Forty-six years is a long time in politics

Councillor Jim Harker will be stepping down as leader of Northamptonshire County Council in May
Councillor Jim Harker will be stepping down as leader of Northamptonshire County Council in May

Jim Harker is one of the most experienced politicians in Northamptonshire and, on paper, without doubt the most powerful.

Presiding over a budget of half a billion pounds and taking decisions about life and death services for almost 700,000 people, he is arguably the person with the most influence on our lives.

But after more than 10 years as leader, and a staggering 46 in some form of politics, he is vacating the leadership of the county council in May.

We are sitting in the front room of his handsome stone- built house in the village of Geddington, north of Kettering, with a smart car complete with personalised number plate in the gravel-covered yard outside.

Genial and polite, he is every inch the mild-mannered gentleman that even his opponents concede he is.

Feet up on his footrest he is relaxed on his own turf, but answers quickly when asked what the public will see as his legacy.

“Cuts. People remember the most recent things and we’ve had to cut a lot of services.

“The austerity does affect people’s living and you’re having to reduce quality of service. That’s a real sadness in a way.”

This room we are in, with its chaise longue, wicker high-backed sofa and piano in the corner, looks every bit as comfortable as you would expect for a top-ranking politician. But such details can be misleading.

A partner in a chartered surveying company, Councillor Harker worked hard for 35 years to set up extra offices and designed a number of hospitals and schools – plus extensions to the likes of the Tresham Institute buildings and St Andrew’s Hospital – before he retired aged 55.

And rather than moving to Geddington after acquiring affluence, he was born in a house just down the road. His family have lived in the village for 100 years.

Councillor Harker followed his father (and grandfather) into local politics and he is the subject in our two-hour interview that brings the most emotional response.

In 1984 his father, also known as Jim, died of a heart attack, which followed the loss of his seat on Kettering Borough Council over an unpopular proposal to bring waste from Manchester to just outside the town, a decision his son says he’d have backed.

“The Duke of Buccleuch at the time said he had died of a broken heart and he did.

“He felt he’d lost the confidence of his community. 
He’d put so much into the community and they’d rejected him.

“Political opponents and even members of the public saw it as a chance to get him and they did.

“He took those things to heart more than me.

”I’ve been hardened to that, perhaps by incidents like that.

“I think it’s made me a harder person than he was. That’s not necessarily something to be proud of but its true.”

As we are talking, his wife, Jenny, comes home and starts to prepare lunch.

Later he sends me an email with a touching tribute to the strength of his family, despite the stress his position placed on them, calling them his “rock”.

But he doesn’t mention them during the interview except to say how upset Jenny had been by personal slights against her husband. He mentions several example of these during the course of the interview (“I get a fair amount of personal abuse”) and the subsequent email (“the offensive public reaction that sometimes occurs”), although he says he is personally not bothered by them.

Such hardiness can be helpful to a politician who has had to make countless millions of cuts to services over the last decade, including shutting down care homes and explaining the children’s services crisis.

Councillor Harker seems to accept that a certain detachment is advantageous for a leader.

“So much emotion comes in,” he says “you have to take it out. Some people get weighed down with that.

“I’m fortunate in that I don’t lose sleep much about things.

“People say I’m a bit of a cold fish but there you are.”

Taking the huge decisions that affect people’s lives, he says, don’t worry him as long as he has carefully listened to the experts first.

Listening to the public is more of a problem, or more specifically finding out what it is they want.

Countless consultations have been carried out in Councillor Harker’s time at County Hall on everything from budgets to redundancies to closing Quarry House.

But he feels the real voice of Joe public never seems to get through.

“It’s very difficult to reach the genuine population.

“Often people who indulge in consultation have an axe to grind, just as I have.

“It’s the same people on the same subjects, often from people who are politicians in their own right. You do have to take what they say with a pinch of salt.”

He gives an example of someone with learning disabilities who talked to assembled councillors in the chamber: “It’s a salutary thing to be addressed by people affected by the decision we are about to take. But it’s not so good if they are taken advantage of and brought along by councillors to make a political point.”

The shrouded views of the man on the street is a theme we return to several times.

“The difficulty is that the public is really, really, difficult to engage with,” says a little later. The general public are not really interested unless they have a specific interest, like the Oundle school business.

Being unable to coax any real political engagement from the public frustrates Councillor Harker.

When I ask him what his lasting achievements are (stronger economy than five years ago, large road projects and enhanced heritage), I then ask if that’s what the public would have wanted him to prioritise.

“I don’t know what people’s priorities are. Potholes?”

But he thinks a moment about his answer and says “That’s a big dilemma. There’s often a big difference between what people want and what they need.

“That’s like being in charge of a family in some ways. With children, what they can afford and what they want.”

Smiling broadly, he speaks proudly of helping save the British Grand Prix for Silverstone and establishing the Northamptonshire Enterprise Project.

Opportunities for such leading from the front are getting rarer, however, and this, I sense, is the chief reason for his decision to abdicate in May.

“Up until quite recently I could go to a meeting and commit millions of pounds on the hoof, knowing I’d be backed up by [county council chief executive] Paul Blantern and my group.

“With so much tension on the budget now tight now, I can’t even spend £50,000 on my authority now.”

And after more than 40 years this is perhaps what has caught up with Jim Harker.

Not age – although he talks of getting old, he doesn’t lack energy. Not spending more time with his family – he already has a new position on the East Midlands Heritage Lottery board.

It is perhaps the austerity of his own Conservative Party which has left him nowhere to turn.

“It used to be that we were thinking about what innovative ideas we could come up with to really improve services for people. Now all we can do is make efficiencies. That’s very hard.”