So a little bit of backstory, I’m 50 something, married with four children and live in Redcar, Yorkshire and consider myself reasonably healthy. I have always been active, hyperactive even, go jogging, and used to play football regularly. I have a background and experience in a variety of things including working with the NHS, electronics, HR, plumbing, fitting and since 2010, I became heavily involved in content, copy and ghost writing, digital marketing with a focus on tourism while working with web developers locally, nationally and internationally through local and online contracts. I have organised an environmental litter pick group since 2013 and an independent bohemian market since 2017. I was elected as a Labour Councillor in 2015, held a portfolio position for 4 years and since 2019 have been the Labour Group Leader.
My political Highs
I was asked to consider to stand as a Labour councillor from my work as a community activist cleaning up Redcar beach from 2013 and for engaging the media in that plight. This included successfully campaigning for a cleaner beach environment, shifting 100s of tonnes of masonry from unauthorised landfills, improving our visitor offer and shining a light on the local economy. I agreed months later, driven by the lack of interest and response from sitting councillors to my concerns at the time, about the seafront and the surrounding area.
After being nominated, selected and going out campaigning, I was elected as a councillor for the Coatham ward in May 2015 which was one of the most surreal and exhilarating experiences of my life. At that time Labour, locally, were in transition having lost control of the council prior to the May election following a process of deselection which saw others leave the party. With a new wave of optimism and many new faces, including mine, Labour returned to the administration with 29 out of 59 councillors and also retook the Redcar seat from the Lib Dems with a new Labour MP. At that time it felt like a fresh start for Labour and for Redcar & Cleveland and one to build on with renewed energy, policies and social engagement.
After being elected, I was proud to be recommended and put forward by my Labour peers to be nominated for a Cabinet position overseeing a packed portfolio that enveloped Jobs, Skills, Apprenticeships, Economic Growth, Communications, Tourism and the Visitor Economy. Effectively many of the things I had been shouting about as a resident would be my responsibility to do something about. I thought to myself later, ‘Ok, you said you don’t like it? Well you better get on with it then!’ During the first term I became involved with the North East Cultural Partnership and supported their White Paper to government regarding the imbalance in cultural and arts funding between the North and South. As it transpired the portfolio was far too heavy and following internal wranglings eventually split Economic Growth from Culture and Tourism to allow a better focus on both these important areas. I had the absolute honour of overseeing the portfolio roles for 4 years, overhauling, recreating, improving comms, and marketing the borough to be more inclusive, welcoming, focussing more on it’s strengths and identity but most importantly – together.
My main achievements in those early years; Took apart the Town Management aspect that was imprecise from town to town and realigned local economy with visitor economy, culture, tourism and the events department and brought them together with part of the comms department under the umbrella of the Visitor Destination model; Created a Masterplan for Redcar through public consultations to provide a vision and direction to follow; Provided access to funding for each of the key towns supporting infrastructure and local businesses; Improved communication and our online presence; Oversaw the new functional council services website (which had a couple false starts); Marketed the borough beyond the local area; Supported and encouraged all event organisers who could bring value including the music festivals, markets, sporting events, Festival of Thrift and the Tour de Yorkshire; and created the Ambassador scheme under the description of ‘bringing the borough together’ complete with its own tourism website. I will write more on this another time, there is unfinished business that hasn’t continued in the right direction since I left the role and is one I am still optimistic will realise it’s full potential and purpose.
AND THE FRUSTRATING LOWS
That first year as a councillor was pretty chaotic and I found myself at times overrun but it helped being in a structured political group with a support mechanism and discussions around all issues. Understanding the inner workings of the council and becoming deeply involved as a new councillor and Cabinet member took some time, adjustment and sacrifices especially being self employed and leading on my own contracts and time management. Being someone who is determined to be on (and in) the business, conscientious and responsive, it took me some time to learn I couldn’t please everyone, nor continually pursue dormant requests personally. I would have to let some things drift in order to function, to focus on the important, topical and urgent stuff and to see the bigger picture, which included my personal life and health.
In self employment I am very much in charge of my direction, projects and timeline. The contrast working within a local authority is stark It is the complete opposite. You are most always reliant on others. It can be very slow going operationally, some issues are very complexed and long term, many issues you are waiting to be addressed and sometimes the most simple operation can become bones of contention. You can find many issues you raise unactionable because of their location or legislation that prevents you, or with numerous hurdles to overcome that rely on multiple departments coming together. Often your issue remains somehow in some constant state of limbo waiting for you and only you, to keep breathing life back into it. Time often moves slowly in the council and within external bodies too who are ‘dealing with your concern’.
That’s not to say things don’t get done, they do, and the officers work hard and are in the main very helpful and personable. But there is an order to things, some things come up and take priority because of their urgent nature. And there simply isn’t enough time and staff to deal with the thousands of issues they have on their agendas. There often isn’t the cover during holiday periods, and there are many staff changes throughout the organisation. Sometimes you are literally starting over with an historic issue. The issues mount up and before you know it, months have drifted by. Indeed, I remember writing a disclaimer footer on my emails early on in that first term, so that anyone emailing me knew I was dealing with issues of varying complexity and duration, large and small, but that all enquiries were important to me and I would get back to them. Easier said than done.
Health and Happiness?
