Wigan Council’s leader Lord Smith has sensationally quit after 27 years in charge at the town hall.
Shockwaves resounded through the region’s political scene today as the 72-year-old suddenly announced that he was calling time on the senior post.
The Leigh-based peer gave little away as far as his reasons for stepping down were concerned other than to say it was “time for the council to face up to new challenges with new thinking.”
However there had been rumours circulating of rifts within the local Labour Party in recent months with talk of a need for a fresh start.
But the decision still came as a surprise, especially as Lord Smith had only been re-elected to his Leigh West seat last week.
He will continue in his councillor role and to hold other senior positions in Greater Manchester.
A new leader is set to be chosen on Monday with Lord Smith’s long-time deputy Coun David Molyneux tipped as favourite.
Lord Smith has been the town hall’s senior councillor since 1991 and over the past three decades has gained a reputation as one of the most influential local authority chiefs in the UK.
Leading figures in local government today paid tribute to “an inspirational leader” and “the glue that held Greater Manchester together”.
The peer’s commitment and determination to improve Wigan borough has driven forward the transformation of the area from post-mining decline to a thriving and modern borough.
His leadership over many years on a regional stage through the Greater Manchester Combined Authority was key to delivering the devolution deal which saw Greater Manchester take control of powers and budgets from Whitehall in 2014.
Sir Howard Bernstein, the former long-serving chief executive of Manchester City Council and the GMCA, said: “Peter has been one of the most inspirational leaders to be found anywhere in local government and has been a force for good in Wigan and Greater Manchester. I will always be grateful to him for the support he has given me over many years.”
Peter Smith started his career in local government when elected as a Labour Party councillor to Leigh West in 1978. He gained his political reputation in the area of council finance, being finance committee chairman for nine years before taking over the top job from Coun Bernard Coyle.
His success as council leader led to many regional and national appointments throughout the 1980s and 1990s including chair of the North West Regional Assembly and vice-president of the Local Government Association.
In 1999 he was ennobled by Prime Minister Tony Blair in recognition of his work in local government.
As a big sports supporter (he is a Leigh Centurions fan), Lord Smith was determined to boost the health of local people and provide the best sports facilities in the borough. This led to the development of Leigh Sports Village, now the home of the Centurions.
His leadership also saw Wigan Council cope with some of the worst budget council cuts in its history in 2010 yet through Lord Smith taking a different approach the council improved services and increased resident satisfaction.
Branded as The Deal this approach has since been followed by councils across the country and has won numerous national awards.
Council chief executive Donna Hall said: “Peter Smith has been an incredible leader for Wigan borough. He is decisive, intelligent and always prepared to be courageous with a fierce dedication to improving the lives of our residents and we will miss him hugely.
“His determination to protect those on low incomes saw him commit to freezing council tax despite government funding to councils being drastically reduced.
Lord Smith will continue as a ward councillor, having just been re-elected to his seat, as well continue in his capacity as lead member for the Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership.
Lord Smith said: “I have thoroughly enjoyed my time as leader of the council and I’m proud to have made a difference to the borough and its people.
“Now is the time for the council to face up to new challenges with new thinking and I wish my successor well. I am particularly looking forward to spending more time with my supportive wife and family.
“I will continue with the important task of delivering a successful devolution of health and social care for Greater Manchester as well continuing to serve the people of Leigh West.”
Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester City Council, led the tributes.
Sir Richard said: “Peter Smith is an exceptional local government leader.
“In his period of office Wigan has been a consistently high performing council and through the Wigan Deal it has built a relationship with its citizens that is the envy of the local government world.
“Beyond that, for almost two decades he was the glue that held Greater Manchester together and without his leadership we would not have achieved a devolution deal with more decisions now being taken locally than anywhere else in England.”