Well, who’d have thought it? – as John Major said after his surprise succession to Margaret Thatcher. A 27-year-old, still living at home with mum and dad is the most important man on the Isle of Wight. Our leader.
After a sudden and dramatic turn of events on Wednesday 19th September in which Andy Sutton resigned as leader after a controversial clash with the planning department, the name to bubble to the top of the resulting rumour stew was that of David Pugh. You might remember him from Newport C of E primary school, or Trinity Middle, or it might seem like five minutes since you were in his class at Sandown High – maybe sharing a detention with him for skiving off PE. Lives at home, only 27, drives a Nissan Micra – that David Pugh.
“Yes, I guess I’m quite an unusual Council Leader in that I still live at home,” he grins, apparently unphased by the implication that, well, what does he know about life? “People have been asking how someone of 27 who doesn’t own their own home can represent them. But I think I’m the living embodiment of what we need to do for the Island: if we on the council can make improvements in the property market, I will stand to benefit indirectly from the policies we’re trying to put in place – just as some other councillors will benefit from an over 60s bus pass. This job is a big challenge, but the real test is on what I do. Give me a chance to prove my worth.”
His mum and dad, incidentally, are very pleased for him, and with the direction his life has taken. His father is a MacMillan nurse, and David himself is an ardent supporter of the charity.
His career began at a precocious age. He first met his colleague Andrew Turner when, aged 17, he invited the councillor to speak at the school political forum he organised. “It’s tragic isn’t it!” he jokes. “It sounds like I’ve been devoid of a childhood but I didn’t really get interested in politics until I was studying for my A levels.”
So after school he left the Island to study politics at Aberystwyth. So, did this high flyer emerge from University as a golden boy? “Actually,” he grins, “I didn’t complete my degree. I took a year out to work for Conservative party central office, and was invited to stay on as national head of youth. It was too good an opportunity to miss.”
After four years he decided he’d had enough of the Hooray Henrying he’d been involved with – organising anti-Tony Blair stunts by – um, getting people to put on Tony Blair masks – and returned to the Isle of Wight for “a quieter life”. He had fully intended to pick up his degree where he left off, and got a place at Southampton University, where he took up student politics again. But, “well, after four years in work I found it really difficult, and I didn’t last very long at all. There aren’t many people who can say they’ve not finished Uni twice!”
Because his ties with his birthplace were never broken, he was elected to the council soon after settling back, and welcomed the contrast with London’s party politics: “Here, 95 per cent of my work is to do with people’s problems and concerns in Shanklin. It’s a reality check sometimes.”
So even the day after being put in place as Leader he is working out how he’s going to carry on looking after the people in his ward. “I am increasingly picking up a lot of calls at weekends. After all, if I don’t do that side of my job, the grass roots stuff, I won’t be elected again.”
So here he is, Leader of the Isle of Wight council, arguably the most powerful man on the Island. Is he now rich beyond his wildest dreams? Probably not, since his salary is £32,000 – which works out at around £8 per hour. But you feel that’s not his biggest concern.
Is he scared? “Yes, massively, it’s very daunting. I’m sorry Andy felt he needed to stand down – particularly as he’s been personally supportive of me. But although I’m the public face, I’m only one of seven or eight on the cabinet, and one of several thousand wider council workers who are doing the hard graft. It’s a real honour to do the decision making – but I can only do that by listening to what people have to say.”
So what is the fallout at the end of a week that can only be described as one of “shock and awe”? As well as Andy Sutton, his deputy leader stepping down. David is taking on housing and leisure, Alan Wells is in charge of children and young people, and George Brown is his number two, with emphasis on tourism. Apart from that there are no changes yet. “There’s no need to rush,” says David, “we’ve got all the other things covered. There isn’t going to be a night of the long knives! Councillors can sleep easy in their beds!”
Deputy Leader is the mature and experienced George Brown. “It’s a nice balance,” says David, “he’s got great business experience, but, even at my age, I’ve got more political experience than many people get over their whole careers, having worked in central office.”
