Cllr Spencer Flower shares his journey from a Gillingham council estate to the leadership of Dorset Council as he chooses the discs he can’t live without
Born in Gillingham in his grandmother’s house to a divorced single mum, Spencer Flower was raised by his mum until he was five. ‘I have a distant memory that we lived in Yeovil for a period of time,’ he says. ‘I remember sitting watching the workmen coming out of Westlands Helicopters, waving at them as they were finishing work! Then mum remarried and we came back to Gillingham, where we lived in a council house until I was nine.’
Spencer Flower, the first leader of the new Dorset unitary council, has been shortlisted for Leader of the Year in the Cllr Awards run by the Local Government Information Unit.
He says: ‘It’s an unexpected and huge honour to be shortlisted.’
When Spencer was nine, he moved from Gillingham to the coast. ‘Dad was a local postman, and he got a promotion, which meant we moved to Weymouth. They bought a three-story house which they turned into a guesthouse. Growing up I always knew what was for dinner; the menu was on a two week cycle because you couldn’t have the same meal twice during a fortnight’s holiday!
‘I completed an engineering apprenticeship, living with my parents until I was 21, when I realised I needed to leave town for better opportunities. ‘I moved to London and started as a skilled worker on the shop floor, swiftly transitioning to a junior draftsman role, despite the initial pay cut. Over the years, I progressed through various positions, ultimately becoming the contracts and commercial manager. When I expressed my desire for general management, I was encouraged to work in quality assurance, where I excelled at managing a team of 50. I then set up a new operation for the company, increasing my staff from 12 to 370 in five years. Eventually, I was headhunted and by chance the new role meant a return to Dorset. Village life led me to engaging in local politics, and I joined the parish council and then ran for district council on a last-minute decision in 1995, narrowly losing. I thought, “next time around, I’m really going to do it.” Four years later, I knocked on every door, delivered leaflets and leaflets – and ultimately won with a substantial majority.
‘I stayed as the district councillor, moving to Verwood in 2006, where I was councillor for 14 years until the district council was disbanded in 2019 to form the unitary. I was fortunate enough to win a seat on the new Dorset Council and was also leader of the Conservative group – so de facto I became the leader of the council. I’ve got local government in my blood now!
‘The thing that motivates me is that I like to help people. I’m an outcome-driven person. Someone once told me I was a workaholic, but I’m not, I’m an achiever-holic. I like my results!
My business experience has been incredibly useful –
managing people, understanding balance sheets and how you can structure things – and I’ve learned from colleagues whom I respect and listen to.
‘When I became leader in May 2019, it was probably one of the shortest acceptance speeches on record – I simply said:
“I’ll be an advocate for Dorset, not an apologist for government. I’ll work across this chamber, because we’re all elected to do the best we can for the people in our individual wards, and collectively as a council. That’s my ethos and I won’t budge from it.”
‘And I haven’t. I know that I’ve come in for the occasional bit of criticism, but I don’t believe in tribal politics, I don’t believe in rigidly following an ideology. I’m very much in favour of working as a team to get the best outcomes. And it works. I’ve only got a majority of four and yet our budgets were approved with a majority 49. That meant across the chamber, the vast majority supported the budget. It was a common sense budget, so why wouldn’t they?’
Spencer is known for noisily and repeatedly tackling government ministers on the issues where he feels Dorset is getting a rough deal on the national stage.
‘We do rely very heavily on our local taxpayer for more than we should. In Dorset, 84 pence in the pound of our income comes from our local taxpayers. The national average is 67p!
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‘We get a very, very small amount of revenue support if you compare us with some of the boroughs in London – they get 20 or 30 million a year with much lower council tax.
‘So I’ve been lobbying really hard. I remember early on in my tenure being told: “Nobody in Westminster really knows about Dorset”
‘And I thought, “well, I’m going to change that!” – they know about Dorset now, I can assure you!
‘And I’ve told the cabinet, there will be no service cuts. Don’t come to me until you’ve looked at every avenue to reduce our costs. I’m proud of that – cutting services is an easy route, and I don’t want an easy route, I want the long-lasting route of delivering services at an affordable cost. I recognise that we put a huge burden on the people of Dorset – I’m trying to gradually reduce that burden.
‘The issue in Dorset is that our demographics are way out of line with the rest of the country. Our number of over-65s is hitting 30 per cent of our population, and we’ve got the highest number of over-84-year-olds in the country.
‘Of course, people want to come and live in Dorset, and we welcome that. But there’s no recognition from government – the burden of the additional adult social care costs is on us, on the local taxpayers. And it’s huge. It’s £142 million out of our £348 million total budget, and we don’t get any support from government to fund that.
‘But by reducing to one unitary council, I predicted we’d save 70 million quid over the first five years – we’re actually looking as though we’re going to save about £110m, and that’s all been rolled back into service delivery, which is the key reason we haven’t had to cut services. We’ve managed to self-fund by our own efforts.
‘That’s buying time but it doesn’t stop me saying to government, “You’re not funding the shires!” It’s not just Dorset. All the shires are under-funded.
‘There’s a formula that’s used nationally for determining how the government distributes “the pot” and one thing they don’t factor in is the age of the demographic. The other one is the sheer cost of delivering services in rural areas.
