Derby City Council

Interview – Robert Mason : Derby City Council Liberal Democrat Candidate; Alvaston

The last in a series of 6 interviews with a candidate from each Party who has not served, previously, on the Council. The Derby Labour Party were contacted to be involved but chose not to respond.

Rob CooperUKIP – Mackworth
Marten KatsGreen Party – Darley
Alex DannIndependent – Oakwood
Jonathan SmaleConservative – Chaddesden
Chris FernandezTrade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) – Darley
Robert Mason – Liberal Democrat – Alvaston

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What’s your background?

I’m 43, born in Sheffield, and proud  about my Yorkshire roots. I moved to Lancashire and did my teenage years there in a grammar school which was interesting for me coming from a council estate and a high degree of poverty. I had the opportunity to mix with people who had different views on how the world was, which allowed me to raise my game. There is always talk of social mobility and I benefited from that. At the age of 17, I had to decide what to do with my education…and chose to move to Bedfordshire and take up a job in the civil service in pensions. I then moved to the County Council and did 2 years in Trading standards, and then 2 years in Education…so moved through the levels of local Government. I liked doing the statistical monitoring , and also got involved in IT, and decided that that was the way to go. I did some re-training and got a job with a managed Service Provider based in Milton Keynes, and did that for about 2 years but hated it. I didn’t like the very long hours and stress. I thought that there must be a better way, and went back into the statistical environment in Consulting, and then back into IT in a quite different role.  I’m now doing IT projects in a Consulting company which I’ve been doing for the last 18 years. Most recently dealing with big data analysis and user experience forecasting- looking at how markets can be developed in new areas as well as software development and project management.

Outside of work I’ve been involved in Church Life, many social action projects, amateur dramatics, comedy improv….mostly entertainment and humour – it’s good to laugh!

I moved to Derby 4 years ago, after we had decided we wanted to move into City life, and looked at the education options for my 4 children. Derby was the city that most appealed to us.

Why become a Councillor ?

In any big city there are big challenges about how we spend money and we need to find ways that meet the majority of the needs for the majority of its citizens, and it’s very difficult to do that. As I move around Derby, I find that I get frustrated about certain things, for example transport.  Getting in and out of Derby is really quite hard – particularly if you’re coming from the south, and you want to go somewhere other than the centre. This frustration was the catalyst. It needs someone with the right skills to look at this and see if we can get the traffic to flow much better through the city. I know that every city has these problems but it’s important that when you put a new supermarket in, or  a new junction etc then you need to look at it holistically and I’m not certain how well that’s been done.

Over the last 4 years I’ve seen a lot of change. Derby prided itself as a city of culture, and since I came we’ve seen quite a degradation of the things that have been offered, albeit for free, being removed.  I know we have to spend it on essential services…but are we? Why are we closing Moorways pool, for instance, it’s only £200k short – so why is it closing. Why are we cutting funding for the Citizen’s Advice Bureau? It doesn’t make sense to me to be cutting things like that when we’re spending £1.2m on the refurbishment of the Spot that no one wanted. So there is a general under-current of frustration for me but at the same time I think I have some skills and some experience both in dealing with the Council from a service provision point of view, albeit 20 years ago, and new skills with project management…and I just want to help.

I’m at the point in my life when my children are now adults, and I have more time.

Why did you join the Lib Dems?

I spent a lot of years  not being part of a political party – I don’t like the principle of being whipped. That suffocates, particularly at a national level, the democracy that our electorate generally like. The difficulty is that you need to form majorities and there is no mechanism whereby independents can come together and find clout. And often independents tend to be centred around a particular issue and can be marginalised in terms of discussion, and that can be problematic. No political party  in my view is perfect – they all have their flaws. What I like about the Liberal Democrats is that they are tolerant of a number different ways in which people want to live their life. They are not interested in controlling the social strata, they’re about making freedoms and opportunities available to everybody. I think that’s beneficial.

They also take bits from the left, and bits from the right, and the centre ground is where most people feel comfortable. There is no perfect place to be, but on balance – it was a good solution for me. I would tend to lean on the more socialist side but as a person I’m quite formal – I’m in business, so swing  between conservatism and Labour from a political standpoint. Interestingly when Charles Kennedy died that was a catalyst for me – he spoke a language that many understood and connected with a lot of people.  That really challenged me to be active on a political level.

How well do you know Alvaston?

I’ve lived there 4 years. Because my work is split between Derby and Milton Keynes I don’t spend much time there other than using the facilities, like a resident would so I haven’t connected with the local neighbourhood teams, community associations or Police. However, there are quite a lot of hotspots for crime in Alvaston and I’ve got to know the local Police and Community Support Officers – mainly as a result of vehicle crime. I know some of the businesses but I haven’t dug that much into the community.

Does that mean you are at a disadvantage to the other people standing?

