“I could easily fill 4 or 5 days worth of work into every single day and still have stuff outstanding”
What residents of Medway asked Vince Maple, Leader of Medway Council
Editor’s note: As we mark 100 days since Labour took control of Medway Council, we agreed to sit down once more with new leader Vince Maple, this time in his Gun Wharf office, to discuss how things are going. To mix things up as we’ve interviewed Vince twice before, we decided we needed a new way of putting questions to him. What follows is a wide-ranging discussion on the Local Plan, toilets, support for creative industries and small businesses, and even his ideal lineup for the Castle Concerts.
Okay, so because this is the third time I've interviewed you, we have done something different and I've crowdsourced all the questions from residents of Medway.
So our first question is from Alan Jarrett.
Are you going to continue to honour what you said at Annual Council about retaining our unitary status, even in the face of a county-wide power grab from KCC?
Yes. I want devolution to happen, I want more powers and money for Medway, but not at all costs. Nobody during the election in May said to me that what we need is another layer of elected bureaucracy. I've got a very cordial relationship with Roger Gough, the leader of Kent County Council. We are not of the same political party, but we are both running upper tier authorities with all the challenges that that brings. We take different views on this, and that's okay. I think we'll see where the conversation goes, but I am really clear there is not any appetite, there's cross party consensus as far as I can tell. Nobody here in Medway is calling out for an elected mayor for Kent and Medway.
Is there any benefit for Medway from an elected mayor?
Well in the sense of it would bring some additional resource, but of course we know with additional resource comes extra responsibility, to misquote Spider-Man. One of the things a lot of residents raised with me quite rightly is the pretty appalling public transport service we get. Most of that is out of the hands of councils like Medway. We have a small amount that we make sure are subsidised for specific reasons, but on the whole if you get a bus in Medway, it will almost certainly be run by Arriva. They run over 90% of the buses here, and the service is not where it should be. I'd like to be more in control over public transport but is it a price worth paying for that? If devolution is about empowering the community of Medway, or the community of Kent and Medway, does that happen by putting all the power into the hands of one individual? I say no.
I hope Alan is doing well in his retirement.
Question from Simon Cook: What one thing do you wish you would have been told about the role before becoming leader?
That's a great question and again good to hear from Simon, who was a great panellist on the first Medway Question Time. I think from the first 100 days you kind of always expect things to be busy. I could easily fill 4 or 5 days worth of work into every single day, and still have stuff outstanding. In our first 100 days we've had three major incidents in a month, we've had the small matters of potential conversations around devolution, of being told £170m is being taken away by Michael Gove's government department. We've been cracking on with all the stuff we were going to do, the small business work that Lauren (Edwards, Portfolio Holder for Economic and Social Regeneration and Inward Investment) is leading on, the great stuff around housing and towards the Local Plan that we made an absolute commitment to move forward on that and that's coming to the next cabinet meeting.
Question from Caitlin Webb: How does it make you think of democracy differently when considering the differences between opposition and leadership?
I like to think that having been leader of the opposition for more than a decade, that gives me a perspective which I don't think any other previous leader of Medway Council has had. That's why I am saying to the main opposition group or minor opposition group that my door is open, let's have a regular dialogue about what's going on, off the record. We can have an open dialogue. Having that conversation is better than not having that conversation. In my 16 years on the council, most of which was in opposition, I think there was a fear of scrutiny. I'd like there to be more pre-decision scrutiny, before cabinet comes to a final conclusion, because it may well be that a number of recommendations are made, some we agree with, some we don't agree with. It's better to do that and make the policy stronger than just go with the administration. That's not good governance. Good governance comes from people regardless of what party they're in. I think every conversation at Medway Council for the foreseeable future, it's not just the £17m this year, it's the pressures we've got in future years.
Question from George Atzev: Which ongoing projects inherited from the Conservatives would your Labour administration have delivered differently or not pursued altogether?
Splashes. We've spoken about that before, with the concerns around the Splashes journey going from doing a bit of refurbishment to where we've got to now. I think we would not have continued with the project, but I think for me it's a wider issue about the previous administrations ability to look after what they've got. We've got millions of pounds being spent both on substantial increase in funding for the Brook Theatre and for replacement for our waste trucks. In both those cases, part of that is around asset management, looking after what you've got or in the case of the waste vehicles, making sure you've got an active process of replacement. They've been repaired and repaired and to the point that I think the technical term is knackered. The Splashes project highlighted the previous administration's ability to maintain its assets was questionable and regrettably since May the 4th we've seen through cabinet reports at least a couple more examples of that.
