Canterbury district will lead the country in its use of technology to deliver services to residents, if Ben Fitter-Harding, the new Canterbury City Council (CCC) leader, can deliver on his vision. But he is no stranger to controversy — pushing through unpopular decisions (such as the Multi Storey Car Park) and becoming leader in a Brutus-like challenge to his old friend Rob Thomas. The father-of-two talks to Neasa MacErlean.
What made you decide to run for the leadership (at this time)?
As a council, we face some very challenging issues now. I think I have a skill set which lends itself to those — communication, business acumen and an understanding of technology.
I’m very fond of Rob [Thomas, the previous leader, whom Fitter-Harding defeated in the challenge he brought within the Council’s ruling group of 22 councillors]. He served as my deputy for four years. But these are difficult times, and difficult challenges sometimes require different skill sets.
What are the main issues facing the people in the district and, therefore, CCC now?
The council here has always been very busy: we’ve invested in theatres and libraries. We always do far more than our statutory duties [to collect waste, clean streets etc]. We generate a lot of money ourselves [from the shopping centre and parking, for instance]. All those pools of income vanished overnight with Covid.
We want to deliver the best services we can with a diminishing amount of money. Following Covid, some of the biggest issues for residents include having the ability to enjoy the outdoor spaces which the Council is involved in providing — plus street-cleaning, taking waste away and councillors being there when residents need help with Planning.
How will the finances be affected by Covid?
There were budget challenges anyway. There will be very difficult financial decisions to come as a result of Covid. We are kicking off a consultation on that this month [November].
How are you working/ planning ahead re Covid now?
If you were just looking at the Council, you would reduce spending. But we need to look at the economic issues caused by Covid, and how to deal with those issues. For example, if we lose our cafes, restaurants and bars, we lose employment for people living here. We need to focus on the recovery and how businesses can survive. So we have been rapidly processing applications from establishments for outdoor tables and chairs, and we have been dealing with parking issues. We are also preparing for any changes in the tier status here.
What would happen if Canterbury moved into the situation that Liverpool has been in, and had to go back into Lockdown again?
We would be ready to provide food again if needed — and volunteers. With the first Lockdown, no-one had done that before. But our officers are ready now to do that again, if needed, and to do it quicker and more efficiently.
How have you changed the structure and operation of the Conservative group on CCC? And what do you say to the comments from other parties that you whip your councillors?
Every group has a Chief Whip. The role is there primarily to ensure councillors are at meetings. It is incredibly rare that councillors are told to vote a certain way. We just behave the same way because we are in the same group and share the same ideas. We are a group of very democratic and passionate people. When I took over as leader, it was all change in the office-holders. Louise Harvey-Quirke is the new Secretary. Rachel Carnac is Deputy Leader. Georgina Glover is Treasurer. And Anne Dekker is Whip…Yes, they are all women — and they are the right people for their jobs.
The Council structure is changing [as a result of changes voted on in the Committee of Council on 22 October]. There are eight lead councillors with separate roles and responsibilities. This will give clarity to the public, to councillors and to the Council officers. We have also reinstated Full Council meetings [though they will remain as virtual meetings for now].
I want to keep the live-streaming of council meetings post-Covid. And residents can make video submissions. Video submission is going as far as we can to help residents engage with the committees right now.
And you have cut out the Canterbury Forum and the other Forums?
Yes. We have limited resources. We want our residents to be engaged with the Committee System — which the Campaign for Democracy pushed for — to replace the old Executive System. The Forums abstract from the decision-making process because they are not decision-making committees. I want our residents to be directly engaged with decision-making committees.
One of the criticisms about this move was that we should not be changing the Forums when they are not meeting [as they have been suspended for Covid reasons]. But are still being resourced. Over 100 reports have been made for the Forums since they were introduced [in July 2018], and they take officer time.
How will you encourage residents to engage?
We need to do that. We — the different political groups — need to be holding our own forums, with Councillors attending them, and attending parish and residents meetings. We can’t expect people to come to us all the time.
Residents seem to want more collaboration between parties on CCC, rather than issues being sorted by whipping and by party. What do you say to that?
People want leaders to lead them. Our voters want us to achieve a Conservative vision. I am also open to collaborating with all councillors. Good ideas are good ideas.
Can you give us an idea of your vision regarding CCC? Your priorities. Your expectations. Your way of running things…
I definitely want our residents to get the best value and service they can from the district. That means using digital technology, where appropriate, so residents can access services when they need them, not just when the Council offices are open.
I’d want us to be the leading district council in the country in terms of technology. I want us to find a new way of providing Council services — but it has to work for everybody. If we have to have Council officers going to someone’s home to help them because that’s what’s needed then we will do that.
We, as a Council, need to focus on what our core services are — bin collection, Planning, housing….These are the fundamental things that we need to get right. And big changes are happening. Housing has moved back into CCC. The East Kent Housing service is no more.
And our waste company will start next year, called the Canterbury Environmental Company — dealing with bins, cleaning, the maintenance of our parks and streets. It will take time, but it is going to be better than Serco. We expect it to start in Spring next year.
