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The man who wants to run Medway
An exclusive one-on-one interview with Medway Council's leader of the opposition Cllr Vince Maple
When I started writing long-form pieces for Local Authority, I knew one of the things I wanted to do was one-on-one interviews. 60-minute sit-downs covering a range of topics, political and otherwise. Thankfully the first two big subjects both instantly said yes, and today we bring you the second of those. Following on from my big interview with Medway Council Leader Alan Jarrett, today it’s a conversation with the man who wants to replace him - Medway Labour leader of the opposition Vince Maple.
I sat down with Vince for an exclusive one-on-one interview to talk about his life, being in opposition, why he doesn’t support proportional representation, his election lows, and his hopes for change in May 2023.
Where were you born?
So, I was born in North London, in Islington constituency, somewhere in-between Jeremy Corbyn and Emily Thornbury, at the Whittington Hospital, 45 years ago and a week as we are recording this as it was my birthday last week. And then Medway became my home pretty soon after that.
As people have heard before, but I will say again, my dad was in the Royal Navy and stationed here in Chatham (Vince helpfully points towards Chatham Dockyard). My mum said we don’t want to move again, so we moved to what was then naval accommodation, and is now Lordswood. From there moved to Luton Road and lived there for the first 20 years of my life.
What job did your mother do growing up?
My mum did various things. She worked for the Post Office when she was young, worked in a factory which is now part of the Rochester Riverside development. Most importantly, she was a great mum and gave me a lot of my values. She was a Labour Party member too.
How did you find school?
School was good, not the best days of my life. I went to Luton Infants and that was great and then went to the Howard School after passing my 11 plus. I went round other schools that still exist and thought these weren’t for me, and ended up going to the Howard and I enjoyed that a lot. At Luton Junior School was the first time I stood for the Labour Party in 1987. I was 9, my policy at the time was there are two many cars on Luton’s roads, we need more buses and less cars. Nearly 40 years on that policy remains the same, and we need to do more work. Politics moves pretty slowly, even from those school days.
Did you go to university?
I didn’t. I took my A-Levels and said that’s enough education for now and never went back. I went to the university of life as they say, which is a terrible cliche. Ned (Vince’s son) recently graduated from nursery at four, so he is already one ahead of me for graduations.
I went to sign on for a week, and there was a job at what is now known as the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) and started there the following week. I went from there to do other stuff for the Civil Service. I worked for a union and now I’m doing this.
Apart from at birth, where have you lived outside of the Medway towns?
I moved to Edinburgh for a very short period of time. Wasn’t there long. Medway is absolutely my home, and long may that continue.
What event or issues first got you involved in politics?
Some of it is around trade union activity. I’ve always been a trade union rep since day one. I remember vividly the union rep Andy coming up to me, for what was the then PCS union. He asked me to deliver some union leaflets on my floor. The floor become several floors, then became the whole building. That developed until it became that you could sit in with someone who has an issue at work. From the trade union work, there is in my view a natural progression to wanting to make a change in the community, wanting to make change in our country and our planet. You do that through politics and the natural home for someone in the trade union movement in politics I firmly believe is the Labour party. The link between the Labour Party and the labour movement is historic and well-documented.
Do you own your own home?
Me and Mary (Vince’s partner), yes, we own on Chalk Pitt Hill. There is still plenty of mortgage to pay on it, so actually, Nationwide owns the home, but they let us stay there while we keep paying them. I know I’m in a fortunate position for someone of my age. There are lots of people who aren’t in that position. I bought my first home when I was able to run up quite a lot of debt to try and get that deposit together, which I think is probably an experience that many people have had. Trying to get on the housing ladder is a nightmare, and renting is a nightmare as well. Whatever you do from a political perspective, you will always bring your experiences. Housing is a real problem for people and actually, there is no way me now could get the level of deposit that’s required because the housing system has exploded. The kind of level of cost it takes to just get in there and I think there’s, not to move on to policy because it is about being a human being, but actually, there is something fundamental in our system that says we’re quite happy if you can pay £1,000 a month to a landlord but you’ve got to jump through a whole bunch of different hoops to pay maybe £700 a month for a mortgage provider. That needs sorting. I hope a future Labour government will look at that. It’s something that people have talked about over the last couple of years. Having that recognition of being a good tenant and keeping up your payments will mean you will be able to keep up with a monthly mortgage.
