Chapter 05: The Core Group

Submitted by R Totale on April 30, 2020

In many respects the landslide defeat of the Tories in May 1986 proved to be a blessing in disguise for Eric Pickles.

Juggling "consensus" agreements on a hung council had proved extremely frustrating for most of the time. Now Pickles had the chance to sit down and rewrite Tory policy in full. It was a challenge he relished.

Tory leader Ronnie Farley was feeling tired and defeated. He was happy to leave policy development to his deputy.

Eric Pickles had already determined the broad philosophy of his approach - to build a vigorous Tory group in the Thatcher mould armed with detained and radical new policies. But he couldn't do it alone.

He set out to pick a small group of loyal and like-minded Tory councillors to work as a closely-knit team. The team was to become his "Core" group.

As chairman of the Education committee he had established close links with 3 women. Phyllis Pettit had headed the Further Education sub-committee and Kath Metcalfe the Schools Special sub-committee. Margaret Eaton had served on the Education committee as a co-opted Tory appointee even before she was elected onto the council.

He balanced his team with 3 men.

Richard Wightman was an obvious choice, having worked closely with Pickles on the council for several years. Wightman had served the previous year as head of the Employment and Economic Affairs committee.

Michael Gaunt was a hard-nosed right-winger who had served as head of the Residential and Day Care sub-committee. Graham Seager, former chairman of the Social Services committee, would have been included, but he had lost his seat in the 1986 elections and was suffering personal problems. To make up the team Pickles picked a new and relative unknown - David Heseltine, an activist in the Young Conservatives.

The 6 had a number of things in common. Most regarded themselves as "self-made" - they felt that they had achieved their positions through the hard work of their own efforts. They were serious about politics and wanted to change things rather than serve out their time on the council quietly.

Most had learnt their political skills by being active in the Young Conservatives. Most had been at the Tory conference in Brighton in 1984 when it was bombed by the I.R.A. That extraordinary experience had a particular "bonding" effect between the group.

Pickles and his Core group began meeting formally once a fortnight. They started with a clean sheet and began putting together the building blocks of the "Bradford Revolution".

Of course, as time progressed other rising stars on the Tory benches were brought into the process; Graham Seager when he was re-elected the following year, "Jac" Beeson, Ken Poulton and others. But the initial Core group remained special to Pickles - they had been in from the start.

It is worth looking at each member of the Core group in detail.

Most prominent of Pickles' Core group was RICHARD EDWARD JOHN WIGHTMAN.

Wightman was elected to Bradford council in 1983 to represent the posh Rombalds ward and had been Tory chief of Race Relations throughout the Honeyford affair. Like a number of senior Tories he had been active in the Junior Chamber of Commerce, having served as President.

It was Wightman's business experience and education that was to be of particular importance to the plans of Eric Pickles. The hand of Richard Wightman can be clearly seen behind the development of plans to restructure the local authority and introduce a comprehensive service privatisation strategy.

Unlike the others in the Core group, Wightman had been born into a large and already prosperous family.

Richard's grandfather William Prest Wightman had established the family timber-importing business, Beecroft & Wightmans, at the turn of the century. William had also helped develop the Davenport Engineering Company in which the family had a large stake. Both businesses quickly developed into highly profitable companies leading to status and wealth for the Baildon based Wightman dynasty.

Richard Wightman was despatched from his parents' Ilkley home in the early 1960's to Edinburgh University to study business. He returned with a degree and a wife, Elizabeth.

In 1967 the young couple set up home at Fairbank, West Lane, Baildon. Their first son Charles was born the following year and their second son Alasdair 2 years later.

1976 saw the Wightmans move to their Menston mansion Fairfax Hall on Menston Main Street. This massive and impressive house also became home for their ageing widowed father Charles, who finally died in 1981.

In January 1974 Richard Wightman had been made a director of Beecroft & Wightmans, along with the other companies in the family group, and finally he took over running the company. But by then business was suffering a downturn. Between 1980 and 1987, under Richard Wightman's control, turnover was halved from £12 million to £6 million and profits were down to a mere £250,000.

