What Steven asked Medway Council Leader Alan Jarrett
An exclusive one on one interview with the outgoing leader on his legacy, the Medway impact of Brexit, the strife within his group, what he thinks of our three Medway MPs, and so much more.
When I started writing long-form pieces for Local Authority, I knew one of the things I wanted to do was something that we hadn’t done before. 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 first of those.
I met Councillor Jarrett at Medway Council’s headquarters Gun Wharf, and he was surprisingly open. He answered all of my questions, about his time in politics, his feelings towards the leaders of his party, and the current members of the Medway Conservative group. We also discussed what will now be a post-politics life, with his announcement that he will be standing down not just as the Leader of Medway Council, but as a local councillor too. So join us and find out what he feels is his legacy, who has inspired him, and who should be the current Prime Minister.
Where were you born?
Tunbridge Wells in Kent.
What jobs did your parents do growing up?
My father was a farmer and my mother was a housewife. That’s the way it was then.
Did you enjoy school?
Some and some really. I went to a secondary school, Maidstone Technical School for Boys. It was a mixed bag really, because of various things that I won’t go into, I was probably pleased to leave school. Looking back, that was probably a mistake.
What was your first full-time job?
I worked on the farm, I suppose you can count that. Then I went off to work in industry, in plastics production and point of sale merchandising, right up until 2001.
Where have you lived outside of the Medway Towns?
I lived for a long time over near Maidstone.
Do you own your own home? What are your feelings towards the difficulties so for people in Medway with house ownership?
Yeah. Well it’s quite complex, isn’t it? Because my youngest son still lives with us, is now 28, and he’s got a full-time job and he works hard, but I don’t see any real prospect of him owning his own home, any time soon. Unless parents help him out substantially, but he’s not in a position to do that, or showing an inclination to do it. I think it is very difficult because, it was difficult before the cost of living crisis, it’s even more difficult now. I suppose we’re just gonna have to see how things evolve. I believe in home ownership and I believe in, basically, I believe in capitalism, it’s just more difficult. When I bought my first time, when we bought our first time it was much easier, the ratio of home prices to earnings was much much more advantageous, it’s now very difficult. There are various government schemes, like First Homes, which do help, but, it’s just tougher than ever, isn’t it?
What event or issues first got you involved in politics?
I had always been interested and always, because of coming from a farming, landowning world, had always been right-leaning because that is what that world is in the main. I was always leaning towards the Conservatives anyway. I joined the Conservative Party for no particular reason and then from that, I was asked to stand for the Medway unitary election. So that was my entry to it. I joined the party because I was instinctively a Conservative.
Why did you first attend Full Council?
I attended a full council meeting when I was elected. I joined the party in 1995, I went to constituency events, but I didn’t go to any democratic events at all until I was elected.
Who has been the best Prime Minister of your lifetime?
Margaret Thatcher. She had real courage, a real sense of purpose. Whether people liked her or loved her, she had real courage with the Falklands War, a real sense of purpose, an example I can give you is the miner’s strike. Just a really gutsy lady and I like to think some of my attitudes and some of the things I do are motivated by watching her premiership.
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Which ward do you represent, and why that ward?
Lordswood and Capstone. It’s where I live and we are encouraged wherever possible to stand where we live in Medway, as that allows you to resonate with the community.
Can you name two different charities that you think are doing vital work to help local people?
I think the new Help for Ukraine charity which is a new charity, set up in response to the Ukraine crisis. Actually, I had a very informative meeting with them, they have done some really good stuff, done some of the heavy lifting. They work very closely with the council. Excellent synergy between them. Medway’s Citizens Advice Bureau do fantastic work, and again an example is the enormous amount of work they did during covid and particularly in the early phases of covid they did a lot of really good stuff.
Why is it necessary for that work to be completed by charities and not by local government?
Well, I think, particularly now, local government is so stretched resource-wise, fairly modest investments in a charity can get a great deal done. It’s a good pathway into the community as well. For example, Help for Ukraine, they are partly funded by the council, but at a very modest level so we get a really big bang for buck.
What did you think of the campaign to rename the Sir John Hawkins Car Park?
An absolute distraction. I think it’s quite wrong to think you should airbrush history. Now, slave trading is abhorrent, of course, as is any form of racism, but at that time it was just normal. That isn’t to say it was right. If you start airbrushing history, where do you stop? There are those who complain about our colonial past, but that’s what made this country great, that made this country what it is, and we should respect and honour that.