Who has been the best Prime Minister of your lifetime?
Of my lifetime, I would probably say Tony Blair. I mean I think that he made a massive mistake with the Iraq War. It’s well documented my position on that, but he did a load of really good stuff. I was at a community event last Friday in my ward and we were talking with a couple of parents, and they were saying the centre there is great, but it’s nowhere near as good as the Sure Start used to be. The amount of different programs and options are just not the same. Things like the Sure Start service, things like having a minimum wage, things like the Good Friday Agreement, frankly all of those things take the skill of politics to get done. Did they do everything I would’ve wanted them to do as a Labour government? No. We still have a predominantly unelected second chamber, for example. I regret that they didn’t make more change there, from a democratic perspective, but the investment into our public services, changes that mean people aren’t getting paid just over a pound an hour working in a supermarket, and that’s a fundamentally good thing.
Which ward do you represent, and why that ward?
At time of recording, I represent Chatham Central ward and have represented it for just over 15 years. Very privileged to have done so, it’s where I call home. That’s not an obligation. You don’t have to represent where you live, but it’s a principle which is important to me. When we moved, Mary asked me what did I want from the house. Genuinely I said the only thing I want is to still be in Chatham Central ward. So trying to explain that to an estate agent was a bit challenging and I think probably the only time they’ve had that said to them. Of course, that will change next year. I’m seeking the Labour & Co-Operative Party’s nomination for what will be Chatham Central and Brompton. In part because that’s where I live and in part because it’s quite an exciting new ward. (Since this interview, Vince has indeed been selected for Chatham Central and Brompton.)
How did you come to be the host of Medway’s Love Music, Hate Racism?
Before I got elected, we had the BNP kicking around, they were on the rise at the time. We had a demonstration from them, so we held a demonstration against them, where thankfully we outnumbered them substantially. It’s about finding the way of getting across the message that to beat the BNP, people need to go and vote. We had to get that message out there, and a good way of doing that, and there’s a long history of this over the last 40 years, is through the medium of music. The much-missed Gabriel Lancaster, formally of Chatham synagogue and Medway interfaith forum, said when he spoke there ‘I don’t like all sorts of music, but I do hate all sorts of discrimination and racism’, which I thought that summed things up very well.
Why did Medway stop Love Music, Hate Racism?
It hasn’t ever particularly stopped. The original home for the main event, that’s changed hands and doesn’t really do the same level of events. We moved home for a year to Fort Amherst, and that was okay, but there was a bit of an incident. It was nothing to do with the event, but there is an incident outside which kind of made things a bit trickier. Everybody involved, as with so many things, lots of people in Medway wear lots of hats, so people are doing other things. It’s sitting on hiatus. It’s not stopped, we’ve done a couple of small events. We did a really good event actually, just before lockdown at the Huguenots Museum around Rock Against Racism. If anybody is feeling passionate about it and wants to give it a bit of a breath of life, my door is open. Those conversations can always happen.
What did you think of the campaign to rename the Sir John Hawkins Car Park?
I’m pleased it was successful. If we are bidding, as we were at the time, for city of culture and becoming a city as well, it’s not a great look. If you take Chatham as the city centre, which I think is a reasonable assumption for most people, why on earth is it named after the person who effectively created slave trading? I think that was, of course, at a time when there were similar conversations happening elsewhere across the country. I think part of the reason why I’m pleased with the way that ended up as we used democratic processes. We took something to full council, and it was debated. The Conservative administration took something to council as well, but I doubt they would’ve done that if we hadn’t done it, frankly, but they can answer that themselves. They had enough time to do that and had not done that until we started speaking about it.
There might be some views around having a Stalin Avenue in Chatham, but without boring you with all the minutiae, changing the name of a car park is a lot more straightforward than the changing a street name. I don’t think if you were naming streets today, I suspect most people wouldn’t ask for a Stalin Avenue and rightfully so. I think we, the opposition group, have got a track record of raising issues and getting them onto the agenda and getting the administration to be in a position where there is little they can do but support moving forward.
Who has been Medway’s best MP this century?
