Published: 09:53, 04 February 2019
| Updated: 13:44, 04 February 2019
In the second of a three-part series of interviews, reporter Jack Dyson meets the leader of Canterbury's Lib Dem group, Michael Dixey, to find out which issues the party will be campaigning on ahead of the city council elections.
The Liberal Democrats are struggling nationally. The party only has 11 seats in the House of Commons, its leader is becoming increasingly anonymous and its prospects for the next general election – whenever that may be – appear to be bleak.
However, in Canterbury – a district where it has a history of success – it’s bullish about its chances in May’s local elections.
I’m perched on the edge of a dreadfully uncomfortable seat in the cafe of the Waterstones in Rose Lane. Opposite me is Michael Dixey – the leader of the Lib Dems in Canterbury.
Currently, the group has just four councillors on the local authority. But Michael, who has sat on the city council since 1987, is aiming to replicate the success the party enjoyed in the 1990s and early noughties.
“We’re confident we’ll win more seats,” he announces. “I’m hoping we’ll get into double figures. We’re targeting all the Canterbury seats and we hope to claw back some of the ones we lost in Whitstable.”
In his crosshairs is Simon Cook’s seat. The leader of the city council clung onto Nailbourne in 2015 with a narrow majority of 75 votes – fending off stiff competition from Lib Dem Mike Sole.
“I think Simon’s going to have difficulty holding onto his seat,” Michael says. “His majority was less than the Greens’ vote last time and I don’t think the Greens and Labour will be fighting that seat as hard as they would otherwise.
'We hope to win that seat and there are other rural ones we hope to win' - Michael Dixey
“We’ve got an extremely experienced candidate in Mike Sole and Highland Court is a very big issue there. We hope to win that seat and there are other rural ones we hope to win.”
The party’s surprising success in the Canterbury North county council by-election in November suggests Michael’s confidence may not be misplaced. In the build-up to the vote, Labour’s Ben Hickman was tipped to run Tory Robert Thomas close. However, he was pushed into third by the Lib Dems, whose chances were largely overlooked.
Despite this, Michael adds the caveat that the Lib Dems’ “most optimistic scenario” would see the Conservatives ceding its majority – opening up the opportunity for his party to run the council in coalition with Labour.
In the unlikely event the party does take control of the local authority in May, it promises an attempt to halt construction of the £9.1m multi-storey car park in Station Road West, build social housing and crackdown on litter and graffiti beyond the city walls.
The first of these is the most hotly debated issue in the city. With the local authority poised to sign a contract with construction firm Willmott Dixon to begin work on the project, Michael says his first act as leader of the council would be to tear up the agreement.
“I’ve told the council’s chief executive, Colin Carmichael, not to allow the Conservatives to put in clauses to try to prevent cancellation,” he says.
“If they lose control, there will be a majority who will vote to have it binned. I know at least three Conservatives who have very strong reservations about it.
“The Tories will have signed the agreement and work will have started by the time of the election, but we’d be able to cancel it with only some of the work being done.
“The clauses, though, could make it cost £2m, as opposed to £1m.”
The Lib Dems’ pledge to build council homes is unsurprising. They, along with Labour, have regularly lambasted the Conservatives’ attempts to tackle the waiting list – which had 2,500 households on it at the end of last year. Most of their criticism is aimed at the local authority’s unsuccessful bid for 147 houses at Howe Barracks in 2016, its £23m acquisition of 44 properties in Parham Road and the worrying revelation that no new council homes have been built in the past seven years.
Michael states the Lib Dems would take advantage of the government’s recent decision to remove the cap on the amount councils can borrow to build new homes. However, Simon Cook argues that the Westgate councillor “is misleading people” as the authority would struggle to repay the loans this way.
“It’s absolute b*****ks that buying the properties is more cost-effective,” Michael bristles.
“They were utterly ripped off with Parham Road. The council paid about four times the build costs for the properties after the owners couldn’t fill them. Building the homes would be better than what they bought because Parham contains student flats; they’re not suitable for families.
“It would take time to build houses because we’d have to obtain the land, but over a four-year period we’d like to run into three figures. There are areas where council houses could be built – I don’t think anybody would dispute that.”
Michael – who won’t disclose his age but tells me he’s “on the wrong side of 60” – believes the Conservatives lack the experience and business acumen required to run the council, while conceding Simon Cook had a successful career as a hedge fund manager.
Michael, who runs a consultancy firm, adds: “I find the lack of experience in this area in the council staggering. Cllr Nick Eden-Green [Lib Dem] and I probably have more business experience than all of the Tory councillors put together.”
To highlight his claim he points to the council’s acquisition of Whitefriars, which totalled £155m, last year. The authority has said in the past that it took specialist advice before making the investment, which was funded by borrowed money. However, the purchase has regularly been used as a stick to beat the authority with as critics point to forecasts indicating the value of retail property is set to fall by at least 20% over the next 12 months.
Despite being so critical of the Conservative councillors’ credentials, Michael admits the Lib Dems are finding it increasingly difficult to find well-rounded candidates.
“As with all the other parties, we go through a selection process and so far I think we’ve got a very good slate,” he says.
“But we’re finding it more and more difficult to get candidates with broad enough experience because it’s a very demanding role and people with that kind of experience don’t have the time unless they’re retired or, like Simon Cook, a house husband.
'I find the lack of experience in this area in the council staggering' - Michael Dixey
“We will have paper candidates in seats we don’t expect to win, who might not have the experience we’d want; but they probably won’t be elected, so that’s not a big deal.”
As Michael continues to criticise his Conservative counterparts – labelling many of them “voting fodder” for failing to “contribute” to the running of the council – I realise that his rancour is solely reserved for them. Contrastingly, he adds, “on a personal level, I get on very well with all four Labour councillors”.
And as we say our goodbyes and I begin my stroll back to the office, I’m left with the impression that he believes a left-of-centre coalition is more likely than he divulged. Considering the stranglehold the Conservatives have on the council, it’s a difficult result to envisage. But with May 2 just three months away, we will find out whether it is a fanciful notion soon enough.
Next week our sister paper the Kentish Gazette will meet Labour group leader Alan Baldock in the last of our three-part series.
Click here to read last week's interview with Simon Cook.