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EXCLUSIVE: Leader of Nottingham City Council Steps Down

15 March 19 words: Jared Wilson

He’s been a fixture in local politics for many people’s lifetimes. To date Jon Collins has served for 32 years as councillor of St Ann’s, and for sixteen years as Nottingham City Council leader. 

Now, in an exclusive and frank interview with LeftLion, he reveals that from May he will leave our local authority behind forever. He also gives his thoughts on the council going forward, how our city has changed, how local government should be reorganised, the shambolic state of national politics, Brexit and a whole lot more. Read on...

Why is now the right time for you to step down?
I always think it’s a shame when politicians hang on to power until the bitter end. We’re in a political environment where some of our national politicians carry on regardless; it doesn’t seem to matter how badly they do, how big a defeat they get in Commons or how unpopular they are. I want to go out at a time that suits me, which is now.

I want to stress that I’m not leaving because I’m unhappy with the Labour Party, its leadership or programme. Far from it. In fact, I was more than happy to campaign on Labour’s manifesto at the last election.

Basically I’ve had to make a decision now about whether I want to carry on for another four years. But by then I’ll be 62 and that seems a lot older than 58. I’ve decided that there are other things I’d like to do, places to explore and mountains to climb. For starters, I’ve got 162 Munros in Scotland to climb.

I always think it’s a shame when politicians hang on to power until the bitter end... I want to go out at a time that suits me, which is now.

You first came to Nottingham in 1983 and were elected in here in 1987. How has the city changed since then?
There are a lot of physical changes, but the identity of the place feels the same. It was a multicultural city back then and it’s the same now with people from different communities generally getting on very well.

Of course the local economy has changed. Back then we had the last semblance of coal mining, Raleigh was big and the Player's factory (Imperial Tobacco) was one of the biggest employers in the city. Now we have a lot of small businesses, creative and cultural companies, and clusters of high-tech jobs.

The Old Market Square looked very different and there was no tram network. The shape of the city centre looks dramatically different now. For example the old Evening Post offices used to dominate where the Cornerhouse is now. They used to sell 50,000 copies daily, so it was a big business back then.

The universities are bigger, so there are a lot more students now, boosting the local economy even though that brings challenges for some neighbourhoods. When I first came here, Rock City had recently opened as the city’s major music venue and it still is, though we now have the Arena and are capable of hosting stadium gigs. Back then, all the pubs sold Shipstones and Home Ales. Shipstones was probably the most variable pint in the city, sometimes great and sometimes undrinkable. Now we have Castle Rock and other local brewers and great pubs including The Dragon, Lincolnshire Poacher and Embankment.

Jon Collins in his St Ann's constituency, photo by Curtis Powell

Tell us about your local ward St Ann’s. According to IMD (Index of Multiple Deprivation) it’s among the top 5% most deprived areas in England. What are the challenges an area like that faces?
The vast majority of people who live in St Ann’s are wonderful, and there’s a real sense of community. It’s very multicultural and always has been, but those cultures have changed. It used to be a mix of white-British, African-Caribbean and Pakistani families. That’s still the case but we’ve got communities from many other countries across the world now too.

Fundamentally the biggest challenge the area faces is poverty, and one of the reasons it continues to register amongst the more deprived communities is that when people from St Ann’s do well and get good jobs they tend to move out of the area. Someone else then moves in with the same kinds of challenges, so the cycle repeats itself.

The things the council can do to help is to make sure the housing is decent and to try and support people with the challenges they face. I get a huge amount of casework as a councillor and do two surgeries a week, so I generally end up doing 500-600 pieces of casework each year. My constituents usually come to see me about things like housing allocations and repairs, anti-social behaviour and sometimes crime and drugs. You know you’re making progress when people come to our meetings complaining about dog mess and trees rather than crime and drugs.

Personally I’d like to see the Labour Party insist that a candidate should be resident in the area for three to five years before they are allowed to stand as an MP. I think that would reduce the cynicism people have about politics.

You were recently critical of Chris Leslie (Nottingham East) for not spending enough time in his ward. Is that something you think local politicians should be concentrating on? How much a part of the job is it?
It is the job! A councillor is elected to represent their constituents. If you’re not doing that then you’re not fulfilling the most basic duties of the post, and the people who elect you should hold you to account for it. When you get on the council there are opportunities to get involved in lots of projects, locally and nationally. But doing the casework, the surgeries, the walkabouts and serving your constituents is the most basic duty of it all.

I think most councillors put themselves forward at elections for the right reasons and generally do it well. You have to live or work in the council area you get elected for but this isn’t the case for MPs who are parachuted in by the Party. Personally I’d like to see the Labour Party insist that a candidate should be resident in the area for three to five years before they are allowed to stand as an MP. I think that would reduce the cynicism people have about politics as they’d be electing someone who understands the place they represent.