‘I think there’s a growing recognition in government now – they will come up with a fairer funding formula at some point. But that doesn’t help me now! I have regular meetings with our MPs, they know that I’m on the warpath. I am always very polite. Assertive, but very polite. And I won’t take no for an answer. I don’t think it’s my job to accept second best for the people of Dorset.
A life in music
And so to Spencer’s eight music choices, in no particular order, along with how and why they have stuck in his life:
I’m sort of cheating here, and I’m going to bundle three together;
Have I told you lately that I love you?
These three songs together are for my late daughter. We lost Tracy seven years ago – she had undiagnosed stomach cancer. I lost her at the age of 48. Which is no age.
I still think about her every day. It’s my way of coping with my
loss. Talking about it helps me … bottling it up doesn’t.
Tracy and I had a really really good dad-daughter relationship. I mean, the phone would go and I’d answer with “OK, what’s up? Do you want advice or money?” It was usually one or the other! But we always had a close relationship, all the way through. These three aren’t songs that
we shared particular memories of – after she died, my wife and I looked through her music, to see what she played, what she loved. We had to pick some songs for the funeral, and we picked these three. I’ve just … I’ve just always kept those in my mind.
It’s that little link to when she was alive, you know?
So that’s why I picked those.
We Are The Champions Queen
I’ve told my wife, I want this played at my funeral!
Because it’s me. I’m a winner. I’m out to win. I’m not ruthless, but I do always try and win.
I want to put effort into something and be walking away saying: “Done that. Achieved. Let’s move on to the next thing.” And We Are The Champions epitomises that mindset.
I played football until I was 40, and at a company football match someone commented
“I notice your tackling was an uncompromising as your management style!” I’m not quite sure that was true. But I do take the point. I don’t suffer fools, but I do it by persuasion, not by confrontation, I simply try to persuade people to see a different way of getting something done.
It’s Now or Never
I’m an Elvis fan – I always have been. I’m not quite sure why I picked this one particularly – probably my personality coming out here again, isn’t it?
It’s now or never – me, the achiever-holic, I’m going to make this happen. So it’s sort of a bit of that, I guess, which attracted me to this particular song.
I do a bit of karaoke, occasionally, and I do Elvis, as well as Sinatra and Tom Jones!
You can see where I’m coming from now … My wife persuaded me that I had to put My Way in! The thing is, I’m always willing to listen to other people’s views and move position if it’s for a better outcome. I’m a great fan of ‘triangulating’ – I test ideas on two or three people, because I think you then come out with a better decision.
I’ve always told my managers that we are never too big to
ask the right question. If you’re not sure, there’s no disgrace in asking the question, because
if you end up with a better decision, no one’s going to remember you asked the question, they’ll remember you found the solution.
It’s a bit of a convoluted answer, but that’s why I chose it!
It’s Not Unusual
It was a tough choice between Delilah and this. I just love them both – no big reason or story here. We did go and see Tom Jones last year – he’s getting a bit creaky now, but he’s still got a voice. And I do respect Tom, because he has a great voice, and a good range of songs. So
I just like Tom Jones – and this one because it’s a good one!
We’ve seen the Eagles in concert four times. All over the country – my wife and I think they’re absolutely amazing. We saw them before Glenn Frey died, so the original line up, and then since with his son on the stage. And I think we’ve seen a couple of tribute acts too! They are a feelgood group, sort of country with a twist. The last time we saw them was at Wembley Stadium. Wow, it was packed – and my wife nabbed us (with my credit card, mind) seats that were six rows back from the stage. It was fabulous. Six rows back from the stage! Sheryl Crow was the warm up act, and then the drummer came on and said ‘Evening everybody! We’re going to play for two and a half hours. Because we can!’
And they did, too! It was absolutely brilliant.
My eldest stepson says he could always tell he’s walking into our house, because you can hear the Eagles being played in the kitchen. We just say ‘Alexa, Eagles!’ So this one’s the best reason really – I picked it because it’s my favourite group!
The book – Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude by Napoleon Hill
It doesn’t sound like a fun read, does it? It’s interesting – when I took on the role as a Quality Assurance Manager it was a
bit of a challenge, a poisoned chalice. I didn’t really mind because it gave me a chance to show whether I could manage a crisis. One of my inspectors came in one day, put this book
on my desk and said: “you might find it useful”. And I did.
I read it twice (I never read a book twice). And it has had the most influence on my attitude
in life that I could have ever imagined. If you’re negative, you use a lot of energy and you’ve achieved nothing. Everything I do is based on having a positive outcome. Even in a crisis, I will always look for the positives, then build on them. I just never hold my head in my hands – because that achieves nothing does it? If you spend all your time grumping, looking down a hole, talking about going to hell in a handcart then you might as well not bother. It’s having that ability to think positively about how you’re going to achieve your objectives. So that’s my book.
Luxury item – a chilled glass of dry white wine
When I go on holiday in a very warm climate, it’s the only time I ever drink really cold, dry wine. So if I’m on holiday on my lovely Dorset island, I’m relaxing.
It’s going to presume it’s a warm, dry, sunny stay, so a nice glass of cold dry white wine would go down nicely.
A giant wave is coming and you only have time to grab one disc – which will you save? Lionel Richie’s Truly, because it leads me to my daughter.
Click to listen to Spencer’s entire playlist on YouTube