What has been the biggest benefit to Medway from Brexit?
I’m not sure I can put my finger on tangible benefits for Medway at this stage. I voted for Brexit, I championed Brexit, I’m proud of that. I’m proud the leader of the council, unlike some of my colleagues, was absolutely in touch with the majority of the electorate here. I think 63% voted in favour of Brexit. I can’t point to any tangible benefits yet. They will come. I think sometimes you have to look beyond the tangible benefits. For me, it’s a question of sovereignty and freedom and national pride, and that’s why I think Brexit was so important. Benefits will undoubtedly flow because we were increasingly trading outside the European bloc, and I think that will show big benefits, once we get out from under the yoke of European legislation and can manage our own destiny, we will see real benefits then.
What would you say to somebody who thought the investigation of Cllr Franklin was an example of cancel culture?
No, absolute nonsense, because it’s not, it’s not an example of council culture at all.
(Awkwardly, I realise Cllr Jarrett has misheard ‘cancel’ as ‘council’)
I see no evidence of racism in the council.
‘Cancel’ culture, not saying it is part of the ‘council’.
Tell me what you mean by cancel culture.
It’s an idea, that people who represent certain views, which aren’t in line with what is considered current or left thinking, can be cancelled because they do or say something which is sexist, racist, or misogynistic.
Right. I have heard the term. I take the naive view about freedom of speech actually. People can say what they like, within reason, as long as it’s not homophobic or racist.
So what do you think about what happened with Cllr Franklin, where he retweeted a series of anti-Muslim posts?
I don’t know if he is, was, racist or not. He was certainly very foolish because he was tweeting things that were totally inappropriate, that we don’t believe in or stand for. I think you need to take great care using social media.
Who has been Medway’s best MP this century?
This century? Tracey Crouch is head and shoulders above the others because she engages well. She is approachable, she’s affable, she gets things done, she doesn’t have hidden agendas like some do.
What have been the biggest improvements in Medway over the last 25 years?
I think the massive regeneration program has changed Medway beyond all recognition. Bear in mind it has been ongoing for almost the whole of that period, hundreds of millions of pounds, from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister right through now to Homes England. That’s been massive, and almost all for the better, though some would argue about that. I think that the way we have developed our care for vulnerable people has been really impressive, notwithstanding our inadequate ratings for children. I think the service we offer to children has been greatly improved. The service we offer to adults is greatly improved and I think the way that we’ve managed to maintain and enhance our frontline services, by which I mean waste collection. One of the only services in the country to collect everything every week. Street lighting, all those frontline services managed to maintain those, notwithstanding the haemorrhage of funding to local authorities. I’m really proud of what we have achieved on that front as well.
When did your name first appear on a ballot? Why?
1997, for North Dane Ward. Basically, the association had a trainee agent and it was his job when Medway was formed with 80 seats, and it was his job to ring around. He rang my wife actually, she said ‘no, talk to my husband’, and she says it was one of the worst decisions she ever made. He came and spoke to me: ‘Had you thought about standing?’ ‘No.’ ‘Would you be interested in it?’ ‘Don’t know, might be.’ Blah blah blah. North Dane was seen by the office as would be won by Labour, so me and my running mate Wendy Purdy, we were paper candidates. Although nobody told us that. I don’t know who was more shocked, the office or me, for me to come top of the polls.
When did you become a full-time politician?
October 2001. When we moved from committee structure to the cabinet government, that wasn’t compatible with a full-time job. I decided, after trying to mix the two for a while, and I was able to, my circumstances allowed me to, put heart and soul into being a member of the cabinet.
How does the party structure work that a current member of your cabinet can be deselected for next year’s local elections?
Jane Chitty you are talking about. She is still a member of the Conservative Party, she is still a member of the Rochester and Strood association, she still represents Strood North. Therefore all the criteria that judge her to be good enough to be in the cabinet still prevail. That is entirely an association matter. If there are not enough ward members, there is a threshold, then the executive comes to a decision.
At the time, what was your reaction to the coalition government?
Very relaxed about actually. Think it did quite a lot of good stuff. It had to take on quite a number of liberal-leaning policies, I think that fitted Cameron very well. I always thought he was more of a liberal-conservative than a Conservative conservative. Did a lot of good stuff, and paved the way for us to win the next election, because what it did was lead to a massive haemorrhage of the Liberal vote. Which is great, what’s not to like?
