Our senior strategic adviser, Sir Steve Bullock, former Mayor of Lewisham, gives a fascinating account of what incoming leaders, either newly elected or returning, can expect when they enter the Town Hall. For our clients, understanding these pressures will help them make better long term decisions on their projects.

Potential Leaders or Mayors will have spent the weeks running up to the election in full on campaign mode and if they win there will be celebrations to navigate.  If they are lucky, they might find a few hours on Sunday to prepare for their arrival at the Town Hall the next day.  Life is going to be different from now on – even if they are from the same party as the outgoing leaders and were serving in the cabinet.  If they are an insurgent arriving from outside the experience will be borderline surreal.

In 2002 I was elected as Mayor of Lewisham and despite having served as Leader a decade before I found the place and the people changed.  At a very human level the new leader will immediately be working with people who are used to how someone else operates and quite possibly someone they were close to so responding to the new and unknown individual can be challenging and sometimes with unintended consequences.  My predecessor had expected coffee to be served for every meeting and without thinking about it I drank it when it arrived and then started wondering why I wasn’t my usual laid-back self!

Election campaigning creates expectations and even the most careful candidate will have made pledges either in the manifesto or during the campaign which they will now need to act on but there will also be a whole slew of issues that weren’t being discussed.  There may be specific financial pressures, gaps in personnel or issues with other public services that need urgent attention. That first week will involve a lot of briefing and thinking time will be at a premium.  At the same time the new leader will be putting the cabinet together and trying to handle a range of conflicting pressures as they do so.  It can’t simply be putting the most able individuals into the slots that suit them best – it has to be a team that can help the leader win support for the inevitable difficult choices across the entirety of their party group or even across parties if that is the hand the electorate have dealt.

The Council’s AGM is an opportunity to signal how they intend to work as well as what their priorities are going to be.  A thoughtful, carefully constructed speech that sets out a plan for the next four years will be of value throughout those years but get it wrong and it will come back to haunt you.

Delivering on your promises

Then the real work begins.  Delivering some early decisions that put policy changes into effect requires working with senior officers who don’t yet know how you operate. There will be a lot of people in the borough who just want a slot in your diary to explain how they can help you do whatever it is they think needs doing.  And that is before you even think about relations with City Hall and your neighbouring boroughs.

Even an experienced councillor taking on the leadership will be surprised by some of the things they learn and have to deal with.  It can be a lonely job but there are others who are facing the same challenges and reaching out to them can be important.  On home turf it is risky to reveal that you have doubts and anxieties but talking to fellow leaders about them will reveal that this is just part of the territory you share.

Future challenges

It is easy for each generation of incoming leaders to think that they face a unique challenge but what they will face in 2022 is genuinely daunting.  Severe financial pressures and the post COVID changes to local economies, an influx of refugees from Ukraine and unresolved tensions about issues like housing developments and LTNs will be on many lists but there is a city-wide concern too.  Despite having a former mayor of London in Downing Street there is a view that sees London as a rich place living off the rest of the country rather than the economic powerhouse that drives the British economy.  Borough leaders and mayors will know better than most that even within London there are significant areas of poverty and hardship that must be addressed. There is no doubt that other parts of the nation need support through a levelling up process but if that is at the expense of recovery in the capital it will be a lose-lose outcome.  Avoiding that will need to be high on all their agendas as they settle into office in a few weeks’ time.