Cllr Charlotte Hodivala is the Mayor of Royal Sutton Coldfield
To call it a privilege to be the Mayor of Royal Sutton Coldfield is somewhat understating how I feel about my role. That role even exists is of huge significance to the town.
I have lived in every single ward of Royal Sutton Coldfield over the years and there’s one word I think about that describes the attitude of my fellow Suttonians – and that’s “pride”.
Pride in our history, being a town which can date its existence back to a Royal Charter issued by Henry VIII. Pride in our current town and truly great community spirit that exists. And pride in what our future could hold, for our children and grandchildren.
That’s why reforming our Town Council has been of such magnitude in the eyes the residents of Royal Sutton Coldfield. Going back in history only four decades, Sutton Coldfield was subsumed into Birmingham City Council. Somewhat grudgingly, residents first accepted the fact. But it was a grudge that continued to grow.
We saw decisions about local services made by Cabinet members representing totally different parts of the City. We saw planning decisions go through despite huge local opposition. We saw our roads neglected by an outsourced contract where residential areas just didn’t get the attention they deserved. We felt we’d lost our voice – and our identity.
So the Localism Act, introduced under the last government, seemed like a chance to retake the reins and regain control of our council. An impassioned and hard-fought campaign was set up to get our Town Council back again after 40 years.
And the reason I’m standing here today is as a result of that campaign; a campaign which touched the hearts and minds of Suttonians.
We held a referendum – and were successful. We are now the largest parish council in the UK – and Britain’s newest democracy.
With this comes real responsibility. People from other parts of the country are going to watch our journey with interest. Other towns may choose to follow the route we’ve taken, so we want to be a beacon of best practice – and show that it can work.
But most importantly, we’re going to be scrutinised by our residents. Because it’s no good having this Town Council if it turns into something akin to a Vicar of Dibley’s Tea Party.
As it comes up to six months since our reformation – and halfway through my term in office – I’m proud to say that we have a Strategic Plan in place around Six Pillars, which our 24 councillors have agreed reflect the values and ambitions of the wards we represent.
It won’t surprise you that with council with 19 Conservative councillors out of 24, that this plan was written by myself and my fellow councillor, Simon Ward. And it unashamedly reflects the Conservative values of this Royal Town.
We have a Council Tax precept to spend of nearly £2 million pounds – with which we can genuinely get a lot done.
Our Strategic Plan is fully costed; we’re not going to spend a penny we can’t afford.
The money we do spend will deliver improvements into each and every ward – and sets the future vision for what we want Royal Sutton Coldfield to become.
Some of the plan is really simple stuff, such as introducing 20 mile-an-hour zones around our schools; some of it is going to take more work, such as getting our highways and byways doing the job and looking the part; and some of it is going to make this an even better place to live, such as looking at making our town more Dementia-friendly and engaging with school children to encourage that sense of civic pride that is so important to our town.
I met with Sir Eric Pickles MP recently, whose Localism Act makes it possible for my role as Mayor to exist today.
As he said: “Democracy isn’t about fusty old men in suits. It’s about engaging every person – young or old. True localism is where the shackles are released and communities can enact the decisions that matter to them.”
And whilst localism means we do genuinely have the opportunity to make decisions in the best interests of our town, we have an additional opportunity to strengthen our region through the introduction of a Metro Mayor.
Setting party politics aside, the work that Andy Street has done at the Local Enterprise Partnership shows the leadership we need regionally. He is a superb Metro Mayoral candidate, and I look forward to supporting him in office.
So, as I reach the halfway mark in my term, I can truly say I’m proud of the progress we’ve made so far.
It’s been an immense learning curve, as only three of our councillors are “double-hatters”. And for me personally, it has been an incredibly rewarding – if exhausting! – experience.
As a working mum with two young children, there are never enough hours in the day – let alone when you add the additional responsibilities of being a Town Councillor and Town Mayor.
I’ve learned a huge amount. You have to be able to juggle a huge number of different issues at once, whilst setting an overall tone for the town. It has been tempting to say yes to everything – so it’s taken a good deal of self-discipline to make real promises. I’ve been mindful that anything I’ve agreed to can genuinely be delivered.
And it’s in no way a one-man band. I have a talented team of Conservative councillors around me, who have supported the Office of Mayor. I simply wouldn’t have been able to do it without them. And I value the support of everyone in the community who has seen this as an opportunity to get on and get things done, rather than make things about narrow special interests.
But there is one woman I really couldn’t have done it without – Olive O’Sullivan, our interim Town Clerk. She has worked on this project since its initiation and I can honestly say that without her dedication, long hours and constant energy that this Town Council would look very different today.
A common frustration amongst councillors – as elected politicians – is where they think their supporting officers and civil servants are putting up blockades which delay, dilute or destroy their aspirations.
When the relationship works properly, it is an absolute blessing. It takes somebody who understands the rules and legal framework but has pragmatism. The attitude of asking: “Why have we always done it this way in the past? Why shouldn’t we change how we do things?”
This creates the tone for a Town Council that is visionary. It means we can ask our residents – our constituents – what they want the future to be, knowing that we have a good shot at achieving it.