Do you have any view you’d like to share about the Conservative leadership race?
I voted for Liz Truss. I voted the day the papers came out. I will say that it’s not the strongest field, the choice between the two.
Did you have a preference before it was just the final two?
He should have re-stood?
I think that Boris Johnson has been foolish, but he has been very hard done by, and I think we will suffer in the polls because of that.
Who has been the best Conservative Leader during your membership?
I think the most successful electorally has been Johnson, because of a massive majority.
That’s quite a difficult question actually. I thought some were a bit mediocre, to be honest. Some lacking in charisma, lacking in direction. Cameron was a good example. I didn’t vote for Cameron, I would never have voted for him. He won that election for us outright, but he had a lot of views that I didn’t share. I suppose Boris Johnson, I would have to say, having taken a while to reflect on it. He won the election, he delivered Brexit, something I believe passionately in. I didn’t sit up and watch the count, because I was convinced that the establishment stitch-up would make sure the vote was lost. When I got up at 7 o’clock in the morning and saw the result, I was happy, one of the happiest days of my political life, to be honest.
Can you remember the last election night you were disappointed in the result?
When I was chairman of Chatham and Aylesford, we lost. Johnathan Shaw won the race for MP. Shaun Holden was my candidate. I was bitterly disappointed about that because I thought he would have made an excellent Member of Parliament. I thought Johnathan Shaw was a good member of Parliament, to be honest. I always liked him, got on with him, still do.
Day to day
What additional roles - paid or unpaid - do you currently do?
I’m a council nominee on the Rochester Bridge Trust, the court they call it. The biggest non-council role is Chair of Wildfowling and Conservation Association. The largest shooting club in the country, assets of £9m. Just taken on some big fishery projects, so that, and then in turn I am the director of their companies. Three limited companies, I am the director of all of those. That occupies a lot of my time.
What is it you enjoy about duck hunting or wildfowling?
It comes from a farming, and landowning background. One of the things that motivates me to write. I soon realised how important and intertwined with shooting, wildfowling in particular, conservation is. In the past I’ve held various posts, still do now, and yes we go out and we shoot things, we take them home and we eat them and that’s great. But the club owns and manages owns over 2,000 acres of conservation stamp quality land, manages 14,000 acres. So we are doing an enormous amount for nature conservation, wetland birds and wetland conservation in particular. We have got a big project going on at the moment out at Cooling with the RSPB for example.
What was your inspiration behind writing your first novel?
I’ve been dabbling with this particular novel (Sea Whisper) for years. This comes back to country sports and fascination with the coast as well, because that’s where the book is based, in the Dungeness coastal area down to Hastings and it is set all around at coastal environment. I’ve always thought my writing is quite creative and I thought that would give me a license to write in a different way. To take that sort of creative prose, into something I’ve tried to make it quite fast-paced and quite controversial and quite blue as well. It’s something absolutely different, and I’m doing another one now.
How is the current role of Deputy Leader different from when you had the role?
It is quite different because I had the finance portfolio as well. That gives you much more influence and power, because as in national government you have the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer there, the two main political posts. That’s the same here. Howard doesn’t have the finance portfolio. My portfolio was absolutely huge when I was Deputy Leader. I used to oversee procurement, I thought when I became Leader I’d have less work, but how wrong was I. It is quite a bit different. I had a very close working relationship with the Leader at the time, Rodney Chambers. Howard and I have a close working relationship, but it isn’t quite the same. It’s a different dynamic. I get on really well with Howard, Howard is superb intellect, really good at what he does.
How much interaction do you have with the leader of the opposition on Medway Council?
Not very much actually. A lot during covid, he was very good during covid. On a personal level I like him, I didn’t dislike his predecessors, but I wouldn’t say I liked them either. I thought the comments he made about the revenue report, if you read them, he didn’t use an opportunity to bash the administration, he said local government has got a funding problem. Despite the fact I accuse him of jumping on every bandwagon going, which he does, and I’ll probably accuse him of that at the next council meeting.
What time do you spend with Medway Conservatives youth wing?
Not as much as I should. I have done a bit of with the Youth Parliament, called the Youth Council now. It all depends on who is chairing it, whether they seek interaction or not. I should do more, but being the leader of a large council is, to put it mildly, time-consuming. You can always look back on the period and think I should have done this, no doubt when I have retired I will look back on all the things I should have done.
