 2006-07, when the BNP gained their first ever seat in Dewsbury. He regained his seat in 2007.
He was asked to think about standing as the town’s MP when Labour’s Ann Taylor left in 2005, but says his wife would not have been happy.
Eric is pals with Eileen Fenton, the first woman to swim across the English Channel in 1950. The former teacher is now 91.
When he was Mayor in 2011-12 the former councillor co-wrote a recipe book with journalist Margaret Watson, to raise funds for the Forget Me Not Children’s Hospice.
He raised £130,00 for the charity during his mayoral year.