Do you have thoughts on dealing with the mess caused by seagulls pecking open bin bags in parts of the district? I often see meat rotting on the streets — and often every week.
Yes. We can look at putting bin stores in the affected streets. And there are anti-seagull bags. There are costs involved but our residents want these issues dealt with.
And what about students? The recycling system doesn’t seem to work that well with households of five individual people.
Our recycling system is quite complicated. Neighbouring districts to ours ask residents to do a lot less differentiation. I’d be in favour of simplifying our recycling as far as possible. That would help student households where complicated recycling can be really difficult. That would be a medium-term goal once the Canterbury Environment Company is up and running.
What do you expect to happen re the Local Plan?
We have an opportunity to review our Local Plan. That means bringing in the latest technology to tackle Climate Change, to have electric vehicle chargers, to have high speed internet access available. These are some of the things I want to see put into the Local Plan.
Will CCC meet the 2030 zero emissions goal? And why are we not aiming for this as a goal for the whole area, rather than just CCC land, property and vehicles?
That is absolutely what we are working towards. The plan for that is in its final stages and should be out by the end of this year or early next year. We then just have the problem of resourcing it. It’s a year and a half since the Climate Emergency was declared, and we need to see some output from that. We are looking at the Council on this because we need to start with the things we can control.
I want to raise the democratic issues, as I see it, that were raised by two deeply controversial issues you were involved in (the Multi Storey Car Park at Canterbury West station and the proposed-now-delayed Wincheap Meadows Park & Ride scheme). How does democracy work when 1,000+ submissions were made against the Multi Storey and very few in favour, and it still goes ahead? Is it worthwhile making a submission?
As councillors, we represent our district. We have to make the best decisions for the district. What is in the best interests for a local area is not necessarily in the best interests for the district. And, or course, it is worth making submissions. Every one is considered — but submissions have to be considered in context. Councillors try hard to mitigate the issues. We found various kinds of mitigation for Wincheap Meadows, for instance — including reducing the number of parking spaces. Unpopular decisions are so difficult but I believe the electorate want us to take those decisions for the district.
I believe in consulting on things when people can make a difference to the outcome. I don’t want the Council to be consulting on decisions that have already been made.
Black Lives Matter has raised many issues locally, nationally and globally. How are you planning for CCC to respond? Presumably, it is an issue as important as the broader gay pride movement?
There was a horrendous event that took place in the US. I understand why the Black Lives Matter movement was started. I don’t think we have the same problems here. Our Council has a laser focus on equality. Equality issues are highly important to us across the board.
Only 0.6 per cent of CCC’s staff (three people) are black, according to Council stats. Is that enough?
A lot of ethnic diversity here comes through our students so they are here to be studying, rather than working. Our Council believes in equality. I’m not concerned about the Council’s hiring practices.
The black community, presumably, is an issue as important as the Pride movement?
Pride Canterbury has had funding from the area panels on the Council in the past. As part of our equalities work, the Council supports the annual event — more through organisation [than funding]. There is no reason why that would not apply equally to other events and causes.
Regarding Pride, I think it is the biggest event in our city. It’s such a family event as well — with children and families engaging with the LGBTQ+ community. I always found Pride a very emotional day.
How did you get into politics?
From the bottom up. After I finished studying at the University of Kent, I moved to Tyler Hill. I loved the village, wanted to get involved, went to Parish committee meetings, joined the Parish Council, and met people like Hazel McCabe and John Gilbey. John told me about the District Council. I was working full-time but I said I would love the chance to run.
What sort of Conservative are you? Describe yourself, please!
Small business; socially progressive; very economically aware. We create wealth and prosperity that everyone can share in when we have a diverse range of private enterprises.
What do you do outside? Can you tell us about your daily life?
I used to enjoy travel very much, in the days that we could do that — to see different cultures and have different experiences. I’ve recently started a family. I have two boys under the age of four. I have full hands with them. I have a wonderful husband who is very supportive. He is also a business man — running Hugo’s Fun Dog Fields (which offers a safe space where people can take their dogs for a certain amount of time) and being a director of BID [the Canterbury Business Improvement District]. I am also a huge tech enthusiast.
What are you doing day-to-day as Leader and in your work? What is your typical day like?
In my day job, I have the title of Studio Director at a creative agency. We help businesses relate to customers — primarily digitally but also through print and other ways.
I’ve always been a night owl but having children changed that. I start mornings with a shot of espresso. I get my children ready and at 8.30 I’m at work. It’s a mixture of the job and the Council. These days that means a series of Zoom and Google Meet events. Meetings could be East Kent wide or on parking here or on infrastructure issues or waste collection…
I also run a small hotel. I’ve very much a ‘Live Life’ person. I’m more aware — having lost my seat in Blean in May last year — that these opportunities can be fleeting. I did get the chance to be a councillor again [when he won the Chestfield by-election in September last year].
I spend a lot of time working with my group of councillors. I have also offered the opposition the opportunity to sit down with me — as a regular event.
Have the opposition accepted this opportunity to talk to you?
Alan Baldock has refused it on behalf of the Labour group. Some of the Lib Dems have been a bit more open-minded.