Former city councillor reflects on 30 years of service to city

It has been a real privilege to serve as an Oxford councillor for more than 30 years, writes John Tanner.

I am hugely grateful to the voters of first Hinksey Park and then Littlemore for giving me the chance to make things better in our wonderful city.

An immigrant from the steel town of Scunthorpe, I came to Oxford to work for Oxfam. I was one of a small group of Labour councillors in Oxford who resisted paying the hated poll tax, introduced by Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher in 1990.

Then with a ‘hung’ county council I played a leading role getting the buses out of Cornmarket and banning day time traffic in High Street. In 1998 I briefly became leader of Oxford City Council. But it was not all plain sailing.

In 2000 with a Labour Government in power I lost my seat to the Green Party and lost Labour’s majority on the city council. I remember the empty feeling when from being “Mr Oxford” I was overnight nobody special.

But in 2002 I was re-elected to the city, this time for Littlemore. For eight years I was also a county councillor for the, unfortunately named, “Isis” division. It was much better having a voice on both councils.

Residents come to their councillor with an issue and they don’t care which council is responsible. They just want their problem solved. Oxford’s two-tier arrangement is confusing for everyone and can lead to buck passing.

My year as Lord Mayor of Oxford gave me insights into new areas of city life and the chance to visit some of our twin cities. For the first time Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs played a full part in the Remembrance Day service in St Giles.

When Labour won back control of the city I became the ‘Rubbish Czar’ or more precisely the Cabinet member for a Clean and Green Oxford. It is a perfect portfolio because usually the public in Oxford are one step ahead. They want you to do more.

Being responsible for refuse service that touches every resident every week was great fun. Pushing up the rate of recycling, insisting on cleaner air and beginning to tackle climate change was a wonderful opportunity.

I am thrilled now to see many of my ideas taken forward by younger and very effective councillors. I jumped for joy the other day when I walked past Oxford City Council’s first all-electric refuse collection lorry.

These days Oxford recycles more, has cleaner air and is doing more to reach zero carbon than when I was in charge. We are spoilt for choice for quality councillors in Oxford. So after 31 years as a local politician it was time to give others a chance.

The new city and county councils face enormous challenges. Some like traffic, housing, schools and social care are long standing. But there are new challenges not least overcoming Covid and making sure Oxford reaches Net Zero Carbon by 2040.

Westminster government of whatever party is often a pain in the bottom for town halls. But Boris Johnson’s daft planning proposals, effectively a developers’ charter, takes the biscuit. I am sure City and County will fight the undemocratic ideas tooth and nail.

I have two bits of advice for the current crop of councillors. First “Do it now!”. Don’t wait but seize the day. The opportunities may not come your way again.

Second don’t overlook the influence councillors have. Council officers are there to try to deliver what you want. Expressing your opinion can be just as powerful as voting through resolutions.

There is no higher calling than being an elected councillor, trying to represent local communities and making your area better. You start off with everyone disagreeing with everybody else. But as a councillor your job is to find a consensus and take things forward.

I shall be quite glad not to have to listen to complaints about parking or neighbours. But I shall miss getting a desperate family a home, opening up a new cycle lane and making a speech in the historic council chamber.

As the poet Wordsworth might have said, to be a councillor is bliss. But a councillor in Oxford is very heaven.