Meet the councillors - Derbyshire’s Ben Bellamy and Rob Cooper
PUBLISHED: 00:00 02 September 2019
In an era when younger representatives are walking away from local politics, David Marley chats to two councillors who are bucking the trend – and discovers some remarkable similarities
On the bumpy tarmac playground of a secondary school on the outskirts of Derby, Ben Bellamy and Rob Cooper enjoyed kicking a scruffy, well-worn tennis ball, pretending to be strikers for their beloved Derby County football team.
Even though Bellamy went to Woodlands Community School, in Allestree some ten years before Cooper, like so many boys before and after them, goals scored were marked in the same time-honoured way, with jumpers lifted up and over the head and a jaunty celebratory jig.
As school years passed, in quieter classroom moments, the teenagers often daydreamed about their hopes for the future. Bellamy wanted to study art like his school teacher mother. 'Most of the men in my family worked at Rolls-Royce,' he explains. 'But I wanted to do something a bit different and go to university.'
Cooper yearned for adventure and hoped to travel the world. 'To be honest, I was a bit of a rogue at school, preferring to enjoy myself rather than devote time to the academic side of things,' he reflects.
Cooper's mother, Patricia, who works for Bennetts department store in Derby, was aware of her son's tendency to be easily distracted. She encouraged him to join the local army cadet unit based at nearby Kingsway. 'I needed structure and purpose in my life - and the cadets gave it to me,' Cooper says.
While a 14-year-old Cooper was learning how to handle a weapon and master the intricacies of marching up and down a parade square, one decade earlier, a 13-year-old Bellamy was putting on a different type of uniform. 'I'd always loved to be outdoors - especially climbing and exploring the countryside,' Bellamy recalls. 'So I decided to join the scouting movement.'
Bellamy says he was fortunate to serve in the scouts during the leadership of Derby youth worker, Peter Mitchell. Mitchell, who died in 2017, was given an award by the Queen and hundreds of people attended his funeral at a special service at Derby Cathedral.
'It was a privilege to carry his coffin into the cathedral. The values he taught me helped invigorate my passion for supporting people and building greater community cohesion.'
It is clear that these early experiences helped to shape their outlook and future life choices. Ultimately, it would see one making a journey to the other side of the world to help with the global struggle against terrorism, while the other would devote the majority of his time striving to safeguard the rights of workers in an era of major economic and social upheaval.
'By the age of 16, there weren't many career options open to me,' Cooper says. 'My father had lost his business in the financial crash of the 1990s and times were hard for our family. To progress, the only tangible thing still open to me was a life in the British Army. I'd always struggled with my weight as a child, so to make sure I passed the entry requirements my mother sent me out running around Derby's parks each night - as well as putting me on a strict diet for two months.'
Cooper's commitment paid off and he left, at the tender age of 16, to join the Army Foundation College in Harrogate. 'I was chuffed to bits,' Cooper laughs. Arriving with his old kit bag for basic training, he began his military duties on 9th September 2001, just two days before the terrorist atrocity on the World Trade Centre in New York.
'An older army friend told me that we would be yelled at by corporals every day, but that morning they were as quiet as church mice. It soon became clear that because of the terrorist attack my life in the army was going to step up several gears,' Cooper reflects. He completed a basic one-year training and education programme, before joining the Royal Corps of Signals as an area systems operator. After three years at the Imphal Barracks in Fulford, he was sent on a mission to United States Central Command in Florida.
Cooper worked out of a gigantic American air force base and reported to a British Air Vice Marshal. 'It was a wonderful experience, something I will never forget.' After two more years of military service he made a difficult decision to leave the army and began work as a street lighting engineer with Balfour Beatty.
Ten years earlier in Derbyshire, Bellamy was struggling to find his vocation, having just finished studying fine art and history of art at the University of Derby. 'I'd done lots of sales jobs but hadn't found something I wanted to do as a fulfilling career,' Bellamy remembers.
Then he noticed an advert for a job in information technology, something he knew nothing about but he decided to apply. He got the job, working for a company that provided telephone help and support to customers of British Telecom. 'It was based at the Great Northern Road site in Derby,' he says.
With a friendly, approachable personality and good communications skills, Bellamy took a natural interest in the welfare of workers at the site. He joined a trade union and was appointed as a branch secretary. 'Over 1,000 people worked there and I loved helping my colleagues with employment rights and other entitlement-based issues,' he recalls.
When British Telecom made the decision to close the site and move operations to Bangalore, Bellamy's outlook on employment changed and his interest in local politics grew. 'It was an awful time for everyone,' he says. 'As the branch official I stayed on until the end of the closure to make sure everyone got their full redundancy payment.'
After this, Bellamy's career in the union movement progressed and he was appointed as an assistant national organiser for Connect, a specialist communication workers' union.
By now back in Derby, Cooper had set up as a self-employed freelance contractor for construction companies, including Redrow and Miller Homes. Away from work, both men had met partners and now had families of their own.