I declare I’m absolutely biased on this. I’ve been the agent twice for Jonathan Shaw. I would say wholeheartedly Jonathan Shaw for the first 10 years of this century. Part of the reason for that is people still recognise when we’re out knocking actually across Chatham and Aylesford. His work is recognised, and people say that Jonathan Shaw helped their family.
I am sure that whenever Tracey stops being the MP for Chatham and Aylesford people will say that about her as well. I think Chatham and Aylesford have probably been in the best place out of the Medway constituencies. Bob (Marshall-Andrews) and Paul (Clark), I can’t not mention those two as well.
What are your thoughts on votes for 16-year-olds?
I’ve always supported it. I supported it when I was 16, I support it now I’m closer to 46. I do believe in no taxation without representation. That is a real and genuine thing and I think why wouldn’t you have it? It’s happened in Wales and Scotland and the sky hasn’t fallen in. Their local government is still functioning pretty well, with the increased amount of people taking part in deciding who runs local services and facilities. I do think there is something around citizenship classes. I think you know Labour was pretty strong on the kind of concept of citizenship and over the last 12 years, I think that’s fallen by the way.
Would Medway Council benefit from proportional representation?
I accept entirely in giving this answer that in my political party, I’m in the minority. I do believe in a first-past-the-post system for both local government and Westminster in the Commons. If I stood as an independent MP or councillor in Chatham Central and Brompton, I wouldn’t win, I absolutely wouldn’t win, because people are voting for the Labour Party because they know our values. They will know what we stand for locally and nationally. I think having the ability to directly elect your representative is important, and I know opponents of mine on the other side of the argument will highlight there are formats where you can do both. You can have a list system and a directly elected representative system as well. I think for council that could potentially be quite tricky as to what that would look like numbers-wise. Where I would want to see a form of PR is an elected second chamber. I know there will be Labour people who will say I am completely wrong on this, and I accept they have that opinion and I respectfully disagree.
Why did you get involved in the Equal Civil Partnership campaign?
It’s about equality, and frankly, it’s about, I would argue being a feminist ultimately. Marriage works for loads of people and that’s great. That is for them, be that civil marriage or religious marriage of any description that’s fine. For a number of couples, for lots of different reasons, that’s not for them and I think in part for some people that’s around the historic patriarchy of the institution of marriage. Literally a man giving away a woman to another man and for some people that’s fine and that’s great if that works for them. But it’s about saying that in the 21st century couples should have the option to take a choice for what works for them. Other European countries had already had this in place for a number of years. France in particular has what is called a solidarity pact. The name I love, but it never quite made it over here. For me, it was a personal thing. There are lots of things I campaign on because of principle because I think it’s the right thing to do. This was personal and yeah, it had a right outcome. Spoiler alert: if you don’t know you know equal civil partnerships, are available. It was the last piece of that equality puzzle, so now if you are a man and a man, or a man and a woman, or a woman and a woman, you can get married or have a civil partnership. Fantastic.
One of the things which alarmed me during the campaign is the number of couples who thought there were rules that have never been in place. That if you live together for two years you have all the legal protections of marriage. That’s never been true, but actually, this was a good opportunity to say you need to make sure about the processes available to you.
Why did you join the Labour Party?
One part of it is around my trade union background. I first joined the Labour Party back in 1996. They had an event at the Central Theatre. And that was a mixture of music, comedy and politics. Speakers there at the time included John Prescott, at the time the Deputy Prime Minister. It was a really quite inspiring night. So I joined up at that point, and then my membership just lapsed and that was back in the day when you weren’t necessarily doing direct debit. So, I left the party, just through administration rather than some grumpy falling out about something.
I restarted my membership at the time of the Iraq war. Not because I agreed with it, I didn’t, but I’m a firm believer that you’ve got to be in the tent. So, if you want to have a conversation and a discussion, I think you need to be in the tent having that conversation. So I reinstated my membership, changed it to direct debit and it has been there ever since. That’s technically how I have joined and rejoined, but not for some big political ideology, just simply because of administration.
When did your name first appear on a ballot? And why?
In the 2007 local election, of which I managed to come third behind Paul Godwin and Julie Shaw. Very happy to come third to them.
What is the difference between being a member of Labour and a member of the Co-Operative Party?
