'I got into local politics because I'm nosey', confesses outgoing South Ribble Tory leader who ran the borough for a decade
The former leader of South Ribble Borough Council says she got “the fright of her life” when she first found herself running the authority.
Margaret Smith was reflecting on almost 12 years leading the Tories in the district and nearly a decade in control of the council itself during two separate spells. She handed over the reins of the Conservative group last month, but remains a member of the currently Labour-controlled authority on which she has sat since 1983.
The New Longton and Hutton East councillor says her career in local politics was prompted by her mother being elected to what was then Preston Borough Council, securing a seat in the Labour stronghold of Ashton.
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“I suppose I caught the bug from her. She wasn’t there for a huge length of time and I certainly wouldn’t have thought I’d still be here doing this now.
“I’ve enjoyed the majority of it – I’m not saying I’ve enjoyed it all, but you have got to be a realist about these things, there are ups and downs. But in the main, I had an enjoyable reign as leader of the council – and I was very proud to be leader,” Cllr Smith says.
That time at the top of the authority began in 2007, when only shortly after “being pushed” to take charge of the Conservatives in opposition after her predecessor became unwell, the party secured a majority in that year’s local elections.
“I wasn’t expecting it and it’s something you [have to] warm to, because it is such an unknown.”
That surprise election victory was the start of nearly a decade of dominance in the borough for Cllr Smith, during which time she was also joined on the authority’s cabinet by her husband Phil - who has just become deputy to his wife's successor - and who was elected to the council the year his wife took charge and became the member for regeneration and leisure.
Cllr Mrs. Smith, as she subsequently became known during debates in the chamber at Leyland’s Civic Centre, says that one of her proudest achievements was the part she played as South Ribble’s leader in securing the City Deal. The agreement between the government, South Ribble and Preston councils and Lancashire County Council was struck in 2013 and was designed to deliver the infrastructure investment needed to generate 20,000 jobs and 17,000 new homes across the neighbouring Central Lancashire areas.
“I thought the City Deal really had great potential to make a huge difference,” she reflects.
However, as Cllr Smith approached ten years in control at South Ribble – and with a total of three election wins now under her belt – the authority was rocked by revelations about its licensing department.
An explosive internally-commissioned independent report – the interim version of which was leaked to the press in April 2016 – concluded that allegations of child sexual exploitation against two taxi drivers in the borough were “not properly investigated”. It followed an audit at the end of the previous year that found appropriate background checks had not been carried out on 40 taxi drivers working in the borough.
The interim report identified that there had been inadequate record-keeping and insufficient recognition of the council’s role in protecting children. When the final version was published in June 2016, it judged that the issues had been resolved.
However, in the intervening two months, Cllr Smith had been the subject of an aborted vote of no confidence and later saw her Conservative group lose overall control of the authority after the defection of four Tory councillors. She resigned on health grounds in July 2016.
Reflecting on the turbulent period, Cllr Smith acknowledges that the council was not “as on the ball as we should have been”.
“I think the paperwork was all there, it just wasn’t all in the right place when it should have been. If we’d have been a bit more computerised, maybe it would have all been there.
“Obviously, I have to take some of the blame in as much as you have to realise that you have got to take responsibility when you’re in the position that I was in.”
However, she adds that the situation did not have to play out as it did.
“I have spoken to a number of people who were looking in from the outside and saw it completely differently. I think there was definitely an agenda there that I was slow to see – an agenda by various people.
“And of course the papers got involved and we were called another Halifax [where more than a dozen men were jailed in 2016 for sexually abusing teenage girls]. Every little thing – even if anybody had sneezed the wrong way – was analysed.”
The affair saw South Ribble Borough Council become the subject of a ‘peer review’ conducted by senior figures from other local authorities into how to improve its governance and culture. That work was ongoing when Cllr Smith once again took centre stage in the borough in November 2018, after the Tory group re-elected her as its leader and she returned to run the authority ahead of the local elections the following May.
She says she stepped back into the role, because the Conservatives in the borough “needed a bit of stability”.
“Nobody denies it, we had problems in the group – I’ve always owned up to that. We needed to refocus our energies and it took time to get to a position where we wanted to work together and trust each other.”
Although her second spell in the council leader’s chair lasted fewer months than her original tenure had spanned years – after Labour formed an administration following the 2019 local elections – Cllr Smith says she believes that Tories “achieved a lot”.
“[Given] the balances that were left at a time when a lot of councils were seriously struggling with their finances, we left the council in an excellent position to be able to go forward and spend.”
As she returns to a backbench role – “the time is right” – Cllr Smith says has no intention of turning her back on the cut and thrust of being a ward councillor in the leafy Western Parishes.
“People think [New Longton and Hutton East] is a quiet ward – it’s anything but. There are always planning applications [to deal with] and we have got problems with HGVs going through the village. There is always plenty to do.
“Some people say to me why did you get involved [with the council] – and I say basically it’s because I want to know what’s going on and I’m nosey.”
And asked if she still has that same hunger for local politics after 38 years, she replies in a heartbeat: “I’ve still got plenty of that.”