Top of David’s “to do” list is education, and he is, he says, very aware of the polarised views on which direction to take regarding the Island’s schools. Teachers and parents are unsettled. “There is no point in us as a council deciding which way we want to go and expecting the professionals in education to follow. They know their stuff, they are focussed on getting it right. We need to work with them to win their hearts and minds.”
Does that imply decisions have already been made and he’s hoping a bit of team building will win over teachers? “No, nothing’s done and dusted. The issue of whether Year Nine go into Middle Schools is genuinely still not decided. We need to listen to the arguments on both sides to make an informed decision.”
Next is tourism and how it should be tackled. This is a prickly issue, which caused Nigel Smith, who was head of tourism on the council, to walk out. “He had a different view from us as to where he wanted to take tourism,” David says.
“We’re best at focussing on things we need to do to improve the island; the toilets, the appearance of the place. We’re not a marketing agency and we’re not there to provide a booking service or to market an individual’s business. With our policy on getting the infrastructure right we’re supporting the tourist industry by making it a pleasant place for people to come, so that we get the repeat business.”
There had been proposals for a joint venture with the ferry companies, but this foundered over disagreements over funding arrangements. Now David is concentrating on getting information centres in better positions so visitors arriving at, say, Ryde Pier, have the facts they need for their Island visit at their fingertips.
He is keen also to concentrate on niche markets in tourism. But while his predecessor ruffled feathers – and made the headlines – when he told Island Life that he’d like to ban coaches from the Island, David displays a bit of agile politicking. “Coaches have an ongoing role to play on the Island,” he says. “It’s important people come and have a good time, but it’s true that holiday makers in coaches don’t always spend a lot, and we need to boost the economy.”
Next on his big ‘to do’ list is housing. “We need to keep villages like Nettlestone or Arreton or Brighstone alive, so we are exploring the idea of covenanting council-owned land: sale of property on that land would be restricted to buyers within that town, or village, or at least the Island. That would really make a difference.
“Yet we don’t want to completely deter second home owners, they do add to the economy and often come here to invest.”
At the heart of the problem is lack of affordable homes, which David is keen to tackle. “Most people want to own their own home. In shared ownership schemes, we can “staircase” them up till they own their own outright. The Council has said we want every builder of a new unit to make a contribution to affordable housing. If that can’t be on the site being built, a monetary contribution should be put in a pot for affordable housing elsewhere. Some developers aren’t going to like it, but there is no easy solution.”
He cites the new roundabout at East Cowes as a good example of developers working with and for the infrastructure of the Island. Barratts, having built new houses, undertook the road scheme too. “In fact in law, every developer should make a contribution to highways, open space or even education when they build new houses,” says David. “In the past, Council has not been good at collecting the sums. Given that infrastructure is crucial to the whole strategy, this is something we should move on.”
What else can he do to help people get their own homes? Is it true the Council is about to do a bit of a Northern Rock? “That isn’t an example we’d particularly like to follow,” he laughs. “The Government has talked about offering mortgages, and we will explore the idea, but we would have to be very aware of the potential risk to many people. It would not be right to encourage or enable some people to take on a mortgage.”
For all his big ideas for the Island, it is David’s overall grasp of its needs that singles him out. “If we don’t get the education right we won’t have the skills that we need for the business and industry. We need more apprentice-type training, so that more young people, with their skills, stay here. Too many of our young people are going off the Island and not coming back.”
David’s predecessor went into the job with all guns blazing, saying he was not going to be told by his officers how to run the council. Is he about to do the same? “Andy needed to turn round poor practices in council, but different times call for different approaches. I am going to build on the lead Andy Sutton made. Our team of officers has completely changed, and we will draw on Andy’s example to reach out to councils like Westminster. We’ve been criticised for that approach, but if you want excellence, why not look to the best?”
And although he’s an Island boy he is frustrated by the attitude that can exist that all officials have to be Islanders. “It is refreshing to bring people in from the mainland, to have a fresh pair of eyes look at a problem. There are lots of councillors in the rest of the country, with different experiences. There is no point in us reinventing the wheel.”