James Cole is one of the three West Berkshire Councillors who were elected for the newly-created ward of Hungerford and Kintbury in 2019. Penny Post caught up with him to ask him a few questions about his background, his role as a district councillor and his views on challenges faced by West Berkshire, ending with a brief foray into the world of Desert Island Discs.
When did you first become a West Berkshire Council Councillor?
In May 2015.
What jobs have you had (or still do have)?
Quite a few! Jackaroo, encyclopaedia salesman, ski-lift operator, bakery worker, sweet-factory worker, furniture mover, brickie’s labourer and farm worker were some of the more casual ones, almost all in Australia. Then I spent a long time as a reinsurance broker based in London, travelling the Middle East, North Africa and at one point South East Asia. I was still a Middle Eastern traveller at the time of the Iraq-Iran war and by then my specialities included construction (though at a time when much of the local money was now going into missiles instead of building things).
Partly as a result of this and partly because I opened my mouth too widely and asked awkward questions, I got into the IT side of the company. Initially I was chairing committees, helping to see major new systems through as “User Systems Project Manager” and generally trying to ensure that the users got what they wanted rather than what the IT people thought they did. To be honest, I never thought I would ever have anything to do with IT but I found it interesting and was asked to move fully into that side as Systems Support Director, managing various parts of the IT operation in the subsidiary I worked for.
When I left them I became a consultant Project Manager in the same sort of insurance/reinsurance field. I am still involved with a couple of companies in this area: one builds software that specialises in reinsurance catastrophe modelling (for example predicting earthquake damage); the other provides a simple risk-management system (which I also use occasionally as a risk management consultant).
As far as the council is concerned, other than ordinary Committee memberships I’ve been the Chairman of Governance and Ethics and the Vice-Chair of the Overview and Scrutiny Management Commission, I’m currently the Chairman of the Licensing Committee, I am West Berkshire’s Heritage Champion and I represent the Council on the Building Control Board and the JPPC (the committee that oversees the Public Protection Partnership).
What a lot of jobs. Anything else to declare?
Yes. It’s good to get your hands dirty as well – I mean literally, not metaphorically, of course. Other things that I do or have done to make a living or fill my life include or have included forestry, selling firewood, hedge-planting, hedge-laying and related coppicing and the renovation and maintenance of let (and un-let) buildings.
How would you define what a District Councillor does?
At its most basic, a District Councillor represents the residents of the Councillor’s ward in decisions made at Council, in its committees and by its officers.
How all the work gets done needs a longer answer. Also, it must vary a lot by ward.
Firstly, there are things that a Councillor has to do – attend Full Council, attend the committees to which they are appointed, attend the now-considerable amount of training (and no doubt that Councillor’s party-political meetings).
Then there are things that are “encouraged”, like attending your parish or town council meetings. In Hungerford and Kintbury ward we have a Town Council with many meetings, a parish that meets monthly, five parishes that meet bi-monthly and two parish meetings that meet when necessary, so I hope people will understand that it’s not possible for me to be at every single one. At present there is just one Community Forum (the old Neighbourhood Action Group or NAG) that involves this ward – the SW Newbury one which includes Enborne – so I attend this from time to time too. There’s also the Barton Court Liaison group that meets a couple of times a year (this has been overseeing the closing down of the old waste transfer station just outside Kintbury).
Finally, there are things that are slightly more “voluntary” in the form of Chair/Vice Chair positions (which take more meetings, more time), working groups small or large that are formed as necessary, and attendance at Executive and/or Operations Board. There are also a number of community events that councillors are invited to in their official capacity, there are a lot of other external activities that councillors may find themselves prodded into. Of course a councillor who is an Executive Member can find themselves doing something that looks and often feels very much like a full-time job.
To return to basics, as well as representing residents on committees and the like, a District Councillor is expected to respond to residents’ requests for help. Sometimes a Councillor can make things happen, break logjams in the system, sometimes not.
What have been the biggest changes you’ve seen in West Berkshire since you’ve been on the Council?
I will answer this from a Council-oriented point of view. Five things strike me.
First, the Council has moved from “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” to deliberately looking for better ways of doing things.
Secondly, there has been a change of thought process across the Council towards looking for ways for the Council to bring in more income, including of course the purchase of commercial property to generate income
Thirdly, there is the move across the county, and the country as a whole, in the direction of being more environmentally friendly; it is not a new idea in West Berkshire.
Fourthly, being able to see off some unwanted large developments as a result of getting the Housing Sites Allocations DPD agreed
Finally, I’m often struck by (and am often reminded by others) of the sad state of our roads. However, we’re beginning to see this improving again – at least now I can tell commentators to look across borders at other areas that are at least as bad as us!
What would you say was the achievement as Councillor of which you’re most proud?
Helping to ensure that two large proposed developments in Kintbury lost their appeals. They were not part of the agreed plan and the village did not want them. I am not against development as such but it is a matter of balance and in these two cases the balance had to be against development.
What is the main thing that you hope to accomplish in this role over the next four years?
There are two things and of course they are to a point related. The most important thing for me is to help West Berkshire along its journey to Carbon Neutrality – it is going to be a difficult road.
The second is to help the Council see its way to more change in the ways things are done, leading to more efficiency and less waste (which marries with my first point). Of course such changes should lead to better customer service.
It’s well known that all local councils have faced some unprecedented financial challenges recently. What challenges do you think the next four years will provide?
Sadly, much of it is about money. We should now be on top of our Adult Social Care budget in the sense of being able to model the likely real cost, but we cannot stop the actual cost rising rapidly with our aging population. There will be enormous costs to change the way we live and work to a more environmentally friendly one, but the challenge there will be far more than just financial – for example much will be about encouraging people to change the way they act. A further challenge, specific to Hungerford and Kintbury because of its physical size, will be to cover the ward with just three councillors
Imagine for a moment that you’re on Desert Island Discs. What would be the one piece of music that you’d want to have with you?
Difficult – I happily listen to both pop and classical, sometimes jazz and country; to pick a single piece that I would want to listen to again and again is difficult. I think I would pick something like Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge over Troubled Water.
And the book?
Something long – I read quite fast. I wouldn’t mind reading Lord of the Rings again one day. Being stuck on a desert island should give me the time for that.
And the luxury object?
A solar-powered fridge.