Published: 00:01, 10 February 2019
In the final instalment of a three-part series of interviews, reporter Jack Dyson meets the leader of Canterbury's Labour group, Alan Baldock, to speak about the party's policies and aims ahead of May's local election.
Two years ago, Canterbury was the scene of one of the biggest shocks of the general election. For the first time in more than 100 years, the Conservatives lost control of the constituency. Labour’s Rosie Duffield edged out the incumbent Sir Julian Brazier by 187 votes, overturning the veteran MP’s majority of almost 10,000 in the process.
The picture couldn’t be more different locally. The Conservatives have a vice-like grip on Canterbury City Council, with Labour holding just four seats across the district. Despite having a couple of loud voices in the authority, the left-wing party holds little sway.
Its leader, Alan Baldock, is picking away at a croissant opposite me. We’re sat knee-to-knee in the tightly-packed Café St Pierre in St Peter’s Street. As I attempt to discreetly unfold my legs under the table, they kick against the shins of the Northgate councillor. Ignoring my clumsiness, he tells me he believes Labour’s surge in 2017 could spill into the local elections in three months’ time.
“I do feel May will be a turning point,” the 61-year-old says confidently. “Whatever happens, this council will be a different shape altogether. We want to win a majority in the council – that is our mission. It’s a huge ask.
“We’ve started selecting our candidates, we’re training them and working with them to make sure they fully understand their roles and duties. They will be ready to take power should the opportunity arise.”
However, Alan adds, Labour “won’t have a strong candidate” running against the leader of the city council, Simon Cook. The Lib Dems are gunning for his Nailbourne seat after marginally missing out on it in 2015. Labour, therefore, is tacitly conscious of splitting the left-of-centre vote.
It’s widely maintained that one of the reasons for Ms Duffield’s stunning victory was a rise in the number of student voters. Speaking after the results were announced, her predecessor even labelled this as the “largest factor” behind his defeat. And Alan believes that it could again play a crucial role in May.
'We need to encourage younger people to get out and vote" - Alan Baldock
“We will try incredibly hard to get as many students out as we can,” he says. “An issue that we face is that we need to encourage younger people to get out and vote. It affects us more than other parties. We do take the view, though, that whenever we knock on the door we will remind everyone to vote.”
Predictably, Labour will campaign on the promise to build more council homes. It, along with the Lib Dems, has attacked the Conservatives’ underwhelming attempts to tackle the waiting list – which had 2,500 households on it at the end of last year.
They point to the local authority’s failed bid for almost 150 houses at Howe Barracks in 2016, its £23m acquisition of 44 student properties in Parham Road and the alarming revelation that no new council homes have been built over the last seven years.
If the party does win a majority in May, Alan says its first act would be to commission a report into available sites across the district.
“This council is only interested in sticking a plaster over the problem,” he adds.
“Two years ago, I asked the council to put some money aside to develop a long-term plan to build social housing because you need to find sites and seek planning permissions. It laughed at me.
“Cllr Jenny Samper told me ‘we’re already doing more than enough’ and Simon Cook agreed with her wholeheartedly.”
Alan is hoping the report will lay the foundations for a decade-long housing plan. While he refuses to commit to a specific number, he does say Labour will build “more than 1,000” homes by 2029. He believes this could be achieved by “maxing out” borrowing on the council’s housing revenue account – although he concedes it could be a “tough one because we’d have to make sure we could pay it back” – and by splitting the cost with the likes of housing associations and co-operatives.
“There are many things we can do to improve the way housing is delivered,” he continues. “The council paying £300,000-odd for each home in Parham Road is too much. It’s not cost-effective when you can build a house for £150,000 on land that we own.
“We’re not going to come into the council promising to do the most ridiculous things. We’ll be a different council with different views; but we do know how to run the books. We’re not going to bankrupt this council, that’s a promise. We’ll run the council just as well as the Tories.”
'We're not going to bankrupt this council, that's a promise' - Alan Baldock
Among the party’s other promises are pledges to crack down on pollution across the district, to campaign for an acute hospital in the city, and to improve cycle paths and bus services in order to reduce congestion.
Labour has not committed to a position on the hotly debated multi-storey car park in Station Road West, though. It and the Lib Dems have regularly heaped scorn on the project, regarding it as a reckless use of funds and environmentally damaging. However, the local authority is set to sign a multi-million pound contract with construction firm Willmott Dixon to begin work on the scheme.
“We’ll have to see whether the council is stupid enough to sign the contract in order to see what we will be able to do if we win a majority,” he says. “It is so unlikely to make any money in real terms and we’d have to judge whether it’s worth the cancellation costs or if we’d have to swallow it and get on with construction.”
Unusually, Alan states that Labour will also look to set up a not-for-profit energy company. This would emulate similar steps taken by councils in Nottingham and Peterborough. “They have set up energy companies to try to drive down the cost of energy for their residents,” Alan explains.
“It’s an ambition of ours. Canterbury City Council would take the lead in driving it forward, but we wouldn’t expect it to cost us anything to set up. We’d get some partners together to see if we could drive some money together for this from many different sources.”
This appears to be tied to the party’s vague election promise to “keep wealth local”. Alan says this would involve encouraging businesses based in the district to trade with each other and for institutions, such as universities and schools, to pay for their services instead of those of national chains. But he refuses to reveal how a Labour-run council would be able to set the process in motion.
“What I don’t want to do is to say what we’re doing and allow the Tories to rubbish it,” he adds. “We don’t want to reveal too much now because we’re not launching our manifesto with you today.
“We’ve had years of Conservatives where we muddle from year to year and we end with the same things again – not enough social housing and high streets and businesses continue to struggle like mad. We need a radically different view of our economy and housing. This is what we offer and it will become clearer over the next few weeks.”
If Labour’s manifesto doesn’t provide any substance, its chances of making any kind of inroads into the Conservative majority will be severely dented. If the document manages to allay voters’ concerns, though, Alan’s belief that there will be a significant change in the make-up of the city council may come to fruition. We shall find out on May 2.