Great question! They are two parties. They are to separate political parties, but they’ve had, for around 100 years now, an understanding and agreement to combine the two. There are many different Labour and Co-Operative groups in local government and indeed in parliament. I think now, the Co-Op Party is the third largest party in Westminster. There are effectively more Labour and Co-Operative MPs than SNP MPs. Now thankfully all of those Co-Op MPs are also part of the Labour Party and that is the same case 99.9% of times.
Who was the best Labour leader during your membership?
That’s an interesting question. So, we talked about Tony Blair. We talked about him as Prime Minister. I think I think I have a lot of empathy, having done the job for a number of years, for being leader of the opposition. I feel a real pain for Ed (Miliband), Jeremy (Corbyn) and Keir (Starmer). I know it’s a political cliché, but it really is one of the hardest jobs in politics. You want to make changes, in their case for the country, in my case the community of Medway. I think Ed Miliband did a load of really good stuff as leader of the Labour Party, coming at a really challenging time. Not least within the party itself. Party internal structures are very boring and even Labour Party members probably wouldn’t want to hear about that even in an hour-long interview. We took him (Ed Miliband) out and about around Brompton. I remember very vividly hearing from somebody saying I work at the local cinema, and I just can’t get the hours that I should be getting. Did that single conversation form the Labour Party‘s views going forward on zero-hours contracts? Probably not, but it was quite clear that information must’ve been part of that wider conversation that the party ended up happening. That gave me confidence Ed actually was a leader listening.
Day to day
What is your official occupation?
I am, and it says it on my civil partnership certificate, technically a politician. That is my job. I took the decision when I took over from Paul Godwin, the previous group leader, that to do the job of opposition leader on the unitary council which is a politically active opposition group, you need to be around. You need to be as readily available as possible. On top of that, there are a number of meetings and other processes which are required to happen between the hours of 9 to 5. So technically on my most recent bureaucratic paperwork, it says politician.
What additional roles paid/unpaid do you currently do?
This could take nearly an hour! So, I am leader of the opposition on Medway Council. I’m on the Kent Fire and Rescue Board. I sit on there as the co-opposition Labour leader along with my colleague Karen over in KCC, and I receive a small allowance for that. I sit on one of the LGA (Local Government Association) boards. That’s on innovation improvements that are looking at how local government can be better. I also represent English local government on effectively a European LGA. I’m the vice-chair, of the financial management committee. That’s not a paid role, that’s purely because I love local government and I love making sure that the organisation functions effectively. There is then a number of unpaid roles I carry out as well. I was governor of a school in Chatham Central until very recently, which is Phoenix Academy. Until recently, I was chair of governors at Saint John School. I’ve recently stepped down from that but I’m likely to go onto the trust which looks after four schools across Medway. I’m also on the Chatham Maritime Trust board. I’m also a trustee for Halpern Charitable Foundation, known primarily as Nucleus Arts, and I’m also chair of Medway Credit Union which is an important role to me. We recently moved to Rainham so with all of that stuff in the mix somewhere in there I get an occasional time to breathe, but yeah, it’s a pleasure to do all of those roles and actually for me being a councillor leads you to take on lots of other responsibilities. I often say to people who are thinking about stepping forward it’s not about the group meetings we have, it’s not about the information that we share as councillors, it’s about all those other things we’re doing in the community which day in, day out make a real difference to not just the people we represent directly but the community as a whole.
How much interaction do you have with the leader of Medway Council? Is it all open letters?
We don’t talk as much as I think we probably could and should. There are other councils where the leader has a monthly catch-up with the leader of the opposition. We spoke a lot during covid and I think that was to the benefit of the people of Medway. I think we had some good outcomes. Teresa (Murray, Deputy Leader of Medway Labour) and I sat on a cross-party working group with Alan Jarrett and I think three of his cabinet colleagues and senior officers. I think the outcomes of that were positive all round and hopefully, he would say the same thing (He did!). We will occasionally have a conversation but I think probably would we would benefit from more dialogue. I think that would be helpful but we are a very political council so he may well feel that it’s not appropriate to talk to the leader of the opposition. That’s fine, that’s a matter for him, but my door is always open.
What has been your greatest achievement as a councillor or leader of the Medway Labour Group?
At one point we were down to 11 councillors. We are now at 21. The biggest the group has been for more than 20 years. Hopefully, that will go a bit more next May. So, I think that’s a real kind of sign of the positive progress we are making.
