10 min read

Stroud Elections Focus: Community Independents

Stroud Elections Focus: Community Independents
Cllr Robin Layfield (Community Independents, Rodborough) in the garden at Ebley Mill

Robin Layfield Community Independents Group Leader is interviewed by Laurie Davies

ROBIN LAYFIELD IS CURRENTLY a district councillor for Rodborough. He has been the leader of Community Independents for the last year, taking over when the previous leader Doina Cornell became Chair of Council. The group was formed in 2022 when he, along with 3 others, resigned from the Labour Party, triggering seismic changes in the administration of the district council.

He’s taken on the challenge well, which has also seen him recruit three new candidates, all women, to the group which he’s obviously keen to tell me all about during our conversation. All the original members of the group, apart from Robin, are standing down. The new candidates will be standing in new areas too, so they have a lot of work to do but Robin doesn’t seem too phased.

We meet over Zoom on a Thursday and Robin has had a busy day in council meetings and his morning duties as the local lollipop man.

We start our conversation with three straightforward questions I have asked all the leaders. His favourite hill is an easy one for Robin as a resident of Rodborough, the common being one of his favourite places and just up the hill from home. When he was young, he was keen to be an architect but it didn’t work out "because I was crap at drawing!" he says. Robin doesn’t have a lot of free time to relax, with a young family, his day job and council business but when he does, he loves settling down to watch a good series on TV with his partner Siobáin. He has recently watched ‘Kin’ - an Irish gangster drama on BBC and highly recommends it.

Outnumbered and outgunned - a crime family face a seemingly impossible gangland war.

What about the diversity of candidates across all parties? Do they fully represent the diversity of Stroud?

My first question for Robin is about the diversity of the council, whether it fully represents Stroud and what can be done to create a more representative council. Robin tells me this is an issue that is very close to his heart, from his answer its clear that it is:

“I’m on the EDIE [Equality, Diversity, Inclusion & Equity] Working Group. And it's something that we feel needs more work. It’s a given that the council is not fully representative.
“There are people that feel like [local government politics] is an alien world that they don't quite understand. You know, with the best will in the world, a new councillor will come into that chamber and feel like a total imposter because there's so much formality.”

“I think there are a lot of barriers to inclusion and certainly there are number of issues when you look at more diverse communities around trust in public institutions and not wanting to be a part of all that.

“There's a real lack of people of colour and in the council gender representation is quite unbalanced. There are a lot of older men in the council - don't get me wrong, older people have a lot of lived experience to bring but what about the experiences of younger people?

“Young families, for example, who have different needs, I think, if they don't get a seat at the table, if they don't get to speak then who's listening to them? So yeah, there are problems with the council being fully representative and God knows I wish it was more representative.”

Tell me about your new candidates

MY NEXT QUESTION for Robin is around the changes to candidates standing in the different seats across the Stroud District for this election. Does he any specific candidates from his party he wants to tell me about?

Robin doesn’t just want to talk about his candidates, he’s keen to look at the bigger picture and looking at other parties that have promising new candidates too.

“It's going to make for an interesting election. We're looking at 20 to 30 current councillors either standing down or not being elected. So, a huge amount of change.”
“A key point I would like to make, other political parties are fielding 51 candidates, I think with the best will in the world, no one's got 51 fantastic candidates, I think it's a shame that people are being nominated, when they may not be ready or prepared or even want to do it.”

“I'm really excited because we have three super candidates, there is Charlie MICHELL (standing in Cainscross), who's my co-host on Stroud Imagines, she has done a lot of work with neurodiversity and inclusion. She’s absolutely brilliant, I’m huge fan of her work.

“Helen ELLIOTT-BOULT (Rodborough), who's come up through Rodborough Parish Council, and who helped to lead Rodborough through the pandemic, she cut her teeth on that and has done a lot of work, again, around community, the warm spaces and the HAF programme, really community minded.

“And Thea PILIKIAN (for Stroud Slade Ward), who came to us quite late in the day, she's very involved with community hubs, the RYSE and Kid's Stuff, so I'm really pleased with all of them.”

Stroud Community Independents launch election campaign | Stroud Times
Stroud District Community Independents have been at the heart of the District Council’s decision making since the group was formed in July 2022.

Robin then spent some time talking about other candidates in other political parties that he believes have lots of potential, with special mentions of Fraser DAHDOUH for Labour and Cate JAMES-HODGES the Green Party.

If Community Independents were to form part of a Co-operative Alliance, what would be your priorities?

THE NEXT QUESTION FOR Robin is what would be his three top priorities to undertake at council level if he is re-elected:

“That's a great question. Our top priorities, Cost of Living, I think its affecting people far more than anyone gives it credit. And I know we're doing a lot of work with community hubs. And I think that's the building the foundation for the future. Those places are really important, and we need to really support them.
“I have a strong interest in EDI and inclusion in general. And I know that's more than matched by the leadership of the council, particularly the CEO, Kathy O'Leary, who's an EDI champion for the Southwest.

