"I’m only going to be an interim leader"
What Steven asked Adrian Gulvin, Medway Council's new Leader of the Opposition
For the latest in our new weekly Sunday interview feature, we return to our series of local political figures. Steven sat down with Adrian Gulvin, the newly elected leader of the opposition Conservative Group and councillor for Lordswood and Walderslade. Steven met with Adrian at Gun Wharf, but the Labour group had not yet cleared out the opposition office, so they went to the canteen where they discussed the challenging role of being in charge of Medway’s resources, compassionate conservatism and the future of the Conservative group.
Where were you born?
In Chatham, All-Saints Hospital, which is no longer there. So I'm Chatham born and bred.
What jobs did your parents do growing up?
My father worked for BP out at the Isle of Grain. He used to make oil, process oil, which he did up to the day he died. My mum was a shorthand typist, a job which probably no longer exists. She worked at Marconi Avionics at the airport.
How did you find school and university?
School, I was probably not the brightest person, a late developer. I didn’t go to university because in my generation very few did from working-class backgrounds. I was very fortunate I got a very good technical apprenticeship to be a marine engineer in the merchant navy. We used to call it a cadetship rather than an apprenticeship. So, I had a very, very good technical education, and then went to sea as well as part of that as well. Spent a year going to South America, Australia, New Zealand, North America, which was an amazing thing to do at the age of 18.
How long were you at sea in total?
All my working life, from 16 until I had to take medical severance, as my knees were shot from the vibrations, at the age of 58. So, from 16 to 58 I was in the merchant navy and a fair chunk of that was spent at sea. The last 30-odd years of my career, I was working on cross-channel ferries. An interesting fact, I crossed the English Channel well over 25,000 times.
What is your official occupation?
Retired! Have been for quite a considerable time. I have the addition of now being Leader of the Opposition for a while, and I'm really looking forward to that new challenge. I’ve already managed to get a great team of people around me. I think we've got a really good team to work together and I am pretty certain we can win this authority back in four years’ time from the disaster it will be in that time.
What additional roles, paid or unpaid do you do?
I’m a longstanding trustee of Chatham Charities, since I was 26, and I'm now 69, so do the sums. I'm very active in my local church. I was a churchwarden for many, many years. I did have to stand down a couple of years ago because trying to do everything was difficult for me. The other thing I’m now getting into is the great-grandchild. Pat and I have been blessed with three great-grandchildren over the last couple of years and we're really looking forward to getting to know these young people.
What is your involvement with the Medway Development Company?
I was in it right from the beginning. Its genesis was when we were looking at how we could provide social housing. So we looked at various sites in Medway, mainly in Gillingham, Twydall. It became apparent that whilst the council wanted to make money out of selling the land, we weren’t getting very good deals. All the profits are made by building. The biggest chunk comes from land value when it gets its planning permission. We thought we should get that resource back in. It became apparent there were lots of sites in Medway desperately needing redevelopment, Chatham Waterfront, Mountbatten House, but the private sector couldn’t do it because there wasn’t the profit to be made in it.
We looked to see what had to see what other councils had done. We looked at various sites. First we have a list of 12 sites, we took them to cabinet, most of those proved to be too small, but it became clear that Chatham needed a shot in the arm. Like many other town centres, it was dying on its feet. The reason is that people have gone over to internet and out-of-town shopping. That’s the way of the world. You aren’t going to get them back to where they were 20 or 30 years ago. It’s just not going to happen, but you can get them back to where it was 120 or 130 years ago. When it was full of local shops and businesses, and people got there walking, or a short bus or a tram ride. What we’ve done is we have doughnutted town centres. Nobody lives there, and we need to reverse that. We need to get people back living in town centres again, so you've got footfall in the high streets, and you've got people living, wanting evening entertainment. That is how we revitalise. By getting people living there on brownfield sites, that relieves the pressure on greenfield sites. Building on brownfield sites is not very profitable. This business model of MDC is not to make a profit, it is about regeneration and because of that, we’ve seen people interested in investing. We’ve acted as the catalyst. That regeneration is so important.
Will you continue to be involved with MDC under a Labour administration?
