Independent councillor Ron Woodley has been elected leader of Southend Council, bringing an end to 14 years of Tory rule.
The Thorpe councillor, who has promised more open, inclusive politics, faces the challenge of holding together a joint administration made up of Labour, Lib Dem and Independent members and living up to the high expectations of an electorate used to his vocal opposition of council policies.
Here he answers the Echo's questions:
- How do you feel about finally becoming leader of Southend Council, a role that you have coveted at least since 2012?
I think that coveted is the wrong word. The Independent Group asked me to stand for the leadership in 2012 to show the Conservative administration that there was another option to Nigel Holdcroft. I am of course honoured and proud to be the new leader of the council. I am passionate about the town and know that I have a very important role to help shape the future of Southend.
- What do you think the election results showed?
That voters in Southend wanted a resident-based democracy that is prepared to listen, be open and transparent, rather than a political party administration.
- Bearing in mind the Tories came second to an independent in Southend for the police and crime commissioner election, and the significant gains made by Ukip/Independents at the local elections, do you think the Tory MPs for Southend should be worried for next year?
Southend has always voted Conservative in a general election. However, especially in the east of town I believe that Ukip could and may upset the apple cart.
- How will this joint administration be different from the Conservatives, who ruled Southend for 14 years?
We will listen. Already the constitution has been changed so that opposition councillors will chair and vice-chair all scrutiny committees. We have also asked officers to look at reviewing the cabinet system of decision making and to consider whether we should move back to a committee system in the next municipal year, making the council more open, transparent and honest in its decision making process.
- What do you want to achieve in your first year of office? On what should you and the joint administration be judged?
There are a number of initiatives and reviews that residents have asked us to consider and these are under way. However, we must be realistic and we have to learn to walk before we can run.
One thing that we all agreed on as a joint administration is that stability is needed, particularly in light of the financial challenges that local government as a whole faces due to funding cuts.
Therefore I intend to put in place the stepping stones for a 20- year rolling five-year programme of regeneration that will benefit all residents of the borough.
This has to start with our very young being given the opportunity of a first class primary education, therefore they will be able to choose the secondary/further education of their choice, which is not the case at the moment.
Initially people will judge us on howwe are progressing, but I believe that they will see a difference through our commitment to properly consult residents, and to get it right for our elderly, our children and our services.
- Ukip gained the most seats in last month’s election. Why weren’t they included in the joint administration?
You have a lot to learn as a new councillor and it is a steep learning curve to understand the constitution and the processes of the council through its working parties, committee system and importantly understanding the various roles of the officers.
However, Ukip members will have a role to play in representing residents on various committees and working parties throughout the council and any outside bodies they attend. I will also ensure they are included at regular briefings.
- If Ukip gain more seats next year will the Independent group ditch Labour or the Lib Dems to work with them?
I have no intention of ditching anyone who has proved to have made a worthwhile contribution to the residents of this town. We should all want an administration that can be fully inclusive and working for local people, irrespective of political affiliations.
- In opposition, you campaigned very strongly against the authority borrowing to fund major projects and warned debt levels were saddling the council with unsustainable interest payments. What are you going to do about it now? Are you going to pay off any of the debt from reserves? Are you going to block borrowing for new projects?
When I was first elected to the council in 2007 I stated then that there was a financial firestorm heading to the UK and that action needed to be taken straight away to reduce the financial risks to the town. That warning was ignored.
I cannot change history, and the previous administration continued to borrow and spend on the “never, never” and in my opinion our debt level is unsustainable with the current governments funding cuts.
To put this into perspective, without the financing costs associated with these debt levels, the government’s cuts could have been comfortably absorbed.
So what am I going to do about it now? At this early stage I have to be honest and say that I don’t have all of the answers. There are of course a number of options and considerations that will need to be taken into account.
We have to also remember that we have agreed to take forward and work within the 2014/15 budget that was previously approved. That includes a level of borrowing.
What we can do is assess each project that requires borrowing and consider whether we can do things in a different way.
I have my first meeting with finance officers this week to gain a fuller understanding of the situation.
What I do know is that we are facing a further government funding cut of £16.3 million and with financing costs approaching £19million, some serious decisions will need to be made and I will make them. I will apologise now to the residents of Southend because there is a lot of pain coming our way because of funding cuts and tough decisions that will have to be taken.
What I can promise is that these decisions will be taken with local residents’ best interests at heart and in an open and transparent way.
- You also campaigned to keep Priory House and Delware House care homes local authority controlled, even developing a business plan for Priory House. Are you now going to action the plan?
Yes, I have ideas and developed a detailed plan. I have already asked for a review with this revised plan, but any new decision could well depend on where the council is on the current closure programme.
There have already been some rifts between Labour and the Independents, who with the Lib Dems make up the joint administration.
- Can the joint administration hold and how will you hold it together?
I would not call it a rift. There have been some concerns over some of the headlines in the Echo, but I appreciate you are there to sell papers.
However, when the actual article is read then it all becomes clear that our joint policies are being adhered to and that we are not predetermining any decisions that will be taken democratically.
As I have already said, the joint administration can and will hold if members want it to. If councillors from all groups act in a responsible way then there will be no problems. It will hold all by itself, because if it doesn’t then residents will never forgive or forget.
- How would you describe your personal leadership style?
I am trusting by nature and I understand that could be my weakness. I genuinely believe in the group of councillors who currentlymake up the cabinet, and I believe in their ability and their commitment to Southend.
- In opposition you were criticised for antagonising some council officers with hard fought campaigns against several council policies. What has the reaction to your leadership been from paid staff? Do you think it will be difficult to work with any officers?
I believe that my working relationship with officers has been positive over the years.
They know that my campaigns have not been personal to them. I amvery passionate about our town and being an engineer, with the tolerances involved with that profession, it certainly focuses the mind and gives you an understanding of the importance of attention to detail needed to achieve the best possible outcomes for residents. I believe officers share that passion and therefore it will not be difficult working with them.
- As chairman of the Burges Estate Residents’ Association you have helped hundreds of residents buy themselves out of a legal clause used by a property firm to charge them for permission to undertake minor changes to their homes. How do you feel about the achievement?
The number is over a thousand households, but it should be about Mike Stafford and the rest of the committee who have given me their ongoing support over the ten year campaign. It is not about how I feel but how the residents feel that they and their successors in title will not forever be subjected to any unwarranted charges.
I don’t think so and I don’t think I have the time now! I have a busy schedule and as leader of the council I want to focus on my council work and doing the best for Southend.