Sometimes as a ward councillor, it can be a really small issue but it can make a huge difference to the household or family. One of the things I’ve done in recent years which wasn’t there 15 years ago but absolutely is now, is around helping individual residents with their Personal Independence Payment, or PIP. The system is fundamentally flawed. I do, and I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but I do feel sometimes the system is there to try and grind people from not bothering to apply. So being able to win more than 90% of the appeals that I’ve been helping with is a real kind of personal satisfaction in making sure people are getting the support they need.
I think our ability to stand up and sometimes recognise that we won’t win every campaign that we run it doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do. I’m very proud of the campaign we ran to defend Sure Start services. We improved the position from where it was at the start of that I think that was as a result of that campaign. I’m also very proud that we had three schools under threat of closure a decade ago, but since then two of those schools remain and are flourishing.
Having that platform to have a conversation about national issues. I was heavily involved in the fixed-odds betting terminals campaign. I accept entirely Tracey Crouch was as well. There’ll be interesting analysis of who did what. It doesn’t matter. The bottom line is we are now in a situation where those machines and not being able to take £100 every 20 seconds and that’s one problem less and that’s a good thing.
The Medway Conservative Group are to have a new leader next year. Why haven’t you stepped aside to let somebody new lead?
That’s an interesting question! I’m very proud this is my 10th year of being leader. My group have given me unanimous support every year and I’m grateful for that and I don’t take that lightly. There are political groups of all parties across the country where every year there is a ruckus to see who is leader and all the rest of it so I’m grateful for my colleague’s support. Clearly wanting me to lead the group into next year‘s elections which I hope we will be successful and made progress. I think we’ve had some sticky elections through the years. 2011, the AV referendum didn’t help us. I think that brought out some Conservative voters who probably wouldn’t come out for a local election. 2015 we were hopeful that a General Election would help us. It didn’t, the numbers show that. 2019 was a challenging time, but we made progress. Now I’m sure again people from within my team, from within Medway, from within Medway Council would say things could have been done differently and better, but I’m grateful for the unanimous support that I continue to have, and I hope I continue to have after May 3. That’s the general plan.
If you could change anything about Medway politics, what would it be and why?
I’m going to give you the obvious answer first saying there would be a Labour administration at Gun Wharf. I would say that I, wouldn’t I? I think part of it for me is around greater levels of public participation frustrates me. Medway Council has a budget somewhere between half a billion and three-quarters of a billion pounds. That’s a lot of money, a lot of your money as taxpayers. 60 to 70% of people, if you look at the kind of voting every four years, have no opinion on how that should be spent. I’ve always I would much rather lose an election but have a turnout of 95%, than win an election on 25%, because you want to feel you’ve got a genuine mandate. If you’re running the council, which I hope to be next May, I want that to be on the basis of the majority of the people in Medway want us to deliver the program that we will be setting out.
How do you get that greater participation? I think some of that is about trying to make sure democracy isn’t just a thing that happens once every four years. It’s about getting the cabinet out of Gun Wharf and getting them into Rainham or Strood or Chatham. Saying actually come and see first-hand what is happening here, come ask a question directly to the cabinet. This administration has shut down public participation in its democratic process and has only now got a public viewing online because of the pandemic. They were refusing to do that for years so if you’ve got a situation where you can’t ask as much as you are used to be able to, you can’t access, until recently, council meetings unless you can get to a church hall in Chatham at 7 o’clock at night on a Thursday, that’s not open participation. I think there’s good examples of other councils elsewhere who are better at this, including Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, and other councils as well. That’s one thing I would want to change, saying participation of residents should be more than ticking a box every four years, but I accept in wanting that, life is hard, and it’s somebody from the Council going ‘why don’t you come to another meeting’, ‘why don’t you send in this form’ or whatever it might be. There is a balance, but we need to be better.
What was the most shocking thing you’ve witnessed at Full Council?