Jon Collins - photo by Georgi Scurfield

You were first elected as the leader of Nottingham City Council in 2003. What are the things you’re proudest of changing under your reign in the last sixteen years?
It’s not for me to judge. I hate it when politicians say “I’ve done this and I’ve done that”. I do think we’ve changed things for the better, but ultimately it’s for people in the city and those who elected to be the judge of that.

What are the things you wished you’d been able to change in Nottingham, that you couldn’t or didn’t?
The current situation with rough sleeping upsets me. We have a “no first night out” policy and make sure there’s enough accommodation for those who need it. We work with Framework and other agencies and we work hard, but the fact is that some people still choose to sleep rough, despite these other options. Clearly at the moment the figures for rough sleeping in Nottingham are going in the wrong direction and we need to find a way around that because people will end up living shorter lives as a result of living on the streets. It’s a wider issue than just accommodation, it’s also about support for people with drug, alcohol and mental health problems and much more. But it’s also about money and with the amount we get from government for this kind of work down from £26million in 2010 to nothing in 2019, you can come to your own conclusions about why the problem has grown.

Clearly at the moment the figures for rough sleeping in Nottingham are going in the wrong direction and we need to find a way around that because people will end up living shorter lives as a result of living on the streets.

Longer term, we’re trying to build more council houses. This was pretty much impossible up until four or five years ago due to the way local government finance worked; which was a shame because council houses pay for themselves through the rent over the years. We’ve committed in the new manifesto to build another 1000 over the next term, but demand is much higher and we have 6000 or 7000 people on waiting lists. Sadly its one of the things the last Labour Government got wrong too, but at least now that’s changed and we’re starting to meet demand.

The third thing I would have changed earlier would have been our approach to regenerating the city. I’m proud of the changes we’ve seen with the tram network and the new Market Square, but I still think we could have done more earlier. We only really started to be proactive in 2008-09, and that’s when the recession had hit us. We have managed to make a difference with the development of Sneinton Market, the conversion of the Dakeyne Street factory and more recently with Broadmarsh but I think we could have done a lot more sooner.

Jon Collins - photo by Georgi Scurfield

What effects do you think Brexit could have on us?
Personally I think Brexit is a bit of a tragedy. Sadly all the evidence suggests that the country and most of us individually will be worse off. Inevitably if businesses like Toyota have come to the UK to get access to 600 million people across Europe, new investment will go elsewhere if that access is compromised.

Longer term, I’m sure we’ll adapt and survive, but for me it’s difficult to see many positives for Nottingham, or the UK, right now. As individuals, it will be harder for all of us to travel and work around the world. I also think its a bit sad that we seem to have become a more inward looking and small minded nation when, to succeed in the world, we need to be the opposite of that.

Who would you like to see take your place as the next leader of Nottingham City Council?
That’s for the councillors who are elected in May to decide. However, personally I think its time we had a woman in the role again. I recently went to the funeral of Betty Higgins who was Nottingham’s one and only female council leader (1983-87 and 1991-93) and as funerals go it was an uplifting experience. She was Nottingham’s leader when I first became a councillor and she was the best I’ve ever served with.

Who gets elected is entirely down to voters, but there are some really good new people standing for Labour and by May at least half of our councillors should be women because we made gender equality part of our selection criteria. So I hope those elected are brave enough to make sure the new leadership is gender balanced too.

By May at least half of our councillors should be women because we made gender equality part of our selection criteria. So I hope those elected are brave enough to make sure the new leadership is gender balanced too.

What advice would you give to the next leader?
They’ve got to do it their own way and get the right balance between listening to what others say and being true to their own values and opinions. While I think Tony Blair started out as a good politician, he made some absolutely catastrophic decisions towards the end and I believe it was because he’d stopped listening to others. In any senior role in politics, that’s always a risk and I’ve tried to constantly remind myself of that over the years.

Something else any new leader needs to learn is how to make the right decision at the right time. The job of a politician is to make judgements based on the available evidence and then be accountable for them. As politicians, we’re no more than “talented amateurs” and on most issues we can only weigh up the advice we get and use our experience to decide. Of course some politicians, including our current Prime Minister, are so risk averse they either put off making difficult decisions for as long as possible or try and get others to make them instead. All they’re trying to do is get away from being held to account for the consequences, which as politicians makes them pointless.

Jon Collins - photo by Georgi Scurfield

As a layman, the structure of local government in Notts can seem convoluted and confusing. We have a County Council, a City Council and seven borough councils. Is all this strictly necessary to run a city?
No, I don’t think it is necessary at all. The whole system seems mad to me too. The structure of local government in England is a compound of various decision avoidance exercises over many decades. Nobody in central government is brave enough to try and reorganise local government in the way it was successfully reorganised in Scotland and Wales in the nineties. It’s never high on the agenda of political parties coming into office as it’s not what wins you elections.