Needless to say, that first term, I was often burning the candles at both ends, dropping balls, or rather, not spinning all the plates all the time and trying to deal with too many issues at any given time. I was chasing unanswered or unactioned requests that were getting nowhere and requests would be coming in, day and night and weekends from multiple platforms including messenger, phone, text, voicemail, Whatsapp, Facebook, Twitter, as well as email and then where did the original complaint come from? It’s easy to think make a note or organise yourself but when you’re on the ground the issues hit you thick and fast, your technology isn’t always working and other matters arise that are topical and urgent.
I was exercising more sporadically, became unfit and put on weight because I would be constantly active with other things. I hate letting people down but there simply aren’t enough hours and it’s just you being all things to all people. So I put the time in but then cancelling friends and family things, spending many days and nights, basically writing, replying and reporting.
I paid the consequence of this too. By year three, I started to suffer regular ocular migraines. My neck and joints around my shoulders stiffened, and I would have headaches and vertigo. I’ve learnt all of this is from being in front of a screen all day, everyday for hours, breathing from the diaphragm, hunching over and being clenched, not exercising or taking regular breaks, forgetting to eat and hydrate and not taking care of the eyes by ignoring my short-sightedness, squinting and working in inadequate lighting.
Ultimately I suffered from a prolonged spell of vertigo and became completely dysfunctional and incapacitated. I couldn’t raise my left arm or turn my neck without pain. I was off my feet for days on end whereby the room was spinning. Often I was unable to stand or balance for any length of time. I struggled to read texts, emails, reports or work because my vision would simply spin out of control. I couldn’t risk driving because even prior to this I had a few instances where I had to pull over. Occasionally I would be physically sick or in a state of nausea. I would wake up in the night and the room would be spinning. I came away from work and digital technology and took a long break.
Professionally, I ended up losing and ending writing contracts because I had no one else to pick them up. I went for tests, and was put on a variety of medications, given physiotherapy, prescribed a daily routine of breathing exercises and ordered to rest and get my eyesight tested. This effectively put me out of action for four months leading up to the eve of the next election in May 2019. If I didn’t have such a strong network around me I would most likely, no longer be active today. My family and Labour party activists were my crutch during this period and I am extremely grateful for that support.
With the election approaching fast I had considered stepping away and even wondered if I would ever fully recover. I was encouraged to wait and carry on and to see how I was nearer to selections. By March I was having better days and bad days. I was able to go for longer walks with lots of rest breaks. I couldn’t risk much more and I recall one time being escorted to the council chamber for a vote and was set up at the back on a special chair with a neck rest wearing sunglasses. I did very little physical campaigning for the election early on aside being driven about to get the odd photograph to go with our Labour pledges.
I had started to recover in earnest by April and no longer wore sunglasses all day after having my eyes tested and purchasing prescription rose tinted glasses that reduces light pollution. Once I was confident that the vertigo was not going to embarrass me, I managed to get out door knocking with others and more and more. One time I was so happy to be out and about and myself again, I was literally jogging from door to door with the Labour team. I campaigned and door knocked right up to the last minute of the last day and later the next day when the count was in, I was delighted to be re-elected for another term with renewed fitness and energy. However there were lessons to be learnt from this experience and there would be mixed emotion at the local election with the loss of many good colleagues which indeed was also a precursor of what was to come at the General Election.
Red Wall and Moving forward
Labour lost heavily at the May 2019 local election and lost 13 seats. We were left with 15 councillors. Locally, Labour were still the biggest group (just) but not enough to run the council which was eagerly snapped up by the “Lindies” (A coalition of the ‘Pro Brexit’ Independent group and propped up by the ‘Pro EU’ Lib Dem group). It was clear the party had fallen out of favour for a number of reasons not least because of the establishment’s and broader public’s absolute dislike and distrust of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership but in this area and in equal measure, the resolute desire to be out of the EU which was wholly rejected by the Redcar Labour MP. Unsurprisingly the combination would be Labour’s downfall in Redcar & Cleveland and across the North East ‘Red Wall’ constituencies when a snap General Election was called. After what was a disastrous election campaign where door knocking was as an unpleasant an experience as I have ever had, I felt that all the good work Labour had done locally in the borough may well not be enough to prevent a total collapse in support. And this proved to be the case. At the general election in December we lost our anti-Brexit Labour MP Anna Turley, to a Tory candidate who didn’t even want to stand in Redcar.
Following that disastrous result my peers elected me to lead the Labour Group. This I have done now for the past year in which we have spent working together, communicating and bonding and holding the administration to account. And they inspire me. I am so fortunate to be surrounded by not only experienced and assertive colleagues but also active community volunteers fighting for their residents. I work at a different pace now and try to ensure what, we do is as a group with the opportunity to contribute on relevant items of interest. Our focus is to our wards and to ensure our areas and the residents are not neglected. We will scrutinise this administration, ask the questions required over their actions and check they are active and challenging the government at every turn to release the necessary funding in order to service all the sectors where it is desperately needed. We will ensure that democracy is played out and when it isn’t – it is called out.
And we fight on and we will fight back. We will never forget how this government stripped our borough of £100million+ for over a decade at the cost of many services and at the loss of over 1000 council staff. We will stand beside the NHS, police, schools, social care, councils, the ports, postal service, fire service, prison service, the unions, RNLI, transport, libraries, employers, workers and independent businesses, landlords, tenants and homeowners and the many charities, community groups and trusts who make such a difference to lives and rely on funding to function. And we will never forget how the Independent Group when in opposition, opposed every rise in council tax, year on year, but in administration they put up council tax in their very first year.
Yes we took a hard hit but we dusted ourselves off on day one and remain on and in the business of Redcar and Cleveland.