Never lose your ambition but recognise and enjoy great opportunities as and when they arise. I announced at the age of 7 that I was going to be Prime Minister. I can safely say that isn’t going to happen now, but I thoroughly enjoyed being the Leader of Southwark Council between 2010 and 2020. Until I became Leader I still had ambitions to become an MP, but then realised what a difference I could make in local government. Unless I was a minister in a fairly significant department I was unlikely to ever have the opportunity to see policies and ideas implemented in such an immediate way within an organisation with an annual turnover of £1.5 billion.

Self-belief is essential; arrogance is not. When I look back on my career I don’t know whether I was just naïve or had a misplaced self-confidence, but I never doubted that I would get a pupillage or a tenancy. Being a barrister was what I wanted to do, so I just believed that things would fall into place. And they did. I suppose you’re given the confidence and resilience to deal with whatever life’s challenges are at any particular time.

Local government is not recognised as the force for good that it is in our political life – it is the quiet and efficient piece of our system of government. At a time when people despair of national government and its ability to deal with economic and social problems, local government just gets on with the job. Although there are a handful of councils which have hit the headlines for poor investment decisions there are hundreds of others which have balanced the books every year and continued to provide high quality services for their residents, despite real-terms funding cuts of about 1/3rd since 2010. Local government could do so much more, but Whitehall and Westminster – and in particular the Treasury – need to properly let go of more powers so that local areas can genuinely drive their own growth.

I could never have considered a career at the Bar without tuition fees and a maintenance grant being paid by Avon County Council – they even paid for my Bar course. It really bothered me when I saw these opportunities being taken away from children and young people in Southwark. While I couldn’t replace all of the funding that had come from central government we did establish a Southwark Scholars programme for talented students from low income backgrounds, and paid for the university tuition fees of at least 12 of them each year.

Too many people still live in poor quality housing, and we’re not doing enough to change that. In Southwark we introduced a programme to make all our 50,000 council homes warm, dry and safe, and began to build 11,000 new council homes. It should be our national mission to provide everyone with high quality housing. Instead we seem to have developed a national expertise in diagnosing problems without any solutions. We are not building enough new homes, but have abandoned national targets and the planning system only really works for those who already have a home. The cost of remediation works post-Grenfell and retro-fitting to meet Net Zero carbon targets means that money and resources will be concentrated on existing housing rather than new homes over the next decade.

Culture and the arts are an essential part of local government’s work. Southwark was fortunate to have a great cultural offer, from Tate Modern to the Globe to Dulwich Picture Gallery to Peckham multi-storey car park, Camberwell College of Art, the Menier Chocolate Factory, the Bridge Theatre and so many others. The challenge is to make sure that these are places where everyone feels welcome. We worked with many of these organisations to run programmes for young people and created a free theatre tickets programme for all Southwark school children – in the hope that they would recognise that they could walk through any door – and that door was an entrance, not a barrier. I joined the Board of Trustees at the Old Vic in 2021 and it has been brilliant to be part of an organisation which values its social mission within the community as much as its role as a producer of amazing theatre.

Career plans should always be flexible. I had planned to stand down as Leader of Southwark in March 2020 and had even made the announcement that I was going the month before. But then COVID-19 struck and it quickly became apparent that it wasn’t a good time to be leaving. I had phone calls from several people I respected telling me that I should stay on as Leader and Chair of London Councils to help with the response to the pandemic. Looking back, it is remarkable to think about the structures which were and were not in place. The London Resilience Forum had been created to deal with a time-limited response to events such as terrorist attacks or tragedies such as Grenfell. We were not prepared for an emergency which could last months or years. So we had to create new structures which included daily Teams calls with the Mayor of London, senior London Council Leaders and officers, the NHS and government. Other new structures dealt with the recovery of London’s economy, education, and transport, and most of them continue to operate now, although without the cataclysmic threat of COVID hanging over them. So although the pandemic continued to have a massive impact for another year, there were new and robust structures and systems in place when I eventually stood down in October 2020.

Recognition for something that you have enjoyed doing is the ultimate added bonus. I was presented with my OBE by the Queen in 2016 at Buckingham Palace. I had met her before when she and the Duke of Edinburgh had visited Southwark a couple of years before. It still feels slightly surreal that I travelled in a lift with them to the top of The Shard, and was standing next to the Queen as she opened her handbag and applied her lipstick.

It has always been important for me to have maintained my career at the Bar. I knew my career in local politics would come to an end at some point, so I continued to practise throughout the period I was Leader. At times it was massively challenging trying to balance so much – there are only 24 hours in a day and as Leader I would have meetings from early morning until late at night – but it was also intellectually stimulating and stepping away to advise clients could sometimes help put a particular political problem into context or help me bring a new perspective to whatever challenge I was dealing with. Practice at the Bar really does equip you for problem-solving and looking at an issue from every possible angle.

Understanding and supportive colleagues have been essential. I have been genuinely fortunate to have enjoyed real support from my fellow members and clerks at Five Paper. They have let me go off and do my ‘politics thing’ and now have welcomed me back as I have returned to full-time practice. I am biased but they are the best.