Question from David Skelton: What have you achieved in the first 100 days that has made real and practical impact?
There's lots. There's small stuff which won't necessarily make a huge impact on people's lives from day one, but will do things like make the council work more effectively. One of the things I'm really proud of is regular meetings with leaders of the opposition groups, which might sound a bit odd as to why is that important. If I look back over the previous 11 years, I think the council could have effectively been in an even better place with some of the tricky issues if we had that regular dialogue. I think that's important from a democratic perspective. I'm pleased that we've got somebody not from my party chairing committees in council, again something that should have been happening for more than a decade. Small changes which I think show this is a different place to where we've been for the last 20 years. From an external perspective, absolutely the cost of living plan. That brings together loads of stuff which perhaps people didn't know was there which can support them. We've invested some money to try and make sure people are getting all the support they are entitled. We’ve been starting to make progress on tackling bad landlords. That's an issue in Medway. We've heard time and again that people are just not getting the support they need.
An anonymous question: Which of your cabinet colleagues is most likely to stab you in the back and try to replace you as leader?
We've got a fantastic team, not just the team of the ten of us in the cabinet, but a team of 33. We have strong united team and one of the things that came across in the run up to May the 4th was how our main political opponents didn't have any of that. They had no idea who was going to be the leader of the council if they had a Conservative administration. There had been clear in-fighting on a number of issues and it's fair to say I don't think that's been completely resolved. I'm not planning on being hit by a bus, not least because they don't turn up. If I wasn't leader, we've got a dozen people who could step up and be leader of this council and do a tremendous job. I'm not going to name all 12, the problem for me in one sense is we've got more talent than we've got places on the cabinet, which is why we got great chairs of committees, people filling other community roles, our brilliant Mayor and Deputy Mayor. We've got quality people who are passionate, determined, and bring a real mixture of talent. So, I'm really proud of the team we've got so.
Is there anyone you feel would push you in front of that bus for the opportunity?
No, I think everybody is going to try and do everything they can to stop that bus and we should probably stop that analogy at this point.
(Conservative opposition leader) Cllr Gulvin made it clear that he is an interim leader. Have you given any thought to your own time in office?
It's 100 days today, and 100 days has been a good starting point. I'm planning for a few more 100 days. I won't be here forever, nobody in politics is irreplaceable. I hope to be in a position where that decision is my own. I hope the people of Chatham Central and Brompton continue to support me as a local councillor because I can't do anything if I haven't got the support of the community I directly represent as a local councillor, and at some point, I'll step down. I haven't got specific timescale yet. I certainly intend to be leading the council into the 2027 election and beyond.
Question from Natasha Boardman-Steer: What is the top thing you would love residents of Medway to understand Medway Council is not responsible for?
(laughs) That’s a great question, and I’d expect nothing less from Natasha. I think the thing, and this is tricky, is we don't own every piece of land in the town centres. One of our five pledges was around improving the town centres and Lauren Edwards, who leads on that for us, is doing some good work. In one sense people just say why can't the council just get on and do that to the town centre. Particularly in Gillingham, not just in Gillingham, but Gillingham in particular, the ownership of the High Street is a real kind of jigsaw, and it's a challenge. The ownership issues are real and genuine, so I think it's about people recognising that however much we might have some desire to make some improvements, and changes in particular town centres and high streets, ownership can quite often be a challenge. That actually that was part of the reason why we were broadly supportive of the previous administration taking back control of the Pentagon Centre because of the ability to say we're now in the driving seat with that and we can bring forward changes. Some of those changes haven't happened as quickly as we want. It's about recognising that not every public sector conversation between two bits of the system is straightforward. Actually, that's something else I probably want residents to know. If we're talking with the NHS or an education provider, whoever else it might be, they've got their sets of governance to go through as well, that can take time and that frustrates me as much as it frustrates everybody else.
Question from Carl Jeffery: How was Vince able to promise to deliver so much whilst at the same time keeping council tax low?
