The leader of the city, Councillor Donna Jones, has now been charge with her Tory colleagues for seven months. She believes the job has gone well in spite of cutbacks - but does everyone agree? Political reporter Miles O’Leary finds out.
Reflecting on her time so far as the leader of Portsmouth City Council, Donna Jones knows all too well it has not been an easy task.
There have been many things to celebrate in the city and things to think on since Cllr Jones seized power last summer, ushering in a new era at the authority following 10 years of Lib Dem rule.
Olympic sailing hero Sir Ben Ainslie has declared Portsmouth to be the home of his new race base headquarters for the America’s Cup, and on a similar vein qualifying events for the prestigious competition will be held on the seafront over the next two years, drawing in millions of pounds to the local economy.
Victorious Festival has grown bigger and better than ever, pulling in more than 35,000 spectators on Southsea Common.
Cllr Jones has also worked with the minister of Portsmouth Matthew Hancock to help ensure Portsmouth benefited from the Solent Growth Deal and received funds towards transport improvements that will attract more visitors and jobs to the region.
The administration has pledged money towards the creation of an advanced manufacturing business park on land it owns in Havant, signed off contracts with the government for land in Tipner to enable its redevelopment via a City Deal. And Cllr Jones helped steer a bid for part of Portsmouth’s shipyard to become a secondary site for the National Composite Centre.
Council meetings have also been opened up so visitors can freely tweet, film and record proceedings, ensuring councillors are held to account and people are better informed of decisions.
Cllr Jones says: ‘The last six to seven months have been about making the council more business-minded and developing a more common sense approach to work.
‘It’s about running the council in an open and transparent way.
‘That’s why people can now come and video meetings.
‘We’ve been clearing up the issues left from the previous administration. And so we hope the next six months can be about progression and ways we can further improve the city.
‘That means improving education, having a really good university and working more closely as a council.
‘Portsmouth needs to move with the times.’
But tough decisions have also had to be made locally, largely due to the government imposing yet more cuts on councils – and that has ultimately meant having to slash further millions from the budget that will affect the way services are run and hit those who rely on them the most.
Whether the right savings have been made has been up for lengthy debate.
And the Tory administration’s decision-making has been made tougher by the fact it does not have a majority on the council – holding just 12 of the 42 seats – meaning it has had to win the support of other groups in order to push through proposals.
And while some believe Cllr Jones has done a fair job given the circumstances, they believe things could have been done differently.
But Cllr Jones believes she’s risen to the challenge and done the best she can.
‘It has been incredibly tough, but becoming leader of the council has been a dream come true,’ she says.
‘I am able to fulfil my passion as leader of this council, which is to help people in this city I really care about.
‘It’s been very, very hard work.
‘Being the leader has felt like being on a board of a company with a turnover of £700m to £800m, the only difference being I have also got vulnerable adults and children on the books, and as an authority you cannot fail children.’
The Lib Dems have seen their role change and decided to not back the minority administration like other parties and act as direct opposition.
The group has been particularly vocal over plans to allow hundreds of new homes to be built in Milton, changes to residents parking, the axing of Dial-a-Ride and the decision to strip charities of their textile bank income.
Lib Dem councillor Darren Sanders, the party’s parliamentary candidate for Portsmouth North, said: ‘Whoever was in charge this year was going to face a series of difficult decisions because of the severity of the cuts that had to be made.
‘So several decisions to have faced the administration would have had to be looked at by anyone anyway.
‘In some respects they have done a good job, like with the budget consultation.
‘My concern is they said they would be different in the way they do things, and they haven’t.
‘They said they would open up their informal cabinet briefings to other councillors, but they haven’t been open and that’s depressing.’
One of the things the Tory administration has come under fire for is its involvement with political mudslinging – with spats between Cllr Jones and Lib Dem group Cllr Gerald Vernon-Jackson being described as a ‘Punch and Judy show’.
An investigation is also under way into allegations of bullying – the findings have yet to be published.
But when asked whether she believes 2015 will see the end of petty rows and the beginning of political cohesion, Cllr Jones takes a swipe at her rivals and says they are the problem.
‘When I was leader of the opposition, I chose very carefully the battles I picked with the administration.
‘The Lib Dems have made it their business to waste people’s time through their point-scoring against us. As long as they have got breath in their body, they will play dirty, because it is in their DNA.
‘But in spite of this, we have carried on with our intentions of seeking to regenerate this city, so that we have good place for people to live, work and which has lots of job opportunities.’
