Cllr Richard Cook is the Leader of Gloucester City Council.
A little over four years ago, a friend of a friend approached me and asked if I would like to stand as a councillor, in the soon to be created ward of Kingsway, in Gloucester. Only two years before, I had moved from Reading to Gloucester to retire, having spent all of my career in the private sector. Much of that time was spent in senior management with a major international airline, but the last 10 years before retirement was spent running my own businesses.
So my first thought was “what do I know about the public sector”? My second thought was “nothing”. My first questions were “What’s involved and how much time will it take up”? They were answered with “The odd meeting” and “Two or three hours a week”. Hmm!
I agreed to do it – and just under four years ago, was elected as a councillor for the first time. I found out quite quickly that those answers were not true. Even as a backbencher, there is an awful lot to learn. There was the expectation that you have to join a committee such as Planning, Licensing, or Audit; the learning that goes with that; and the reading of all the papers. There is the need to deal with your residents’ issues – and finding out how to do that.
Three months after election, I was invited to join Cabinet. This was primarily because the Council had major contractual problems with our largest supplier and my contract management background in the airline industry made me an ideal choice to sort out the problems. It took a long time but eventually those problems were sorted. The Council/supplier relationship is now cordial, even friendly, and the service provided is much better.
About a year ago, the then Leader of the Council privately advised that he would not be seeking re-election at the next elections, which have been delayed until next year. He asked me if I would be prepared to take his role. Despite considerable misgivings I agreed and in November took over as Leader.
For me it has been a real meteoric rise. I still can’t quite understand how the complete newbie four years ago has found himself as Leader of the Council. It was not something I ever considered and it was not something I ever even wanted. By a series of “accidents”, being in the right place at the right time, I have ended up in a quite unbelievable position, and still find myself bemused at times. I recognise that there is so much to learn and struggle to do all I need to. It has been a considerable trial – a real baptism of fire, but most difficulties have been surmounted and we now look forward to the upcoming elections in May.
For Gloucester our elections are “all out”. Every seat will be contested. Thirty nine seats in eighteen wards. The current political split in the Council is 19 Conservatives (one hospitalised and unable to attend Council meetings), nine Labour, nine Liberal Democrat, and two Independent (one of whom is on an agreed leave of absence). At the last election in 2016 we had a political split of 22 Conservatives, 10 Labour and seven Liberal Democrats, but by-elections and other changes have put the Administration into a technical minority.
I am hopeful that I will be leading a strong and united team into next year’s elections – a team that will be working collectively to ensure we return a substantially enlarged majority from that returned in 2016.
And I expect to be leading from the front, demonstrating my personal belief that the only way to ensure success is to work hard, to show determination, and to lead by example. When I first became a councillor I had little knowledge of what I was letting myself in for. I have spent the past four years fighting several elections, firstly for myself but subsequently on behalf of others, including our MP twice. I have spent the last four years learning about the public sector and how it works. I have spent the last four years preparing for this moment, when I lead my local party into an election for the first time. I will ensure our united determination capitalises on our opposition’s disunity and disarray. It is weeks of effort which will be followed by four more years of stability. Definitely a sacrifice worth the gain.