In the latest in our series of interviews, Penny Post recently (March 2021) caught up with Lynne Doherty, one of the two ward members for Newbury Speen and, since May 2019, the Leader of West Berkshire Council. Planning, the pandemic, Sandleford, executive questions, government policy, education and ABBA are just some of the matters we covered.
When did you first become a West Berkshire Council Councillor?
In May 2015.
What made you want to become one?
I was running a local family-support charity and became dissatisfied with the level of service offered to the families I was working with. I decided that in order to get this changed I would need to get more involved by standing as a Councillor.
When did you become Leader of West Berkshire Council?
In May 2019.
What jobs have you had (or still do have)?
I started my career in the private sector working in sales and marketing roles for large corporates such as Burmah Castrol and O2. Following the birth of my second child, I moved to the voluntary sector and ran Home-Start West Berkshire for seven years. I have recently left a role I had at Prior’s Court and am currently working full-time as Leader of West Berkshire Council (WBC).
How would you define what a District Councillor does?
My role is to represent the residents on Newbury Speen on WBC. This can be with regards to local matters directly impacting my area such as the safety of local roads, the maintenance of schools and the impact of potential development. In the wider context I am their voice in decisions that would impact on the entire area. For example making sure WBC provides a good service to those that need social care, looking after our natural environment and spending council-tax payers’ money wisely.
How would you define what the Leader of West Berkshire Council does?
In West Berkshire we operate a structure for the Council known as Leader and Cabinet. As Leader, I’m able to appoint my Cabinet (Executive) which, as the main decision making body, has responsibility for policies, plans and strategies. This means I’m responsible for setting the overall direction of WBC’s strategy which needs to work towards our vision for the district as a great place to live, work and learn, where everyone has the chance to thrive. I need to ensure that decisions are taken that will provide this and then monitor the progress of the delivery of actions to meet the stated aim.
On a day-to-day basis, I ensure that I have a wide and comprehensive understanding of all areas WBC operates in so that when strategic decisions are required I am able to take a holistic view of the impact these would have on everyone. I am always conscious that, as Leader, I need to balance the needs of all residents and especially advocate for those who may not be heard. I work closely with WBC’s officers, who guide me on the impact a decision may have, then use my own knowledge and experience to help reach a decision that I think will best serve residents.
How well do you think West Berkshire Council has reacted to the pandemic?
I have had lots of positive feedback from many sources who tell me they think WBC has responded very well to the pandemic. I agree with this: when I reflect on all we have done over the last 12 months (I have personally been involved in WBC’s response daily since last March) I do think we have done a good job in difficult circumstances. I think there are three key factors that have enabled this to be the case.
- We have an emergency plan that guides our response. This has created a working structure that enables the right people to be in the room (or the Zoom) at the right time to make the decisions in a timely manner to mitigate the impact of Covid on our residents.
- Our officers, as dedicated public servants, have gone above and beyond their normal roles to tirelessly do whatever is necessary to support our residents. This has been a real team effort and I will never tire of thanking them all.
- Local knowledge means that we know where help may be needed most, knowing which other key partners to work with and knowing our communities has been essential to tailor our response, efficiently use resources and communicate with our residents and businesses.
What, if anything, might the government have done differently to have made the local response to the pandemic more effective?
I think the government could have put more trust in us earlier to provide what is right for our own areas. I have throughout this had a good working relationship with the Ministry for Housing, Communities & Local Government which has advocated for local government and shown confidence in us. However, I think others, for example the Department of Health & Social Care, have been slower to do so. Decisions have been taken centrally without always considering the local situation, often at very short notice (or no notice) to us. However, I also realise that during a crisis it is sometimes necessary to take a more central approach to get things done.
My hope is that, as we look to recovery, more faith (followed by more funding) will be put into local government to take decisions on behalf of their residents. I believe we have shown throughout this crisis what we are capable of. I hope this will be acknowledged by a genuine transfer of more responsibility and the funds to sustain it.
Aside from Covid-19, what has been the most important issue with which you have had to deal (as a councillor and/or as Leader)?
As a councillor, by far the most important issue I have had to deal with was the ‘Inadequate’ rating of Children’s Services that was in place when I first became joined West Berkshire Council. I am very proud that we were able to turn this around at the next inspection and jumped two Ofsted grades to now be ‘Good’. Support for the most vulnerable in society is something I am passionate about so to be able to implement the changes to improve this was very rewarding.
As Leader, I would pick two (aside from Covid, as you mention). I think the most important issue was responding to our declaration of a climate emergency.This was demanding both in terms of enabling work on a realistic and responsive Environment Strategy and in balancing the sometimes conflicting need for social, economic and environmental support to residents.
Not long after I became Leader we had a peer review of the Council conducted by the Local Government Association. While recognising WBC as a solidily good local authority, it also highlighted the need for our Economic, Housing and Environment Strategies to all work together. I can assure you this is no easy task and was my greatest challenge pre-Covid.
What is the main thing that you hope to accomplish in this role over the next two years?