In 1984 Wightman applied for a loan from the council's "Loans to Industry" scheme - at the same time as his leader Ronnie Farley. However, records are classified "secret" and it is not known what became of his application.

At the same time Wightman set about restructuring his family's companies.

Beecrofts & Wightmans eventually became Wightman Holdings Ltd., set to specialise in management of property and investments. The productive side of business was all shuffled off to Wightwood Industries Ltd. based in Hull. Richard Wightman remained a director in all the numerous companies, but now found himself at his office in Harris Street, Bradford, with time on his hands to devote to his overriding passion - politics.

It was an arrangement that suited his business colleagues in Hull, who were free to get on with running the real productive side of the business empire.

Wightman's business restructuring exercise would prove to be the inspiration for the Core group's plans for Bradford council.

Richard Wightmans wife also worked for the Inland Revenue, which proved useful when he began investing money in other companies.

Taking advantage of "tax exemption" investment schemes arranged by Capital for Companies Ltd., Wightman funnelled money into a number of middle-sized but controversial companies.

One of these was Salford Plastics, a hose pipe factory based in Manchester. In 1984 Baildon businessman Barry Chapman had bought the £1/2 million profitable company with money from investors like Wightman. Chapman was interested in maximising profits and soon sacked his entire workforce after illicitly engineering a strike. With the union gone he brought in new workers who found themselves earning less pay in increasingly dangerous conditions. It was not long before a catalogue of accidents left workers maimed and crippled.

In July 1987 Paul Foot of the Daily Mirror wrote a major article on the "Agony of horror factory workers". The story of Salford Plastics was a shocking scandal and an embarrassment to the new Tory deputy leader.

Richard Wightman's restructuring ideas for Bradford council were eventually to take form in September 1989, a year after Eric Pickles had taken power. The idea was simple enough.

A new council company would be established called "Bradford Contract Services". The company would take over control of all those council services that the ruling Tory group hoped to privatise. The eventual aim was to "privatise" the new Holding company itself, which would initially run council departments employing thousands of staff with an annual turnover of more than £40 million.

But Wightman's critics saw in the new council plan a rerun of Wightman's own private business restructuring. That, they claimed, came as a result of his own business failures and hence indicated disaster for Bradford.

MARGARET EATON proved to be one of the hardest working of Pickles' allies. She was fairly wealthy and could afford to work more or less full time in politics. But the stress would soon begin to take its toll. Within 6 months of the Tory group taking power Eaton would confide to council officer John Crook how "This business has aged me years."

She was born Ellen Margaret Midgley in 1942, the only child of mum Evelyn and dad John who was a company director. She lived at the family home in Moor Park Drive, Bradford until her marriage.

Margaret went on to become a teacher at Bradford Girls' Preparatory Department. She also became active in the Young Conservatives, eventually becoming chairman of Group 4 of the Yorkshire Y.C.'s.

She met her husband John Eaton at one of his firm's dances. John Eaton had taken over his father's solicitors firm Eaton & Co. Also an only child, John was brought up in the family mansion "Brecon Ridge", set in the Cottingley Woodlands estate near Bingley. His mum Barbara was American and so John enjoyed dual nationality until he was 23. Fortunately his American citizenship had lapsed when he received his call-up papers for the U.S. army and he was able to avoid the Vietnam war.

When the couple met, John was impressed with Margaret's fluent German. He later proposed to her, on condition she gave up smoking. She did and the couple were married at Bradford Cathedral on August 16th 1969. Margaret was then 27 and John a year younger.

The couple moved into a large house on the Cottingley estate, next door to the Eaton’s' family mansion. Extensions were built to make room for their growing family - their first daughter Gretchen being born in July 1972.

In that same year John and Margaret teamed up with a builder and a joiner to form Goal Construction Ltd. They began building posh houses for the better off.

John Eaton was a director and his firm of solicitors acted for the company. Margaret became company secretary.

