James Bensly - not just a burger flipper

Councillor James BenslyIT was the search for answers following devastating heartbreak that set James Bensly on a path to local politics.

Now the Hemsby-based businessman, who has represented the area on the borough council for five years, is getting to grips with a second role as a Norfolk County Councillor.

James is known locally for his down to earth approach and happily describes himself as just a burger flipper. He started as a parish councillor and was encouraged to get involved by former Mayor of Great Yarmouth Shirley Weymouth (who died recently - see the parish council pages). In fact he thinks more people should join their parish councils.

"I always had an interest in politics but I didn’t think I was academic enough at school,” he said. Borderline dyslexic, he had to have speech therapy as a youngster. He thoroughly enjoyed his time as a Norfolk Fire Cadet and when he left at 18 his plan was to join the Navy.

A car crash put paid to that ambition and he found himself going to college to learn a trade so he could join the construction industry. Several years drifted by before he settled down and married long term girlfriend Louise.

Tragedy struck when their daughter Ruby was born asleep. She would have been a rainbow baby because the couple had suffered several miscarriages. But she was delivered two weeks past her due date.

The couple later went on to have another daughter Bebe, born nine weeks premature, weighing 3lb. But in the wake of Ruby’s death James began asking questions, wanting to know more about how decisions were made and the reasoning behind them. Soon it was not just about maternity care, but wider issues. "It gave me lots of balance when I could quite easily have been consumed by anger and depression from our experience, which no one should have to go through. We men exchange information, we don't talk. I would really like to change that."

Eventually James became a parish councillor and later, after a grilling by a local Conservative party panel, was selected as a candidate for the borough elections. He’s been serving the area where he was bred and born ever since. And he’s well acquainted with its challenges, from infrastructure and coastal erosion to tourism – something he knows about because he and Louise have the Beach Café in Hemsby.

One of the biggest problems is how to tackle a shortage of GPs at the local surgery. “How can we attract young doctors to this wonderful area to settle with their families?” he said. “Do we need more housing to bring them in?”

There is once in a lifetime investment heading Great Yarmouth’s way with projects like a university campus, the revamp of the Winter Gardens and other developments, but he said the area still needs an influx of young people including NHS workers.

And the community should be one of the attractions. “There is a reason why people come on holiday here and they want to settle. We are welcoming as a community,” he explained. “People like to talk to each other and if they can’t help you with an issue they will know someone that can. That’s the essence of our community.”

That spirit was evident in the pandemic when people went out of their way to help others. In Winterton an emergency response group was set up by the parish council to do chores like shopping, collect medicines and walking dogs for the vulnerable.

“The pandemic has been a horrible experience but it did create opportunities for people to get to know each other,” he said. 

Since the local elections in May, when he was voted into the county seat previously occupied by Ron Hanton, he has become what’s known as a twin hatter and it’s been a whirlwind experience. The role gives him a more strategic perspective and it means more work.

At the same time he’s found there are advantages for him and borough council colleague Noel Galer. Instead of having to pass issues like highways or schools to a county councillor, he can take it to the higher authority himself.

And he’s already started work on some knotty problems in Winterton, including looking at measures to stop drivers parking in front of a dropped kerb near the village hall.

He’s still settling into the seat but he’s enjoying himself. “There is quite significant work involved with it but I wouldn’t change it for the world. It’s an amazing job and you do get to find out why decisions are made.”