But Cllr Vernon-Jackson said: ‘Some of the tweets to us are very aggressive attacks. It would be better in this city if politics was not so confrontational.’
Looking ahead, Cllr Jones says some of her prime objectives are to lure a five-star hotel to the city, help secure a university training college and get the best deal for the shipyard.
She also wants to help ensure key schemes finally happen; such as the Blade Tower on the former site of the Victoria Baths and the Shard-style residential block at The Hard.
Cllr Steve Hastings, deputy Ukip group leader, says he disagrees with the council’s decision to introduce a yearly charge for a resident’s first parking permit.
‘On the whole I think the administration has done a pretty good job, but there have been some things I feel they have good wrong like with parking, which is a complete mess.’
‘It seemed like a bit of a backlash from the previous administration and the desire to scrub something out rather than work it out.
‘That was an example of a cabinet portfolio holder making a decision and that was that.’
Cllr John Ferrett, Labour group leader, says he has faith in the council leader, but had hoped for longer consultation over the budget, despite being pleased over the way it has been conducted.
Labour had also proposed an increase in the council tax to fund public services but it was turned down. The council is seeking to freeze the tax rate this year for the second year running.
‘The current council leader has kept her word in terms of consulting opposition parties and consulted with us on the budget process,’ Cllr Ferrett said.
Leader’s checklist of achievements
- Re-opened a portion of public toilets axed under previous budget cuts.
- Commitment made not to close any libraries.
- Allowed video and social media use at council meetings to encourage openness and transparency.
- Pledge to save the Patey day care service and find it a new home.
- Work began on council budget
New minister for Portsmouth appointed in form of Matthew Hancock MP.
- Put a stop to plans to outsource street cleaning contract to 3GS as she feared it would have cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of pounds.
- Ben Ainslie announces Portsmouth will be home to sailing race base.
- Launch of new vision for city including five star hotel.
- Mutiny in the Park - shortlisted for Best New Festival and Best Dance Event by the National Festival Awards.
- Victorious most successful ever - more than 35,000 people visited.
- GCSE results better than last year (52% 2013/14, 47.6% 2012/13, 52.4% 2011/12) - but still a long way to go to drive up educational attainment.
- Hosted successful foster carer event in London
- £650m contract awarded to BAE Systems to continue running Portsmouth naval base.
- PM announces Somers Town hub official opening.
- Naming of Queen Elizabeth carrier.
- Retained lollipop people after threat to axe them.
- Solent Growth Deal allocates £4.8m towards the Hard Interchange scheme.
- Council pledges £5.3m towards creation of business park at Dunsbury Hill Farm.
- Business is found to provide bonfire for Cosham fireworks.
Contracts exchanged with government for transfer of land at Tipner as part of City Deal which will create thousands of new jobs and homes.
- Launch of Portsmouth’s America’s Cup World Series events in London where council leader gave speech.
- Opening of first all-through school at Mayfield.
- Budget consultation led to 2,460 responses from public, up from 476 the previous year.
Launch of Clean cities team - combining the housing’s estate service officers and community wardens under one service. This team
£500,000 fund earmarked to support the development of voluntary sector.
- Women’s refuge protected from £57,000 cut.
‘There’s been a lot to learn...’
UKIP has admitted there has been ‘a lot to learn’ and it has taken some time adjusting to political life in Portsmouth.
The party went from having no councillors to having members in six of Portsmouth’s 14 wards following the local elections in May, immediately thrusting them into the spotlight.
And Councillor Steve Hastings, Ukip’s deputy group leader, has admitted in hindsight the political group should have bargained for a place on the council cabinet when it agreed to support the Conservative minority administration.
‘When we first came on the council, we didn’t have a clue what we were doing, who did what or what did what, and what would happen if you voted which way for this and that,’ Cllr Hastings says.
‘It has been a fast, and dramatic, learning curve.
‘But I think we have picked things up and we are making more and more of a difference here in Portsmouth.
He adds: ‘A place on the cabinet is something I would have wanted to bargain for if we had understood everything from the beginning.’
Cllr Hastings says the group helped lobby for changes in the proposed council budget - leading to a U-turn in the decision to axe funding for the city’s women’s refuge and a pledge being made to give financial support towards the continuation of the Dial-a-Ride transport scheme.
Ukip councillor Julie Swan has also helped set up a domestic abuse support network with Tory environment and community safety boss Rob New, which now has cross-party membership.