Their first scheme was to buy up land at the back of Wilmer Drive - home of one of the directors and the company's registered office. On the land they built their first small upmarket housing estate.

Their second project on Toller Drive, Heaton, was also a success, but their next project ran into difficulties. They wanted to buy up a large old house on Emm Lane, Heaton, with the aim of developing on the land. But others planned to convert the house into an Old Peoples Home.

In June 1976 planning permission was granted to one of Goal's competitors. But the Eatons' company didn't give in that easily.

They persuaded Tory councillor John Stanley King to intervene on their behalf. On August 8th 1976 King sent a long, stinging letter to the planning officers, rebuking them for their decision and insisting that "the application of Goal Construction should be approved". The letter seemed to do the trick. The officers' objections to Goal's plans evaporated and at a council planning meeting 3 days later Goal's application was nodded through without discussion by Tory committee chairman Smith Midgley.

A week later King sent another letter to the planning officers congratulating them for finally making "the right decision". The Eaton's company demolished the old house and built a small up-market estate in its place.

Goal Construction went from strength to strength and continued building expensive housing developments around Bradford and beyond - reaching as far as Harrogate.

Later John Eaton became a director, in 1984, of the Leeds based international printing company The Jarvis Porter Group Plc., for whom his solicitors' firm also acted. With a turnover in 1988 of £33 million, the company was highly profitable and John Eaton took over 200,000 shares.

He also became a director of Suffolk based Holiday Property Bond Ltd., a new company planning to move into the financing of Time-share holidays.

The Eaton duo had also built up a growing investment portfolio. As well as benefiting from government sell-offs such as British Gas, B.P. and B.T., the couple invested in a number of controversial companies such as P & O, Hunterprint and Leigh Interests.

P & O, the owners of the ill fated ferry "Herald of Free Enterprise", eventually engineered a bitter dispute with the National Union of Seamen and won a de-unionised workforce. Hunterprint, a Leeds based printing company, made much of their profit from producing pornography for the Paul Raymond organisation.

Leigh Interests, the country's biggest importers of highly toxic waste, found themselves constantly at odds with environmental campaigners like Friends of the Earth. The Eatons' investment in this company was particularly surprising because the couple were also members of a number of environmental groups - including Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace.

However, not all the Eatons' investments were profitable. They put money into Sound Diffusion, whose collapse in 1988 led to a Department of Trade and Industry investigation.

None the less the couple enjoyed a wealthy lifestyle, with 3 bungalows and 2 shops in Cottingley. For recreation they would often perform together in cabaret, John being an accomplished jazz musician.

In 1984 Margaret made her first appearance on Bradford council when she was co-opted onto the Education committee by the Tories. Eric Pickles was chairman of the committee and the two soon formed a close working relationship. 2 years later she stood as a candidate for a safe Tory seat in the Bingley Rural ward. Once elected Margaret Eaton threw herself into council work with a zealousness that was the hallmark of the Eaton duo.

Due largely to her experience with Goal Construction she was soon Tory spokesman on the Housing Services committee. When the Tories were finally to take power in 1988 the Housing and Social Services committees would be merged and Eaton would be appointed front bench chief of the new, powerful Social Services and Strategic Housing committee. It was a job she would relish. Margaret Eaton was to be the brains behind the Tories' assault on the district's council housing, as well as the sale of the councils Old Peoples Homes.

PHYLLIS PETTIT played a largely unseen but extremely vital role in the reign of Eric Pickles.

She was by far the oldest of the group and one of the most reliable. She became Pickles' Chief Whip, responsible for ensuring that Tory councillors turned up on time and voted as required. She had to cajole disaffected members back into line and be Pickles' eyes and ears amongst the Tory ranks. It was a difficult and thankless task, but one which she performed flawlessly.

She was born Phyllis Vera Raistrick in 1925. Her father was a police constable and, unsurprisingly, this would have a big influence on her later political career. Phyllis developed a typically robust Conservative stance on "law and order" and in 1979 became a member of the local police authority as well as chairing a number of local police/community forums.