Personally, I feel there should be a network of single-tier, all-purpose local government across the country, covering all areas. Some areas have mayors and others don’t and while I’m not really a fan of that system it does seem to work in areas where the balance between the parties is fine and councillors don’t take difficult decisions because of the risk of getting voted out.

Nottingham has been under Labour control for a long time, so we’ve been able to make decisions that are unpopular in the short term, like building a tram network, introducing Workplace Parking Levy to pay for it or rebuilding the Old Market Square. Leeds and Liverpool both wanted a tram system like ours, but because their councils kept changing party control they never got it.

The current system doesn’t work for this city. The urban conurbation of Nottingham is around 600,000 people. Yet, because of the way the two-tier system of local government works, Nottingham City Council’s area is just 320,000. So on paper we’re the same size as Leicester, but we’re a much bigger city. It’s obvious that areas like Arnold, Beeston, Broxtowe, Carlton, Gedling and West Bridgford are part of the city, but in local government terms they all sit outside of the boundary. It’s bonkers!

The structure of local government in England is a compound of various decision avoidance exercises over many decades.

What do you think of the quality of politicians representing us nationally at present?
It’s dreadful to be honest and perhaps at an all-time low! I think we’ve got some of the worst, most incompetent national politicians that I’ve seen in my lifetime. The Prime Minister is clearly incapable of doing her job, and her cabinet members regularly do and say shocking things that in the past they would have been booted out for. Politicians like Chris Grayling, Amber Rudd and Karen Bradley in previous decades would have been shown the door by now.

Personally I think part of the problem is about how parties select candidates for MPs. It’s no longer a meritocracy where the best people get the best jobs but a mate-ocracy, where people get jobs because of who they know. It’s just a fact that some people have more time and money than others to ingratiate themselves with those with the power to decide.

Maybe I’m looking back with rose-tinted spectacles, but we seem to be lacking the kind of political intellectuals we had ten or twenty years back – people like Donald Dewar, Robin Cook and David Blunkett. These were people who were not only intelligent but had an ideology to back up their beliefs. They had a plan for what they wanted to do and set out to deliver it whereas nowadays too many politicians seem to be in it for the career and lack any life experience outside the Westminster bubble.

Jon Collins (repping his beloved Watford FC) - photo by Curtis Powell

Who have been your favourite political inspirations?
Locally, Betty Higgins, Nottingham’s only female Leader, was an inspirational politician and the best leader I have served under during my time on the council. Vernon Coaker is a great example of a locally-focused MP and John Peck, the communist councillor elected in 1987 who at one point held the balance of power in Nottingham, was a role model for how to be a great ward councillor.

Beyond that, David Blunkett was a great example of someone who came from local politics into national government. Richard Leese, who has led Manchester City Council for over twenty years, is a real class act and in any functioning political landscape would have been persuaded to be an MP and ended up as a minister.

Perhaps controversially I was also a fan of Hazel Blears when she was responsible for local government. She was responsible for turning the tide on “managerialism” in councils and instead re-inforced the role of politicians at the heart of their communities. Internationally I find it difficult to look too far beyond Barack Obama who to my mind was an amazing leader for the United States. Michelle Obama is also deeply inspirational too.

So what happens from now at the council in terms of replacing your role?
Well, I’m the leader until the next local elections have taken place in May. But as I’m stepping down, someone new will be the Labour candidate in St Ann’s. Assuming the Labour Party retain the most seats in Nottingham after May – which I obviously hope they do – the newly elected councillors will elect a new Leader at the Annual General Meeting.

I think we’ve got some of the worst, most incompetent national politicians that I’ve seen in my lifetime. The Prime Minister is clearly incapable of doing her job, and her cabinet members regularly do and say shocking things that in the past they would have been booted out for.

What are the biggest risks the council faces going forwards?
Budgets from central government have been in decline for a decade, and with a conservative government that’s only likely to get worse. Whatever the challenges, the council needs to be a change agent, not a bureaucracy. It’s in times of decline that you need to re-double your efforts, think creatively and find different ways of encouraging development. Risks need to continue to be taken to encourage development and bring in inward investment.

We also need to continue to invest in the city’s services. We’ve got our own bus company, our own energy company and 50% of a house building company. Over 70% of the money spent by Nottingham City Council is with local suppliers, and if we can continue to do that, we will make the city wealthier as a whole.

Frankly the biggest risk for the council is that it becomes risk averse and inward looking, without the imagination or the appetite to do new things. Sadly some councillors and officers are like that but voters want more than a council that balances the books, however important that is. They want the council to change the city for the better, to address their concerns and to offer some vision and leadership. That’s difficult when the government is constantly cutting funding, but good councillors have the courage and ambition to do it.

