'It's hard to be in politics' - Outgoing council leader looks back

Sarah Butikofer, leader of North Norfolk District Council. Photo: Sarah Butikofer

Sarah Butikofer, outgoing leader of North Norfolk District Council. - Credit: Archant

As Sarah Butikofer prepares to step down as leader of North Norfolk District Council (NNDC), she has been reflecting on her three years at the helm.

In January, Ms Butikofer declared her resignation from the role due to her husband being ill, and following the death of her parents. 

At the time, she spoke emotionally of the "turmoil" Covid has caused in the world and the particular difficulties for those who have fought the virus and lost loved ones.

The announcement came just over three years since she was elected council leader after a vote of no confidence in the leader John Lee in November 2018.

"There were a lot of similarities in the council back then with what is happening in Westminster these days," says Ms Butikofer.

"The Conservatives were tearing themselves apart, there was a lot of infighting. I have to say I was sorry to put in the vote of no confidence against John because he was one of the good guys, trying to do the right thing but the rest of his group wasn’t working with him."

John Lee, former leader of North Norfolk District Council. Photo: Denise Bradley

John Lee, former leader of North Norfolk District Council. Photo: Denise Bradley - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2018

In the previous 22 months, 11 members of the Conservative group had quit the party and joined the Independents.

Six months later, in the local elections, the district's political tide continued to turn when the Liberal Democrats won 30 seats on the council, with the Tories taking just six and independents claiming four.

The results were in stark contrast to the 2015 election outcome, when the Conservatives had won 33 out of what then a 48-seat council.

"We had a fantastic night," says Ms Butikofer.

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"During election time it’s going to get rough and tumble but I do believe that when it’s not election time, in local politics, you should be working for the people together." 

This is something she heard on the doorstep - voters telling her they wanted a council that could work together, not just along party political lines.

She mentions The Reef, north Norfolk's new leisure centre, as an example.

Rob Young, assistant director for sustainable growth at North Norfolk District Council.

The new six-lane, 25m swimming pool at The Reef in Sheringham. - Credit: Ella Wilkinson

"I would say that was a Conservative project originally but it is a good project, and it was good to continue it and right to deliver it. You don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater," she says. 

"At the council it has to be collaborative. It’s hard to be in politics these days. People say you’re all the same but we’re not all the same. There are good people in every single party. 

"When I was first a member of the district council, we might disagree with one another in the chamber, but we would all go a have a coffee later together and talk about things and debate things and we don’t get that opportunity anymore. 

"That is one of the fallouts from Covid," she says.

"I really hope that changes and goes back. Because that is so important. Because you build these friendships across the political divide and they really are valuable."

NNDC leader Sarah Bütikofer said they had ended their legal battle over two wind turbines off the co

Sarah Butikofer on the night the Liberal Democrats drubbed the Conservatives in the 2019 local elections. - Credit: Archant

Indeed, Ms Butikofer's first taste of politics was for a Conservative party agency in Redditch in Worcestershire, when she worked with Anthea McIntyre who eventually went on to become an MEP.

"I believed in her and I became her agent. I worked for her on two campaigns and she was a Conservative candidate, but it was Anthea I believed in, not necessarily the politics."

Ms Butikofer later moved to Norfolk, where her family is originally from, and it was while working with MP Norman Lamb that she joined the Liberal Democrats.

"Gradually I took up different jobs for him, case work, PA, until one day he said, 'Why don’t you stand as a councillor?'"

She was elected to NNDC in May 2015 representing The Runtons and Aylmerton ward.

She said that some of what the party has delivered is better customer service and an improved planning department.

"They’ve taken longer than I would have liked," she says. "When you become council leader you think you have a magic wand and you can make things happen overnight, but that is not the case.

"There is a lot of bureaucracy, and there has to be bureaucracy, it is right the regulations are followed, but it is sometimes not as fast as I would like."

Unsurprisingly, the biggest challenge was reacting to the pandemic - but Ms Butifoker said she was proud of how council staff had stepped up to the task.

Tim Adams (Liberal Democrats) North Norfolk County Councillor for Cromer division.

Tim Adams is set to become the leader of North Norfolk District Council, following the resignation of Sarah Butikofer. - Credit: Supplied by the Liberal Democrat

Her successor will be Tim Adams, 30, who was elected leader of the council's majority Liberal Democrat group last month.