From Park Life to Politics – Rutland County Council’s Leader Oliver Hemsley
It’s funny how the most innocent remark can change your life. Oliver Hemsley made a throwaway remark about local politics to a friend, who suggested that if he couldn’t beat ‘em, he should join ‘em! In four short years, the Langham councillor found himself not just joining them, but indeed, leading them too!
Are we all sick of hearing about Brexit yet? Possibly. It’s certainly been a period of great uncertainty for the country as a whole. But whilst grumbling about politics is a keenly observed British pastime, it’s important to remember that anyone can complain. Taking action, wrestling with tighter budgets, making resources stretch and keeping an eye on not just the ‘here and now,’ but the future too is something that’s rather trickier, albeit very rewarding.
That’s certainly the lesson that Rutland County Council Leader Oliver Hemsley has discovered in his short but sweet career in local government thus far. It was just over four years ago that Oliver was sitting on a park bench talking to then local Councillor Richard Clifton. The latter’s response was simple; stop moaning and join the council to start doing something positive. And that’s just what he did.
How long have you lived in the area?
I’m teased a bit by some more established Rutlanders that you have to be here for 60 years to claim native status. In fact I’ve been here for 58 years. I was schooled in Oakham when I was younger before boarding in Berkshire and Dorset, and spent a couple of years in London studying for a degree in Business Management and Printing, then I took a year out before returning to the county in 1983.
Tell us about your career?
My father was a farmer – on an arable farm – then a civil engineer, so he was very practical. I worked on the farm growing up and was also put to good use decorating and gardening.
I started my own business, Paint It & Plant It, which is still going strong after 36 years. The team reached about 10 full time employees and I reckon I’ve employed over 170 people during my career. At its peak I was walking about 60 miles a week behind a mower. The business has gradually had to take a bit of a back seat with my relatively recent career in politics, and I’m sad to have scaled it back, but moving on means I can concentrate on other things, like improving Rutland for its 40,000 residents.
I became a ward councillor for Langham in May 2015 and joined the cabinet in 2016, serving as deputy leader under Tony Mathias a year later. We were all very sad when Roger Begy died in 2016 and when Terry King stepped down in January 2017.
I didn’t join to step into the role of council leader and it was a scary step, to do so. But I work with a great team, I’ve always been inclined to roll my sleeves up and I value those around me who all work with a real common sense approach to help to improve Rutland for all of its residents.
What makes Rutland unique for you?
It’s the deep sense of pride that people have for the county. Being a farmer you’re just a caretaker, looking after the land for future generations. Being a gardener it’s also nice to look after green spaces for future generations and when you become involved in local politics – certainly in Rutland – you’re responsible for a county that people have a great deal of reverence for.
In Rutland the whole community looks out for one another. It’s a safe, inclusive and conservational place to live. You walk down the High Street, smile at people and they smile back.
I don’t know if the sense of community is down to the diminutive size of the county, or because we’re keen to preserve our own identity against larger counties like Leicestershire or Lincolnshire, but for whatever reason, we’re all protective of it and that’s why working in local politics in our area isn’t something you can do without a profound respect for the area and a real desire to look after the county.
Who inspires you around Rutland?
As someone ‘on the inside’ – and someone who loves introducing people to the sometimes hidden delights of the county – I’m really inspired by the work that Discover Rutland does. The group is really working hard to bring us together and has been great at encouraging us to appreciate what we have within the county, but also to increase our appeal as a place for those from out of the area to enjoy too.
What’s Rutland like in spring and where should we visit?
We’ll enjoy our family walk around Clipsham’s Bluebell Woods later this month. That officially marks the start of spring for us! Also, I love dinghies these days I’m more into sailing and windsurfing, so as soon as the temperatures increase a little, you’ll find me on Rutland Water.
I can also recommend a walk around the Exton Estate. Fort Henry is an impressive folly that’s always worth a look. And Oakham Castle, too, I think is always impressive. It’s easy to overlook the attractions which are right on your doorstep, so a visit there is a must. As a gardener I also really appreciate Barnsdale Gardens.
It’s beautifully kept by the Hamilton family and really inspiring for gardeners, although I do take more pleasure in actually working in a garden than just admiring them!
Where do you take friends to eat and drink around Rutland?
Rutland has lots of really good establishments for everything from relaxed quality pub dining to more formal meals out. My local is Langham’s Wheatsheaf, but even when we’re in the centre of Oakham there are so many really good places to stop for a coffee or lunch with the family.
When we have friends over we’ve enjoyed Barnsdale Lodge before and if we’ve visitors from out of the area Oakham now has a wonderfully renovated coaching inn in the form of the Wisteria Hotel. Like many businesses in Rutland, it’s independently owned and offers a really warm welcome.
Which shops and businesses would you recommend to a visitor?
There are so many really good independent businesses and we’re really lucky to have recognised the value of looking after those businesses in Oakham and Uppingham at a time when independent retailers in other market towns are perhaps not faring as well. I think one of the nicest aspects of both our market towns are the opportunities they offer visitors to explore them. There’s are lots of nice surprises to discover in both towns.
What are the best views by day and night?
One of my favourite walks and one of the most satisfying views in Rutland is the view from Brook Hill. I also love the view at Preston from Uppingham back towards Oakham. Because the county has lots of hills and undulations there are some really lovely vantage points for rolling scenery around the county. I really enjoy photography and have taken a few nice shots on my travels around the county. One I was really proud of until one of my keen photographer friends kindly gave me a print of one of his images… it was quite incredible but did make me feel a bit sheepish in comparison!
I think the best advice I can give anyone looking for a great view, though, is to look up. The area is full of buildings with real presence. You can see the architecture changing from limestone to ironstone as you travel between Oakham and Uppingham, and it’s only when you look up that you come to realise the range and quality of architecture in the area.
What about nature or a quiet place to escape to?
It’s about people – not spaces – for me. Besides gardens are places for me to work in, so I’m not very good at just relaxing in green spaces. I’ll make an exception though, with my own garden. It’s best described as natural looking, not perfectly manicured, and I like it that way. I’ve a very comfortable hammock so in the spring and summer months I’m looking forward to just enjoying my own space.
Would you change anything about Rutland?
I think it would be remiss of me as leader of the council to suggest that we should ever stop trying to improve the county and just be satisfied with what we already have. Change is often sensitive and can make people nervous, but it also represents a great opportunity for the area too. There was a good deal of caution about whether it was the right decision to create Rutland Water back in the 1970s.
Change isn’t necessarily a problem as long as it’s responsibly approached and managed. The county has to remain sustainable for its residents and for the businesses based in the area in the future. At the moment there’s a significant buzz about the opportunity to turn St George’s Barracks into a new community. Some local residents are against it, but I believe we can create a new community which is in keeping with Rutland’s unique and special character, supported by all the necessary infrastructure improvements.