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East Herts Council leader Linda Haysey reflects on two decades of difficult decisions

East Herts Council on Wednesday (April 5) publishes the list of candidates taking part in the May 4 local government elections – and one name is notable by its absence.

The authority’s Conservative leader Cllr Linda Haysey has decided not to stand, choosing instead to embark on a new chapter of her life after 18 years.

She joined the council after a by-election in 2005 and won her second mandate two years later, going on to become first the district’s portfolio holder for housing and then executive member for culture and sport.

Linda Haysey (63309353)
Linda Haysey (63309353)

She took the helm in 2015, replacing Cllr Tony Jackson, and brought immediate changes to a council widely perceived as focused on Hertford at the expense of Bishop’s Stortford.

Her predecessor had made his disdain for the press clear, but Cllr Haysey was ready to engage and address difficult questions, even if the answers have not always been palatable.

The District Plan, top of her ‘to do’ list when she took charge, was a case in point. She was under no illusions about the burden of new housing – around 4,500 homes – Bishop’s Stortford was being asked to accommodate to satisfy the Government’s building quotas.

New Grange Paddocks leisure centre
New Grange Paddocks leisure centre

She was determined to ensure the town received new leisure infrastructure to support this growing population, and a £20m-plus leisure centre and 3G playing pitch have been delivered at Grange Paddocks.

Work on a £3m-plus transformation of Castle Park, in partnership with the National Lottery and Bishop’s Stortford Town Council, is now well under way, but her flagship Old River Lane project, a new "cultural quarter" in the Causeway incorporating a cinema-led arts centre, 225 homes, offices, retail and restaurant units has become mired in controversy.

Cllr Haysey said she understood some of the criticism, not least about the planned demolition of the United Reformed Church Hall in Water Lane and Charringtons House office block to make way for the scheme.

But she was clear: “We've looked at that site as a whole and asked 'What do we need to do within that incredibly important site within Bishop’s Stortford to make sure that the town thrives?'”

Old River Lane site plan (63309163)
Old River Lane site plan (63309163)

The council’s market research strongly suggests that the critics most strident about the scheme’s shortcomings are not representative of the town as a whole and Cllr Haysey said it was important to provide facilities for families and the younger generation.

She said: “We do want to provide high-quality residences for affordable, social rent and for young people. And sometimes you have to go up. If you don't want to build on Green Belt, which is going out, you have to go up and you can design it so it doesn't look as though you're walking through Manhattan.”

So why is she leaving office before her vision for an “iconic” Old River Lane becomes a reality?

Cllr Linda Haysey in the Causeway
Cllr Linda Haysey in the Causeway

“I'm certainly not walking away from stuff. I'm walking to do something different, not away from stuff,” she said.

Her life before politics helped her develop the thick skin necessary to take difficult decisions and stand by them.

Originally a medical journalist, she went on to work in the City as a pharmaceutical analyst and ended up in mergers and acquisitions, where she was often the only woman in meetings.

She saw parallels with her East Herts role. “Being a councillor, particularly a leader, is about relationships, it's working with people. But sometimes you can't always make the decisions everybody else wants you to make.

“In the City, you had clients who expected certain answers.” She recalled one fraught encounter when she warned a UK company it was ripe for a hostile takeover.

“I was always brought in to give the bad news.” Her verdict went down badly, but when she was proven right, instead of saying “I told you so” she helped find a white knight to save the business.

She firmly believed Old River Lane, despite its detractors, would deliver the revitalisation the town centre required.

The scheme has been hit by Covid-19 delays, spiralling inflation and changing legislation which forced the council to cut the arts centre budget almost in half, removing an auditorium.

Cllr Haysey said: “We just couldn't make it work. However, everything else we could make work, and that's what we will deliver.”

Harlow and Gilston Garden Town vision (63309343)
Harlow and Gilston Garden Town vision (63309343)

And she has already had the satisfaction of seeing permission confirmed in March for her other major project as leader – the “ground-breaking” seven new villages in East Herts set to provide 10,000 houses for Harlow and Gilston Garden Town.

The “very difficult” district plan had given residents the certainty of a framework for growth and she was particularly proud of the detailed master planning process East Herts set up to ensure builders comply with the strategy.

She acknowledged such developments caused upheaval, but ultimately she believed they would be her legacy.

But at an age when most other men and women have retired, she said it was time for life outside local politics and planning.

“I just sort of got to the stage where I thought 'You know what, while I'm still healthy and able to stand on two feet, I want to go off and do something different'.

“Like most women, I’ve gone from school to college, to university, to a job, to children, to whatever else. And then I ended up going into politics when I stopped working.

“And the whole of my life has always been for somebody else. It's been timetabled for other people.”

Now she has decided it is her chance to choose a new challenge. Her children have flown the nest – her daughter is a chef in London while her son is currently cycling around New Zealand.

Cllr Linda Haysey outside Charringtons House
Cllr Linda Haysey outside Charringtons House

Her husband has already retired and they have bought “a wreck of a house” in Scotland to renovate together.

Linda said: “We'll be moving right away. And it's enormous fun. So at the moment, my decision-making is concentrated around what sort of doorknobs do I need."

Her party currently holds 39 of the 50 seats representing 30 wards across East Herts. There are also six Liberal Democrats, two Greens, two Labour and one Independent councillor.

While she refused to be drawn on the results of May 4’s election, she was concerned that, regardless of party affiliation, women would miss out and she urged more to take advantage of allowances for childcare etc and to stand for seats in the future.

“I call it overladen testosterone meetings. You know, sometimes men feel as though they have to behave in a certain way because they’re men. And you really do need a balance,” she said.

“I think, looking at what could be the mix of East Herts Council after May, it does concern me that there will be a preponderance – a dominance – of men.”

She was also concerned that some candidates wanted to join the council for the wrong reasons – as a short cut to the House of Commons rather than serving their community, perhaps.

“I’m concerned they come in because they see local politics as the first stepping stone to becoming an MP. And I think that's really sad because I think if you want to be a good local councillor, you have to be there because of that and not just as a way to get to somewhere else.”

The differences between national and local governments were starkly illustrated during Covid-19.

Cllr Haysey played a key role with Hertfordshire’s Local Resilience Forum and was proud of how her team in East Herts performed, pivoting to deal with the challenges of the pandemic.

And she was frustrated by the actions of some high-profile Conservatives at Westminster who flouted the rules they helped make. Their actions have damaged the party’s reputation at every level.

“I'm saddened actually. I think it's just very sad that some of this behaviour was seen to be acceptable by certain individuals,” she said.

“We did all try very hard to abide by the rules but still keep the council working, still providing services without a hitch.”

That included distributing grants to support businesses while checking applications for fraudulent claims.

Cllr Haysey was carpeted by a Government minister for not ensuring the money was paid more quickly, but she stood her ground on safeguarding public money and defended her staff’s due diligence.

That loyalty and determination to do what she believes is right, even in the face of huge pressure to buckle, has been a definitive characteristic of her tenure.

She hoped all residents – including her detractors – would show the same resolve and stand for the council too, despite the abuse that has become part and parcel of public office.

She said: “I think the answer to people who say ‘I don’t want this, you shouldn’t be doing this’ is 'Ok, well then stand for council' – and then you suddenly discover the crowd is a lot smaller.”

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