Lord Peter Smith's journey from Leigh to the helm of Wigan Council and a seat in the House of Lords

From Leigh to the House of Lords, Peter Smith dedicated decades of his life to politics and making a difference.

Wednesday, 4th August 2021, 9:06 am
Lord Peter Smith

He was born in Leigh in 1945, the second son of a draughtsman and medical secretary, and attended Butts CE Primary School.

At the age of 11 he won a scholarship to go to Bolton School, following his brother Robin.

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His school reports described him as “an able boy of distinct and intense individuality. Possibly inclined to think with his heart and let emotion strongly influence reason".

He joined the Labour Party in 1964 and graduated in economics and politics from the London School of Economics in 1967.

He married Joy in 1968 and after securing a PGCE, he took his first teaching job in the east end of London.

The couple later moved back to the North and settled in Leigh where their daughter Anna, now a successful artist, was born in 1983.

Lord Smith was inspired to enter politics after visiting a “house-proud widow who was being forced to use buckets to catch the rain coming through the roof that her landlord refused to repair.”

He stood for a council seat in 1976 but lost and in 1978 he won by a single vote. That single vote led to an illustrious political career.

He gained his political reputation in council finance, moving from chairman of the finance committee for nine years into council leader.

Lord Smith was committed to transforming Wigan from post-mining decline to a thriving and modern borough.

His success as council leader led to many regional and national appointments throughout the 1980s and 1990s, including as chairman of the North West Regional Assembly and vice-president of the Local Government Association.

His leadership over many years on a regional stage through AGMA and the Greater Manchester Combined Authority were key to delivering the devolution deal which saw Greater Manchester take control of powers and budgets from Whitehall in 2014.

He recognised early that boroughs could not work in isolation and championed wider co-operation on issues such as transport and health.

Although the congestion charge referendum in 2008 was lost, his views on integrated green transport meant he and the wider team secured funding to improve transport links and deliver services such as Leigh Guided Busway.

In 1999 he was made Lord Smith of Leigh in recognition of his work in local government. Though he initially debated whether to accept the elevation due to his socialist principles, he realised that a seat in the House of Lords would allow him to further the causes of the people of Wigan, the North West and wider local government.

As a big sports fan and supporter of Leigh Centurions, Lord Smith was determined to boost the health of local people and provide the very best sports facilities in the borough.

This led to the development of Leigh Sports Village, now the home of Leigh Centurions and Manchester United Women’s Team, which was officially opened by the Queen in May 2009.

He was part of the team which secured the rugby world cup 2021 and women’s Euros 2022 for Leigh.

Other high-profile projects achieved in his tenure include the building of the DW Stadium, the home of Wigan Athletic and Wigan Warriors, at Robin Park.

His passion for health and well-being saw him lead the work on health devolution on a Greater Manchester level, as well as in Wigan borough.

He was chairman of the Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership board, taking the lead on bringing health and social care services across the city-region closer together to improve health and ensure the vulnerable and elderly get the best care.

A former board member and chairman of Manchester Airport, his retention of airport shares for Wigan Council is now resulting in millions of pounds of annual dividends to support investment in communities.

His leadership also saw Wigan Council cope with some of the worst budget council cuts in its history in 2010. It led to the creation of The Deal, an approach which has since been followed by councils across the country and in Europe, and has won numerous national awards.

In 2019 Lord Smith won the prestigious LGiU Lifetime Achievement Award for his commitment and determination in seeing through the improvement in Wigan and helping to transform it into a modern borough.

Even after stepping down as leader of the council, Lord Smith continued to serve as ward councillor for Leigh West, a position he held for 43 years.

As a proud Leyther, he was committed to improving the lives of people in the town. He was keen to ensure the east of the borough had its fair share of funding, including the £5m Believe In Leigh fund to improve the town centre and provide more facilities for young people.

He also continued has work as lead member for the Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership.

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