Phyllis was brought up in the Haworth area and as a teenager became active in the Young Conservatives at the time when the area chairman was Marcus Fox, later M.P. for Shipley. Phyllis worked hard for the Tory party and attended Swinton Conservative College on a number of occasions.

In February 1949 Phyllis, by then a secretary, married 24 year old Thomas Pettit. Thomas was a schoolteacher and a particularly skilled craftsman. He went on to write a number of technical books on woodwork and metalwork.

The couple had one daughter, Angela, and in 1959 they moved to Steeton, near Bingey, where Phyllis has lived ever since.

In 1970, Phyllis was elected onto the County council where she served until 1974. She also served a year on Bradford council in 1974, but then retired from political activity for a short time whilst daughter Angela finished her college studies.

1980 saw Phyllis back on the County council where she remained until it's abolition.

In 1984 she was elected to Bradford council in a safe Tory seat in the Bingley Rural ward. She was soon elected as Chief Whip by the Tory group - the only elected position besides leader and deputy leader.

For Eric Pickles the choice of Phyllis Pettit as Chief Whip was particularly important. With her long experience and her old fashioned right-wing politics, Pettit enjoyed a good deal of respect on the Tory benches. Even though in her 60's she could still be a fiery speaker, capable of verbally mauling an opponent.

She was to be extremely loyal to Pickles, who depended on her to keep a tight discipline in Tory ranks, particularly whilst his grip on power was such a knife-edged affair.

Indeed, during Pickles reign Pettit was to save his bacon on a number of occasions. Although showing a public face of unity and loyalty, the Tory group contained a number of senior backbenchers that were unhappy at some of Pickles' antics. At one key group meeting in early 1989, 4 prominent backbenchers walked out in disgust. Pettit had to summon up all her powers of persuasion in order to ease them back into the fold.

KATHRYN METCALFE was another young Tory radical whose experience in her family business and job as a personal secretary for a large national accountancy firm would lead her to take a key financial role in Pickles' plans.

But Kath Metcalfe had a special place in Eric Pickles' affections. The young unmarried Metcalfe and the portly Tory leader developed a very close personal friendship. They would dine out together and sometimes enjoyed each others company back at Kath's "bachelor" home. Being in the public eye meant that their friendship had to be kept somewhat "clandestine" in order to avoid malicious gossip - after all, Eric Pickles was a married man.

Kath Metcalfe was born in June 1957 and was brought up in the Keighley area. Her dad Chris and mum Martha took over a haulage firm in 1963 and renamed it Chris Metcalfe Ltd. This eventually spawned other family companies.

Kath spent her senior school years at a Harrogate boarding school, which she left with 9 'O' levels and an 'A' level. She eventually got a secretarial job with Yorkshire Post Newspapers, working for a while with their publishing subsidiary United News Shops Ltd.

Like most of the others in Pickles' Core group, Kath learnt her political skills in the areas Young Conservatives. In 1982, aged only 24, Kath was elected to Bradford council for a seat in the Keighley North ward. She, of course, already knew Eric Pickles, but it was whilst serving with him on the council that Kath admits she "grew up" in politics.

Kath became a major shareholder in her parents' companies. She was also appointed to the board of directors for Chris Metcalfe (Properties) Ltd. which, in 1988, was making a remarkable pre-tax profit of £54,000 on a turnover of just £81,000.

Shortly after joining the council Kath moved out of her parent's home at Larkfield Farm, Riddlesden, and bought herself a small, secluded semi in Bingley, on a quiet cul-de-sac called Springfield Grove.

By 1986 she had changed jobs, becoming a personal secretary at the Bradford Manor Row branch of top accountants Peat, Marwick, Mitchell & Co.

Eric Pickles, as soon as he became leader, appointed Metcalfe as his senior Finance officer. In October 1988 she would lead teams of senior councillors and officers to examine council spending and service delivery. She would also join Richard Wightman in pushing through the new Tory council's privatisation plans.

