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Bury St Edmunds councillor Cliff Waterman on ‘rollercoaster’ first year as West Suffolk Council leader – and what’s next

“Looking back, did I totally understand what I was taking on? Possibly not,” says Cliff Waterman with a wry smile.

It is just over a year since voters fired a shockwave through West Suffolk Council and swept away the Conservatives’ long-held majority.

Change was in the air, with a coalition formed between the West Suffolk Progressive Alliance Grouping (17 Labour, one Liberal Democrat and one Green) and 19 Independents.

Cliff Waterman, leader of West Suffolk Council
Cliff Waterman, leader of West Suffolk Council

Together they make up the West Suffolk Working Partnership, with Cllr Waterman as leader of the council and Cllr Victor Lukaniuk as deputy.

Reflecting on the last year, Cllr Waterman said: “It’s been a rollercoaster – exciting, rewarding and challenging.”

Relatively fresh into local politics, the former teacher was elected in 2019 to the Eastgate ward in Bury St Edmunds with a slender three vote majority.

West Suffolk House in Bury St Edmunds
West Suffolk House in Bury St Edmunds

Having stepped away from a 25-year teaching career, he felt ‘depressed at the state of the country’ and, as a member of the Labour Party for a long time, wanted to do something.

He admits he was lucky to be elected and said he worked his socks off as a ward councillor for the next four years to be re-elected with a bigger vote share in 2023.

But he never thought of becoming leader of the council until after the elections last May.

With no group securing an overall majority, an alliance needed to be thrashed out which he describes as akin to the ‘classic smoke-filled room’ scenes of a great political drama.

Cliff Waterman, leader of West Suffolk Council
Cliff Waterman, leader of West Suffolk Council

“Obviously there were challenges in terms of policies that we could agree on but what’s been interesting over the course of the year is there have been very few policy differences between us in terms of what we want to achieve,” said Cllr Waterman.

They agreed four key priorities – sustainable growth, thriving communities, environmental resilience and affordable, available and decent homes.

Diane Hind had been leader of the Labour Group but Cllr Waterman remembers a conversation they had outside The Fox Inn, in Eastgate Street, where she was uncertain about taking the political helm at the council and suggested he do it.

“Everyone was happy for me to be leader,” he said. “That’s not to say there aren’t other people who could be very good leaders. They chose me and I was very happy to take on that responsibility.”

What followed was 12 months of ‘really hard work’ and decisions which will ripple through the district for years to come.

From the outset, he set up an office for the leader at the council’s headquarters, West Suffolk House, as there hadn’t been one before.

“I’m here pretty much every day and my door is usually open if people want to talk to me,” he said. “That was the first thing, just being very present, being around and picking up the vibes from people.”

Bury St Edmunds Leisure Centre. Picture: Mecha Morton
Bury St Edmunds Leisure Centre. Picture: Mecha Morton

One of their biggest early decisions was to shelve the proposed new leisure centre in Bury, part of the Western Way Development, which was spearheaded by the previous administration.

The move was based on financial prudence.

“Did we want to saddle the citizens of West Suffolk with a £65 million debt which we didn’t need?” Cllr Waterman said. “The answer was no.

“Instead of building a new one we’re going to spend far less money on renovating the existing one (in Beeton’s Way). We’re working with Abbeycroft to find out what they feel is needed. We will get that done. We think we’ve got a robust solution for the next 10 years at least, in terms of refurbishing that leisure centre but without saddling everybody with this massive debt.”

The second big issue was dealing with the ‘unfairness’ in how street lighting had been replaced which was a hangover from when St Edmundsbury Borough and Forest Heath District Councils combined into West Suffolk.

A big issue was dealing with the ‘unfairness’ in how street lighting had been replaced. Picture: istock
A big issue was dealing with the ‘unfairness’ in how street lighting had been replaced. Picture: istock

In St Edmundsbury it had mostly been replaced with LED lights but in Forest Heath it hadn’t, he said.

As a result they set up a £1 million decarbonisation fund for parishes and towns.

“We’ve now got to the end of that process and actually we’ve got a bit of money left over,” he said. “We’ve got £200,000 that wasn’t used and we’re now looking for projects.”

The funding landscape for local authorities is bleak with difficult decisions having to be made.

Morally, as a Labour politician who wants to give those in need a fair deal, is that hard?

“As a council we cannot do everything we want to do using our own resources so we work with partners, the voluntary sector, a lot of bodies and agencies,” he said.

A frustration is that so much money is wasted due to the ‘micro-management’ by the Government over funding.

He called for greater financial freedom and an example would be the Government providing three to four year funding settlements rather than yearly ones to help plan ahead.

Cllr Waterman said he was proud of reaching out beyond the confines of the authority including the Suffolk Public Sector Leaders, Homes England and the East of England Local Government Association.

Part of that was about developing an economic strategy to remind the Government how the east was an ‘economic powerhouse’,” he said.

He is harnessing the skills he developed throughout his teaching career – covering English and a range of other subjects – in secondary schools which included the Mildenhall and Stowmarket areas as well as Westley Middle and West Suffolk College, in Bury. He was also a cyclist training officer for Suffolk County Council to show children how to ride safely.

Asked how his career prepared him for life as a council leader, he said: “The joke answer is keeping an unruly group behaving themselves.

“It’s about listening to people, communicating, understanding where they’re coming from and knowing how to work with people.

“It’s also being very clear about what you want to achieve. Teachers are leaders.”

The West Suffolk Working Partnership is a mix of personalities and views and Cllr Waterman is proud they have kept together despite initial doubts.

“I’ll be honest, for the first two or three months I thought this isn’t going to work, this isn’t going to last and I tell you now after a year we’re absolutely rock solid,” he said.

“I’m very confident we will easily get to the end of our four-year term. I hope the electorate will give us a chance to do a second and even a third and we’re beginning already to think about that sort of time arising.”

The authority will be bringing forward plans in July for its Olding Road depot site, which was part of the scrapped Western Way Development.

Housing is the number one issue in West Suffolk, he said.

“We haven’t got enough housing and what we have got isn’t always suitable,” he said. “We need to make sure renters get a fair deal, that people on modest incomes get a fair deal and that everyone has somewhere decent to live.”

There are ambitions for the council’s housebuilding firm Barley Homes and to work with other developers.

As part of the local plan – the district’s framework for growth – they stipulated that on larger new housing sites, 40 per cent should be affordable.

On a whiteboard in his office, Cllr Waterman has written a simple but powerful message, ‘You change lives for the better every single day’.

“I think that’s what we as councillors are about doing.”

That is echoed in his vision for the district.

“The future for West Suffolk in the hands of the Working Partnership with me as leader is very bright,” he said. “It’s sound, it’s secure and we’re determined to make life better in myriad ways for everybody. If you live or work in West Suffolk or invest in West Suffolk you can have faith in the future. We’ve got your back as a council.”