Three tips for local government in 2014

Robert Ashton 1It was when we stopped at Peterborough to change trains that I realised I was witnessing a Christmas journey. You see I was with three wise men and we were heading towards something bright.

We were visiting Shine in Leeds. If you’ve not visited before, you must. For 20 years it was an abandoned, derelict school in an unsexy part of town. Today it’s a beacon of hope and aspiration; a thriving community and enterprise centre run by inspirational social entrepreneur Todd Hannula.

But why three wise men? Well I’ve been commissioned by a town council to help them take over a redundant school here in Norfolk. As you’d expect, there’s a long line of community groups wanting to use the space. What’s missing is enterprise; and that’s my task. And so I was taking three councillors to see what was possible. They are my three wise men.

What fascinated me was the banter between them. Two were also county councillors, one Labour and the other UKIP. The third had been leader of the Lib Dems at county before stepping down. It was a unique experience; a day in the company of three with very different political persuasions.

Now I don’t do party politics. My task is to help passionate people realise their entrepreneurial dreams. Politics in my experience can too often get in the way. Success usually comes from doing what’s right for the people, not toeing the party line. My guys were experienced and respected politicians. How would they behave?

By the time we reached Doncaster I was reminded of those recent photos of Obama and Bush travelling together to Mandela’s funeral. You may remember the shots showed a very convivial and relaxed pair, both of course familiar with the comfort and luxury or Air Force One. And yet politically they are rivals.

There was slightly less luxury aboard our East Coast train. But the conviviality was evident all the same. Crisps were shared freely, although I found no correlation between political colour and preferred flavour. (I’d expected UKIP to like Bovril and Labour perhaps cheese & onion).

But to be serious, it was the wisdom of their focus that most won my admiration. ‘We only argue at election time’, said one, ‘and then not too seriously!’ Indeed there was political banter, inevitably around immigration. But what united the three was their determination to get the best deal for their town and the folk who live there.

Of course it helps to have a common enemy. In this case there was united agreement that the higher levels of local government did not give their town a fair crack of the whip. Their determination to see a fairer deal for their town united them; with only periodic elections forcing them to polarise towards their political ideals. Why can’t Westminster politics be like this?

We were coming from the east too and to conclude the metaphor need to bear gifts. So here they are, three tips for all local politicians as they face the challenges 2014 will surely present:

  1. Focus more on those who elected you than the party that selected you;
  2. Remember that what worked in the past probably won’t work in the future;
  3. Visit places where what you want to do is already being done and learn from the experience – and the mistakes – of others!



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