Today marks 100 days from when the Labour group took control of Medway Council after 20 years of Conservative domination.
Local democracy reporter Robert Boddy met with council leader, Cllr Vince Maple, in his office at Gun Wharf to talk about what his administration had achieved so far, his experience leading the council, and how he’s going to meet the challenges they face.
Cllr Maple was confident going into the May 4 election that Labour would be the largest party on the council, but whether they would gain a majority of the seats was unclear.
When it became evident they would not only be the largest, they would be leading the council, he said that feeling was like no other.
“It was clear the people of Medway had trusted us to deliver change,” he said. “What had been clear from conversations on the doorstep was people were fed up with national government and the local council in-fighting, and taking their foot off the pedal when it comes to delivering for the people of Medway.
“In the run-up to the election, all we said was we’re looking for the opportunity to serve, and the people of Medway have given us that opportunity.”
But there was little time to enjoy the moment, as on the first day of the Labour administration, he was approached by new council chief executive, Richard Hicks, who told him the Housing Infrastructure Fund (HIF) funding – totalling £170 million –had just been withdrawn.
It was the first of a number of challenges the new council has faced in its first 100 days, Cllr Maple says, such as the projected budget overspend of £17 million and three significant emergencies in August alone: a power surge in Chatham, sections of Medway without water and a major fire in Luton.
He added: “Any council leadership having to deal with three emergencies in a month is pretty rare, we’ve had all of that in the first 100 days, along with the huge financial impacts.”
But he says this hasn’t dampened his ambitions to deliver on his election promises: “We’ve been getting on with the stuff we said we’d do, we always knew there would be other things – events happen.”
He says the budget problems are a big challenge his administration will need to tackle, but it won’t stop their agenda, it might just temper the pace.
Labour had been in opposition for 20 years, then in May they were thrown into the driving seat.
Cllr Maple explained: “It’s been like no other role I’ve ever carried out anywhere in life frankly, you could easily fill each day with four days worth of stuff every day.
“We were an active opposition, we were holding the administration to account, suggesting new things; we were busy then, but I knew we’d be busier when we became the administration.”
And what has Labour achieved since they won the election? He says he could list dozens upon dozens of things he’s pleased to have accomplished already, but he picks out a few highlights.
He’s most proud of the steps they’ve made to help residents through the cost-of-living crisis, which he says has affected people who’ve never been affected before.
The council’s plans, he says are focused on putting more money in people’s pockets, approximately £250,000, to help them cope with rising prices on food, energy, and accommodation.
Vince also says he’s proud of the way they’ve worked with local businesses, signing the Federation of Small Businesses’ pledge, and other work done by Cllr Lauren Edwards, portfolio holder for economic and social regeneration and inward investment.
He added: “We’re hearing from small businesses who aren’t particularly political that they’re glad that the council is listening to their concerns.
“Small businesses can come and talk to me and Lauren directly and tell us what’s working well, and where we might need to do things differently.”
He says he’s also really proud of the work they’ve done in combatting bad landlords; making moves to improve standards in the rental sector.
But there’s still a great deal left to do, and he is keen to say they will keep working for the next four years to make the most of the opportunity residents have given them.
He’s lucky, he says, that he’s got a team of such capable and enthusiastic people behind him, all whom are just as committed to getting the job done as he is.
“Every single one of our 33 councillors brings something new to the table, whether they’ve been a councillor for 20 years or 20 minutes,” he said.
“All of the team agrees, we’ve got to be out in the community, continuing the conversations on doorsteps.”
The dad-of-one knows that after 100 days in office, his group ceases to be the new administration and to most residents just becomes the council, but he’s got plenty of ambitions for the next 100 days and beyond.
He says they’ll continue progressing the work they’ve already started, as well as new priorities, including preparing their council budget for February, which he wants to discuss with the public before it’s finalised.
And he says it’s important they reduce the projected £17 million overspend
This will make certain ambitions more difficult or take more time, but he wants to consult residents on their priorities.
He’s also looking forward to upcoming Town Hall events, where he’ll be available to residents to be questioned about policy and discuss issues in Medway, as well as to showcase what the council has been doing.
Cllr Maple is optimistic about the future and says he’s eager to deliver: “I am loving every day. However much challenge comes on a specific day or specific week, it is the greatest privilege to be the leader of the council for the community I’ve called home nearly all my life.
“The budget might slow us down or make us think in different ways, but I’ve got a team bursting with good ideas.
“In four years’ time, if residents are asked “do you feel more proud to live in Medway today than you did on May 4, 2023?”, if the majority of people say yes, I’ve done my job.”