Chapter 04: The Sad Tale of Ronnie Farley

Submitted by R Totale on April 30, 2020

The 1986 council election result was an unprecedented disaster for Bradford's Tories and Tory leader Ronnie Farley in particular. Even the best efforts of Eric Pickles, by now Farley's deputy, in bringing up the government's Big Guns to bolster the campaign had failed miserably.

For Ronnie Farley the defeat seemed to mark the end of his political career and paved the way for the rise of Eric Pickles.

Ronald Malcolm Farley was born on September 14th 1946. He was the youngest of 3 brothers; John was then 8 years old and Derrik, the eldest, 2 years older.

Ronnie was born into a family of mixed political pedigree. His grandfather had been a founder member of the Independent Labour Party in Bradford - the forerunner to the present Labour party. But Ronnie's father Sydney and mother Wyn were involved in Clayton Tory circles and Ronnie would eventually follow suit.

Ronnie lived at the Farley's family home in Clayton until his marriage. He attended Clayton Church school, then Grange Grammar which he left aged 16 with a modest 5 '0' levels. After toying with the idea of becoming a vet, he eventually followed his father and brother John into the family accountancy business Charles Buckle & Co. and qualified in 1967.

At that time Ronnie had little interest in politics. He was an active sportsman and put most of his energy into having a good time. He joined the Junior Chamber of Commerce and became known for organising "wild" fund raising events. He also showed his talent for public speaking, always laced with humour, which would ultimately establish him as one of the best performers on the council.

On May 17th 1971, Ronnie married Pamela Susan Haigh at Clayton Parish church and they set up home together at Wilmer Drive, Bradford. In 1983 they moved to Yew Tree Farm in Allerton, set in glorious open countryside high above Bradford. The couple have no children.

Ronnie made a good living from accountancy. His clients included the local Working Men's Clubs where he liked to drink and joke with the regulars. He also put his accountancy skills to work in business.

In 1973 he set up an Insurance brokers - Trevor Richmond & Associates - with his brother John and 2 others. This spawned a subsidiary - Castle Pension Advisors Ltd.

He also went into business with brother Derrik. Derrik had established a growing industrial business in Shipley called Pneumatic (AE) Ltd. that spawned 3 subsidiaries. Ronnie joined the board of directors on each. One of the companies - PACE Ltd. - was quickly to grow into the most profitable of the group and become significant later.

Until his early 30's Ronnie had avoided politics, but in May 1980 he stood as Tory candidate for the marginal Clayton ward and was elected.

Also elected on that same day for Labour was Phil Beeley. Beeley was soon to become leader of the Labour group and a close personal friend of Ronnie Farley. The 2 men and their wives would often spend nights out together and evenings at each other's homes.

Ronnie Farley was a popular character amongst councillors of all parties. He was very much cast in the traditional Bradford "consensus" mould that had been set following local government reorganisation in 1974. The reorganisation had expanded the inner city of Bradford into a metropolitan district, pulling in the surrounding rural "posher" areas. Since 1974 Labour's domination of the inner city had been matched by the influx of Tory councillors from outlying districts, giving a more or less evenly balanced political complexion to the council chamber. This had made Bradford unique in recent times as the only northern city where the Tories could expect to hold power.

The 1980 elections were unusual in that all council seats were up for grabs at once, as opposed to the usual 4 yearly cycle where only a third of the seats are contested in any one year.

The result put Labour in overall control for the first time since 1974. This had disillusioned the ageing Tory leadership, so Farley got together with other younger members of the Tory group to organise the Tory fightback. Chief amongst his allies were 2 rising stars; Eric Pickles and Peter Gilmour.

Peter Gilmour was the youngest of the trio although held been on the council longest. He had been elected for Keighley in 1976 becoming the youngest member at 21 years of age.

In many other respects he'd followed in the shadow of Eric Pickles. Gilmour had also attended Greenhead Grammar school and later became active in the Young Conservatives. In 1979 he was senior Vice Chairman of the Yorkshire Young Conservatives and in 1980 was elected president of Keighley Y.C.'s. He was also elected on to the Tory Party National Executive Committee alongside Pickles.

