"I was successful in getting the council to acknowledge that the River Medway has rights"
What Steven asked Stuart Jeffery, leader of the Green Independent Alliance on Maidstone Borough Council
For the second successive week, Steven left the safety of the Medway Towns, climbing on board the 101 bus and travelling all the way to.. checks notes.. Maidstone. He did this so he could talk to an elected Green Party representative, Councillor Stuart Jeffery, about his route to elected office, how close he came to joining the House of Lords and the rights of the River Medway.
Where were you born and how did you end up in the Medway Towns?
Sussex. My parents brought me when I was 3, so I didn't have much say in it. I spent almost all of my childhood in Medway. Mostly in Rochester, went to the Maths school, Balfour Juniors, and lived around Rochester and Borstal. From 9 through to probably my mid-30s.
What jobs did your parents do growing up?
My mother was a nurse, my father was an engineer.
How did you find school and university?
Hated it. It was horrible, absolutely horrible. It was just dire. I’ve got to be slightly careful about what I say, I suppose. I went to the wrong school. I went to a school that wasn’t my way of learning. The maths school, I’m sure is different now, thought it was a public school, with all the social attitudes you would expect of that in the early eighties. I shouldn’t have gone there. People I knew in the early 80s didn’t go to university, it wasn’t really a thing. I asked my dad if I should go and he said, “nah, not really, just get a job”. So, I didn’t go. I didn’t really finish A-levels. I left after the first year. I did University later in life. I was a mature student, I knew what I wanted to do, and I went and did it. I’ve now got a Master’s in Health Research, and I work as a senior research fellow at the University of Kent.
What was your first full-time job?
I worked in the NatWest bank in Rochester High Street. In 1985 youth unemployment was running at something like 4 million. Nobody had a job, it was the height of Thatcher's powers. I got offered a job, so I left school and went to work in a bank for a few years, but I didn’t like it.
What job did you leave the bank for?
I became a nurse. I trained as a nurse and worked at Medway Hospital for quite a few years and then up in Dartford for a few years and then went into NHS management. I was Chief Operating Officer and Deputy Accounting Officer for Medway Hospital CCG (Clinical Commissioning Group). It’s the body that purchases and organises healthcare. Used to be. They have been abolished because three and a half weeks the entirety of the NHS gets reorganised. I managed and commissioned almost the full range of health services across Medway.
So, it’s your fault.
It is my fault. I had a wonderful four-week period where my face was on the front of the Medway Messenger, with something this faceless bureaucrat in the NHS had done. It was quite amusing, and I was in fairly regular constant discussion with the editor at the time who said, “Well, we have to put it in there, it’s our lead story and you are behind it” and I said “yes, but could we at least give it some level of positive spin?”, and he said “no, that won’t sell newspapers will it?” (laughs).
What additional roles, paid or unpaid, do you do?
I do a tiny bit of consultancy for a variety of healthcare organisations. My council work too. I am now a director of Allington Millennium Green, looking after a small park. I am the Treasurer of Kent Greens. I am the leader of the Green Independents Alliance on Maidstone Borough Council.
What political parties have you been a member of?
Only the Greens. I joined when I was 16, about the time it changed from the Ecology Party to the Green Party. It was around 1984-85
What made you join that party at that time?
I was a member of Greenpeace and CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament), a kind of consummate hippie and I liked the idea of politics. It was just one of a string of things that I did. I was not active in the party until I was in my mid-30s, but it was a thing to do. I remember walking around the sixth form common room with a copy of Das Kapital because I was kind like Neil from The Young Ones. I had hair then.
What changed in your 30s to make you more active?
Well, I lost my hair. My daughter was born, and I was starting to get a bit older. We had moved to Maidstone, and I thought I can see all of this crap happening in the world, it’s about time I tried to do my bit. The ultimate driver has been an absolute love of the natural world, but a desire to have a liveable planet for future generations.
When did your name first appear on a ballot?
It would have been 2005 County Council elections. I aced it, I came last. I have lost 24 elections and won one. I haven't lost my seat, because I've only had it for just over a year, but I have lost many elections and I kind of think it gives me a bit of a different perspective on life. A lot of the people I talk to have never lost an election. They stand multiple times and every time they win, and I just wonder whether or not they might be slightly different if they'd lost a load of elections as well. I don't know. Maybe, maybe not.
Let’s talk about the election you did win. Which ward was that?
It’s a ward called Bridge which is not a place that exists in Maidstone. I think it was named because they couldn't think of anything else to call it. It is alongside five of the bridges that cross the Medway. It's the bit around Maidstone barracks station and along where I live. The River Medway is in my ward.
What is it about that ward that finally elected a Green representative?
I think there are probably three things that get you elected. Firstly, you have to be able to demonstrate that you can win. We had come second in the previous election, so therefore we were in the running. Secondly, you have to be not as bad as the person who came first or second depending on whether you came first or second. The Conservatives had previously won, and we weren't deemed as bad as the Conservatives. Thirdly you have to demonstrate you do some work, and I made it very clear to people that I was working very hard on a range of things. Those things came together, and I got over half of the vote which was rather nice. Living in the centre of a ward really helps.
What are the rights of nature?
I was successful in getting the council to acknowledge that the River Medway has rights. We are only the second council in the whole country to recognise that a river has rights. ‘This council acknowledges that the River Medway does have rights’. We haven’t said what they are, but that's just ground-breaking.
Does the river lose its rights when it enters the Medway area, who haven’t recognised those rights?
No. The rights are there come what may, whether they are recognised or not. My motion did say we would like to work with our neighbouring councils that the Medway flows through to build a charter of rights to define what those rights would be. That part I lost. That would be working with Medway Council. Six months ago, I proposed putting the rights of nature into the council's constitution. I lost that, but I had sowed the seed in people's minds. I did get ten or eleven votes out of 55, so 20% of the council voted with me, which is huge.
What do you envision as being the rights of the river?
The right to flow, the right not to be polluted, the right not to have junk thrown, the right to have fish living in it and be a biosphere, an ecosphere, and the right to exist. We give rights to companies. Limited companies have legal personhood. We invent these things, we give them legal status as people and we give them rights, yet something as tangible as a river physically exists and yet there is very little recognition in this country of having intrinsic rights. The arguments are usually ‘well, it can't stand up for itself’, but a newborn baby has legal rights. It can't argue its case in court, but it can have advocates doing so. There is a company, Faith In Nature, who do shampoos and stuff, and they have a board position whose responsibility it is to represent nature, who advocates for nature in their decision-making. So these things are very possible, but this comes back to the shift in thinking.
While the councillors are quite okay to varying degrees about the climate emergency, the depth of understanding is different. I'm trying to do is shift thinking, so despite the council having declared a climate and biodiversity emergency, they also proposed supporting the destruction of 50 hectares of ancient woodland. That's the biggest destruction of ancient woodland this century. It is bigger than HS2 and the Lower Thames Crossing combined. It is a phenomenal destruction and the council proposed it. That's where the thinking stops. They have got this narrow definition of climate emergency, they don't understand the biodiversity emergency at all. They think they need to get people into electric cars, and that’s as far as it goes for some people.
What would you like to see Medway’s new council administration do in terms of the green agenda?
They are Labour, they aren’t interested in green stuff. Vince is nice and he's been a friend for years. (sighs) They're not green, they make no pretence of it, the house building will continue at a pace. It won't be the right sort of housing. They might do a few light green bits and pieces, but I can't see them making a huge difference.
What do the Medway Green Party need to do to get that first councillor?
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