The interview: Holley reflects on time at top

For half of the 32 years Huntingdonshire District Council has been in existence, it has been led by one man, Councillor Derek Holley. His reign as leader ended in December and he will step down as a councillor in May. Ian MacKellar spoke to Cllr Holley ab

For half of the 32 years Huntingdonshire District Council has been in existence, it has been led by one man, Councillor Derek Holley. His reign as leader ended in December and he will step down as a councillor in May. Ian MacKellar spoke to Cllr Holley about his achievements.

COUNCILLOR Derek Holley understands The Hunts Post analysis, but does not accept that his two administrations were so different.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, during the first 10 years of Cllr Holley's leadership, the council pursued a minimalist Thatcherite regime of ultra-low Council Tax and low spending. By the time he re-assumed the leadership six years ago, the philosophy on spending had changed. People wanted more and better services and were prepared to pay for them.

"I know that's a perception, but I don't think it was quite as dramatic as that," he said. "I think such change as there was was gradual."

A Londoner and an accountant, Cllr Holley first moved to the district in 1977 when he took a job with one of Sir Clive Sinclair's companies, Thurlby-Thandar Instruments, in St Peter's Road. He was subsequently involved in a buy-out and is now finance director.

He was first elected to Huntingdonshire District Council 25 years ago, and was leader in two stints for 16 of those years. Between the two stints, the controlling Tory group and the public moved on.

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"There has been more of a willingness to increase the overall charge from taxes. Was that the result of opposition pressure or the way the public mood has changed," he asked rhetorically.

"Politically, things were a lot more genteel 25 years ago. There was more of a divide between us and the, then Labour, opposition. You could have very open disagreements. You don't get that with the Lib Dems now, because the waters are more fluid. It has become more personal as well."

But he acknowledges that the Tories have moved, too, philosophically, towards a service-driven agenda rather than a cost-driven one.

"When I came back as leader, I said the philosophy was going to be about delivering services well to people at a cost they could afford. They recognised that, to provide that, a level of tax was required."

In one sense it seems banal that he should regard the delivery of the wheelie bins service to the district as the pinnacle of his achievement over 16 years. Yet most residents actually see refuse collection as the touchstone of district council involvement in their lives - if the bins are emptied, the council is doing a good job: if not, they should go.

The achievement is really rather more important than simply offering households fortnightly collection of landfill refuse and other unwanted material that can be recycled.

Following a trial of wheelie bins for 9,000 households in the Sawtry area - which Cllr Holley instinctively opposed, but went along with - almost every one of the 67,000 homes in Huntingdonshire now has three bins.

But the real environmental triumph has been in the proportion of household waste that is recycled, rather than going to landfill - four per cent five years ago, more than 50 per cent now.

"Originally, I thought people wouldn't want it, wouldn't be prepared to wheel the bins to the kerbside. But they've really gone for it. We couldn't achieve these recycling rates without people making conscious decisions to separate what can be re-used from what can't," he said.

"And, rather than finding the bins a nuisance, most people have found a little niche for them within their properties.

"It also cost us less than we expected," he added wrily. "And we've had far fewer complaints than we expected."

He is also proud of the contribution to the district's health offered by publicly-provided leisure centres in the four market towns and Sawtry, where HDC competes without apology with public sector providers (hardly a Thatcherite notion) and plans to transform Huntingdon's town centre to boost the district's economy.

"I would have liked to stay on to see this huge project finished, but you have to draw a line in the sand somewhere," he said.

"One of the key factors is that the Government must get that one right, as happened with the A1(M)."

He is critical, hardly surprisingly, of the Labour Government, particularly over creeping regionalisation and his constant beef of imposing additional duties on local government without the funds to discharge them properly - then capping councils that have to ask taxpayers to make up the funding gap.

"I don't know whether it's civil servants in Whitehall or ministers, but they simply don't understand what their policies mean when you actually implement them," he said.

But he backs Tony Blair for allowing HDC to transfer its housing stock to not-for-profit housing associations. "It takes the politics out of housing. Rents are now set at a proper level, and money has become available to improve homes. The Government should have forced every council to do that."

HDC Liberal Democrat leader, Councillor Peter Downes, paid tribute to Cllr Holley and wished him well for the future.

"Derek has worked hard for HDC, and no one will begrudge him his retirement," he told The Hunts Post. "He has shown great tenacity and determination in following through his policies. He has been a traditional conviction politician. Never has it crossed his mind that he might be wrong on any matter. I can never recall any recognition on his part that his political opponents might have a valid point to make.

"For now, we wish him better health and happy times with his family.