“If we were to do a wish list, I really want us to challenge so-called ‘Minimum Service Levels’. I think this is a really damaging and divisive policy that the government has forced through, and I hope the Council will take a firm stand and not apply them.”

Editor's Note
The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023 is a piece of legislation that is designed to undermine the human right for anyone to withdraw their labour by ensuring that a minimum level of service is available when a strike takes place.

TUC agrees ‘non-compliance’ strategy against anti-strike laws
UK government gave itself powers to enforce minimum service levels during industrial action by public service workers

What can the district council actually do? Isn't it what happens in Westminster that matters?

FOR THE NEXT QUESTION I put it to Robin that sometimes people say that there's not much councils can do and it's all about what happens nationally and what his take was on that;

“I entirely disagree with the proposition that there's little the councils can do simply because the government keeps asking us to do more and more with less and less, they don't give us the finance to do it.

“But they ask us to do more.

“And I think we do what we can with what we have, I think we do that very effectively. You know, we've got social housing, I'd love to see the government, a progressive government, write off our HRA debt, the money that we borrowed to build and buy social housing in the first place, I think that will be a really productive and progressive measure.

“And it would, it would probably free up a lot of councils across the country that have far bigger housing stocks from government imposed shackles of debt.

“So, I think there's a lot we can do. In local politics, the town and parish councils are so busy with their communities, as is the district council. I think without an active district council that was really considering everyone's needs, we would be in a lot of trouble, a lot more than we could possibly imagine.”

What about council finances?

WE THEN WENT ON TO TALK about council finances, with national picture of councils going bankrupt as well as the challenges for the communities of Stroud district with the cost-of-living crisis and what he would like to see happen to in the face of both those challenges:

“Okay, so we are very lucky. I think, with this council, we've got an excellent section 151 - Head of Resources - Officer in Andrew Cummings whose maths keep us on top of all of our finances, I think we're in a good place.

“But I think we'd need to push government to do more.

“I think we are doing some progressive work, We've doubled council tax rates for empty properties and we've closed down a loophole for holiday rentals.

“So, they can either take a council tax increase, or we charge business rates, which is how it should be. These are all progressive measures that will go some way to freeing up housing for those that need it.

“People need somewhere to live, and we need to be building it or allowing it to be built.”

“So, we are doing all that work on the local plan as well, which, you know, despite some sites being unpopular, and a lot of challenges, particularly from the opposition, but people need somewhere to live.

Stratford Park Leisure Centre

THE STRATFORD PARK LEISURE CENTRE is being taken back into local council control. What do you think about this, and what do you think should happen to improve or maybe protect certain aspects of it?

I think we do a great job with The Pulse in Dursley and I know there's a lot of dissatisfaction with the way the Leisure Centre has been run particularly over COVID when it was wasn't as available as it could have been.

We will have an improved membership system and better facilities. What I'm most pleased about is that my colleague, Cllr Trevor Hall (Dursley) fought hard for the workers to come in on the local government scheme, rather than being employed separately. This gives them far better pay and rights and I’m really proud of that piece of work that he did.”

The Local Plan

WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES AND opportunities around the local plan? Do you think? What would be your priorities in relation to that?

“So, the challenges are that it is being challenged! We've been given a ten month pause in the Inspection, to come back with a Joint Action Plan.

“There's some really detailed work to be done. The obstacles the Local Plan have faced are to do with infrastructure, but totally out of Stroud District Council's control, because we don't lay down highways, we don't command massive government infrastructure spend. But what we can do is work with other local authorities and with the Highways Agency to put a plan in place.

“And that's exactly what we're doing. We need to work with the housing developers on access but it's all possible. It's all achievable. And I think the challenge is, if a local plan doesn't go through, and we get reset back to square one, and developers can run riot, there's no control on building. Any appeals against planning decisions are likely to be granted without a Local Plan in place.

The future of the Co-operative (or any) Alliance

OUR FINAL QUESTION IS concerned with the possible future alliances on the council after the 2nd May election, who Robin would feel comfortable forming alliances with and if there are any parties he wouldn’t work with.

“I've thought about this a lot over the last couple of weeks. If it's all four of us, we've got a small group. But Greens are going all out and they want to get a Green majority. I think there's a huge benefit to having more than one party in charge the council, I think the Co-operative Alliance works really well.

“Collaborative policymaking is a very positive thing that comes out of Council, and when I look across the chamber, I think, you know, we're all working together for the benefit of Stroud. Yes, there's very, very few things that all parties find desperately objectionable.”

I think the big question that everyone's asking is, would Labour be prepared to go into alliances where it's not in the leadership?”

Find out more about the Community Independent 2024 campaign

We are a group of independent councillors and community leaders across Stroud District, who are here to put people before politics.

Read profiles of candidates in your ward, as well as for the Police & Crime Commissioner at Democracy Club's Who Can I Vote For?

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