We made a really clear decision that we would never over promise. If you look at our five key pledges, we will deliver those and we will do more than that. We will run the council not only effectively, but efficiently. It will be a challenge. There's no doubt that people reading this will know the financial situation we find ourselves with the Conservative budget from February. We're now -£17m and we will have to find our way through that. We are obliged to deliver a balanced budget, but also, we're obliged to not spend money we haven't got. We've got a £17m gap, £10m in general reserves. That's a problem. That will mean difficult decisions and we're starting the work on that that. It isn't going to happen overnight, but we'll look at income generation and we'll be looking at everything we can which is reasonable. We're looking at what other councils are doing. We will be looking at rates compared to other council areas, with some of those fees and charges. There may be some things that we currently doing that we stop doing. There may be some assets we look at no longer retaining. Nothing is confirmed yet and people wouldn't expect it to be. There will be a process, but we’ve absolutely started that process. When people voted for change on May the 4th, they didn't vote for Michael Gove’s government department coming to run Medway Council. That's not going to happen on my watch.
Question from Rachel Lewis: You have referred to Hoo as the 6th town of Medway. What will you do to ensure that it gets the community and public services needed in a town?
I have referred to it as that, and I say that because I think just by the nature of it, but it doesn't have the resources it needs or the town centre facilities the other five towns have. Of course, regrettably, some of the funding to help with transport infrastructure Michael Gove’s department has taken from us in the first 100 days, so that's frustrating. We've got no Local Plan. It's been a piece meal approach to development in some areas, so you get the housing but not the infrastructure to go with it and that's both the hard infrastructure, the transport links etc, but also the soft infrastructure like green spaces, community centres etc, the stuff that really adds quality of life. I'll be pushing hard to make sure Hoo gets the resource it needs. I hope councillors and MPs work with me on that. It's about lobbying central government. If Homes England, or the department for Levelling up Communities and Housing want to say we still want you to build 28,000 houses in Medway, we can't do that without the resources required. It's impossible with just Section 106 agreements to deliver, and we are not in a situation where we've got the capital funding available. I want hardworking officers here at Medway Council to be working with government departments to see what other opportunities there are. I want them working with developers to make sure if housing schemes are coming forward that we're getting good Section 106 agreements.
Who within the cabinet can enforce the section 106 agreements?
Planning sits with Simon (Curry, Portfolio Holder for Climate Change and Strategic Regeneration) ultimately. He's got responsibility for that. I've got a team of four who were working hard on the local plan, which ultimately a lot of this will flow from that, Simon, Naushabah (Khan, Portfolio Holder for Housing and Property), Lauren and Stephen Hubbard as chair of planning. That work will continue, both in the sense of future 106 agreements, but also importantly existing Section 106 is being implemented and of course there are frustrations with that as well. I can see over the water there, Anchorage House, which has come forward will have residential properties in it with zero Section 106 contribution. It's disgraceful, and this government weakened the law to allow that to happen. We'll also be lobbying to say actually things like permitted development, which is how that particular process came forward, if you're converting a small office into two flats. I understand why you have legislation for that, but converting to probably the best part of 100 properties without any contribution to the community? Unacceptable.
You mentioned about a committee for the Local Plan, and I understand there is a wider committee which also has Conservatives on it as well. Cllr Crozer petitioned for there to be a larger group to allow for an independent member on it. Why did you say no to that?
I think at this stage there are two parties which cover the vast majority of Medway's residents. The social media feeds from those three councillors, I'm not attributing it to Michael or Ron or George, it comes from the three of them, they've said some pretty unhelpful stuff when it comes to basics in delivering the Local Plan, so the committee set up as it is. That may be reviewed in due course, but I have no plans to review it at this stage.
The initial question was about support for Hoo or development into the wider Peninsula, but when you look at that wider group, there's no representative of Strood Rural, or Hoo and High Halstow, or All Saints. Isn't that part of the issue with the Local Plan, isn’t the fact there is no representation from the peninsula going to just add to the problem?
I don't think so, because actually we're in a situation where we've got councillors in that group that want to deliver a Local Plan. We are up against pretty tight timescales. This is not about hypotheticals, this will be about what will be deliverable for the people. That that still means we're going to have some pretty challenging conversations away from the peninsula, conversations which probably mean every one of the 59 of us will be a bit disappointed about aspects of it. But on balance, I'd much rather have everyone being a bit disappointed than government coming into deliver our Local Plan. Then we'll all be cut out of the loop completely. I want to make progress quickly. We're not obliged to have any form of working group. I think on the whole, previously the working group that involved the two main political groups was pretty good. Less good towards the end of the previous administration and met less regularly. I'm hopeful with these seven people we can make some good progress.
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