Cllr David Clifford is the Leader of Rushmoor Council.
I have reached the pinnacle of my political career. A request to write for “Conservative Home”. Elation was quickly followed by total horror. All those discerning, intellectual, and brutally blunt, readers scrutinising (or not) my words. Why would those bathing in the radiance of an historical electoral victory want to hear from some unknown local Leader of a small borough hidden in the shires? A little borough that despite the 2019 local election catastrophe engulfing all our neighbours, still has a stomping Conservative majority, a strong member-led administration, and growing association membership. We won when it was not fashionable and there are three simple reasons why.
On becoming leader, I tormented myself with the question “How do I improve an outstanding local authority?”. Five o’clock one morning the answer to my prayer came. The Kolb learning cycle adapted for local government. Listen – Learn – Deliver better. Simple to remember, understand, and implement, – and a covenant with residents who know that all we do will involve real listening, genuine learning, and a commitment to improve.
Listening and strong leadership are not opposite ends of a spectrum. From one to one group interviews to large resident meetings and local organisations, listening plays a big part in what we do. Listening has meant an urgent escalation on our Green Action Plan and over 1500 trees planted by us in our borough this year. Our commitment to listening also means we are campaigning every week somewhere in the borough, supporting colleagues and activists. We do not appear just at election time. However, listening without learning can simply lead to being a political weathervane.
Learning means change. One message we continually share with residents is that in listening and learning we will sometimes get things wrong. It is part of learning. When we do, we are open and honest and take immediate action to correct our course. As a learning authority we are continually improving, open to new ideas, and investing in member and staff development. This has also paid huge dividends with our local party where we are attracting new members with relevant skills and talents that are injecting a new enthusiasm and drive in the Association.
Delivering better is inevitable if built on a strong foundation of real listening and genuine learning. And here I want to make the case for district-level government. It is very intimate. At district-level we know our residents extremely well. We are the “first responder”. People contact us for the whole range of government services, which we channel to County colleagues or other national agencies. We are not too small to lack the resources and expertise to deliver and not too large and remote to know precisely where resources and expertise are needed. We deliver well – and build strong communities. We know our citizens and they know us and trust us.
With our historic victory, huge majority, and “Brexit getting done”, this government is doing a phenomenal job putting Great Britain back on the world stage. Before they make dramatic changes ‘backstage’ to local democracy, I hope they follow the formula that has made us so successful in this little corner of England.
We hear much of ‘devolution’ which appears more about merging and combining, than it is about devolution of power. Linked to this is the centralist imposition of directly elected Mayors linked to increased power and resources. I see a great opportunity for our party at the district level of government. People feel very passionate about their towns. They do not get so excited about their County. Many activists are joining us because they see the direct impact our district is having on our local community. My fear is that if we keep merging districts, they will be more remote, and the direct consequence will be a loss of political interest in local government that is further from the residents it serves. The national renaissance must be linked to a new dawn of engagement for our party. That will not be achieved by simply merging local authorities. We need to recognise the very direct and efficient level of delivery achieved at district level.
I have no problems with directly elected Mayors, much like I have no issue with a directly elected Prime Minister. In most of the country outside metropolitan areas we have district council leaders selected by fellow councillors with the Council chaired by a figurehead Chairman or Mayor (in a Borough). This replicates the national arrangement where the Prime Minister is essentially selected by fellow parliamentarians with a constitutional monarch who is a figure head for the country. If we are committed to direct accountability, then what is suggested for the districts should be implemented nationally with a directly elected PM. The arguments for greater local accountability would be suddenly more credible.
It is such a privilege to be a member of this great party and to be the Council Leader of Rushmoor, home of Business Aviation, and home to the British Army, which are both safe in our hands nationally and locally.