Meet Sarah Rouse.  What a ridiculously testing time for a new leader – the district first had to deal with flooding again and next the pandemic hit. Sarah’s been in crisis mode for most of her time as the Independent Leader of Malvern Hills District Council, following election last year.  However this is a story of leadership that is a lot more about people and a lot less about politics.

Sarah is one of the most down to earth councillors you could ever have the pleasure of meeting. She really is in it for the residents. “I’m all about the community, all about bringing councillors together with officers and doing what’s right for residents. I don’t do games, I don’t do party politics or point scoring,” says Sarah.

But she does do empathy and she does it well; she knows first-hand what it’s like to lose your job. Her home help business provided domestic support to 25 older people and has had to be put on hold during lockdown. As Sarah says, “It went from crazy busy to nothing. I thrive on being busy so I’ve thrown myself into helping people locally through the crisis.”

Outlining the crisis Sarah explains, “In February we were up to our necks in flood water, our town centres were really badly affected especially Tenbury and Upton. We were just working out how to help the towns get back on their feet, then the pandemic hit.”

Communicating from the top during a crisis is key

Getting information out to people on where to go for help became the priority in terms of Council wide communications.  In her own ward of Alfrick and Leigh, she worked with the parish councils and did a leaflet drop into all 1,500 homes which included phone numbers where people could go for support. She gets calls personally everyday; she’s food shopping for many. Sarah’s helped a lady put credit on her mobile, another asked if she could get her the incontinence pads she needed. A social worker called to say how relieved she was that Sarah had sorted out support for her patient’s return from hospital.

Nothing seems too much trouble for Sarah, this is someone who wants to do her bit personally – as well as lead her Council. She’s asked all councillors to do the same to show their local leadership, working with the County level Here2Help advice line too.

Working at the very local to the national level 

She seems comfortable working at all levels, from the very local level in her village to the national level. She goes from being part of the Worcestershire wide response, working with the other District and County Leaders via calls, to helping shape the national agenda through the roles she’s now playing as a regional representative as an Independent councillor and advising the Executive of the Local Government Association. “I enjoy helping at each level – I like going from dog poo and local road closures to the big national issues like Climate Change”, says Sarah.

Sarah has got into the habit of sending regular update emails to all 37 councillors on the Council. She started emailing councillors involved in the floods early on, sometimes with updates every few hours, and it’s extended to the 37 councillors during Lockdown.  Sarah is very quick to praise the staff at the Council too. “Our staff have been amazing, getting the business grants out, keeping services going, working out how we can make social distancing work in services, like public toilets. And other awful things we’ve had to think about; dealing with excess deaths in an empathetic and caring way.

“I’m in regular contact with all the management team and we are starting to plan how we get back to some sort of normality.”

Leadership beyond the pandemic

Looking beyond the pandemic Sarah is keen to see how our homeless can be kept off the streets for the longer term. She says, “We want to build care packages around the support people need. We’ve got to help our town centres recover; they’ve suffered with the flooding and now this. We’ve got partners working together already on the response with us. We need to be really innovative.”

She’s hoping some of the new changes will stay. “Why wouldn’t we continue with our online planning meetings now that we’ve got that working? Think of the savings in car mileage, pollution, money and the climate. We’d started looking into agile working – now we’re all doing it. More online meetings and homeworking is here to stay.”

I want all the good community spirit to stay  

Sarah hopes some other things stay too, “I want all the good community spirit we’ve generated to stay – people being good neighbour and all the volunteers we’ve got now…I’d like to keep all the walking and cycling people are doing too. This is so good for our carbon plan too.”

When asked what Sarah would say to anyone thinking about getting into local politics, she’s quite clear, “Stick to what you believe in, what you believe is right. I wanted to stand up for people and be honest and direct. I think I’m known for that. I hope so.”

To relax she’s big into her dogs and walking, she and her partner love their motorbike too. Her Friday night catch up with her neighbours, social distancing, is becoming normal, “I just want to keep chatting to people and help everyone sane and together at this tough time.”