Pre-Covid, I would have said the delivery of the council strategy as this is built on the promises that I made to residents back in 2019. I still hope to accomplish this, but also to integrate into it additional work focused on how we help West Berkshire recover from the impacts of Covid. We have identified three priority areas so far: helping local children recover from the loss to their education and the potential impact on their wellbeing; helping to improve the health of all residents; and supporting our local economy to bounce back from the difficulties it has faced over the last year. That will also be my focus for the next two years.
Aside from the recovery from Covid-19, what do you think will be the main challenges over the next two years for West Berkshire Council (or for councils in general)?
Funding is one of the main challenges that we face. There must be a sustainable financial settlement for local government that enables us not only to continue with essential services but also invest into those areas that our residents tell us are important to them, such as the environment, core infrastructure and helping the most vulnerable in society.
With this in mind, the government must provide a long-term solution for adult social care. The current system does not work and people are left concerned and anxious as they approach their later years as to how to pay for care should they need it. We need an agreed solution that replaces the current ad hoc system.
I’d like to ask about three long-running issues in the district (the origins of which pre-date your time as Leader) which have proved problematic: the proposed development at Sandleford (which has recently been called in by the Secretary of State), the re-development of the London Road Industrial Estate and the related matter of the closure of the football ground in Faraday Road. What progress and engagement can residents expect to see on these over the next two years?
Sandleford – what I have learnt throughout my time as a Councillor is that planning is contentious. Most people recognise the fundamental need for more housin, but most do not want it near them. Sandleford is one example of many where there will be arguments for and against.
I do believe that we need to meet our housing needs for residents. This means that houses have to be built somewhere. We need to ensure a district with homes for everyone, including first -time buyers, families, retired people and key workers. I also believe the best way to do so is to have a Local Plan where planned development takes place, this way it is residents that have a say, not just the actual landowner/developer. We as the Local Authority can push for the right infrastructure to support such developments and homes that are fit for purpose.
The Council is working hard to progress with this particular planned development. I am optimistic that in the next two years agreed planning permissions will be reached. Residents will continue to be consulted through our normal planning permission processes.
London Road Industrial Estate (LRIE) – A key priority for the Council is to support businesses, to start, develop and thrive in West Berkshire. The regeneration of the LRIE is something that I am supportive of because I believe we need the right provision for local businesses to be able to expand and thrive in and to attract inward investment into West Berkshire. We do not want to lose our existing businesses to other areas and we want to encourage new businesses to consider coming to Newbury. By doing this we will have employment opportunities for our residents and a prosperous local economy.
We have just approved the development brief for this alongside additional investment in project management to progress with a phased approach to this redevelopment. We have consulted extensively on this already, including having had conversations with local businesses and existing leaseholders. In due course application for planning permissions will enable residents to feed in as per the normal planning permission process.
The Football Ground – For the reasons stated above I do not want totake any action that might potentially jeopardise the plans for the regeneration of the industrial estate. However, this is not an either/or decision: we can have both and I am committed to ensuring the Playing Pitch Strategy for all sports activity is met and believe that a suitable alternative can be found.
The last tenant of the old football ground, Newbury Football Club, has successfully carried on playing at another venue supported by the Council and there is agreement that these arrangements can remain in place until provision of a new facility. In addition, the Council has routinely requested that any football team in need of support to find a playing pitch should come forward: to date, none have.
The Playing Pitch Strategy went out to public consultation some time ago and a consultation for a proposed alternative location for the sports pitch has just been completed. All responses are currently being reviewed. I would hope to see an alternative in place within the next two years.
Last month you suggested that current system of people asking questions of the Executive (many of which were on the above-mentioned topics) was not working well and that you were hoping to reform this. Can you give me a bit more detail of what you think the current problems with the system are, and why, and what you hope to do to improve this for the benefit of residents?
I have listened to feedback from both residents and Member’s from all political sides who feel that the current formal process of pre submitting questions and attending Executive meetings did not encourage residents to partake.
As Leader I want to actively encourage people to engage with the Council and to be able to listen to them. If I am told that a formal process puts people off then I believe it is my duty to look at alternative methods. I don’t have all the answers but it is my intention to look at how we can enhance not reduce engagement. This is not about taking something away but about making it better. The current problems are as follows.
WBC’s Constitution determines 30 minutes for public questions. We sometimes run out of time. Questioners are allowed one supplementary question and get frustrated when they are unable to ask more. Others report not wanting to submit a question as the session is regarded as an arena for political activists. Residents from outside Newbury regard this session as very Newbury-centric – perhaps inevitably when you normally have to come to the Council Chamber to present your question.
In recent months, all meetings are currently virtual so you are unable to read or build rapport with people in the same way as you can in person. On the flip side, people may feel more comfortable not having to travel into the centre of Newbury.
I could go on, but what is important to me is that we have all entered a new way of doing things and it would be remiss of me not to review and adapt to this. My vision for engagement with residents is laid out in our recently adopted Communications and Engagement Strategy.
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?
ABBA – The Winner Takes it All.
And the book?
I’m a historian and love a historical novel, such as Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen.
And the luxury object?
Can I take my husband? If not my phone will have to do.
Sorry, Lynne: I don’t think Sue Lawley would see either of these as luxury objects so I can’t either: certainly not the phone, which could be used to summon help. So, I must ask you again…
Fair enough. A good supply of gin, in that case.
Tonic, ice and lemon with that?