Trading nights out for committee meetings

Cllr Ben Dowling. ''Picture: Sarah Standing (142291-822)
Cllr Ben Dowling. ''Picture: Sarah Standing (142291-822)
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You name a group in Milton and Ben Dowling is involved with it. After his election as a Portsmouth city councillor in May, Ben tells James Butler how he manages to keep the plates spinning and still live the life of a normal 20-year-old.

Winner of the Youth Civic Award – the city’s second highest honour – as a teenager, Ben Dowling is a director of a thriving business, an elected member of Portsmouth City Council and a secondary school governor.

This would be impressive enough for someone twice his age, but Ben, from Methuen Road in Southsea, has achieved all this by the age of 20.

After winning his council seat at Milton in May’s elections, Ben will also have to find time to squeeze in the final year of his degree at the University of Southampton.

A social life exists on the side, but how does he fit it all in? A man this busy needs an exceptionally organised schedule.

‘I am ruled by my calendar, so if there are things that my friends want to do it has to go in there,’ he says.

‘Most professionals would just have work stuff in their diary, whereas for me I have to make sure I allocate time for seeing my friends, doing my laundry, cooking, hoovering… all those everyday tasks.’

‘I am a huge TV and film fan, but obviously everything else gets prioritised over that – I would never choose to watch something instead of going to a council or work meeting, or near a university deadline,’ he adds.

From where he is sitting, sipping a cold drink in the garden of the Pure Ground café on Milton Road, Ben seems to be involved in every community group within a mile’s radius.

He is a member of the Milton Village Community Association committee, which meets in the village hall next door, and is one of the Friends of Milton Park that tends the trees a few metres behind him. He is even a director of the café.

Ben’s diary has been packed since he started Miltoncross secondary school, where he cut his teeth in student politics.

He says: ‘I first became interested in being an active member of society when I was about 13. I did a lot of stuff around Student Voice at this time, and founded the Portsmouth Youth Parliament which I left in 2012.’

It was only that year, when he turned 18 and was able to vote, that Ben threw himself into local politics, joining the Lib Dem party as a campaigner.

One of his early inspirations was his fellow Milton representative Gerald Vernon-Jackson.

‘Because I was doing a lot of community projects in and around Milton we bumped into each other a lot,’ he says.

‘Gerald has always said to me that it is important that people of all ages, ethnicities and backgrounds have their say on issues that affect them.’

And that was the reason he became a governor at his former senior school, two weeks after turning 18.

‘I am far and above the youngest governor at Miltoncross,’ says Ben, who is now the vice-chairman of governors.

‘I like to think that my governing body appreciate that I bring a different viewpoint and have a certain skill set that they don’t have and I appreciate that they have skills I don’t have.’

Ben’s abilities were recognised when he was presented with the first Youth Civic Award at last year’s mayor-making ceremony. He was 19.

The award was decided by other youth representatives across the city.

‘I won the award for standing up for young people’s rights. I was very proud of that,’ he says.

‘It is very humbling to be acknowledged by people of my age for the work I have been doing.’

Ben’s mother Cam Tu, a 62-year-old midwife, was in the audience and has been hugely supportive.

‘It is just my mum who is around and she was very proud. She doesn’t normally like ceremonies but she sat through a mayor-making ceremony to see 30 seconds of me collecting the award.’

So how does someone so busy have time for a social life? Ben’s friends make sure he has time to unwind.

‘When I turned 17, a group of my friends kidnapped me in a taxi and took me out for dinner which was a very interesting experience.

‘I love throwing surprises for people but I am not very good at receiving them,’ he adds.

Ben’s 18th was a blur – not because it was a drunken haze, but because he isn’t ‘big on birthdays’.

However, with the big two-one just around the corner, what will he do to celebrate a successful year?

‘My best friend Soraya has been nagging me for months. It looks like there will be a meal for close friends and a wider party of some description, but I am kind of hoping someone else will organise it,’ he says.

‘Sometimes doing as much as I am doing means that I have to put work, university or being a councillor ahead of being social but my friends understand that.’

As a final-year student of Modern History and Politics at the University of Southampton, councillor Ben walks the walk and talks the talk, albeit with a mountainous workload.

‘I imagine there will be a lot of late nights between now and next May but I am confident that I can still achieve a first at university as well as serve the people of Milton,’ he says.

‘The idea was floated that I could do my dissertation on my work as a city councillor, but the academic in me doesn’t think this is fair.’

While it does have its perks, Ben had to choose his community work over the university lifestyle.

‘If I go out clubbing in Southampton I have to plan well in advance, so I can stay at someone’s house and drive back to Portsmouth the next day,’ he says.

‘Not living in halls does mean I have missed out on a typical student life, but I have done plenty of things that the vast majority of people wouldn’t have been able to experience at my age.’

However, there are one or two students around who can empathise.

‘I think there is a guy who just left the uni who was a district councillor for the New Forest, but he was a Conservative so I didn’t talk to him very much.’

When asked about the future, Ben still has decisions to make.

He says: ‘I started my degree with the intention of becoming a teacher and that is not impossible, I know I would enjoy it.’

As well as this and his burgeoning political career, his business – which delivers training and support to young people – is another option.

‘Question Me UK is going from strength to strength, so there is no reason why that cannot become a sustainable career for me.’

As the interview draws to a close, Ben mentions he has to attend a planning committee meeting in the afternoon.

‘It’s going to be a long one,’ he says, but this is someone who sees business and pleasure as the same thing.