Interview: Councillor Jon Collins

Interview: Jared Wilson
Wednesday 08 October 2014
reading time: min, words

We put your questions to the leader of Nottingham City Council and here's what he had to say in response


What’s been the high point of your time as leader of the Council? What are the best things you’ve achieved?
I feel awkward answering questions like this because I feel it’s for others to judge. I started as leader twelve years ago and I'm happy with the progress that myself and the cabinet have achieved. If I was to pick out a couple of things, I'd say that I really enjoy a walk down the now-pedestrianised Broad Street and I always have a smile when I go to Splendour. It’s really come on over the last few years since it started out as an idea in council chambers. They’re small things, but they’re important. On a bigger scale, I’m glad that we’ve finally come to an agreement with INTU on the Broadmarsh Centre. Sequencing that and Victoria Centre has always been very important.

What are the worst things you have to deal with?
Our biggest challenge of the last few years has been finding extra money to replace the cuts in funding from central government. Last year we got £127m from central government, this year it’s £103m and next year it will be about £76m. In 2016 it will be £58m. That’s quite a lot of extra money for us to find. My suspicion is that eventually the government will try and pull that funding completely.

It was horrible having to impose bedroom tax, none of us agreed with that. I also wasn’t happy having to impose reductions in council tax and benefits. We don’t get any say in these matters as a local council when they become part of UK law...

What do you think to the current direction of the Labour party?
I find it wearying. I’m totally focused on my job, but I get disappointed by what I perceive as a lack of ambition by them – I think that public appetite is much higher than they pitch at. A lot of the proposals in themselves are good, but there’s no narrative or vision to draw them all together. People need a sense of hope for a better future and that’s not something being provided at the moment.

You’ve been in this job since 2003. How much longer do you expect to be leader? And do you have any idea who might follow you?
At the point that I don’t think I'm capable of doing a good job, I’ll go and do something else. I realise that people are often eager for a change in leadership, but I'm not planning to leave anytime soon as there’s still plenty of work I want to see through. The bits I don’t feel as comfortable with are the ceremonial and formal bits. There’s a sense that leaders must have big personalities and frankly, I can be pretty bad at those bits. But I like the challenge of trying to make a difference and being able to do things I can look back on and see positive changes. In terms of who might follow after me, there are several people who would be capable.

Have you ever thought about leaving it behind for an easier life?
It’s a difficult job at times, I'm not going to deny that. But I’ve been out with our binmen and street sweepers a couple of times and I wouldn’t swap it for their jobs. When I last went out with them it chucked it down. Right from the start you’re soaked and it was hot and sticky, with a lot of work to be done in a short space of time. You look at those guys and it puts my job into context.

True, but those people don’t get members of the public protesting outside of their house…
Luckily I wasn’t in when that happened. But I do understand that people have gripes with what we do and that I'm a very visible target for that. The reality is that most of the time I can understand where they are coming from. I still do casework in my ward a couple of times a week and meet people with legitimate concerns.

Can you tell us about the Icelandic banks scandal? The latest figures show that £30m of the £41.6m reserves NCC invested in them in 2009, just before those banks went under, had been clawed back. Is that the end of it?
No. It’s still ongoing. We’ve got over £40m back now. It comes in dribs and drabs, but there’s a chunk of it that we’ve left invested because it earns us an interest rate that we couldn’t get in this country. We’re within a couple of hundred thousand of the final total now.

We’ve recently seen more cyclist deaths on roads in Nottingham. As a keen cyclist yourself, do you think we have a problem with our cycling facilities?
I don’t think they’re good enough or well-maintained enough. I don’t want to be unfair to a whole raft of good council officers, but too many of our cycle lanes have been designed by people who are good road engineers, but who don’t cycle regularly. We need to do something about this. The good news is that we’ve just got £6.1m through the Growth deal which is ring-fenced purely for cycling. I’m determined to make sure it is spent on providing some safe, secure and segregated routes for people to commute in and out of town. Then we need secondary routes, which can build on existing networks.

Lots of people seem to be opposed the tram extension. What would you say to them?
I understand that people get hacked off with the traffic coming in from Beeston, it’s not been great for them. However, I’m totally confident that when it’s done it will be a really good thing for the people of Nottingham. We just can’t really do anything about it other than try and get the work finished as soon as possible.

Does the council make its money back on events like the beach in the Market Square from the tourism it generates?
Yes. The beach costs us absolutely nothing from your public council tax. It’s a concession and the costs are covered by all the activities that are being put on in there. The same goes for other events we put on, like the Nottingham Wheel and the Christmas markets.

In the age of internet shopping, can Nottingham realistically sustain two shopping centres with Viccy Centre and Broadmarsh?
I think so, and clearly INTU, who are a large international retail company, think so too. The future of retail in Nottingham city centre is going to be really exciting. From north to south there’ll be Victoria Centre to Broadmarsh, a stretch which will house international brands and the kind of chain stores that appeal to the masses. Then from east to west – Sneinton Market to Canning Circus – there’s a lot more independent, local and niche businesses. There are some really interesting shops already up at Canning Circus, but they’re probably a bit marooned right now. A revamp of the West End Arcade and Hurts Yard would really help them out and it’s something we’d like to see happen. Plus we already have a substantial pot of funding to develop Sneinton Market. Big plans are afoot.

Are you happy with the progress made so far in the Creative Quarter?
Yes. Ultimately, the important thing is that people in creative industries in that area can embrace the term and work together to mutual benefit. As politicians we can help, but it’s about the people in the area.

What are your thoughts on fracking?
I have my doubts about it, but it’s not an issue that affects my constituency so it’s not something I want to go into detail about. But yes, I would have some issues if people were drilling great big holes next door to my house.

Do you think widening our city boundary would be a good idea? Maybe going for something more like Greater Manchester?
I can see why people might think that, but it can create a lot of turbulence for a local government so it’s not something I'd like to see happen anytime soon. The main problem is the amount of work and reorganisation we would have to do and how much it would take away from the more important day-to-day work we have to do. What is clear is that residents who live within the city boundaries help to pay for the upkeep of important local amenities like theatres, and those who live just as far away but within a different boundary pay less because their council tax is not spent on them. It’s still a can of worms that would take a long time to work through.

In 2011 there was an investigation into the misallocation of council houses, which you were quoted as saying “appalled” you and that you would “not hesitate” to take action. Why was that investigation then dropped without action being taken?
We did take action, it was just largely unreported by local media who were very quick to report the early facts, but less interested in covering the action points after that. A number of people were prosecuted and lost their jobs, others had formal warnings and several of the houses in question were re-allocated. The issue illustrates why we don’t want to work on projects like reconfiguring city boundaries and why it’s better to do our core jobs to the best of our ability, as transparently as possible.

Local council arts and culture budgets seem to be being slashed all over the country, some by as much as 100%. What reassurance can you give us that Nottingham’s won’t be cut drastically?
We won’t be cutting that budget by 100% ever. It’s easy to see culture as dispensable, but as well as services like health and education, people need to be inspired and have creativity around them. Community arts are a big part of what makes Nottingham great. The councils cutting those things wholesale will spend more money down the line trying to reverse the trend they’ve started.

Do you think, as a council, you could canvas the opinions of local businesses and residents better?
There’s always room for improvement in what we do. But people often make the mistake of thinking that because we listen to what they think, we’re going to go and do it. Lots of different people have lots of different opinions – it’s impossible to please everyone. Sometimes we have to make decisions that people don’t like in the short-term, but it’s because we know that’s what will be better for the city and its people in the long-term.

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