Interview with West Berkshire Councillor Howard Woollaston

Howard Woollaston is the District Councillor for Lambourn and also has a host of portfolio and commitments at West Berkshire Council: just reading the list of them would make many people exhausted. Penny Postcaught up with him between (virtual) meetings and asked him a few questions about his background, his experience of municipal life so far and his desert-island choices.

When did you first become a West Berkshire Council councillor?

In May 2019. Due to boundary changes, the previous Lambourn Ward was reduced in size, losing East Garston and Great Shefford, and became a single-member ward rather than having two councillors. When I was selected I was conscious that I was replacing two long-standing incumbents, both of whom had been Leader of the Council and knew exactly how things worked.

Lambourn is one of the safest Conservative areas in West Berkshire but I wasn’t taking any chances. I knocked on most of the doors in the ward and probably met and talked to about a quarter of the residents in the process. I was delighted to have won over 65% of the vote, despite the fierce and divisive post-Brexit debate that was still raging at the time. As a Remainer, but one who believed in the will of the people, I was happy to accept that we would leave the EU. I hoped (and, as things have worked out, am still hoping) for a sensibly negotiated exit deal to this.

I made no secret of my remainer credentials but one thing briefly puzzled me: I wondered as I was walking around talking to people why I was being given such a hard time by so many normally staunch supporters. I then discovered that Lambourn was the only ward in the whole of West Berkshire that voted leave. Thankfully there wasn’t a Brexit or UKIP candidate standing in the local elections…

What made you want to become a councillor?

I was lucky enough to have had, both financially and intellectually, a successful and rewarding business career. I have always been interested in politics but only at a local level. I have been heavily involved in West Berkshire Conservative Association since I retired so the idea of standing as a councillor was always a possibility. I have always thought that it is important to try and put things back into life and the community. However, as I would only ever want to become a Councillor of a ward that I lived in (my wife and I have lived in Eastbury since 2005), I never thought I would get the chance.  When I learned that both Graham Jones and Gordon Lundie had, for personal reasons, decided not to stand again, this unexpected opportunity arose. I jumped at it.

What jobs have you had (or still do have)?

I spent 39 years of my life working for Knight Frank & Rutley as was – now Knight Frank LLP – starting on the graduate scheme and ending up as a Senior Proprietary (or Equity) Partner. I worked in London on the commercial property side of the business and had various roles ranging from Office Agency and Development Consultancy to running the UK Commercial office network and for the last 15 years running the Commercial and Residential Asset Management teams looking after over £8bn of assets for clients across the UK. As you might imagine, I had my work cut out.

The deal at Knight Frank is that you have to retire at 60. In 2014 I therefore set up Hungerford Consulting and have advised a number of small businesses and charities on property matters. I became a consultant to the London Borough of Hounslow, a job which morphed into becoming Non-Executive Chairman of their trading company. This had a residential property and development company and also looked after the recycling and grounds maintenance work for the council. This was a great help in understanding how Local Authorities operate. Hounslow is a strongly Labour borough so, when I became a Conservative councillor here, it seemed best to bring that relationship to a close.

I am currently Non-Executive Chairman of a small development company focussing on student housing and residential schemes, mostly in the Midlands and North. My charitable work focuses on the Story of Christmas (SoC) of which I am honoured to be Chairman. SoC raises money for disadvantaged children and the homeless in the home counties. It is a property- and construction-backed charity, and the funds have to be allocated to specific capital projects and be properly costed and deliverable. We tend to focus on smaller charities and the things we’ve helped fund include fitting out a homeless hostels and upgrading a children’s hospice. I have been Chairman for nine years and in that time we have raised well over £5m. As with many charities, large events form a substantial part of our fundraising work so 2020 could be particularly challenging as a result of Coronavirus. A lot of attention has, rightly, been focussed on the plight of businesses, large and small, as a result of the virus. Charities will have a hard time of it as well.

How would you define what a District Councillor does?

The most important thing is to represent and help the people of Lambourn , Eastbury and the Woodlands. The case-load is massively diverse ranging from housing issues to planning applications through speeding complaints and potholes , tree and wall problems and social-care matters. To be honest this is probably the most challenging but rewarding part of the job.