At that time he was working for a firm of Keighley estate agents, but later went to Bradford College as a student, followed by a period of unemployment when he put all his energies into full time council work.

Gilmour and Pickles were both confirmed "wets" and became close personal friends.

By 1982 when the Tories retook control of a "hung" council, the trio were firmly in the driving seat. Pickles was chair of Social Services, Gilmour in charge of Education and Ronnie Farley in control of the powerful Management Committee.

By 1984 Ronnie Farley had replaced the aged Tom Hall as leader of the Tory group and leader of the council. It had been a meteoric rise and reflected his skills as both a speaker and popular mediator.

With Farley in charge there seemed little cause to "rock the boat". He was well placed in a council dominated by rising young stars on both sides of the chamber.

Ronnie liked to be seen as "one of the lads". He had earned the title "Bonking Ron" due to the many sordid stories of his sexual antics. Most of the lurid yarns had, of course, emanated from Ronnie himself, who loved to entertain anyone who would listen with tales of his exploits, and there were plenty of women around who could at least confirm his "approaches". Pride of place on his City Hall office was given to a pair of frilly pink knickers - a momento of his encounter with the Sheffield Ladies Junior Chamber of Commerce. He topped the image by driving a sleek white Porsche.

With his close pal Phil Beeley in charge of the Labour group, the council seemed set on it's usual course of consensus with the Tory leadership leaning clearly to the "liberal" left of Conservative politics. It was a Tory philosophy that was now at odds with the national party under the radical rightwing leadership of Margaret Thatcher. This conflict was soon to become apparent.

Farley's first national Tory party conference as council leader almost ended in disaster. It was the year that the Provisional I.R.A. pulled off their most daring attack by blowing up the Grand Hotel in Brighton, in an attempt to assassinate Thatcher and her cabinet.

The attack came late at night at the end of the conference.

Ronnie Farley and other Yorkshire delegates had just returned from the Tory Ball for a celebration drink. They gathered at the back of the foyer in the Grand with a bottle of champagne when the building was devastated by the explosion.

Farley was later hailed a "hero" as he calmly led his colleagues from the shattered building.

Amongst the Bradford delegation were a number of those who would later join Pickles' "core" group, including Phyllis Pettit, Richard Wightman, Margaret Eaton and David Heseltine.

Back in Bradford it was business as usual. The extent to which consensus politics served the interests of councillors like Farley can be judged from a remarkable business deal that was sealed in secret.

Packaged Air Conditioning Equipment Ltd. (PACE) had been set up in 1971 through the offices of Ronnie's accountancy firm. It was a wholly owned subsidiary of brother Derrik's Pneumatic (AE) Ltd. and Ronnie joined the board of directors. PACE produced commercial and industrial air conditioning equipment and quickly grew to be the largest company in the group. Amongst PACE's clients was Bradford council.

In early 1984 PACE entered negotiations with I.M.I. Radiators to buy premises in Shipley for PACE's much needed expansion programme. But finance for the deal was a problem. Consequently, in early September PACE applied to Bradford council for a £175,000 loan under the council's "Loans to Industry" scheme. But Bradford council had little money to spare. Later that month the director of Finance Derek Holmes (later Chief Executive) reported;

"The council currently operates a Loans to Industry scheme which due to government restrictions on capital expenditure, is now running short of funds. A recent announcement by the Secretary of State for the Environment points to matters getting worse and a complete moratorium on new capital expenditure cannot be ruled out."

PACE's bid seemed certain to fail. Ordered to find a way round this shortage of money, Derek Holmes devised a "Loan Guarantee" scheme, very similar to the original scheme except that the council didn't have to physically put up any money. The cash would be loaned by a third party and the council guaranteed to repay the loan if anything went wrong.

But, of course, no private body would loan money on the same favourable terms as the council - with low rates of interest and long repayment periods. The third party financiers would be County council ratepayers.

