As the new Leader of Douglas Council, Councillor Claire Wells is taking over at a time when the future of local authorities is once again a General Election issue, the lines between national and local politics have become more blurred than usual and the services provided by local and central governments are facing up to the realities of a drop in income and increase in spending during the pandemic.
Mrs Wells takes over as leader having most recently served as Chair of the Housing Committee during what has been a period of major challenges for the island’s largest housing authority which she and her team in the department dealt with, lowering the number of vacant properties, improving the standard of housing and engaging more with their tenants.
Coming off the back of a five-year term, many local authorities are starting to put together how they see the next year and in turn the next four years until the next scheduled elections in 2025. Mrs Wells said that her initial focus is on building relationships between the Council and the ratepayers of Douglas, improving people’s understanding of what the Council is responsible for and where it spends their money.
She said: ‘It’s not always perceived as we are providing a service in what we do and I think I’d like to shout out a lot more about what we do because we do provide a good service. We’re dumped on quite a lot by central government in relation to things that they take off us or dictate to us and I think there is always a misunderstanding with the public as to what we do, what we do differently and also what we’re responsible for, what the government is responsible for and how what we are responsible for is dictated to us by the government.
‘It is a very murky ground and I sometimes think that making that clear to the public by talking a lot more about what we do and what we achieve and where their money is being spent. It is all very easy saying we want you to pay your rates because of this and the other but I don’t think ratepayers always understand where their rates are going, whether they want to or not is up to them but making that information available to them is quite important.’
Before the local authority elections, Gef took a trip to Castletown for the outdoor hustings which were held in the town square. Throughout that evening’s debate, some candidates, who are not board members, said they wanted to see more powers and money from central government be given to the local authority to allow them to work with their communities to deliver on more of what they want to see to improve the island’s towns and villages.
However, when Gef put this suggestion to Mrs Wells, she said: ‘I think the power is there but we aren’t helped by them. I think the government can do more to let us help them and they can do more to help us do more of the things that we should be doing and I think that the perfect example of that at the moment is the issue around libraries, I think it’s just a perfect example of something that is run well, dealt with well by local authorities but somebody in government decided that they needed to get involved and interfere really. It’s the only way I can put that and I think they kind of pick and choose what it is they want us to do and if they can’t be bothered doing something then they dump it on us or if they don’t want to pay for something, they dump it on us. But if we’re doing something well, then they want to be involved in that and have their name written on it and to a certain degree if we had the four plus one model [four regional authorities plus Douglas], it would make a very big difference and allow other authorities to do things for the people around them, the people they look after and it would give us a much bigger voice.
‘Douglas is always looked at as the shouting authority that always moans about everything and everybody else just kind of gets on with it but I think as time is going on, they’re realising that yes we moan about it but we’re not always wrong and we’re trying to do the best that we can for the community that we look after. It is really difficult because these things are just dumped on us, which we have no control over and it would be good if we had fewer authorities so that we all had a joint bigger voice to go to the government to say “well now we are this four plus one and these are the things we are able to do”. So if somebody looked at the bigger picture and take away the egos from all of the local authorities or government or whatever it is that is stopping this from happening if they could just take the egos out and look at the practicalities, I think there could be savings to be made but unfortunately at the moment there just isn’t.
‘I do understand that some authorities, particularly the smaller ones, would be resistant to that because it would mean an increase in their rates. I understand that there are some very small local authorities who don’t do as much as the bigger ones do. There will be winners and losers, some will have to pay more and others, by joining other authorities will possibly get to pay less, I’m not sure about the actual statistics but if they could bring it together then there would be gains for everybody, we just have to get the egos out of it.’
One of the more publicly noticeable losses from Council funding in recent years has been because of the cancellation of the TT with the Council no longer receiving its income from renting out parts of Noble’s Park and the Bottleneck car park. However, Mrs Wells said that while the Council expects to see the return of these events, they won’t be counting their chickens before they hatch and spending money before they have it.
‘I’m not sure how it’s all going to pan out and I tend to always err on the side of caution,’ said Mrs Wells. ‘My thinking is that when we are looking at budgets, we should never plan for what we don’t have, so if we haven’t got the money and we don’t know what is coming in then we shouldn’t be planning what we’re going to do with it.
‘I kind of feel that the TT brings in a lot of money for the businesses of Douglas and that is what is important but being able to support them through what has been a very difficult two years is what I think the authority has done very well. I can only hope that once TT comes back, it will boost those businesses more and help them move forward. I think we’ve lost some good businesses in the town but on the other side of it, there have been so many new starters too, the Mayor said just the other day how he’s opened so many stores in the past few months, it’s encouraging actually to see that happening within the town and as time goes on I can only hope that we can continue to build on what they’ve started and assist them in that way. And if TT comes along and gives us more income then that would be great but I don’t want to count our chickens before they hatch, I want to see what comes in and make plans at that point.’
Mrs Wells takes over as leader after three years as Chair of the Housing Committee, she explained how she sees her time in charge of the department and how she wants to take that focus to run the whole Council.
Mrs Wells said: ‘The reality of what we’ve done in housing is changing the focus. I think that focus has been more on the people and the relationship that we were trying to create between people that live in our houses and it’s not always easy to achieve that because you’re so bogged down with the rules and regulations and to be fair it is very black and white, there isn’t much leeway to move around it but in a strange way I think Covid has actually helped us change that focus on what we do and engage with the tenants a lot more.
‘That’s something that is really important for the Council the focus of the Housing Department, in particular, is about creating homes for people in housing need and that’s a very different focus to what it was before to just providing houses and making sure the income was coming in. So great steps have been taken over the past three years and I’m very proud of what has become of the Housing Department and where they go and the focus they have and I think part of what we’ve achieved there is what I’m hoping to bring to the rest of the Council, a sense of pride in what we do and cooperative working between officers and the Council members. I think that relationships are really important, we’re there to work together and of late I think there’s been some rubbing of personalities and I’d really like to make sure that we work a lot better together because when we do great things can be achieved.’
Leading Your Own Way
Across the island, many local authorities have their new leaders in place, some new to the role, some returning after a break and some put straight back in. But in Douglas, Mrs Wells has a different challenge, replacing David Christian who had served as Leader for about two decades. But far from being daunted by this, Mrs Wells says she will use her experience of working with Mr Christian, but ultimately lead the Council in her own way.
She said: ‘David has done an absolutely amazing job and at the end of the day he’s a legend and I don’t think there’s anybody who could come in and do what he did. You’ve got to come in and take on the role and do what you can do and that’s what I’m going to do. I can’t do what David did, I don’t have the background for that and I don’t think I’ve ever really done anything with the shadow of somebody else within Council, so I took over Housing from David Ashford and I definitely did that completely different to how he was doing it. I had no issues with how either David was doing things, but I think I’m my own person and I will do things in my own quiet way and I’m hoping that the changes that we made in Housing and how successful that has become will carry on as I move on as the Leader of the Council and be able to instil that quiet just getting on with it and getting a job done in the same way I have done with Housing.’