What roles do you have, or have you had, at West Berkshire since you were elected?

I went straight onto the nine-person Executive of the Council. My initial portfolio was Internal Governance which covers areas such as IT , HR , revenues and benefits and legal and support services. There was a reshuffle in May 2020 after which I was moved to Public Health, Community Wellbeing , Culture and Leisure (which includes chairing the Health and Wellbeing Board). This is a demanding portfolio at the best of times and particularly so now.

Committees are also an important part of municipal life and it’s here that one needs to get down to the real detail of matters. I sit on the Western Area Planning Committee, the Asset Management Group, the Property Investment Board, the Housing Board and attend all of the Executive Meetings, Full Council Meetings as well as the Operational Board and a number of working parties and groups. To describe the work as varied would be an understatement. Many of the areas are familiar to me as a result of my background but dealing with them from a municipal level is different from anything I’d experienced. Finally, as if all these learning curves weren’t enough, I – like almost everyone on the planet – have had to become expert at (or at least able to participate in) Zoom meetings.

You must have had some preconceptions about what being a District Councillor was like: have these proved to be accurate?

No preconceptions: total ignorance, in fact. When I decided to put my hat in the ring I bought Graham Jones, one of my predecessors and the Pharmacist in Lambourn, a beer in The George to get the lowdown.

“So how many hours a week will it take up, Graham?” was one of my first questions. I had no idea what the answer might be. “Seven or eight at most,” he told me.

I don’t know if Graham was magically efficient or merely wanted to get a candidate in place, but I reckon I did well over 25 hours a week for the first nine months and a fair amount more since the Covid-19 crisis. (To be fair, Graham didn’t know that I was going onto the Executive, although I subsequently found out that he had recommended me.)

That said, I am so enjoying it and the challenges it throws at me. I am not a particularly political animal so I do find the party antics annoying at times. What I really wanted to do was to put something back into local life and this, I hope, I am managing to do.

You’ve been a District Councillor now for just over a year. Aside from Covid-19, what has been the most important issue with which you personally have had to deal? 

Difficult one to answer as there have been so many different ones to address. Planning applications tend to be the most contentious. Clearly I cannot be specific but it is probably helping people in need with their housing problems.

Just going back to Covid, I really want to pay tribute to all the voluntary groups in the area, including those who set up and those who have made donations to Lambourn Junction, which I think is just inspirational. I have done my very small bit to help. If there is one good thing to come out of this crisis it is that I think we have become a kinder and more thoughtful group of people and that our communities have become better connected. I hope this lasts.

What is the main thing that you hope to accomplish in this role over the remainder of your term of office?

More of the same, I guess. My new portfolio puts me at the very heart of the response to (and hopefully the recovery from) Covid-19. If I can help and motivate the teams to achieve that, I will think that I have done a pretty good job. Central to everything , of course, is continuing to help the residents in my ward.

It’s well known that all local councils have faced some unprecedented financial challenges recently. What challenges do you think the next three years will provide?

West Berkshire Council is in pretty good financial shape, mainly because of prudent budgeting with little waste and no vanity projects, and I have been so impressed by the professionalism and dedication of the Council Officers from top to bottom. It has allowed Council Tax increases to be contained and services to be continued, albeit sometimes in a different way.  The volunteer-led Lambourn Library is an exemplar which is being followed by other parts of the Council area: cost saving and a better service whilst allowing people to contribute to the community – what’s not to like?

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?

I think one piece of music would drive me mad as I have a very catholic taste in music ranging from classical to modern-day (with the exceptions of rap and punk). Widor’s Toccata, perhaps, if you’re making me pick one.

I am, I’m afraid. And the book?

Again, my tastes range from modern novels through to autobiographies and historical books. If I could go for as three-for-one deal, may I have the Wolf Hall trilogy?

You may. And the luxury object?

No question – an unlimited supply of good quality claret ! If I am on my own on a desert island I may as well be, if not blotto, then at least slightly merry.

So you’ll be needing a corkscrew as well, then?

Yes – good call. And an unbreakable glass if you can slip that in as well. Even though there’ll be no one there to see me, I’d rather not have to drink it out of the bottle…

• For more interviews (including with other West Berkshire Councillors), please click here.

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