When you live in a place you get to know what the issues are. One of the things that I’m campaigning about is a road within our area which, frankly, the other Councillors have not done anything about. And that’s the road that the buses drive through on Bower Street and Radford Street ; a gentleman died there last year. It’s not a road that was designed for cars initially – it’s a very narrow street,  you’ve got buses driving down, junctions poorly signposted and no one really understands the rights of way. I think all of that area needs looking at before there is further loss of life.

In other areas of Alvaston there are rat runs, but ambulances are struggling to get down them because of where car parking is happening. We’ve got quite a drug problem in Alvaston where a number of people are dealing in the streets which results in anti-social behaviour. Anti-social behaviour is generally running amok in Alvaston  not just because of the 2 main gang groups,  but because of alcoholism and youth disenfranchisement. I think you do get to know the problems are just by living there. You don’t have to be involved in formalised groups to do that.

Quite a few Alvaston residents are cross about the way Labour are  prioritising the spending of money.  When you look at the tools that have been put in place for the Council to determine where to spend money, the amount of engagement with the residents of Alvaston has been quite small.  With such a low level  engagement, which is City-wide, then the Council can do what it wants…and that’s concerning for me. For instance, the artwork in Alvaston down the central reservation, most people are really cross about. Who decided that was a good idea?  It’s about looking at things more long term and getting access to the tools that enable them to have their say and that’s what I want to focus on. I want to connect the people to the tools that they need in order that they can get their voices heard – after all that’s what a vibrant City needs.

It’s really important just to listen to people, and work out what their issues are and then give them a method of connecting the dots between this plethora of Council services and the ways to feedback into it.

You’ve mentioned about your background, what are the other qualities that you have that will make you a good Councillor, and better than those standing?

I want to say that the other Councillors active in Alvaston are pretty good.  I’ve made a point not to criticise the activities that they’ve done because that’s not the way I do things.

What I’m offering is a choice. At the moment there are 2 Labour and 1 UKIP.  Both left and right, what about the people who are more “middle of the road”? In terms of what I have to offer ; when you are fairly new then you have to listen and find out. Those who have been doing the job for some time get caught up in the rhetoric that happens in Council life. They’re more about proving their point rather than listening to the needs of people. It’s a fresh opportunity – I’ve spoken to about 1000 people so far, and have been knocking on many doors. The other candidates in general are leafletting – I’m not, I’m talking to people and it’s a very diverse community.

You mention about the existing Councillors and their national party identity, but isn’t it about you as a person, more so?

In my experience , national politics plays an enormous part of the streets because people often don’t know the difference is between what’s provided by the local Council and what’s national. Equally Europe is dominating the conversation. In fact it’s difficult to keep people focussed on the local issues. I try to draw out from people what issues are concerning them locally, highlight that the Labour majority is only 4 and say “ There’s the opportunity. You can have more of the same” – but I sense that people don’t want more of the same.

Mark Tittley, who is Deputy Mayor and the Labour candidate in your ward, is continuing with Mayoral engagements, including one’s in your ward – do you think that’s unfair?

People will generally use whatever opportunities they’ve got at their disposal. It’s a bit like , should the Government have sent out the leaflet on the EU costing £9m to every household. Realistically the incumbent has a difficult job as they have an actual record to defend.

But using the Mayoral office in the purdah period, which, in effect, is using Council resources to promote his position in the community is different?

Everybody in an election will do whatever they can do to promote themselves….

But there are rules

I’m sure there are,  and if those rules are being broken then they should be investigated. I’m not aware of any activity so I can’t comment on it.

He was at the Alvaston Resident’s Association yesterday…

As Deputy Mayor or Councillor?

Deputy Mayor

So, in Mayoral chains?

Yes.  It’s on the Mayoral engagement timetable, and he has another one on Sunday.

If there’s a breach of the rules then it’s for the Council to investigate it.

Have you had any opportunity to input into the manifesto?

Yes, I attended the policy meeting, and I’m pleased that my ideas on a comprehensive review of the city’s traffic flow  problems, and a 20mph speed limit in some residential areas have been included.

Anything else?

When people are challenged with looking at their local community there are 2 main reactions – one is, “it’s too big a problem to solve and I don’t care”, the other is, “there is something I can do”. So, for me,  I flirted with the first one, and then came to the conclusion that we can do something about it – it might take some time and we’ll have to chip away at it. The danger is that anyone who starts to take a stand on any issue, and starts to put things in place to help other people apart from themselves gets labelled with the same tarring brush as everyone else. The number of times I’ve heard on the doorstep – “All Councillors are the same- they’re all out for themselves”..which is ludicrous as we’re all in it for different reasons.  The job of Councillors is to represent the people in their wards and that is the solid issue I want to promote. It’s not about party politics, it’s not about getting Labour out, not about fighting against UKIP etc. It’s simply – there are changes that need to happen in our ward and we want to make Derby a great City to live in – and there are some challenges , some stuff has happened, it’s disconnected, and we need to fix it. Let’s get on and do it!

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