EMILY Smith certainly didn’t expect to be the leader of Vale of White Horse District Council back in 2015.

A married mum of two, she stood in Botley and Sunningwell four years ago – being elected just as the Liberal Democrats haemorrhaged votes at the ballot box in the Vale of White Horse district and across the country.

Many of the party’s MPs who had been in coalition with the Conservatives lost their seats, including future leader Vince Cable.

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Mrs Smith stood as a councillor to make a difference as a Lib Dem but it was difficult – far more difficult – with just nine councillors against 29 Conservatives in the Vale of White Horse.

Back in 2015, she said she was the ‘new one’, among a lot of ‘depressed’ other Lib Dem councillors who were shocked at the huge loss of other colleagues.

So, naturally, the most logical step was to face the ballot box again. She became the county councillor for Abingdon North in 2017, where she grew up.

That same year, Lib Dem Layla Moran swept in as MP for Oxford West and Abingdon.

Oxford Mail:

From then on, it seems Oxfordshire’s Lib Dems have been more optimistic about the future and making a positive impact.

At the same time the party across the county has successfully clawed back support – not least helped by Labour and Conservative divisions over Brexit.

After the local elections were held in May, the political landscape had changed in Oxfordshire and the country yet again.

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In the Vale of White Horse, the Lib Dems won 31 seats and the Conservatives dropped down to just six; Mrs Smith was appointed the council’s leader a few weeks later.

If a week is a long time in politics as Harold Wilson said, the then four years must seem like an age.

So how does she feel being the council leader, nearly three months into the role?

“It’s been busier than I expected. How can I describe it? There are a lot more meetings than I was expecting,” she said.

Oxford Mail:

File photo of Mrs Smith, right, joining a protest against the Oxford Cambridge Expressway.

“The work-life balance has been challenging because I wanted to get stuck in and be in touch with it. So it has been a bit exhausting but really interesting.

“When you’re in opposition you get a certain amount about how things are, the financial matters and that sort of thing, but when you’re in administration you get a bit more information and the challenges become more real.”

She includes the Lib Dems’ knowledge of the council’s financial plan, which indicated it would have ‘run out of money within four years’.

That is being addressed, she says, including how the council can generate money that can be ploughed into public services.

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The new leader has pledged to change the authority for the better, ridding it of ‘financial mess’ she said the party had inherited from the formerly dominant Conservatives, and to build ‘genuinely affordable housing’.

Also necessary, she has said, is now to build ‘infrastructure the district needs’ and ‘to tackle the climate emergency’.

Emily joined the Liberal Democrats at 18 – but only became involved after she delivered leaflets for Lib Dem Vale councillor Debby Hallett, a neighbour, and had got involved in the campaign to build a skatepark in Botley.

She was encouraged to stand as a parish councillor, was in that post for 18 months and then stood as a district councillor. (Funnily enough, Ms Hallett is now Emily’s deputy after handing over the reigns as group leader to her last year.)

Today, the most pressing issue for her district council – and the county council too – is the controversial impact of where housing will go and how much of it will be built.

Oxford Mail:

She was disappointed when a planning inspector said they were satisfied that housing figures for Vale of White Horse were suitable but she insisted there could still be a change in the future.

Possible changes are being looked at now but nothing has been decided, she said. She wants to build only housing that is appropriate and needed. Critically, Oxford’s exact housing need should be decided before other authorities accept to take it on, she says.

And her authority is looking to address the pace of the ‘growth agenda’ and the ‘rapid rate of growth of housing’.

Getting people involved in politics is something the Vale’s Lib Dems will do under her leadership, she said.

“I am really interested in young people and how we encourage them into politics – meaning party politics and community politics – and making communities a better place to live.

“I am quite often questioning: have we involved communities and young people?

“That’s to check that this is what they want and how are we involving them and if I get the opportunity I’ll talk to local people.”

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How will the Vale district look, another four years on since what seemed like Lib Dem electoral oblivion, after a term of rather unforeseen Smith leadership?

She said: “I’d definitely still want Layla as an MP and the council run by the Lib Dems.

“I think that I would like to see more sustainable growth. I’m not opposed to growth per se but I think that it needs to be reasonable and I would want the council to have more regard for the impact on people’s quality of life.”

That could include how to get people using more active travel options – like cycling or walking – rather than using cars to get around the Vale district.

Many spots around it are heavily polluted already, such as spots off the A34 in Botley.

Some things have certainly changed, even recently: roughly half of the Vale’s councillors (regardless of party) are women, she said.

Whether the pace of change across the Vale can continue – in various ways and spearheaded by her leadership – is something that will only be seen in years to come.