What has been your greatest achievement as Leader of the Medway Conservative Group?
I think following in Rodney’s footsteps. Winning the 2015 election, which we won, was Rodney’s victory so for the first time I was a leader and presided over an election campaign in 2019 and absolutely bucked the local and national trend. Had one of the best Conservative results in the country, I think we’re only one seat down, against a background of 4 Conservative leaders in Kent who lost their seats. I was really proud of that achievement. I thought it just followed on from all the work that I’ve been doing with Rodney when I was Deputy Leader, those election victories since the year 2000, 6 election victories on the trot and I was really proud of that.
Why is local politics important to you?
We are at the sharp end because we get things done. I did say to one of the MPs once, there was an issue going on, I said to them to their face, ‘If you don’t mind me saying, you are only the MP.’ It’s us that gets things done, it’s us that delivers all the services. MPs can’t get anything done locally without working with the council. We have to do our best with what comes down from Westminster, some of which is useful and helpful, and an awful lot is absolutely ridiculous and that is why I always take the view, I don’t care if it’s a Conservative government, if what they’re saying is wrong for Medway, I’m going to say so. Local government is absolutely essential and a coherent local government, which is a unitary local government, is the right model as for as I am concerned.
Why have you been so focused on City Status for Medway?
What I’ve been chairing for 15, 18 years maybe, is a group of officers and members, who include Howard Doe, called ‘Medway On The Map’ because Medway is an artificial construction, it isn’t a place on the map. Our job has been to bring greater recognition to Medway. We believe that benefits Medway, benefits Medway communities. We see that with the external funding we can leverage, and the benefits that brings. City status is part of that.
What was the most shocking thing you’ve witnessed at Full Council?
Every speech from Vince. (laughs) I think some of the naked opportunism. One of the worst things I’ve ever witnessed was Cllr Murray taking advantage of a particular issue and getting school kids along there, to sing and disrupt the Council, like a conductor. All pretty shameful really. It was to do with the closure of one of the schools. At the time the government sent down an edict that if schools were below they had to be closed, it was absolute nonsense in hindsight because after that we were struggling with school places.
What actions have Medway Council taken to support refugees?
We’ve done a lot. We’ve done what we can with the Afghan refugees. What we haven’t done, we haven’t signed up to the government’s diktats on unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. We got an outstanding judicial review, going to the high court, we’ve refused to take our allocation of asylum seeing children. Simply because you don’t have the capacity. We have Kent County Council, and some of the London Councils placing UACs (unaccompanied asylum-seeking children) here. Nothing wrong with that, but it has used up all our capacity. We are sending a lot of our own children out of area placements. What we have said to government was, first it was a voluntary scheme, which we wouldn’t sign up to and then they issued a direction and we said we would consult on that. We told them all the reasons why we couldn’t take any more children, not don’t want to, couldn’t. They just said get one with it, so we applied for a judicial review, at the initial court hearing, which we won, despite the government‘s case. I thought it was facile actually because one of the reasons they gave insisting we follow the direction was that nobody else has objected. We go to the high court later this year. We do our share, and sometimes we do more than our share.
What Minister for Local Government has had a positive impact and how?
I can tell you the person who has had the most negative impact. Eric Pickles, who I freely admit, I have said many times to anyone who’d listen, he was one of the greatest threats to local government there have ever been. He decimated local government. He was an arrogant, self-opinionated person. I’m sure he would speak highly of me as well. Who has done the most?
I don’t think any of them have done very much actually to help us, because their hands have been tied by finance, and financial regulations. I think one follows another, and none of them do much good to help.
You have never stood for election as an MP, why was this?
I was on the Conservative list at one time and applied for a few seats, including Chatham and Aylesford, long before Tracey. I would’ve liked to have done it at that time, but I resigned from the Conservative list when they introduced the A-list.
How would you describe your working relationship with Medway’s current MPs?
Could be better. I gave my opinions about Tracey Crouch, and why. I don’t want to mention any views on the others.
Why are you stepping aside in next year’s local elections?
I would’ve been have been a Medway councillor for 26 years, 23 of those years I would’ve been either Deputy Leader or the Leader, so I think I’ve done my share. I’m of an age now where I need to think about what I do next and what I do next is not another four-year term as a Medway councillor in whatever role, so I actually think that a clean break is the best way forward. I think I’ve helped achieve a lot and good luck to those who come next.
