BILL Thomas OBE, the former Rowley councillor and the longest running ever leader of Sandwell Council, has died.

The current leader of Sandwell Council Councillor Darren Cooper led the tributes as news of his death at his home in his native Wales was announced.

He said: "It is with great sadness that we hear of the death of Bill Thomas.

"It is impossible to overlook the huge contribution Bill made to the borough of Sandwell.”

He said: "Leading the council for the best part of a decade, Bill oversaw dramatic improvements in our education achievements and wide-ranging regeneration projects that will improve life for current and future generations in the borough.”

He added: "And this is not to mention his long-standing work in the health service, which earned him an OBE.

"A proud Welshman, Bill often referred to Sandwell as his adopted home. He will be sorely missed and our thoughts are with his family in Wales at this time."

Bill was elected onto the council as a councillor for Rowley ward in 1996 and led the council from 2001 until he resigned last August.

He had to leave office early as it emerged that his carer had stolen money from him to pay drug debts and Mr Thomas had lied to his bank concerning the theft to cover for his friend and carer.

Before becoming council leader, he had been the borough's deputy leader and education chief and was himself a former teacher and headteacher in Sandwell.

He had also served for 27 years on various health service bodies in the borough, including being chair of the local mental health and social care trust.

It was for his work on behalf of the health service that he received an OBE in the 2005 New Year Honours.

Bill had been highly active in Labour Party circles in Sandwell for several decades, including being an agent for Sandwell MPs John Spellar and Peter Archer, now Lord Archer of Sandwell.

He had suffered bad health for several years and died following a short illness and his family will be holding a private family funeral.