Published: 00:01, 26 January 2019
With the city council election looming, reporter Jack Dyson meets local authority leader Simon Cook to find out how the Conservatives are preparing for it and the issues the party will be campaigning on.
As I struggle to navigate my way through a labyrinthine sequence of narrow gravel roads, I’m thinking through the topics I want to quiz Simon Cook about during our interview.
Controversies surrounding the city council’s provision for social housing, its unpopular decision to build a multi-storey car park in Station Road West, and the Conservative Party’s preparations for the local elections in May are among the subjects I intend to ask the leader of the local authority about.
I eventually pull up outside Simon’s home. Located in Renville in Bridge, it’s in an area where the houses have names instead of numbers.
I’m met at the door by the Nailbourne councillor and his dog, Autumn. Cheerful and softly spoken, Simon’s hair is dishevelled and dog fur speckles his dark-coloured jumper.
As I take a seat at his dining room table, I ask: “Who do you think could be the Tory candidate for Canterbury at the next general election?”
“No idea,” he responds. “There is no Conservative candidate for Canterbury as, at present, the selection hasn’t been opened.
“Our association chairman, Greig Baker, is the man who’s dealing with that. But I’m mildly surprised that we haven’t picked a candidate yet because Canterbury is entirely winnable and the way you win a marginal seat like this is if you get a candidate in place and they work for two or three years.”
Citing Rosie Duffield’s wafer-thin majority of 187, as well as her perceived reliance on student votes, Simon adds that Canterbury would be able to draw a “high-calibre” candidate from elsewhere in the country.
'They’re looking at my seat - why wouldn’t they? It’s a narrow majority' - Simon Cook
He has often been mooted as a potential general election hopeful himself, but despite admitting that he once aspired to be an MP, he states that he will not put his name forward for the role.
“It definitely won’t be me,” he says. “I’ve had various approaches from various people, which is incredibly flattering. But, if there is a right time to be an MP, it’s certainly not now – my daughter’s got secondary school and my wife works as a GP. What we’ve seen over the last 20 years is an extraordinary amount of scrutiny of MPs’ families. That’s not part of the bargain as far as I’m concerned and if that is what comes with the job, then I don’t want it.”
Instead of preparing an attempt to oust Ms Duffield, the 42-year-old has his sights set on securing another Tory majority on Canterbury City Council on May 2.
The party won 31 of 39 seats at the local elections in 2015. But Simon only edged out his Liberal Democrat rival Mike Sole by 75 votes in Nailbourne. Buoyed by their success four years ago, the Lib Dems are hoping for the leader of the local authority’s scalp in May.
“They’re looking at my seat – why wouldn’t they? It’s a narrow majority,” Simon says calmly. “I stand on my record. I think I’ve done a good job as a leader of the council and as a ward councillor – and I’m hearing that on the doorstep.
“I’m going to campaign as hard as I can as I think there is so much more to be done. I’d be devastated if I lose, but if you put yourself up for election it’s possible to lose as well as win.”
He says a Conservative-run council will provide added social housing, upgrade the city’s infrastructure, continue to balance the budget and improve the services the local authority provides should the party win a majority in the election.
The last of these pledges is particularly pertinent, as issues with the district’s bin collections remain. Serco, the firm that holds the contract for the service, has been heavily criticised as a result. It was provided with a cash injection from the council and had the number of missed collections the authority allows raised from 23 to 75 in every 100,000 last year, following disappointing results in 2017.
The company’s contract with the local authority is set to end in 2021 – and Simon suggests deals with other organisations will be considered.
“I want the bins to be collected as well as possible for as reasonable a cost as possible, whether that’s by Serco or Veolia or some other delivery mechanism, I’m not that fussed,” he insists. “If I’m in the next council, I will make sure that we explore all the options.”
The party will also continue to campaign for a new hospital. Developer Mark Quinn has offered to fund the shell of the building – at a cost of more than £100 million – in return for planning permission for 2,000 homes on surrounding land. But Cllr Cook hints that a Conservative-run council may consider other ways of building it. “The one campaign that we’re running is to get a new hospital in Canterbury,” he says. “Precisely how it gets delivered is not the issue, it’s that we work with the primary care and hospital trusts to do all we can to make sure that there’s a major hospital in Canterbury.”
Labour and the Lib Dems – led by councillors Alan Baldock and Michael Dixey respectively – have regularly attacked the provision for social housing across the district. No new council homes have been built in the past seven years, the local authority’s bid for 147 houses at Howe Barracks proved unsuccessful in 2016 and its £23m acquisition of 44 properties in Parham Road has been slated for being too expensive. In addition, 2,500 households were waiting to be housed at the end of last year.
“Michael Dixey and Alan Baldock are bleating ‘why don’t you build more houses?’” Simon says brusquely. “Then we provide social houses at Parham Road and they say ‘we didn’t mean you do that’.
“People who want social housing don’t care whether the council buys it or builds it as long as they have a place to live. That was an opportunity that came up to provide a pretty enormous amount of housing very quickly and at a reasonable price.”
Simon continues by saying the local authority is building council homes at Kingsmead. “How many?” I ask.
“We’re building six.”
“That’s not many.”
“You say that, but it’s a start,” responds Simon. “We’re using Kingsmead as a trial.
'If I’m in the next council, I will make sure that we explore all the options' - Simon Cook
“We’re building some homes for private use to raise money for the council and we’re building social houses. We don’t have vast acreages of land to be built on – we have to be a bit smarter with how we do it.”
It’s clear Simon is a smart man, having made his money, and waves, as a hedge fund manager, but now opponents – among them Lib Dem leader Michael Dixey – have made jibes about him being a house husband.
“I think Michael is a better man than to make comments like that,” he says. “People can judge me as I am.”
And they will have the chance to, on May 2.
Next week our sister paper the Kentish Gazette will speak to Michael Dixey in the second of a three-part series featuring the leaders of the three main political parties in Canterbury.