SKDC Deputy leader: I want people to be proud of what the council has done
He’s the power behind Stamford MP Nick Boles and a loyal deputy to South Kesteven District Council leader Matthew Lee.
Now, Kelham Cooke, already recognised as one of Britain’s leading young councillors, is making waves at the Grantham-based council.
Kelham was born in Chesterfield 28 years ago and moved to South Kesteven when he was very young, living in Helpston, Carlby and Uffington.
He went to Kirkstone House School in Baston, Stamford School and then Nottingham Trent University, where he studied business and economics.
At university, Kelham took a part-time job with Waitrose in Stamford, a role that saw him on the tills, pushing trolleys, stacking shelves and serving at the meat and fish counters.
After university, Kelham joined Waitrose full-time, with him working on the community matters green token scheme and organising events with local charities.
He quickly became a well-known face in Stamford.
Kelham was already a Conservative Party member at university but he was not active in the party until 2010, when he was asked to help out in that year’s General Election and he first met Mr Boles, who was then just a rookie candidate.
The following year, whilst studying for his finals, Kelham campaigned some more and agreed to be a district council candidate, believing it was just something that might be good for the CV.
He said: “I wasn’t expecting to be elected. I won and (at 21) became the youngest ever elected councillor in South Kesteven.
“It was a huge learning curve. Most people my age don’t understand what councils do. It’s not just what they do, but the protocols and the rules.”
Kelham soon began working as an intern for Grantham and Stamford’s new MP and in 2012 was asked to be party agent for Mr Boles and his communications officer.
He said: “I have never studied politics. I was always interested in politics but never planned a job there. But it’s still dealing with people and building relationships.”
Kelham sees his MP boss every week and visits Westminster once or twice a month.
“I like the variety, going out on visits, organising meetings, hosting events and people.”
Kelham had not planned standing again in his Casewick ward in 2015, feeling he had given it four years.
‘Backbench’ councillors have little influence, he says, but he enjoyed the ‘ward work’ meeting people, attending parish council and other meetings.
But he stood again, in a campaign that also saw a general election in addition to the district council ones.
Working as party agent, organising Mr Boles’ as well as his own campaign, Kelham said: “It was amazing but one of the most stressful periods I have ever had.”
That year, he joined SKDC’s cabinet, holding the governance and communications portfolio.
But after 16 months, he decided to step back to be a ‘backbencher’ once more, focussing more on scrutiny and the committees.
However, the council was set for major change, with Kelham being asked to stand as deputy leader and being subsequently elected deputy to new leader Matthew Lee, with the two fresh faces giving SKDC a more youthful look.
The new brooms set out to sweep, as they pushed a more commercial-orientated mindset at the council, aiming to improve services and deliver them more efficiently.
Recent innovations include a software called Panintelligence, which works like a smartmeter and predicts the resources the council needs, so staff, for example, can be moved around to where they are needed most.
Kelham said: “As government support decreases, we have to transform the way in which we work.”
This includes SKDC’s Lightbox innovation team, where staff come up with ideas for doing it better.
Working with consultants EY (Ernst & Young) issues like process automation are raised.
It means offering more council services online, with SKDC’s computer systems being upgraded to accommodate this.
“Customers can access them 24/7 but we still offer face to face services for the vulnerable and the more complicated services. We make services more relevant and efficient, give what people want.”
Kelham is also working on the upgrade of council offices, which will see more flexible, open workspaces and a ‘business hub’ for small firms looking to rent office space.
More recently though, Kelham has been associated with SKDC’s local lottery, something which has brought him into contact with many of the groups he worked with at Waitrose.
He also active in the Local Government Association, being declared runner up in its Young Councillor of the Year event, and helping out at events such as its weekend training and facilitation sessions.
“We had a question time and discussed hot topics. I spoke of my experiences on what we are doing. South Kesteven is seen as a disruptor council. Many councils talk about change but don’t do it. We are the one to watch.
“Rather than win trophies, I would rather have people say ‘have you seen what SKDC has done?’ There is no better way than to speak at the Conservative Party Conference.”
After Kelham spoke to the conference in October, SKDC received much interest from other councils in its activities.
And of course, Kelham’s other work includes supporting his leader Matthew, including attending local events.
“Matthew and I have been friends for a very long time. It’s great to have that open conversation. We don’t always agree but we have that friendship that keeps us through it. We work great together as a team.”
Kelham is similarly praiseworthy of Mr Boles, who recently said of his young agent: “He runs my world.”
Kelham responds: “Nick is an amazing boss. I have total respect for what he does and I will always be grateful for the opportunities he gave me.”
But need any of them fear for their jobs?
“I don’t really want to be council leader,” Kelham said.
"I really enjoy my role as deputy and working with Matthew. At some point in time I would like to stand as an MP but I’m in no rush. I am enjoying doing what I am doing now. I hope to continue doing what I am doing, providing I am re-elected next May.”
More by this authorDarren Greenwood