One year has passed since Ben Bradley, Mansfield’s Conservative MP, took on his dual role as the leader of Nottinghamshire County Council.
The decision was controversial, with opposition leaders and even some within the Conservative Party fearing he would not be able to juggle two high-profile, high-intensity roles.
And 12 months after his appointment, the council leader believes he has proved many critics wrong and says there are “clear, proven benefits” to him holding the two positions of elected office.
But opposition leaders still question what he has achieved in this time, while some believe he could be eyeing up a third job as the potential future mayor of an East Midlands Combined Authority.
Local Democracy Reporter Andrew Topping spoke to Cllr Bradley and opposition leaders to assess how his first year has impacted Nottinghamshire.
When he first took on the two roles in May 2021, Ben Bradley drew parallels with MPs such as former Health Secretary Matt Hancock taking control of a Government department.
This, in a sense, is what he has done – but with a local focus. As an organisation, Nottinghamshire County Council employs about 18,000 people locally and has a budget of £1.1 billion.
The unique part of his position, however, is that the two roles don’t traditionally go together hand-in-hand.
One role is primarily based in Westminster, while the other requires regular attendance at County Hall – Nottinghamshire County Council’s West Bridgford headquarters.
The biggest question in the early days of Cllr Bradley’s leadership was whether he would be able to manage his time between two all-consuming positions.
The year that followed has led to dozens of train journeys between London and Nottinghamshire and numerous meetings with ministers to discuss issues relevant to Mansfield and the wider county.
And speaking as he marks 12 months in office, Cllr Bradley believes the past year has “proved” he can manage the roles, stating it has allowed the county council easier access to Government officials on major policy areas.
“There were very legitimate concerns on day one, asking can I do this as well [as being Mansfield MP], have I got the time,” he told the Local Democracy Reporting Service.
“I hope the 12 months since then have proved I can.
“A lot of the conversations are the same in both jobs – if I’m talking about social care at a council level or a national level it’s the same conversation.
“In areas like that, it has been really helpful.
“I think we’ve made great progress on a number of things – including internally with governance and communication, service transformation and long-term changes like the Highways Review.
“These won’t be changes made overnight but in the coming years, and I’m confident we have and will continue to make improvements.”
In the past year, the county council has overhauled its governance structure and returned to having a cabinet.
It has also reviewed how roads are maintained, declared a ‘climate emergency’ and shifted its focus towards supporting children in care within their community.
However, Cllr Bradley believes the area where he sees the “biggest benefit” is on improving the regional economy.
This includes councils in the East Midlands negotiating for a devolution deal and a potential combined authority, bringing additional powers and funding from Whitehall.
These discussions are at an early stage, but Cllr Bradley believes it is “almost certain” to happen.
Rushcliffe’s East Midlands Parkway station has also been confirmed as a high-speed rail hub – at the expense of Toton – while plans for three freeport sites promise to bring tens of thousands of jobs to the region.
“If we get these all together there are billions of pounds for our neck of the woods and, touch wood so far, I think we’re making good progress,” Cllr Bradley added.
But the devolution deal itself has led to some criticism from opposition leaders at County Hall.
Many believe Cllr Bradley – a spearhead behind the negotiations – is leading the project for his own political gain, hoping to find himself as the elected mayor of the East Midlands region if and when the position is created.
“Over the last year, Ben Bradley has shown the Nottinghamshire public that his priorities are centred around his own personal political career,” says Cllr Kate Foale, leader of the Labour Group at County Hall.
“He has made no secret that he wants yet another full-time job as mayor of an East Midlands Combined Authority.
“But, given that he currently isn’t delivering for Nottinghamshire residents as their council leader or for Mansfield residents as their MP, it does make you wonder how he thinks taking on three full-time taxpayer salaries will benefit anyone except himself.”
While Cllr Bradley agrees he has made no secret about thinking the potential mayoral role is an “exciting position”, he claims his intentions are to “deliver real change” for the region.
“The idea that I would just add mayor to my list of jobs and then carry on is nonsense,” he said.
“It’s a really interesting opportunity, the reason I want it is not about me but about the billions of pounds it would bring to our area.
“We’ve had the analysis this week and, for every pound we put in – even if we do nothing creative with it – we’ll get £13.60 back.
“Do I say I don’t want that extra money [for the region] because some people think it’s about my career ambitions? That wouldn’t be the right thing to do.”
Other criticisms have been levelled at the council leader since taking on the dual role, including the claim from another opposition leader that Cllr Bradley has achieved “precisely nothing”.
Cllr Jason Zadrozny (Ash Ind), leader of the Independent Alliance at County Hall, believes the Conservative administration has “failed on highways, on public service reform, on education, on social care and on the environment”.
And he criticised Cllr Bradley for increasing council tax in April and putting residents’ bills at a “record high”.
He added: “Ben Bradley has two jobs that amount to one big failure. His first year has fizzled out like a damp firework and the public deserves a refund.
“In his time he has achieved precisely nothing except creating a new job for himself.”
The Conservative-led authority increased council tax by four per cent for this financial year, with three-quarters to be spent specifically on adult social care.
The remaining one per cent will be used to fund the recent cross-party highways review, which found the council should move away from temporary pothole repairs and towards permanent road replacement schemes.
This project was one of the key areas for Cllr Bradley, with £12 million to be spent on doubling ‘patching gangs’ to better improve how roads are repaired across Nottinghamshire.
And Cllr Bradley believes that, by the time the 2025 local elections come around, residents will be able to see “tangible improvements” on their roads and in other council areas like children’s services and social care.
“By then, I hope we will have seen improvements in our roads and highways, we will have implemented changes to our children and young people’s services, and be delivering on all the regional projects,” he said.
“I want to see spades in the ground on some of these projects and I want us to have the infrastructure through the Combined Authority, where Government feels it can give us more funding to deliver more projects.
“If we’ve got those things in place, the future is pretty bright.”
He adds managing the time between the roles has proven “challenging”, including balancing his third role as the divisional member for Mansfield North.
And while he admits he “can’t do” a lot of traditional councillor work in the same way as others in the chamber, he believes what he offers to the people of Mansfield North is “still effective”.
“A lot of what comes across an MP’s desk is council-related, including issues on potholes, care, so I’ve been dealing with local issues like that [for five years],” he said.
“If I’m being totally honest, I can’t do it in the same way other councillors do it – being at every meeting and community event.
“But what I can do is take the big issues in Mansfield North, what support we can offer, to a higher county level.
“So there are some things I’m probably not as effective at [as a divisional councillor], but there are other things I’ve probably got more clout to support them with. I’d like to think it’s still effective, but just in a different way.”
Cllr Bradley was officially re-elected as leader of the council until 2025 during the full council meeting on Thursday (May 12).
Both Labour and the Independent Alliance abstained from the vote, with Cllr Foale (Lab) describing it as a “stunt”.