In the first in a new series of big interviews with prominent people in our area, The Interchange interviews Toby Savage – leader of South Gloucestershire Council.
We sent Andy Wynn to talk to Toby about his quick rise to leadership, Brexit and his passion for local politics in the first of a two-part interview.
It was a seemingly fast rise from Conservative councillor for Longwell Green to leader of the council just three years later in May 2018, but the speed at which Toby took on his role was one of the first discussion points. Whilst he agrees the period was shorter than others have experienced, Toby feels his wealth of experience working within the community played a significant role: “I had previously worked as an officer within the council for several years,” he explains, “I also volunteered as a Special Constable for four years and have been involved in various other areas.
“I’ve always been interested in Public Services and getting stuck into issues, especially in South Gloucestershire as it’s where I live, where I grew up, and where my family and friends live. Having the opportunity to get involved in all of the issues that affect people in South Gloucestershire is at the heart of that,” Toby continues.
When the chance arose to put himself forward as a councillor, in 2015, Toby felt he had the right credentials for the role. And, whilst he’s aware that his background, particularly his role within the council, helped him gain his elected role, Toby believes his varied experiences played a key part.
“It occasionally happens – ex-officers going into local government – although it is fairly rare that I’m a councillor for the same council in which I worked,” he says, and goes on to explain that adjusting to life in the public sector can be a challenge.
A number of councillors only have private sector experience and they bring different kinds of skills – which really benefit the council as a whole,” says Toby. “However, it can take a period of time for them to adjust to the additional scrutiny and procedures, (but) having a range of backgrounds does provide the richest and broadest possible depth of experience and skills to call upon when thinking of new ways of doing things or improving services.”
With Prime Minister, Theresa May, facing a challenge to her leadership just prior to The Interchange’s interview with Toby, the timing led onto the subject of how the pressures and dramas within national government can play a part on the local political outlook.
“It is always a risk with local elections that national issues end up dominating and overshadowing local issues, which I would say are more important to the day to day lives of residents in South Gloucestershire.”
And the focus on local issues is clearly where Toby keeps his attention.
“Councillors each have their own motivations, for some it is national or international issues, but for me it is purely local issues. My focus, and that of my colleagues, is on issues that are relevant to South Gloucestershire, principally, a commitment to drive up standards in local schools and improve educational achievement for our young people; continued improvements to our roads, our streets and our environment and finally, a commitment to delivering value for money in all that we do.
The pertinent question regarding Brexit for many is simply ‘how will it affect me?’ So that’s exactly what we wanted Toby to tell us with regard to South Gloucestershire.
“The council has a business continuity team that works on contingency planning for a whole range of scenarios from major floods to fire, and is also looking at the potential local implications of Brexit,” he explains. “There have been discussions internally, and with partners, around different Brexit scenarios, but the big challenge is that no one really knows what is going to happen, or what the circumstances will be.
“We don’t really know what scenario we are having to plan for, a lot of the predictions and projections since the referendum have turned out not to be correct and so when we hear predictions for the future it is difficult to accept those, it is a difficult situation to plan in with the level of uncertainty.
“However, we do have a good track record of having plans and people in place to be mobilised and able to respond to incidents unforeseen in nature.”
Whilst it may seem at the forefront of people’s thoughts, Toby says most of the constituents he talks to want to know what their council is doing about the things that impact their everyday lives – like potholes or demonstrating value for more.
“I would say I spend a minimum of half a day each week knocking on doors, say four hours, sometimes more.”
In fact, being ‘on the doorstep’ is a significant part of Toby’s role, he says: “I would say I spend a minimum of half a day each week knocking on doors, say four hours, sometimes more. I recently spent a whole day in Charlton Hayes, knocking on doors with a couple of residents to understand what it is like living in this new community, and asking how the council can affect their day to day lives.
“I’ll generally spend additional time out and about when I have a quiet afternoon, am on top of e-mails and casework and if I’ve no other meetings, I would rather be out asking questions than just waiting for people to contact me,” he explains.
Risk and Reward
Toby’s passion for local community is fundamental to the role he plays at the council. He gave up his job in communications within the private sector when he became leader. “I took the view that I wanted to wholly focus on local issues, liaising with our MP’s, councillors, police or the NHS to try and address local challenges. That is a full-time role. If the voters at the local elections in May want us to continue then we will carry on working hard,” he says.
Should the voters no longer wish for Toby to to represent Longwell Green as their councillor, or should the Conservatives no longer hold a council majority, Cllr Savage would once again become Toby Savage, an unemployed resident of Longwell Green.
Similarly, his own party could decide they’d like someone else to lead the council if they didn’t like the way he has handled his responsibilities.
“You don’t go into politics if you want a safe, stable and secure career.”
Toby is clear: “I might be in a position after polling day that I am out of work, it is quite possible. However, you don’t go into politics if you want a safe, stable and secure career, you do so as it is a fascinating world, you have the ability to change things at whatever level you are at. Politics is the only way to get things done, I have 277,000 bosses, I work for them.”