By the mid-2010s, both men had decided to become more active in local politics and stand for elected office. Unlike more ruthless politicos (who often try to parachute into safe, winnable seats), both men sought election in communities close to home.
Bellamy wanted to be a Labour Party councillor in his new hometown of Belper. 'I've always thought that if you wish to stand you should do so in the area close to where you live or work - no matter how challenging the obstacles are to getting elected,' he says.
Using IT skills picked up in his earlier working years, Bellamy set about creating a strong social media presence on Twitter and Facebook for his local political party. 'We had many good local volunteers but I realised that we needed to create a more structured, outward-facing campaign team. Once done, we could then go out and share our vision and aspirations with local residents,' he explains.
The challenge for Bellamy and his team was daunting. For generations the town of Belper had been dominated by Conservative Party councillors.
'I wanted to create a new, kinder form of politics, where younger and female candidates felt able and confident to contribute,' he says.
To show he practised what he preached, Bellamy decided to stand for election himself in 2016 in what had been a safe Conservative ward for 30 years. Few people predicted that he could or would win. 'I mounted a positive campaign and offered hope instead of more of the same,' he says. He triumphed and overturned a large Conservative majority to take the seat with a winning margin of 86 votes.
This electoral breakthrough provided a platform for other Labour candidates to emerge. The local party gained strength and confidence, and by this year's local elections the Labour team in Belper won all 16 Town Council seats. In the Amber Valley Borough Council elections, held at the same time, a resurgent Labour Party also took the last remaining Conservative Belper wards. 'People wanted change and that's what they voted for,' he said. Within days he was appointed deputy leader of Amber Valley Borough Council and with it holds the responsibility for managing its housing strategy and local plan.
At the same time that Bellamy was shaking up politics in Belper, Cooper was beginning to show an interest in seeking office as an elected representative in Derby city. 'I started to get involved as part of the European referendum campaign in 2016,' Cooper says. 'I really believed that the United Kingdom should create its own future, away from the restrictions of the European Union. So I joined the local Leave team.' And it was no coincidence that the Leave campaign ran an extremely effective political strategy in the city of Derby, polling over 57 per cent of the vote.
In 2017 he moved to Chaddesden, in Derby North, and stood for election for the Conservative Party a year later. Traditionally, the ward had been controlled by successive generations of Labour politicians and few local residents expected Cooper to overturn years of socialist continuity. He worked day and night, delivered thousands of leaflets by hand and created one of the most effective online political marketing campaigns ever seen in the East Midlands. As a result he not only won the ward, but secured a majority of over 1,200 votes. 'That was quite something I have to say,' he says.
Cooper also puts his victory down to hours of hard work and increased public visibility in the community, combined with bucket loads of passion and understanding for what people wanted and needed in the local area. Twelve months later the local Chaddesden Conservative team won the last remaining seat held by the Labour Party in the ward.
But with Bellamy and Cooper's electoral success came increased scrutiny and occasional hostility. As community representatives they faced abuse from online trolls and also had to juggle a range of conflicting daily challenges. Long hours, mountains of community casework and endless meetings became the norm.
A recent survey by the Local Government Association highlighted these increased pressures on younger councillors, particularly those in their 30s and 40s, as reasons why many first-term representatives were resigning. 'It is very sad that because of high workloads and unwarranted personal abuse, younger representatives are walking away from politics,' Cooper says. 'I know to my personal cost that the pressure of demands can sometimes take a toll on you.'
Fifteen months ago during a period of intense political campaigning, Cooper collapsed at home and was rushed to hospital for treatment for exhaustion. And oddly, just five months ago, Bellamy was taken ill whilst out and about in Belper: 'I was cared for on the street by some wonderful local nurses before being driven to hospital in an ambulance for blood tests and scans.'
'I think all councillors need to strike a balance between their council commitments and private time,' he says. 'But I was overwhelmed by the community response when I took a turn for the worse. It just goes to show what a wonderful place we all live in.'
The public's response to Bellamy and Cooper's recent health scares, in wishing them a speedy recovery, shows how highly they are regarded in their local communities. They continue to play a full and active role in the areas where they live. Bellamy volunteers as an under-14 girls' football coach in Allestree where he grew up, and Cooper has organised a string of family days in Chaddesden Park. 'You simply have to give it your all,' Cooper reflects.
Bellamy and Cooper's community engagement work has also started to attract national political interest. Boris Johnson recently met Cooper in Chaddesden for a chat about the Derby politician's success in winning an inner-city ward. And Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn travelled to Belper for a briefing from Bellamy about his vision for making Amber Valley the best borough in which to live, work and play in the UK.
It is interesting to note how both men's lives have mirrored each other since their early years playing football at Allestree's Woodlands School. In an era of overblown political egos, Bellamy and Cooper have shown themselves to be grounded and sensible politicians. Many believe that their political journey is only just beginning and that in the future they may end up gracing the corridors of the Palace of Westminster at the same time. 'Now wouldn't that be something,' Cooper smiles.