“Please, just give us some time” – that’s the key message from new Isle of Wight Council leader, Lora Peacey-Wilcox.
Lora’s team took control last Wednesday, dismaying Conservatives, who couldn’t believe that 13 independent councillors and eight from six different parties or groups would all vote together. But Lora’s canny and persuasive attributes which helped her coax 18 councillors into a new Alliance Group with others supporting them, setting political differences aside. Sixty-one per cent of voters on May 6 wanted things to change and, by golly, change we are going to get.
Since then Lora’s been in a whirlwind of papers, meetings and phone calls, but the IW Observer chatted to her, on Bank Holiday Monday, to find out more about the ‘Pocket Rocket’ (she’s 4’11”) who’s now in overall control of a £390 million budget, serving 144,000 Islanders.
Born in St Mary’s Hospital in October 1964, Lora’s now 56. Her childhood home in Newport Road, Cowes was “always busy with people popping in and out and seldom quiet but very happy”. She often quips that she’s related to most of her Cowes Medina ward residents. It may be a joke, but as a seventh-generation Islander and the eleventh of twelve children, her family connections are strong – perhaps that’s where she learnt that everyone needs to rub along and pull together.
She’s passionate about the role of inspirational teachers citing, in particular, Miss (Marianne) Sullivan who taught various subjects at Somerton and Vera Taylor who instilled her love of English, poetry and the natural world.
In 1987 she married John Wilcox, whose security work for the United Nations takes him around the world, and Lora has travelled to support him. But it’s certainly not all been glamorous; she’s even lived in an armed compound in war-torn Somalia. She’s often joked it was safer than in the IW Council chamber under previous leaders.
The couple have two grown-up daughters, Amber and Saffron. The dogs are also much loved members of the family – ‘Wreck it Ralph’ Lauren is a white Westie, with Hugo Boss, a one-eyed ‘pirate’ pug. The dogs’ names reflect Lora’s love of clothes and fashion; she’s always well-dressed, even when casual. She used to run Posh Frocks, a dress hire agency, and many former customers remain friends.
Lora enjoys the challenge of being a councillor, but the real buzz comes when she can help somebody and make their lives better. After four years on Cowes Town Council, it was 18 years ago that former MP Andrew Turner, “a good man”, persuaded her to stand for the county council. However, unwilling to always toe the party line, she found herself tormented in the Tory group. She recalls leaving County Hall in tears under the then leader David Pugh, having been told to go home because she wouldn’t support abolishing the three-tier education system. She didn’t believe it would deliver the promised improvements, more than a decade after the changes were implemented, some would say she was right.
Lora’s far happier as an independent member, saying what she believes and voting accordingly. Her retort to cynics who say that previous independent administrations have failed is, “The point is you MUST learn from mistakes.” Her cabinet has plenty of experience with two former council leaders, but because of his knowledge and experience a brand new councillor, Chris Jarman has taken the finance role. “If I’m a pocket rocket, he’s my Exocet,” she laughs.
With no party allegiance and views that include “a bit of everything,” Lora’s up for her latest challenge. Her mantra is, “The public knows best and must come first. We will listen to them,” and she promises to stand by that. She also wants to bring knowledgeable Islanders into the system to help and advise – just give her a while to find the best way to do it. Another belief is you should ‘treat others as you would like to be treated’, so they’ll be appreciated and thanked for their contribution.
Describing herself as a bit of a matriarch, she thinks that women play a unique role in political life. One strategy is to get her people to eat together as “keeping blood sugars at the right levels reduces conflict”. Lora believes that women weigh up different solutions to problem whereas men are more likely to think in a straight line. But where does that leave her when the men in her cabinet all believe different things? The answer’s obvious to Lora: “We’ll talk it through with the members of the Alliance Group, and reach a consensus.”
She’s open to capable Conservatives getting involved, pointing out that fellow Cowes councillor, Tory John Nicholson, was quickly appointed Chairman of the Health and Social Care Policy and Scrutiny Committee. John ‘gets’ that people must work constructively through disagreement; however she’s not convinced that most Tories share his approach, and further appointments would need the support of the Alliance Group.
The key task now is to find out what position the council is in and any problems coming down the line. Focussed on looking forward, Lora appears to have excused MP, Bob Seely, for many disobliging comments, including claiming that independents would be “a coalition of incompetence and chaos”. She says it’s important to work together, putting Islanders first, but in a steely voice she adds, “If he says he’ll do something, then he must do it.” She will hold him to account, publicly if necessary!
Success would be inspiring everyone in her team to work together, utilising the skills of those willing to work for the good of the Island. The biggest challenge will inevitably be lack of funding, and having the right staff to make things happen.
Many Islanders wish Lora and her team well and are rooting for their success. And political foes, willing her to fail, would be wise not to underestimate Mrs Peacey-Wilcox. She brings to mind Shakespeare’s recognition of feminine strength in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “Though she be but little, she be fierce.”