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John Gilbey retirement interview

2014-11-28-215127Regrets, he’s had a few…..And while they may not be too few to mention, as Frank Sinatra famously sang, they are far outweighed by the achievements of Canterbury City Council leader John Gilbey.

The 73-year-old Conservative, who has represented Blean Forest since 2003 and was elected leader in 2007, has announced he is not standing in next year’s election, instead planning a long-over due retirement with wife Carol, their three children and seven grandchildren.

Here, he reveals his thoughts on who should take over and the future of the council they will lead, why people management has been a key part of his role and why, despite a globetrotting career, there are still parts of the world he wants to see…

Why are you standing down now?

I actually decided after the last election in 2011. We have family in Jakarta and New York and family in Welwyn Garden City and we want to spend more time with them. There are seven grandchildren, aged between 13 and three and while we see the Welwyn ones more often, for the others it is just once a year. We will be spending longer bits of time out there so we can do more. There are things we haven’t seen and would like to – New Zealand, parts of America – and we have family and friends across the planet that we haven’t been able to visit.

You will have been leader for eight years – is there a replacement waiting in the wings?

[pullquote]I have been involved in developing the new committee system because I wanted to bring in one that would work. I’m not sure it will but that is not a reason why I am not standing.[/pullquote]

No, and I think that is right. The selection of the successor should not be in the hands of just the existing elected councillors but those who are going to be elected. If it all goes well there will be a lot of new councillors in our group and it is right that they should be involved. But whatever balance it ends up with, it will be a completely different structure to the one I led because it will be organised in a committee system rather then the executive or cabinet system. When we had committees before it was a very different world. I have been involved in developing the new committee system because I wanted to bring in one that would work. I’m not sure it will but that is not a reason why I am not standing. I also don’t think people realise just how much work is involved in being leader. I have given people a lot of opportunities to take their turn on the executive and we have some very good people.But most of our councillors are from the grey age,  just because it is hard to find the time you need when you also have to make a living. Some people rush into the Guildhall straight off the train at Canterbury West, and so many can’t do day times. With a committee structure there will be even more demands on their time.

What would you say have been your biggest achievements?

I think if you look at the work the executive has done over the eight years I have been leader it is staggering what has been achieved.

There are the projects people can all see, such as in Canterbury, the construction of the new Marlowe Theatre, the Westgate Gardens transformation into the Westgate Parks, with all the improvements that means, and the Westgate Hall Trust taking over and the building now open with a totally new lease of life, new council housing in Canterbury and Whitstable, reorganising Whitstable Harbour Board so it is more efficient and can take on major regeneration projects, the clean-up of Seasalter marshes, the improvements to Herne Bay seafront with the new play area and better sea defences and the Pier Trust taking over the pier and the improvements at Reculver, plus the work we have done to deal with the flooding of the Nailbourne and the Stour.

But there is also a lot people don’t see, such as the work to create a council that is not member-led, or officer-led, but people working together. We have a proper relationship with officers where members have the final say but with co-operation to get things done. I have always encouraged people not to consider politics but to look at a project and ask ‘Can it be done?’ and ‘Can we afford it?’ so we have a logical focus, regardless of the project’s location.

Our financial achievements have also been outstanding, in a very difficult financial climate, because we managed the council well with the officers. I have never had a cross word with an officer. That doesn’t mean we have never had a disagreement but never a cross word. In fact, chief executive Colin Carmichael and I have been known to finish each other’s sentences because we understand each other so well.

I am also proud that most of the time I have managed to keep a group of 38 councillors in one camp, with very few exceptions over the eight years.  I think it was good management of issues, people and relationships – I introduced meetings for the whole group so we could explain what was happening, wherever possible. The whole group was moving in the right direction. We had one to ones every year and it was all about dialogue and solving problems. I think it was as good as it could be.

Finally, one of the things I am very proud of is my achievements in getting the other district councils to stick together. I had the trust of the other leaders and it worked very well. Representing Canterbury City Council on the various county-wide or East Kent boards is such a privilege because of what we do and how we do it so I was able to encourage others to consider all of Kent, not KCC. It meant we could achieve more than if we tried to represent ourselves on issues.

What about regrets?

The Westgate traffic scheme will always be my biggest one. It should have been a Kent County Council project, and completely their project, from the start and we should have stayed out of it. Four years ago I said I wanted to deal with congestion and pollution in the city and that simply has not worked. Several streets did significantly improve in terms of pollution during the changes, and there was money available to do other things like traffic lights at the Wincheap roundabout. But because of the wrangling the money went somewhere else. That is a big regret, because of all the things it needed tackling head on.

You started on the Barham Downs Action Group, then a parish councillor – did you imagine you’d be leader of Canterbury City Council?

I never wanted to be leader, I just wanted to represent people. When I stood for re-election in 2007 I wanted to keep Blean and keep my portfolio of regeneration and planning. We got a majority, so that was terrific. I came home from the count in the early hours of Friday and didn’t think anything more of it. But on Friday afternoon the phone calls started. Almost every councillor wanted a change of leadership. I tried to protest, I said I didn’t have the time, I wanted to do all the things that I still want to do, but they argued that they wanted me to do it because I didn’t want to, and I hadn’t been aiming for it. Carol and I talked about it, and with her encouragement I agreed, and in the end I received an incredible amount of support from the group.

Will you miss it?

I think it is going to be hard to step away. The thing I am going to find most difficult is not being aware of what is going on in the council on a daily basis. I will be cut off on May 7. But I will work and work and work for that election.

There are lots of things I want to do, especially next year, so there will be a natural break but if I can help in any way in May and June I will. In all my previous jobs I have always shown a willingness to talk to my predecessor, because there are a lot of things they knew that I didn’t know, but interestingly no one has asked the same of me!

But there are also things I have missed over the years I have been leader that I am looking forward to having time for again, such as a game of golf, and of course the family.


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