The 2 funding bodies to operate the scheme in partnership with Bradford council were the West Yorkshire Enterprise Board and it's subsidiary White Rose Investments - both set up and run by West Yorkshire County council. In January 1985 Bradford council's Economic Development sub-committee approved PACE's application and guaranteed the company a £175,000 loan from White Rose Investments.

Senior council officers knew that their leader Ronnie Farley was a director of PACE. They were aware that the deal might give rise to public concern. A report to White Rose Investments states;

"This is the second mortgage guarantee case in co-operation with the City of Bradford and a leading Member of the council has a substantial involvement in the company. In the light of this fact Bradford have been very concerned that no question of undue influence or favouritism could arise."

One way of making sure that no questions from the public were raised was to conduct the whole deal in secret.

When PACE's application came before the council subcommittee in January, the press and public were excluded. It was approved behind closed doors. Details of the scheme were classified "Permanently restricted - not for public disclosure". No public record of the deal exists today.

As with all such applications, the name of the company was not revealed to councillors on the committee - it was identified only by an initial. Similarly, although councillors were informed that a member had an interest in the company, Farley was not identified by name and the nature of his interest was not disclosed.

Ronnie Farley had declared his directorship of PACE on the councils' register of interests, so legally he was in the clear. He didn't sit on the sub-committee which approved the deal, but the committee was Tory controlled and before each meeting the Tory group, led by Farley, met in private to decide its approach to items on the agenda.

In March 1988, as details of the deal first began to filter into the public domain, Derrik Farley announced that PACE Ltd. had been sold for a cool £1 million. The loan, guaranteed by Bradford council, which had led to this jackpot, had not been repaid and the debt passed to new owners The Baxi Partnership.

As the Pace deal was being secretly signed, Ronnie Farley began fighting a public court battle against the government. The Department of the Environment had set Bradford's Rate Support Grant at a figure £4 million short of Bradford's own calculations.

As Ronnie set off to attend his second Tory party conference as council leader, the Court of Appeal announced it's final decision in Bradford councils' favour. It was a decision that delighted Bradford councillors, but the government was not amused and Farley was told so in no uncertain terms.

The Bradford group's handling of the Honeyford affair was also raising government displeasure. Farley was rapidly falling from favour.

Things went from bad to worse. Farley led Bradford's Tories into the 1986 local elections with disastrous results. He now found himself isolated both nationally and locally.

Soon after the election defeat Eric Pickles and his cabal of close friends on the Tory benches began formulating their secret radical plans for the council. Ronnie was not a member of the group.

Although maintaining a friendly "front", it is well known that Farley and Pickles were privately at odds by now. Ronnie no longer trusted Pickles. Farley was coming under increasing pressure from his brother John, who felt their business was suffering. The strain of leadership was also beginning to tell, but with Pickles now elected as his deputy Farley hung on.

For Ronnie Farley the final humiliation came at the 1986 Tory party conference. He turned up to address a conference "fringe" meeting on the subject of "freedom of information". He stood before a hall filled with empty chairs. Not a single delegate had turned up to hear him.

It was now clear to Ronnie that he would have to resign as leader, but the thought of Pickles taking over haunted him. Ronnie tried to have Pickles' background checked out, to see if there were any "skeletons" in the cupboard. But even with his many influential contacts he was unable to penetrate the secrecy that surrounded his podgy rival.

Unable to stall any longer, Ronnie finally resigned in January 1987. The following month Pickles was elected as leader of the Tory group in Farley's place.

But Pickles was fully aware that a man like Farley set free on the back benches would be a constant threat. He therefore shrewdly offered Farley a front bench job.

Ronnie Farley was down but not out. He had significant advantages of his rival - he was still a universally popular character on the Tory benches, Pickles was not.

For Ronnie it was to become a waiting game. Convinced that the Pickles bubble would eventually burst, Ronnie was none the less content to let Pickles carry through the unpleasant tasks that even he was prepared to accept were necessary. When Pickles finally moved on Ronnie knew that he was bound to retake the Tory leadership.

By the time the Tory group were once again poised to take power, Ronnie Farley would accept Pickles' offer and take the front bench job as Enterprise & Environment spokesman.