Jon Collins repping Forest - Photo by Curtis Powell

Do you think Nottingham City Council’s approach will change much under new leadership?
I think change is inevitable. Not just because I’m standing down, but because there are seventeen other councillors with a combined service of 221 years also retiring. Some of those councillors like Malcolm Wood (Bilborough ward) and John Hartshorne (Bulwell) have been on the council for over forty years each. Brian Grocock (Bestwood) has served for 33 years, Jane Urquhart, Brian Parbutt and Nick McDonald have been on the cabinet and others have been great ward councillors. All that experience will certainly be missed.

However, change can be good too. So, I hope that we see an excited and energetic new generation come through to succeed us. Now’s the time to look forward and to not hand power back to one or two councillors who think their experience entitles them to play kingmaker or run the show. I’m standing down because it’s the right time for me, but frankly there are a couple of my colleagues that, in the interests of the council, should be doing so too.

What are you looking forward to personally after you leave?
I’m going to climb a lot of Munros and I’m looking forward to being the first in and last out at Glastonbury. I’ve got a small campervan and I’m thinking of following this years Tour de France around for a few weeks too. I’m going to need some work and have a few opportunities outside Nottingham I’d like to explore. I’ll still be in this city regularly, as my family and friends are here but one of the worst things I could do is hang around, comment and interfere while a new leader is getting used to the job. I want a clean break and to go and do something different away from Nottingham for a bit.

I think change is inevitable. Not just because I’m standing down but because there are 17 other councillors with a combined service of 221 years also retiring.

What simple things can we do as local citizens to make Nottingham a better city?
Buy whatever you can locally. Support Framework and events like Beat the Streets when they’re trying to raise money to tackle street homelessness. Don’t drop litter – it costs the council a huge amount to clean up, money which could be better spent on other things. I’d also say tell people how good this place is and have high expectations of what we can do here. Demand to know what your councillors are aiming to do before you vote, and make sure you hold them to account after you’ve voted them in.

You’ve always been a big sports fan. What are your thoughts on our local teams?
I’m very sad to see what’s happening at Notts County. I really hope they can both stay up and avoid going into liquidation. Neil Ardley is a good manager and I honestly think Alan Hardy went in there with the best of intentions, but it’s gone horribly wrong and that’s a real shame.

Forest are an amazing club and the current owners not only seem to have the vision and instincts to bring back the good times but also the commitment and resources to make it happen too. The club is well run at the top and so I’m confident that with a bit of patience success will come. Nottingham is crying out for a Premier League team and that’s where Forest deserve to be. Football’s tribal, and having been brought up in Watford I’m a Watford fan at heart but the longer I’ve been in Nottingham the more committed to Forest I’ve become.

Trent Bridge is probably the biggest sporting asset the city has. It’s a fantastic venue and there’s nothing like the atmosphere in Nottingham and around the ground when there’s a test match on. We’ve also got the Cricket World Cup coming up this year which will be brilliant for the city.

Then of course there’s the Panthers and the rugby, world standard triathlon on Victoria Embankment, the Robin Hood half marathon and from time to time cycling with the Tour of Britain. There’s always been an amazing selection of sport in the city and it’s one of the things I’ve loved the most about Nottingham.

Jon Collins and his friend Andy Sharp on his 267 mile charity walk

Last year you raised over £6000 for charity by walking a 267 miles in 267 hours (about a marathon per day). How much did your feet hurt after that?
On the walk itself I got a blister on day two, which I had to nurse for the rest of the journey, but other than that I actually got away with it all pretty well with the help of a lot of socks, dressings and Vaseline. What I did find was that walking anything up to twenty miles in a day was fine, but everything after that was hard work and sometimes painful. It was definitely a challenge and unlike other challenges I’ve done, I went into it genuinely not knowing if I could get it done. But I guess that’s what made it fun.

It’s the greatest job in the city and it’s been constantly challenging, interesting and exciting. It’s been an honour to do it for so long. Thank you.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Yes. There are a lot of really good and hardworking people in the council. Things can seem bureaucratic at times, but I see a lot of people who do difficult jobs with a smile on their faces. I’ve been out with our bin men, street cleaners and community protection officers and it’s hard work. And that was me doing it for a day or two. They do it day in, day out, in all weathers and they deserve our thanks for what they do.

I’ve also had the opportunity to work with people from right across the city, from the public and private sector, in community groups and charities, from all walks of life and backgrounds and I can honestly say the commitment to making this city a great place to live and work is amazing.

I’d like to finish by thanking the people who voted for me, and all those who helped me along the way. It’s the greatest job in the city and it’s been constantly challenging, interesting and exciting. It’s been an honour to do it for so long. Thank you.

For more information about the local elections in May, visit the Nottingham City Council website.

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