Regrettably there are quite a few to choose from. I think some of the debate around the John Hawkins car park and some of the debate that happened that night, was pretty depressing, whether intentionally or by the fact it was half past midnight and all the rest of it. I hope people look back at meetings like that and think again and to go back to my previous point, we could be better than this. Of course, you’re not going to agree to everything politically, that’s the nature of democracy, but you do it in a way which is respectful. Recognising that people are looking on. I think that it was potentially the group whip of the Conservative Group who made some pretty derogatory remarks during the debate on equal marriage. I think that sometimes people forget that there’s always been an audio recording there’s now an audio and visual recording. We’ve got to be better. Has everything that the Labour Group ever done in 15 years of me being here been right and perfect? No. I’m sure we’ve made mistakes. I’m sure my political opponents will point those out and that’s fine too, but I think we all need to just be a bit better.
How should Medway Council have supported Ukrainian refugees?
So, my friend, colleague and former English teacher Clive Johnson, speaks so passionately on this issue, saying the community at large have you’ve done a great job for Ukrainian refugees. The fact that a group has come together and been able to form, I think it’s a full charity, rather than a CIC (Community Interest Company) in a number of weeks and get that status in place is amazing. I think the council have done a good job. As Clive has pointed out and I wholeheartedly agree with him on this, it is regrettable that we haven’t had the same approach for other groups of refugees. Readers can come to a conclusion as to why that may or may not be, but it’s difficult, it’s difficult to have on the one hand this great work for Ukraine, cross-party support, but on the other hand, we’ve now got the council taking out of judicial review to say we can’t take any more unaccompanied asylum-seeking children!
You can’t be that inconsistent. I think our response to the Ukrainian situation has been strong and I think noteworthy in a positive way, but it’s inconsistent from the council and I think most people who have got compassion would want to help people in conflict whatever country they are from the majority of people.
Your vote went down by almost 5,000 in General Elections between 2017 and 2019. Why did this happen?
There’s a few factors with this. 2017, let’s start from the point of Tracey Crouch is a popular constituency MP and that’s clear. I get on personally with Tracey. We disagree politically on many things, not least on which football team in north London is the best. In 2017, we had nationally a very popular manifesto, ‘for the many, not the few’ which had some radical but deliverable policies. At the time Theresa May was unpopular. My vote in 2017, as the Labour candidate went up to the highest level it had been for a decade. That’s not particularly down to me but down to where we were politically. In two and a half years the world moved on quite considerably. I think it’s fair to say at that point Jeremy Corbyn was not popular on the doorsteps. I’ll share this. I had a resident in Chatham Central who said ‘Vince I voted for you every single time since you started. Since you’ve been here, I voted for you, you’ve helped me. I’m voting for Tracey tomorrow because I don’t want Jeremy Corbyn to be Prime Minister.’ When you’ve been knocking on doors for 20 years, you need to have another conversation another day, and it’s devastating to hear. Subsequently, that resident has said she will be voting Labour in May, and that’s a great thing.
Our position on Brexit was an absolute mess. To be clear, I voted to remain. I lost. I never particularly supported the idea of a second referendum. If it’s in a manifesto, when you’re standing on that manifesto, collective responsibility says you’ve got to at least accept that on the whole, but that wasn’t basically my view. I’m not sure I’ve shared that publicly before but that was a messy policy and Brexit has been politically challenging for the Labour Party. There’s no doubt about that. I think the combination of those two factors in particular and the fact that actually Boris Johnson at that time was seen as new and fresh and committed to getting Brexit done. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
How can Chatham high street be saved?
That’s a great question and one which is pertinent over the last few weeks. I love Chatham, people who follow me on Twitter will know, I use the hashtag #ProudToBeChatham, #ProudToBeMedway quite a lot. But it needs some love, and it needs some urgent support. It doesn’t help when you have national newspapers punching down, which is certainly true both of the Sun and regrettably the Mirror, which I read on a regular basis. Both have done so in recent weeks. That’s not helpful journalism. So actually, I was really pleased when the Messenger ran the alternative. Fair play to them, because again they are struggling, because local papers are struggling generally, but they took the time to produce a really strong article.
But how can it be saved?
