Dan Smith’s enjoyment of the the Kent countryside and history is a major reason behind his decision to stand for the Canterbury City Council (CCC) in May last year. Now elected as a Lib Dem Cllr for Blean, he talks to Neasa MacErlean about the Planning Committee, the likelihood of achieving Zero Carbon on time, working cross-party and his life outside the Chamber.
What is it like being a Councillor? Is it what you expected?
It’s been fun. The newest things for me were the extra hours and rigidity of certain aspects, and fitting them in with my day job — the Planning Committee in particular. There are set times for meetings. You have a dance of normal work and extra work. You have to go to see sites as well. There are bodies constantly emailing you, and you can’t reply which is frustrating. The Council officers make sure that you stay on track with these rules. I have a lot of respect for the officers. A lot of the legalities are quite rigid. For instance, regarding the Nasons application, all councillors are invited to go to see it but if a private firm makes the invitation the councillors on the committee can’t go.
Do you have to take yourself more seriously? Or can you be yourself?
I’ve been me, more or less. Sometimes you have to be more guarded rather than letting your thoughts fly. There are some things — especially for the Lib Dems as the smallest group in the Council — where you may feel you are right and the restrictions of being the smallest group are annoying. Then you have to find common ground and areas of compromise with the other parties. Usually that is done by the leadership of the groups. There are also groups such as CCAP (Canterbury Climate Action Partnership) and Plastic Free Canterbury which some councillors attend almost as if we were without a party. You can throw your ideas into them.
How much does your facility with statistics help you in your role as a councillor? I met you first when we were observing the count in the CCC May 2019 elections and I was impressed at what you could deduce from the counting process.
I’ve never thought I had an ability with stats. I’m a risk manager, not a statistician. So, from risk management, I am used to looking out for anomalies. It works with anomalies in words too. I think I do sometimes spot things. For instance, in the council officers’ documentation for the Planning Committee they didn’t put down their reasons for a recommendation. I asked Simon Thomas, the Head of Planning, about it and now they do it, in bullet form.
Have you got to know the Conservatives and Labour councillors?
Terry [Westgate, the Lord Mayor] is involved in the Plastic Free Group , and we talk to each other. Dan Watkins [Conservative] is on CCAP — so I talk to him from time to time. And there are a couple of others.
How much can you collaborate cross-party? It sometimes seems from the outside as if the issues are sacrificed to party political alignments. The Conservatives in particular have been accused of voting en bloc.
The Conservatives have a bit of a habit of doing that more than the Lib Dems and Labour. But I can understand the pressure put on someone to vote in a particular way. When someone disagrees it must put pressure on them as part of the group. You can also see that in Parliament — right now over the Internal Market Bill [regarding Brexit].
How do you see the Local Plan developing?
The big positive is that the officers are trying to be very, very inclusive. In Blean we have got three parish councils, and the council officers have gone out to them. They are encouraging the parishes and me as a councillor to have smaller local plans in their areas.
Please tell us about your green interests?
I’ve always been a green Lib Dem. I’m very pro hedges, rather than fences, for instance. My dream would be not to build along roads but to have 20m wide fields running alongside them, and then houses on the other sides. So there would be green corridors. The concept comes from motorways.
What would you say about the issues facing Blean now?
I support the three parish councils. They do a very good job and don’t get mentioned as often as they should. Then there is the Whitstable-Canterbury road which has a conflict of traffic uses — because there are schools on it, and it goes through Blean village, clips the edge of Rough Common and also goes by the university. These conflicts of use for what is a winding country road lead to speeding problems and damage to the highway…Then there is Manston Airport, whose flight path goes over Blean. But if they changed the structures of what they are doing, views on it might change. Now it is a noise-polluting, air-polluting and environmentally unfriendly proposal.
Will CCC meet the 2030 deadline for zero emissions?
There’s a possibility but it depends on what you are counting. Where CCC have the ability to control the pollution they will do so (within their land and properties, for instance). But most of the land and properties in the area do not belong to CCC — but to Kent County Council or private owners. And there are some government reviews coming through which mean the CCC/KCC structure could change to a unitary one. These things will make the target harder to achieve.
How much do you and your fellow Blean Forest councillors, Lib Dem Alex Ricketts and Conservative Barbara Anne Flack, work together?
We do and we don’t. Barbara is also on the Planning Committee so we talk to each other on that, but not very often. It’s less than I thought it would be. And Alex and I talk because he’s the other Lib Dem in the ward.
What about your role within the Lib Dem party? How much will the election of Ed Davey as leader change the party?
I am pretty positive about the way things are going. Ed Davey has a very good track record. He’s very green and very caring.
What got you into politics?
My father probably. He stood as an Independent in Herne Village where I grew up. He eventually settled on Lib Dem. My family discussed politics a lot.
What do you do outside being a Councillor? Tell us a bit about your day-to-day life?
I’ve always been quite an internal person. I like reading — pretty much anything. I am particularly keen on sci fi and fantasy. I’m reviewing the new Dune film now. The Dune series, by Frank Herbert, is ‘The Lord of the Rings’ of science fiction. I also have a soft spot for Japan. And, marrying a Japanese lady, I’ve been there quite a few times. Japan is a huge and complex culture. I did kendo (sword fighting) at university. My younger daughter is at university, and my older daughter is a biochemist working on covid. I work in insurance and risk management, looking at the company I work for, what it does and how risk can be reduced.
What makes being a councillor worthwhile for you?
I enjoy the area and want other people to enjoy living in it. There are lots of things in the Canterbury district which are very beautiful and historic and unusual. There is the Celtic fortress at Bigbury which fought off the Romans. That should be marketed. And Reculver Towers aren’t marketed as much as they should be.
That all brings out my green side too.
Dan Smith’s committees
Joint Transportation Board
Membership as a Reserve
Decision Review Committee