However, Kath's stardom on Bradford council would be short lived. In October 1989 she would announce that she intended to stand down as a councillor for the 1990 elections.

MICHAEL STANLEY GAUNT was to be the "working class" element in Pickles' Core group. Gaunt had come from humble beginnings and had apparently led a chequered youth. By the age of 21 he was living back with his mum Mabel in Thornbury, Bradford.

On September 4th, 1971, Mike Gaunt married 21 year old Susan Rowbottom at Windhill Parish church in Shipley. Susan had a 4-year-old son David, who was subsequently adopted by Gaunt. The couple later had another son.

The Gaunt family set up home in Denholme before moving to 33 Brae Avenue in Bradford's Bolton ward, where Mike Gaunt was elected as a councillor in 1984.

Mike Gaunt worked in the accounts department of Johnson Radley, a Pudsey based company making moulds for the glass industry. Johnson Radley had been a division of United Glass Ltd. until 1988 when it became an independent Limited company with a £2 million cash injection from large investment companies and pension funds.

Mike Gaunt described himself rather grandly as an "accountant" and gave himself the mysterious letters A.S.C.A. after his name.

In 1989 he was still describing himself as a married man and noting his wife’s employment at Bradford's National Photographic Museum on the council's Register of Interests, even though his wife Susan had apparently moved out 2 years earlier.

Mike Gaunt was well known for his short temper and abrupt style. Nicknamed "Mr. Nasty" by the opposition, Gaunt soon became Tory chief of Social Services.

In May 1987, shortly after Pickles became leader of the Tory group, Mike Gaunt was appointed to a new and challenging position. Pickles put him charge of winning back the Tories' lost seats as "Target seat and candidate co-ordinator". Whether as a result of Gaunt's work or otherwise, the Tories made a remarkable comeback.

Eventually Gaunt would go on to succeed the luckless Graham Seager as head of Education in 1989. In typical Gaunt style he would mark the first day of his appointment by announcing that:

"The bottom line is if you get a bad school and nobody wants to go to it then we will close it down and we will extend the good ones. That should force all schools to improve."

Not long afterwards he would introduce his own innovation; a number of selected Upper schools would be dubbed "Magnet schools", providing "centres of excellence" in specific fields. These elite schools would receive extra funds. But such would be the opposition to this scheme from headteachers and governors alike, that it would be quickly dropped.

Mike Gaunt would also become the first of Pickles' Core team to break Tory ranks by criticising his own group for diverting money from school repairs to other projects, leaving Gaunt the daunting task of trying to tackle a £100 million repairs backlog with only £3 million to spend.

Least prominent of the group was DAVID HESELTINE, who was also the youngest. It is difficult to see what he had to offer other than his contact with the region's Young Conservatives. One unkind journalist described him as "semi-literate". Certainly his politics could hardly be considered sophisticated; the windows of his Saltaire house bore stickers proclaiming "KGB loves CND".

He was born in Fagley in October 1961. He lived with his dad Tom and mum Dinah until he was 22. 3 years before he was born his dad had set up, with 3 others, a small printing engineers in Shipley called Norman Haynes Ltd. The company steadily grew to be a profitable small business with a good reputation. In 1988 the company was employing 15 workers and making a gross profit of £250,000 on a turnover of £750,000.

In 1981 David first started work at his dad's firm, training as a printers engineer. 2 years later he moved out of his parents' home and bought himself a large terraced house at 9 George Street, Saltaire. Property in the model village of Saltaire was becoming increasingly popular at that time.

David had become active in the Shipley Young Conservatives and in 1986 he was elected onto the council for Shipley West. He became a member of the "patriotic" Royal Society of St. George and when Pickles became Tory leader Heseltine was appointed as Pettit's assistant whip.

In February 1988 David Heseltine was finally made a director of Norman Haynes, being paid around £12,000 in director's fees. Pickles would reward him with a minor position as chairman of the Social Services' Residential and Day Care Appeals sub-committee.