"It's up to the people of Hoo if they want to be a town"
What Steven asked Cllr Michael Pearce, Deputy Leader of the Independent Group on Medway Council and campaigner for the Hoo Peninsula
Micheal Pearce was elected to Medway Council in 2023 as the ward councillor for Hoo and High Halstow, after previously serving as a parish councillor, and was appointed as Deputy Leader of the Independent Group of the council. Steven met him at Deangate Indoor Bowling Club to discuss what the Independent Group can achieve, whether or not Medway should have a new town, and the fractious relationship between the Hoo Peninsula and Medway Council administrations.
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Where were you born?
I was born in Gravesend in the maternity unit. It's not there anymore. I don't know why I wasn't born at Medway Maritime Hospital. I think it might just be I was closer. And then I've always lived in Hoo, basically all my life. My parents had lived in Hoo, my paternal family come from Higham. They were originally farm labourers. And then my maternal side comes from Strood area. My dad was a milkman in the Co-op and he worked his way up to an operations manager. My mum was a civilian cook for the army at Chattenden Barracks and also at the dockyard. They're both retired now. They still live in Hoo.
How did you find school?
It was good. I did do well at school. I didn't go to university. I could have gone to university but I decided not to. I think I was more happy with staying. I wanted to stay local, I wanted to be where I am with my family and all that.
Was the cost a factor in not going to University?
I would say so, yeah. That was a big put off. I did go to Hadlow College later on in adult life. I studied Horticulture at Hadlow College. I’m a gardener. I don't do it professionally. I wanted to get skilled properly with that just in case it became an option. Everything I've done to date is just self-taught with experience first hand.
What was your first full-time job?
When I left Sixth Form, I went into newspapers. We set up a local newspaper on the peninsula called Village Voices, a community magazine. It was running beforehand up to 2006. It was just for Hoo, but then it started to sort of fade away. I took it on and wanted to establish it as a business, which we did. So that's been going for about 10 years now, over 10 years actually. And then recently I changed careers. I've still got an involvement in the Village Voices magazine but it's only administrative. I do the books and that sort of thing. My business partner takes it on now and does the rest of it. Recently, I've been working at Gravesham Borough Council. I can't say too much about what I do there because it involves prosecutions. So I'm full-time at Gravesham Borough Council and then obviously the councillor role and then a light involvement in the local newspaper.
What occurred to make you stand as a councillor in 2023?
We had over 20 years of the last administration with Mr Jarrett and his colleagues and it was quite a toxic situation, especially on the peninsula, with everything that had happened with the development proposals that we felt weren't justified, weren't substantial, weren't sustained with evidence et cetera. It was being forced upon us. I couldn't see how Conservative candidates could credibly stand and be elected in the area. And because I'd campaigned for two years or more on these issues, I thought it was only right that I put myself up and see if people want to elect me. And then that would give me a better platform to carry on with what I've been doing.
Do you remember the first conversation about forming or standing as an independent group?
Yeah, because Ron (Sands, independent councillor for Hoo and High Halstow) was the councillor, we started to have discussions. We all knew each other because we were parish councillors and colleagues anyway. We've been speaking to each other for years. We knew that the election was coming up and we saw the opportunity with us three potentially standing with the boundary changes. The boundary changes were the catalyst because we could see where the vacancies would be and how it would work. Then of course the (2022 Peninsula) by-election came up. We were campaigning to get George (Crozer, now Leader of the Medway Council Independent Group) elected, which we did. And then we had the election that came round in May, and we got quite a considerable mandate, 70% of the vote, which was higher than what I was expecting actually. It was a good campaign, we put a lot of effort into it. We literally delivered leaflets to every house we could find. We worked really hard on that campaign because we weren't taking it for granted. We weren't arrogant enough to think ‘We're just winning this’. We weren't thinking that. You always have to work for the vote and I think that's quite right. You should work for the vote. So we put a lot of effort into it and we were very successful and that was one of the best evenings I've had
Would you see a time when you looked for the group to expand to All Saints or Strood Rural?
It's difficult to predict because things change quite quickly. But at the moment our priority is our ward and the greater wider peninsula. We want to make sure that we're prioritising what we've said in our plan that we put forward. We want to deliver as much as is possible and concentrate on that. Then at the end of four years, we'll make a decision at that point what we do next depending on what what the situation is. Things change very quickly.
Would you ever welcome Cllr Spalding (independent councillor for All Saints) as an independent group member?
I can understand why people are asking that question because obviously he is an independent in All Saints on the peninsula. Councillor Spalding wasn't our preferred candidate in All Saints. We wanted Julie Wallace to win that seat. She only lost by 40 votes, so that was unfortunate. But there is no advantage of having more councillors in our group unless we have a lot more. There's no advantage to having Councillor Spalding in our group in terms of committee entitlements because we've done the figures and we wouldn't get more seats on committees for example, so there's no technical advantage and just because Councillor Spalding isn't a member of our group doesn't mean we can't work together and solve issues. We've got a close relationship with Strood Rural colleagues. They're members of a different group, different party, but we've been talking and working on peninsula issues and Councillor Spaulding has been talking to us about peninsula issues as well. There's wider peninsula issues, there's issues on Four Elms Hill, for example, with the traffic and the capacity which effects people in All Saints. There's probably situations in all states with the brownfield sites and the aspirations there to develop those. That's going to effect traffic in our wards. It's cross-ward issues that we can deal with and collectively work on, especially things like natural world heritage site status and AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) status. Those are issues which we can all work together on.
What benefit is there to the peninsula of having an Independent Group if there are only three amongst many and they decide that they make a decision for the whole area? What powers have you got?
I think one of the reasons why a lot of people voted for us on the peninsula is because there was no point voting for a Conservative or Labour candidate because they've just been told effectively what to do by the ruling groups or whatever. That group would be made up of most councillors on the other side of the river and other parts of the towns. I think, and this is how we presented it as well, from their perspective, they probably felt that it's better to have a local independent who's going to be fighting for now than someone who will just take orders from a group. I think a lot of the problems we've had out here don't politically affect the two parties. We're going to fight things, whether that's development or potentially assets closing down or being sold off and making our voices heard and doing what we can to represent our residents. One of the issues is half of the borough is rural and most of the political power is in the urban areas and because that's where most people live, that's where most of the members are.
Your fellow group councillors in the past flew the Kent flag and talked of wanting to leave Medway Council. Do you agree with that sentiment?