Do you have any views on who should be the next leader?
Well, I have some views on who it shouldn’t be. I think there are some very able people in the cabinet. There are those with leadership aspirations in our group, which I think are completely ill-founded. People who don’t have an experience of leadership, don’t have any experience of cabinet work, just have an inflated of their own abilities. I actually said when I wrote to the group, that I wasn’t going to seek re-election, that I hope they will elect someone who is capable and will take us forward, rather than someone who covets the post the most.
What action needs to occur in Medway with regards to climate change?
I think Medway Council can only point the way because our emissions are 1.4% of all of Medway’s emissions. So I think the things that the things that we have been doing like, investing in a new lighting infrastructure, LEDs all across Medway, expensive but will save us money over time. I think it is to keep banging that drum. I think tokenism gets in the way of that actually, silly resolutions at council that are meaningless and don’t achieve anything, which are a factor of the opposition, which they are entitled to do. I think tokenism should be avoided I think we just have to keep working with the main players and the rest of the public sector, like the NHS and the police, we would like to get them to same level as we are and to try and generally get the business community to sign up to climate change initiative, which we can do through the planning system.
How would you describe relationships within the Medway Conservative Group heading into the local elections?
Could be better. We have a division on the Local Plan, which is being driven by one, perhaps two people with leadership ambitions. The group needs to coalesce more, needs to come together more, and people with leadership ambitions should wait until there is a leadership vacancy in May, and not try and disrupt things in the interim.
So is it your plan to stay in leadership until the local elections?
If the group want me to, yeah.
What should be the first priority of the next Leader of Medway Council?
I would hope that we will fight the election on this basis that will continue the direction of travel we are on at the moment. That is to ensure that frontline services are maintained, ensure that vulnerable children and adults are given the attention and protection they need, and to continue growing Medway the place and its economy, which has grown exponentially since Medway has been formed. I would say more of the same.
What does the Local Plan need to do to be successful for Medway?
Without the internal squabbles within the Conservative group, the Local Plan would be out to inspection by now and we would be going forward. Now I’ve had to stop that process and ask for the report to be brought to cabinet, probably in October, which means another two years of squabbling over what should be in the Local Plan and what shouldn’t. Those that have caused the problems with the Local Plan will have to sort out the mess they have created if they are re-elected, and good luck to them, because it is a mess. The only beneficiaries are the developers.
Do you feel that the current issues within the Conservative group are resolvable before the local elections?
That’s up to the disaffected. There is a minority in the group that have got certain views, all centred around an individual that wants to be Leader, and that’s where the disruption is coming from. History shows us that divided parties don’t win elections.
What political party, not currently represented, would Medway benefit from being on the council?
What are your current aspirations for Medway Conservatives?
To win the next election, which will be tough because of the boundary changes. I think if we don’t win the election then Medway will rue the day because I don’t think the opposition has the policies or the ability to take Medway forward. There are some safe wards that have been carved up completely. Rochester South and Horsted, for example, has been decimated and turned into something entirely different. That was one of the Conservative’s strongest wards. With a lot of these things, wards that you think would be one way or another don’t turn out that way.
What is your prediction for the next General Election result in Medway?
Three Conservative MPs.
What do you think will be your biggest legacy for Medway?
The things I talked about earlier. Despite the financial difficulties, basically keeping the show on the road and keeping an upwards trajectory in terms of growth, growing the economy. What I’m most proud of though, is how we reacted to the covid crisis and my personal involvement in that. I was very central in all of that. Making decisions on a daily basis that wasn’t just making people’s lives better, but saving lives. The one thing I am most proud of is how this council handled covid and my central role in that.
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Steven Keevil is a former educator turned former frozen food data analyst. He is currently recuperating from having resigned from his job. He was a co-founder of The Political Medway, and still manages to watch hundreds of films a year. He highly recommends The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent.
Steven listened to no music whilst writing this, but recommends the following books that he has finished recently: The End is Always Near, by Dan Carlin, Night Watch by Terry Pratchett, Chivalry, by Neil Gaiman and Colleen Doran
Intriguing that he seemingly considers his greatest achievement as part of the council to be...getting the Conservative group re-elected. Not any things that have tangibly improved lives or the environment, or trailblazed novel initiatives to tackle problems. Getting on top and staying there.
Interesting interview. Thanks, but all you need to know is in the first answer; "My father was a farmer and my mother was a housewife. That’s the way it was then".