'A steep learning curve': Shropshire councillor looks back on first year in office
As other parts of the country gear up for next month’s local elections, 23 councillors in Shropshire are marking the end of their first year in the job.
One of them is Councillor Richard Marshall, who was elected to represent Worfield, near Bridgnorth, last May, taking the reins from long-serving fellow Conservative Michael Wood.
The 53-year-old, who runs a transport business with his wife, moved to Shropshire 28 years ago and has lived in the village of Norton for the last seven.
Councillor Marshall said he decided to make the jump into local politics to help improve the lives of people in his area and influence positive changes across the wider county.
“I’m the sort of person who relishes a challenge,” said Councillor Marshall, speaking after he was elected in May with a 75 per cent vote share.
“It was my first time standing. I had a fairly secure seat to start with but I had to get the message out there that I was going to continue the work that Michael Wood had done. All that was a steep learning curve.”
Within weeks of his election, new council leader Lezley Picton appointed Councillor Marshall to the role of deputy portfolio holder for highways and physical infrastructure.
While he was surprised to be offered the position as someone completely “untried and untested”, Councillor Marshall said was not daunted by the prospect.
“Highways is something I understand anyway through my professional background. The more daunting aspect is understanding where you fit as a deputy cabinet member.”
Reflecting on his first few weeks in the job, Councillor Marshall said one thing he had been most surprised by was the volume of “rude and abusive emails” councillors receive.
“Being a councillor I think you have got to be a certain type of person, you have got to have thick skin,” he said.
He had a taste of it even before polling day, when he posted a photo of himself enjoying a pub meal with his family on social media and was berated by another business owner for not supporting their establishment instead.
“I can only be in one place,” he said. “But over the next four years I will dine in every restaurant and drink in every pub in my ward.”
The issue of whether road verges should be mowed or left to grow for the benefit of wildlife saw him receive 30 emails in the first two weeks of his election topic.
“Out of those there were 15 for and 15 against,” he said.
“The reality is you are only going to be 50 per cent right whatever way you lean. But in a former life I was an ice hockey and football referee so I’m used to only being 50 per cent right”
By the summer, Councillor Marshall said he was getting to grips with his deputy cabinet member role and had been busy attending meetings of the seven parish councils in his ward, which he said were the “eyes and ears on the ground” when it came to local issues.
He had also been appointed as the council’s representative on the West Midlands Rail Executive, and found himself on the southern area planning committee.
“Whether it’s somebody’s barn extension or the Ironbridge Power Station development, you have got to be prepared. You have got to do the homework. It is people’s lives and livelihoods on the line," he said.
“I have learned so much, it is a lot more interesting than I thought it would be. We have had some quite juicy things to look at.”
In his own division, he was busy with casework and had volunteered to chair the Shipley Quarry liaison group, made up of representatives from Shropshire Council, the parish council and the quarry operators.
“It has been causing quite a few problems with the local residents and I think there has been a bit of a standoff,” he said.
“This is positive because it’s a step forward. As a council we have got to look after not only residents but the people who invest into the area and create employment as well. It’s a balancing act.
“I’m all for getting people around the table and getting them to chat.”
Councillor Marshall said that despite having “very few evenings free” he was enjoying his new life as a councillor.
“The truth of the matter is that you can make as little or as big a job of it as you can be bothered to,” he said.
“You could just turn up to full council meetings, do nothing else, take the allowance and walk away. To me that’s wrong.
“I’m not going to change the world but if I can make a difference to one or two people in my little part of the world, that’s the reason I do it.”
Councillor Marshall’s five-year term as a councillor was almost cut short in December, when he came runner-up to Neil Shastri-Hurst in the selection battle to become the Conservative candidate in the North Shropshire by-election, though the poll was ultimately won by Liberal Democrat opponent Helen Morgan.
With aspirations of taking a seat in Parliament at the next general election, Councillor Marshall had begun the assessment process for prospective candidates but was fast-tracked through when the by-election was called.
He said it was an “invaluable experience” and he was pleased to have come as close as he did to being chosen as his party’s candidate, but admitted it was “probably too soon” for him, as he would have had to resign his directorship and councillor role at such short notice.
Part of Councillor Marshall’s role includes sitting on the board that oversees Shropshre Council's contract with highways maintenance firm Kier.
“Something I always strive for in life is collaborative working,” he said.
“We are now getting together and the contract is being fulfilled in a much better manner.”
Councillor Marshall was also celebrating smaller-scale victories in his own division – including finally getting Evelith Lane in Kemberton resurfaced.
But in true ‘you can’t please everyone’ style, he was surprised to find even that had caused complaints from some residents, concerned that the smooth new surface would encourage speeding.
As Christmas approached, attention had also begun to focus on the council’s 2022/23 budget.
Councillor Marshall said: “We lost a lot of time because of the North Shropshire by-election, because the government couldn’t give us any decisions on our budget until that had finished.
“The drain that adult and children’s social care is on the council’s budget has gone through the roof in the last five or six years. We have got to be committed to that, we have got a duty of care to elderly and children and anyone who needs social care. That takes up 85 per cent of our revenue budget. Going back five or six years that was in the region of 62 per cent.”
The full council met at the end of February to sign off the budget. Speaking the week before, Councillor Marshall said: “We have had some group meetings deciding what we can and can’t do.
“Because I have always been in business I am used to looking at budgets and profit and loss sheets, it’s second nature – albeit this is with bigger numbers.
“I liken everything to business really. For every penny you spend you want to see return on investment or value for money.”
The Shipley Quarry liaison group is also making progress, which Councillor Marshall put down to the “mutual respect” among all parties involved.
He said the most rewarding aspect of being a councillor was helping helping resolve problems for people in his ward, adding that sitting in meetings and voting was “by far the smallest part” of his council work.
“That is important, but not as important as doing the casework,” he said.
“Sometimes it’s just signposting, sometimes it’s writing a letter on someone’s behalf, sometimes it’s talking to officers to see what the council can do.
“I had one individual ring me and they were at the end of their tether, they were distraught.
“I was able to get in touch with senior officers and within 24 hours we had got something sorted for this individual.
“I had a phone call thanking me and they were so grateful for what I had done. For me that’s the highest point.
“The lowest points are when you have to accept that however hard you work, however much you do, you are not going to solve every issue.”
Summing up his first year on the council, he said: “When I look back at some of the things I have achieved locally, that makes me feel quite good.
“I believe you have got a louder voice on the inside than the outside, which gives you more opportunity to help make changes.
“We have got a hard time being Conservatives nationally, but being a councillor gives you chance to forget about national politics and concentrate on the local issues for the communities you live in.”