No, the Labour Party have a fixation that they don’t think it is right and proper for councillors to be directors in ‘LATCos’, Local Authority Trading Companies. I think that’s ridiculous when you look at what happens in the real world. When you have a company that is 100% owned, it would be very unusual not to have representation on the board. I think they are making political point-scoring and it is going to backfire. I am a director of MDC, but I am also the chairman of the subsidiary that does the building. MDC lands and projects, I do the hands-on bit. Howard (Doe) gets all the glory as the company chairman, and I got all the grief of doing the day-to-day, the nitty gritty. I really enjoyed working with Howard. His input has been fantastic, with his lifetime experience of working in housing. It’s been a very interesting project. It’s had its ups and downs.
What was your relationship like with the previous leader of the Conservative Group?
Very good actually. Alan gave me the job in the first place. He gave me huge challenges, he was very supportive. We did argue a lot, yeah, disagreements, but once we’d had the argument, we would agree the line. If he hadn’t given me the opportunity, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to change things over the years. It was a really good working relationship, and it’s good to know that he trusted me with all the jobs that nobody else wanted to do.
We knew that Alan was stepping down. When did you decide you were going to be putting your name forward to be leader of the Conservative Group?
Not until after the election. It was very nice, several people approached me and said, ‘Would I put my hat in to be leader?’ I hadn't thought of it, the main reason is because I’m only going to be an interim leader, caretaker for a little while. I do not intend standing in the next election. So my game plan is I will be leader for a little while, I will encourage the group to be an effective opposition and I think within the next year or two, it will become obvious to the group as to who the people are who will take us forward into next election.
During the Conservative administration you were the Portfolio Holder for Resources, what did that role entail?
I was responsible for the Council’s IT, Human Resources, legal services, some of the back-office services, property, procurement. I also chaired Medway’s Community Safety Partnership, which was an interesting job to have. I also led on transformation, which was quite an interesting thing to do. We looked at the council’s way of working in great detail and found more efficient ways to do that, and I led the transformation board which included the Chief Executive, senior officers of the council, and we were looking at ways of working more efficiently in taking costs out of the council. We've successfully taken 10s of millions of pounds out of the council's expenses by doing things more efficiently, which has enabled us to keep spending money on the services that people come to expect.
There was a situation a few years ago about responsibility for CCTV. What happened there?
That was quite a one. The CCTV day-to-day management had gone over to what was then known as Medway Commercial Services. When I took over the role of Portfolio Holder, I was given the list of jobs I should have. Nowhere on that list of jobs did it say CCTV. I assumed it was a frontline service. So, when it all started to go wrong from a community safety perspective, I went to Phil Filmer (Portfolio Holder) for Front Line Services and I said ‘Phil, we’ve got to do something about these CCTV cameras, need some money invested in it, the whole thing is not working like it should do.’ Phil said, ‘Sorry, I don’t think it’s my responsibility’, and it actually took several weeks for somebody to dig up a piece of paper which actually said the CCTV was actually the responsibility of the person in charge of community safety. So, before we found that it was officially my responsibility, I did a lot of work with officers to turn that around. We persuaded Alan it needed substantial investment in new cameras. The cameras are now modern and state-of-the-art. That was a little bit embarrassing.
You previously expressed frustration at the working relationship with the NHS Property team, how are things now?
We are still in limbo! We haven’t got the healthy living centre in the Pentagon over the line yet. I haven’t had much time over the last few weeks with the election, but had we won, that would have been my number one project. They (sighs) are very difficult at decision-making. Let’s get on and do it. That is so so frustrating. The arguments for a new healthy living centre in Chatham are overwhelming. It’s slap bang in the middle of an area of very high deprivation. So, to have first-class GP services within the centre of Chatham is an absolute no-brainer. Two-minute walk from the bus station. People can get there easily, people can get to Boots, though there will be a pharmacy as part of the operation. A one-stop shop. The rent level wouldn’t have been high by commercial standards, as the council would do a deal. But they can’t make a decision.
What has been the biggest benefit to Medway from Brexit?
I can’t think of one. I can think of lots of disadvantages. I was not a Brexiteer. I will go so far as to say it was probably the worst decision this country has made in my lifetime.