So I think it needs resources, and this is where the government have got it wrong. Levelling up, basically a beauty contest between different communities, that’s not how you save high streets. I think there’s something around bringing residential in. I support that I think that’s a good idea but you need the infrastructure to go with that. So we need that healthy living centre in the Pentagon frankly yesterday. We need that to happen as soon as possible because then you can say to the people moving in you’ve got what you need here. If you are commuting to London you’re a five minute walk from the station. If you’re not commuting to London, you’ve got great facilities here. I think most people realistically would say if you were building Medway from a blank piece of paper, if you were just playing SimCity rather than the reality, you wouldn’t have five main town centres and all the sub-town centres like Parkwood and Twydall and Lordswood and Walderslade. All of whom need to survive, that’s challenging at the best of times, particularly for Chatham and Gillingham, where every high street and town centre has struggled. So it’s about money, it’s about focus. One of the things that if we had a Labour administration, and the Conservative leader is dead against this. I’d put to the five town centres the possibility of becoming a BID, which stands for Business Improvement District. It’s a democratic process, it’s business-led, rather than council-led. And where other areas have them, they have had some really innovative ideas.
So what does that actually mean?
They would have a levy, that they would decide amongst themselves, that would be used to improve and benefit the town centre. The Chatham Town Centre Forum is a pretty good place to be and does pretty good stuff, but it’s limited. Becoming a BID would give it much more powers, including income generation. Now the reason that politicians like (Medway Council leader) Alan Jarrett are against it is because you lose control. The council would be part of that conversation, but not leading it. I think who knows the town centres, about getting them back to where they need to be best than the people, including small business owners? The nationals will have a role in this of course as well and they will understand the level of best practice. If we have a Labour administration next year, we will offer all five town centres the opportunity to consider a BID. What you couldn’t have is a Medway BID, because it is diverse. It may be that somewhere like Rochester goes ‘we don’t want that’ and that’s fine. It’s a democratic process.
How can you improve Medway politics with regard to climate change?
This is the number one issue for a unitary authority of our size. We should be doing more. It’s about the pace of change. Every piece of policy change that’s been voted on at full council on this issue has been raised by a Labour councillor. The use of single-use plastic was brought forward by Andy (Stamp), the reduction in the use of herbicides was bought through by Simon Curry, or myself raising the climate emergency. They (the Conservative Group) didn’t do any of those things and I think (Deputy Medway Council leader) Cllr Howard Doe, with respect to him, I think he gets it, but I don’t think he gets the need for the pace of change. That needs to be more urgent and the other examples of councils who are, you know their foot is on the electric car accelerator and we should be picking up the pace. If you have a Labour administration, the pace will be picked up. I think you need to spend to save sometimes because this could save taxpayers money in the long run.
What does the Local Plan need to do to be successful for Medway?
It’s got to have consensus. It’s got to have a situation where the majority of councillors support it and we’re not in that position yet. That, hopefully, will come through time. We need that to happen sooner rather than later. As I say, my door is open if anybody, from anywhere, wants to have a conversation about the Local Plan. My door is very much open. We know there are a couple of sticking points, different for different people. For some people it’s Chatham Docks, that’s well documented. We know for some people it is development on Hoo Peninsula. In both those cases, they need to find a way through, which gets us to a point where we can have a Local Plan in place. The alternative that we currently have is effectively planning by appeal, and the planning committee in many cases being told ‘if we turn this down, we will lose on appeal and it will probably cost us money because we’ve done that’. That’s not a way to have a democratic process, so we need a Local Plan in place. The Conservative administration has had at most generously a decade, arguably longer, than that to get this sorted and hasn’t. They failed.
When attending election night, what evidence have you seen that it’s the hope that kills you?
(laughs) There is something magical about it. Medway, on the whole, will do its count from 10 o’clock. They have to for general elections. There is nothing worse than losing. It is a painful experience, but it’s a part of democracy and there are very few people who have been involved for a long time that wouldn’t have been on both the winning and losing sides of different arguments, and elections.
I don’t want to end on a down note (laughs), but what was your worst election night loss?
Undoubtedly, losing the Luton and Wayfield by-election. Losing by four votes is much worse than losing by 204 votes. Worse I think in part because that made me realise that the subsequent General Election was going to be really challenging, and as we know that turned out to be the case. That was definitely the most difficult. There’s probably 20 ways we could’ve found five more votes somehow.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
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Steven Keevil is a friendly-neighbourhood lettings agent! He is currently recuperating from signing up to Mastodon. He was a co-founder of The Political Medway, and still manages to watch hundreds of films a year. He highly recommends Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy.
Steven listened to no music whilst writing this, but recommends the following books that he has finished recently: A Psalm for the Wild-built by Becky Chambers, Imagine If… by Sir Ken Robinson, Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud