This week has marked a new era for Daventry District Council – as leader Chris Millar stepped down after 20 years in the role.
Councillor Millar was replaced last Friday (November 1) by Councillor Richard Auger, while long standing deputy Liz Griffin also left to be replaced by Adam Brown.
It means the council has new leadership for the first time this century, and the slow but steady goodbye has left Councillor Millar reflecting on his time in charge in an in-depth interview with the Local Democracy Reporting Service.
He said: “It’s been about three months of preparing for my departure and yes it has been emotional, but we both know that the time is right.”
Councillor Millar will continue to serve on the back benches for his Long Buckby ward for as long as the district council remains in existence. It had been set to be abolished to make way for a new West Northamptonshire Council, which would merge Daventry with Northampton and South Northamptonshire, and Councillor Millar doesn’t intend to stand for the new council assuming a new parliament approves the restructure.
He said: “I think I would have carried on if it had carried on as a district. But I always believe it is right to step down when the time is right. I have done 20 years being a leader and I can’t go on forever and I know I probably would not have been the leader of the unitary. But I didn’t have the energy for that so I felt like it was the right time.”
The world has changed drastically since Councillor Millar became leader in August 1999. Back then Lou Bega was charting number one with Mambo No 5, social media websites Facebook, Twitter and Instagram didn’t exist, and Charles Kennedy had just been elected as leader of the Liberal Democrats.
So how does he feel Daventry District Council compares from the state he leaves it in from inheriting it back in that 90s summer?
“It’s a lot better and we are a good council I think,” he says. “I have enjoyed the journey and it’s been a positive one. I think we’ve been consistent and we’ve had consistent leadership. I don’t think it’s good to chop and change. I think Northampton Borough Council has had a number of different administrations and leaders and every time there’s a new agenda, and you would question whether that has paid off in the long run for them. We have been very consistent and followed our agenda for a long time and held the line.
“At the start we had some major challenges financially which we had to overcome. There was a black hole in the accounts when I started which we didn’t discover until about a year later and that was sorted out over time. Ever since then I have made sure that we set a sustainable budget.
“Then we had an Icelandic bank where we had £8million in that bank which was at risk at the time. But we held our nerve and got our money back plus some interest.
“A lot of my time was about managing risk. Often when things look too good to be true that’s because they are, and if you push the boundaries you can be reckless.”
Not that any council leader has been without their critics. Over the past 12 months there have been concerns from some quarters that the council might have overstretched itself financially, and been reckless themselves, in a bid to spend money on Daventry projects before the council may be abolished.
Councillor Millar himself admitted last December that the council was ‘pushing the lines’ on its finances by agreeing to fund the new town centre cinema and the new Reach for Health premises. But he’s insistent that it was the right course of action, and that the money would not have been spent on Daventry if it had passed hands to the proposed new unitary councils.
He said: “We only spent money that we had. We had been very careful over the years and unfortunately due to the county council we now had to move to these unitaries. We wanted to spend money, not recklessly but in the right way. And I think Mulberry Place and the Reach for Health buildings will prove a good legacy. Our council has always been ambitious as long as it has been sensibly thought through.”
Councillor Millar has stepped down during a unique time in local government for the county. His replacement’s main task is to help steer the district council in what could be its final months before being replaced by a new unitary.
Many councillors in Daventry had wanted Northampton to go alone and for Daventry to only merge with South Northamptonshire. The situation is far from certain, with the legislation to form the two new councils not being discussed in parliament prior to it dissolving for the general election.
It means that the legislation will now not be considered until a new government is in place, and with Labour having indicated they would prefer a three unitary model with Northampton acting as its own unitary if they are elected.
Councillor Millar says: “I would not want to see all that money being spent [on the current proposals] then for some reason it doesn’t go through. I think if things change you would have to see what the changes are but a lot of money has been spent already. We didn’t want this but we had to move forward.”
Councillor Millar will now have to watch that process from the backbenches, as Councillor Auger takes charge. And he is confident that his replacement, a former police officer, will try and give Daventry residents a voice throughout the process.
He said: “I think Richard has good management experience from his time in the police. He’s a sensible guy and he will be a good advocate for the area and with Adam Brown as his number two I think both myself and Liz are very happy that two such strong people have replaced us.
“It’s never easy to follow people that have been there for a long time but their job is to see through this transition. You have to feel fresh for that and personally I don’t have the energy any more to do that.”
Asked what lies next, he adds that he will offer any help he can to his successor but is looking forward to some down time.
“I’m going to have a bit of a break and maybe get involved in some voluntary roles,” he said. “I won’t keep coming back as I don’t think there’s anything worse than a former leader! But I can offer experience and if I can help then I will be happy to do so.”