She admits that her first day at the county council was like ‘a rabbit being caught in headlights’.
It was a daunting prospect for the former Royal Navy wren officer, who never even thought she would get elected.
But Liz Fairhurst has come a long way since those nervy days six years ago and has worked her way up to one of the most powerful and high-profile roles in Hampshire.
She became the cabinet member for adult services two years ago and this year will oversee a budget of some £428m.
She oversees the care and support for thousands of elderly people and people with learning disabilities and sensory impairment across Havant, Fareham, Gosport, East Hampshire and Winchester districts.
And she is in the top job at a time when the service is under unprecedented pressure – with the government continually cutting funding to local authorities and the elderly population increasing by 1,000 people every year.
In the next two years she and her team will have to find £43.1m of savings.
I meet Liz at the Public Service Plaza in Havant and am greeted with a big smile and the offer of a coffee.
We are not sitting comfortably for long though as within seconds of starting the interview, hordes of people are shuffling out of the building.
It’s a fire alarm and we hotfoot out into the gale-force winds and cold.
Outside Liz is keen to find out what’s happening from the security guards and I’m quick to realise this is a woman who is a ‘doer’ and likes to get things done.
Crisis over and back in the warmth of the reception, she tells me: ‘When I first arrived at county, I was like a rabbit caught in headlights.
‘It was a completely strange world to me – different language, different ways of doing things.
‘But actually everyone was terribly kind and terribly helpful to me.
‘The then leader Councillor Ken Thornber almost took me under his wing and so did Councillor Roy Perry (the current leader).
‘Once I discovered I could effect change and improve things for people, it became worthwhile.
‘Simple things like getting a layby so people aren’t parking on verges and the place looks nicer.’
Liz now regularly does 12-hour days as she spends her time between the council officers in Winchester, her home in Havant and touring the county.
Her department has had to make some tough and often unpopular decisions in recent years, such as closing care homes, drastically reducing the number of care providers, and shedding staff through voluntary redundancies.
She says the authority is having to ‘think creatively’ and ‘do things differently’ in order to find savings.
‘We have to make savings – there’s no doubt about it,’ says the mum-of-three, who originally hails from the Highlands of Scotland, but whose soft accent reflects her global movements, including a stint in Australia when her naval husband was posted there.
‘It’s also a chance to look at how we do things – to see if we can do things better than we are at the moment and save money.’
She adds: ‘There is a lot of pressure and staff are working incredibly hard.
‘I would not deny that for a minute.’
Among the schemes that have saved money for the county include building extra-care units.
Liz is excited about the prospect of the new £4.75m Oak Park health campus in Havant, which will have 80 nursing beds as well as 101 extra-care units – providing accommodation for elderly people who want to stay independent, but need health professionals nearby.
She explains: ‘Extra care saves the council money because people get housing benefit or pay rent to move into it.
‘But actually for the people who move in, life is much better. They have got care on hand 24 hours a day and they have their own front door.
‘Research has shown that older people who live in extra care have fewer falls, fewer visits to hospital and less social isolation.’
Other schemes she is excited about are the ‘Shared Lives’ scheme, a sort of ‘adult fostering’ where families look after a person with learning disabilities, or sometimes an elderly person, and that person becomes part of their family.
Food and Friendship is another interesting initiative where volunteers sit down and chat to elderly people who receive Meals on Wheels.
But Liz believes there will come a point where the council cannot cut back any more on its adult services budget.
‘I think we will get to that,’ she says.
‘I don’t think we are there yet. But we will be approaching that.
‘I think it’s very short-sighted to keep giving money to the NHS and cutting adult social care.
‘If you want to keep people happy, healthy and living in the community longer, you have to support adult social care.
‘I do feel we have reached the point where we should not be cutting adult social care much more.
‘We have an ageing population. If we want to keep that population happy and healthy, we have to put in the prevention stuff early on which is not statutory.
‘In Hampshire we are lucky because we have carried on doing that, but other counties have stopped it completely.
‘Only last week, one county cut out meals on wheels.
‘Yet nutrition is such an important part as you get older.
‘In Hampshire we are keeping all that going and plan to keep it going.’
She adds: ‘A lot of counties may be in a far worse position before we are and therefore the government will have to step in.
‘I think it would be a national problem. Hampshire is in a pretty good position compared to a lot of other places.’
Liz says she became a Conservative as she believes in the freedom of the individual.
She stood for the Leigh Park and Bedhampton ward in 2009.
She explains: ‘I was asked to stand (by the local party).
‘When I said I wasn’t terribly sure, they said “Don’t worry, you won’t get elected”.
‘I said “okay, you can put my name down”. Well I did get elected.’
She said becoming the leader of adult services four years later had been a ‘challenge’.
She adds: ‘It was a very steep learning curve – but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it.’
Liz says she does feel the heat of the critics who have lambasted her department’s decisions.
But she adds: ‘If you are sure, within yourself, that this is the right thing to do, you can take the criticism.
‘People don’t like change, but actually sometimes, that change is good.
‘You have to go through that criticism knowing that in the end you will achieve the right result.’
‘You have to accept that if you take a decision to change something people will not be happy.’
Her focus, harking back to her days in the navy, is doing the best she can.
She adds: ‘My motivation is, as it always has been, is if I have a job to do, I have to do it well to the best of my ability.
‘I want to do the best we can for the residents of Hampshire.
‘That might sound a bit disingenuous, but it’s not.
‘Even if we are short of cash and have to make all these savings, I still want what we do to be the best we can.’
Big fan of Havant
LIZ Fairhurst is a big fan of Havant.
Most of her job is focused on adult services, but she still spends some time on her ward work in Leigh Park and Bedhampton.
She and her husband Mike, who is also a local councillor, settled in Havant 23 years ago because of its excellent train links as she had children in Portsmouth and Petersfield schools.
‘I like Havant,’ says Liz, who is a governor at Havant Academy.
‘Some people might have the wrong impression of it, but actually there are lots of little hidden gems.
‘You have Staunton Country Park, Bidbury Mead and even Havant Park has its own attractions.’
She says that her party has tried to help people in Leigh Park enhance their life chances.
She said to a certain extent Labour may have seen these people as ‘voting fodder’.
‘When you look at what they’ve done in Leigh Park in the years they’ve held it, nothing was happening,’ she says.
‘I think we are the opposite.
‘Someone said to me once “the Tories have no right to be in areas of urban deprivation” and I got really angry.
‘Because if there’s anywhere we should be, we should be in areas of urban deprivation working to improve lives.
‘I think it (Leigh Park) doesn’t deserve the reputation it has.
‘It’s populated 95 per cent by really nice people doing their best.’
When she’s not working Liz enjoys walking and reading – especially Jane Austen.