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Hampshire's octagenarian 'Politburo' marches on
HOW old is too old when it comes to serving as a councillor?
That is the question being asked as county council leader Ken Thornber and two fellow octogenarian Cabinet members are set to stand for election in May. One backbench wag compared them to the Russian politburo.
Mr Thornber, who will be 80 when voters go to the polls, has pledged to step down as party leader after 15 years - a promise he was accused of breaking by some Tory councillors last year.
The Conservative council boss, who was first elected in 1977, refused to comment on whether 80 was too old to stand again.
But Cabinet member Colin Davidovitz, who at 82 is believed to be the oldest member of the council, reckons age is unimportant so long as “the old grey matter still works.”
He added retired members of the Cabinet brought with them a wealth of experience from holding senior positions in the public and private sector which had proved useful in finding £100m savings over the last two years.
A recent survey found the UK had the oldest councillors of 16 countries across Europe and was in a “league of its own” when it came to the percentage of councillors who are retired.
In Hampshire, 65 per cent of county councillors are pensioners compared to 43 per cent nationally, 30 per cent in France, the second highest country and 3.5 per cent in Spain.
Hampshire County Council has a £1bn budget and runs services including schools, child protection, adult social care, waste disposal, highways and libraries.
Cabinet member Ray Ellis, 80, is also standing again despite being de-selected from his Fareham Town seat by the local Conservative Party.
Cllr Ellis, who has just had a hip replacement, was instead given Fareham Porchester currently held by a Liberal Democrat Roger Price.
After a high-flying career in higher education and overseas development, he has been a county councillor for 12 years and a Cabinet member for five but still wants to serve his community.
He was disappointed to be de-selected, saying: “I think they thought I was too old but I am more active as a county councillor than some of the younger ones.”
Asked if he could see the day when there might be 100-year-old county councillors, he said: “Why not? I was at a Local Government Association conference recently and there was a Labour councillor who was 92.”
He added: “The way things are going, people are living longer. I think physical age is less important that mental age unless you develop Alzheimer’s disease which is a terrible thing and once that happens you are finished.”
The only Cabinet member of bus pass age who is stepping down is also the only woman on it with responsibility for a whole department - Felicity Hindson.
Cllr Hindson, who is in her 70s and represents Meon Valley, has been a councillor for 20 years and a Cabinet member for 12.She said: “I think it is time for a change both for me and the council. It is good to have new people coming in and new faces.”
Meanwhile children’s services chief Roy Perry, one of the younger Cabinet members at 69, said: “I certainly will not be standing when I am 80.”
Cllr Perry said the council faced a major challenge attracting younger councillors. He said part of the problem was the basic allowance of £12,000 was not enough to pay a mortgage and support a family. Hence most councillors were retired.
But increasing pay was not the answer, he said. However switching to evening council meetings instead of daytime could remove a barrier to people of working age attending.
The Romsey Extra councillor confirmed he will stand again as party leader after narrowly losing by just two votes to arch rival Cllr Thornber last year.
Meanwhile Liberal Democrat leader Councillor Keith House, 47, said: “What’s relevant I think is that councils need a mix of experience and age. One of the problems with Hampshire County Council is that almost all of the leadership is retired and so only represents a strand of Hampshire life.
“It is hard to imagine a younger Cabinet axing youth services, cutting children’s centres and banning wind turbines.”
Liberal Democrat backbencher Brian Dash, 73, added: “The Cabinet are a bit like the Russian Politburo of old. I call them Comrades. At one of the Cabinet meetings, I said they should all declare an interest in anything to do with old age – and I include myself in that!”
Christine Ovenden, who campaigned against the council cutting spending by more than a third on Sure Start children’s centres, said she was initially surprised to see so many pensioners in the council chamber.
“I think there should be more of a mix of ages to represent the community and it would be good to have more fresh faces coming through.”
But a Local Government Association spokesman said age should be no barrier so long as older councillors were still mentally and physically capable of doing the job.
He added: “Councillors who have stood previously have a wealth of knowledge and experience that we want to retain but, on the other hand, you want new faces. It is a demanding job. Councillors spend on average between 20-40 hours per week on council business. If younger people are still working in full-time employment they may have to reduce their hours but it is incredibly rewarding.
“That is one of the reasons why you get more older councillors - they have more time to devote to shaping local council services.”
WINCHESTER city councillor and former would-be MP Martin Tod is hoping to win a seat on the county council this May.
Liberal Democrat Mr Tod, 48, is contesting Winchester Westgate division after Councillor Phynette Dickens decided to stand down.
Mr Tod was defeated by Conservative Steve Brine at the last Parliamentary elections and was subsequently elected city councillor for St Paul ward.
He said: “I enjoy trying to help people as a city councillor but find often the county council and city council are not joined-up, for example in providing school places. I want to try and take the opportunity to bring the two together for the good of local people.”
The city councillor said he was also interested in health issues and the county council is soon to be a leading provider of public health services.
Another big name in local politics who is throwing her hat into the ring is Sandra Gidley. The former Romsey MP hopes to snatch Romsey Extra from Tory children’s services chief Roy Perry.
OLDEST known community councillor is 101-year-old Mary Augusta Edwards from Angelsey in Wales while Labour councillor Bernard “Claude” Miller retired from Plymouth City Council in 2010 at the age of 95.