Donna Jones is the first female leader of Portsmouth City Council. As she approaches her 100th day in office she explains her burning passion to rejuvenate the city of her birth after the hammer blow of losing its shipbuilding industry.
There are two splashes of colour in Donna Jones’s monochrome office. One is the vivid pink orchid on her desk. The other, her painted nails – deep blue, naturally.
She apologises for the surroundings, particularly the ‘threadbare’ carpet. ‘They’ve promised me something a bit better soon,’ she says.
The small room with a meeting table in its centre is the office of the newly-installed Tory leader of Portsmouth City Council – so new that varnish on her fingers has hardly had time to dry.
She aspires to many things. In fact she uses the word ‘aspiration’ frequently. She does not does aspire especially to a bigger, more pleasing, office, but it has only ever been inhabited by men.
The 37-year-old is not only the first woman to lead the Conservatives on the council, but she is also the authority’s first female leader.
And it is accommodation which is taxing her political brain most at the moment. Hotel accommodation. Five-star hotel accommodation. In Portsmouth.
It’s her dream to see this first for her home city as soon as possible.
It is not to satisfy some personal, political self-aggrandissement she assures me, but to provide the lynchpin for the rebirth of the city.
And she is deadly serious even though one of the biggest names in the hotel business – Hilton – has just quit the city.
She says: ‘Of course it’s sad that shipbuilding has come to an end here after 500 years, but actually we haven’t built ships in their entirety in this city since the 1960s.
‘I always look at things as a glass half full and look to the future.
‘So in November last year, when it was all announced, I thought we could either sit back and lick our wounds or go out there and fight tooth and nail for everything we could get.
‘Portsmouth needs no longer to be about steel cutting and welding. It needs to be about science, engineering and technology.’
Councillor Jones has a vision in which the average Portsmouth worker has a salary of £45,000-£55,000 like the rest of this region.
‘Portsmouth need not be the poor relation of the south-east. We need to be up there driving international markets, markets such as those in aerospace and space technology.’
She points to the announcement by David Cameron of the arrival of the Marine Intelligence Service to its headquarters on Portsdown Hill.
‘That was one of the most amazing bits of news this city has had in decades. It will bring skilled jobs in science and engineering here, people who will be developing things for our government and governments around the world.
‘I’m urging all young people to study sciences because that’s where the future of Portsmouth lies. There’s going to be big money here. It’s really exciting.’
Cllr Jones is into her stride now, those blue nails cutting through the air as her excitement grows.
She’s on to how much she admires the work former minister for Portsmouth Michael Fallon did for the city. Then it’s Sir Ben Ainslie, the America’s Cup bid and the building of ocean-going racing yachts at Old Portsmouth – the kudos it will bring to Portsmouth as a new industry springs up in Old Portsmouth and boosts the supply chain needed to feed it.
‘And then we’ve got our jewel in the crown, the seafront and the Historic Dockyard.
‘The reason why Southampton has a five-star hotel is because of the cruise liner industry. But we have a far more beautiful city. It’s a far more attractive place to stay before going off to the Med on your five grand cruise.
‘And with it would come conferences, more companies would move here. I see that hotel as the first domino that will trigger innovation in Portsmouth, new industry, much higher employment and much greater aspiration among young people.
‘That in turn will lead to a demographic change with lower obesity levels, lower teenage pregnancy rates and higher life expectancy. That’s how I see my job, to make sure we’re improving the expectations and aspirations of the people of Portsmouth.’
Cllr Jones has been in that job for 14 weeks, leading a minority administration on a council over which no party has overall control.
She says she is a firm believer in consensus politics (‘much better for the city’) and is happy to work closely with her Labour, UKIP and one Independent colleagues. ‘I am only the leader of this council by their good grace.’
The Lib Dem group, under former long-term council leader Gerald Vernon-Jackson, has declined to join the political love-in.
‘I think the people of Portsmouth get better government from consensus politics.
‘I don’t have the ability to ride roughshod over anyone. I always need to have one eye on what the parties will say about what I propose,’ adds Cllr Jones.
‘Of course, a situation like this does create some political instability, but from the public’s perspective I wouldn’t be worried.
‘I’d be thinking that if the Conservatives have to work with the other parties surely that’s got to be a good thing for the city.’
How her hard-working dad inspired Donna’s political ambitions
Donna Jones, who represents the Hilsea ward, first became inquisitive about politics when she was five, an age which coincided with the Falklands war in 1982.
‘I was at Northern Parade Infants’ School and a quite a few of my friends came from the Hilsea naval estate. I remember them being sad and not understanding why their dads had suddenly disappeared.’
She went home and quizzed her father. ‘In a very childlike way I asked him why we were sending Portsmouth people to war. I remember being intrigued by my first taste of foreign policy and wanting to understand everything about it.
‘Margaret Thatcher was all over the television then and in the run-up to the 1983 election and I asked my dad what the difference was between the Conservative and Labour parties. I was fascinated then by politics.’
Her father, a bricklayer by trade, was a perfect product of the Thatcher era. ‘I watched him get his first van, then employ a couple of people. By the time I was 10 he had moved into property development in the housing boom of the late 1980s.
‘He did well, had a couple of businesses and an estate agents and then, in the crash, he lost everything and had to start all over again. That’s the capitalist mentality I admire.’
The young Councillor Jones moved to Purbrook Middle School and took A-levels in history and politics at Havant College. ‘It fuelled my thirst for finding out and understanding what was happening in the world. Foreign policy inspired me.’
She met husband Neil when they both worked for the Halifax bank in Portsmouth, he at North End she in Commercial Road. She became an investment manager and he moved into financial services.
‘I’m a fiscal Conservative. You can’t run a country on thin air. It’s all about money, how you save it, how you spend it, what your priorities are,’ she adds.
At 28 she had her first child, Ben, now 11. It coincided with her first appearance on the bench as a Portsmouth magistrate. ‘At the time I was the youngest magistrate in the country. Volunteering was something I really wanted to do.
‘I’ve been doing it for nine years now and I chair the court on a Monday. I love it. It’s brilliant to give something back.
‘It’s not always about punishing people. Sometimes it’s about rehabilitation like putting long-term heroin addicts on to drug rehab programmes they’ve been trying for ages to do.’
Her second son, Harry, now nine, was six weeks old when a Conservative city councillor knocked on her door canvassing support for a by-election. ‘I kept him talking for 15 minutes on the doorstep and he noticed I had a genuine interest and suggested I get involved in the party.’
By the time she was 34 she was the chairman of the Portsmouth North Conservative Constituency Association and helped close friend Penny Mordaunt win the seat back for the Tories.
She took a career break from the Halifax in 2008 having been elected to the council in the May of that year. ‘After three or four months I knew I wanted a career in politics.’
She continues: ‘What’s happened to me this year is a dream come true. Running the city I’ve got a staff, including those in our schools, of 8,000, and am responsible for a total budget of £700m which will be increasing to not far short of a £1bn.
‘That’s not bad for a 37-year-old bricklayer’s daughter from North End Avenue is it? And I want to go out and tell every girl in this city that if I can have the aspiration and determination to do it, so can they.’