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Long-serving County Council leader steps down

Thursday, 18 April 2024 08:28

By Bradley Gerrard, local democracy reporter

Image: LDRS

John Hart leaves after 15 years

John Hart will step down as leader of Devon County Council after 15 years in the role, a move that will kickstart a race to replace him among the Conservative Party.

Cllr Hart (Conservative, Wembury and Bickleigh) said it is “the right time” for him to stand down, given his view that the council was “in a good position”.

After becoming Conservative leader in 2007, Cllr Hart secured election victory in 2009, and led the party to its fourth successive election win in 2021.

The Devon Conservatives will now vote to decide the county’s new leader, with Cllr Hart remaining in post until that is completed.

Devon’s Conservatives have their annual general meeting on Monday 29 April, where a leader should be selected, with this decision then getting confirmed by full council in May.

Cllr Hart cited Devon’s success last month in securing £95 million of government funding to tackle the county’s gaping special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) budget deficit, which is predicted to surpass a cumulative £160 million this year.

While the cash provides an injection of funds, detractors highlight that SEND’s escalating budget has occurred under the Conservatives’ watch.

Cllr Hart, however, highlighted what the government cash has allowed Devon to do.

“We’ve managed the budget this year so that we can now propose an allocation of an extra £10 million to repairing potholes and carrying out extra drainage work on our roads,” he said.

“We’ve concluded an agreement with the government for £95 million of national funding to support our special needs education and, within weeks, we will hopefully finalise our devolution deal.”

Devon and Torbay’s respective cabinets will this month decide whether to submit a final proposal to become a combined county authority, or CCA, something about which Cllr Hart has campaigned vigorously.

He was first elected to his home ward of Wembury and Erme in 1989 and now represents Wembury and Bickleigh after boundary changes.

“It has been a real privilege and pleasure to serve the people of Devon for so long and I particularly want to thank the people of my ward for their continued support,” he said.

“Devon is the county in which I grew up and have lived all my life, in which I’ve run my family business, got married and raised my children and it is the county which I love.

“I must pay tribute to my wife Rita and my children for their support, which has enabled me to do this job in the way that I have.”

Julian Brazil (Liberal Democrat, Kingsbridge), who leads South Hams District Council, said Cllr hart had “certainly put in his shift”

“While we might disagree from the perspective of national politics, locally John has been an exceptional public servant for Devon, and I applaud him for that and wish him well.

“These last few years have been incredibly tough, and I think that whoever was leading the council would have found it difficult, so I totally understand why feels he wants to step down.”

Devon’s longest-serving MP, Sir Gary Streeter, said: “John has been a tower of strength in the life of the county for three decades or more.

“He has been a great servant to the people of Devon and epitomises the best principles of public service. On top of all that, he has been a wise counsellor to me on many occasions.”

Christine Channon preceded John Hart as Conservative leader and was county council leader for two years during the coalition administration between 2001 and 2005.

She said: “John combines great political skills with a limitless capacity for hard work.

“He’s known for being at his desk early in the morning and he’s still there when almost everybody else has gone home.

“His door is always open to councillors of all political persuasion as well as council officers. They are customarily greeted with great good humour, and he always listens to their concerns.”

Cllr Hart listed several career highlights, including the “major reorganisation” of education in Exeter and winning a £100 million contract, which saw all five secondary schools rebuilt with a big increase in exam standards, as well as the development of several new primary schools.

He also led the council through the austerity years from 2010, as well as the covid lockdowns, during which Team Devon, the organisation he set up with the county’s district, town and parish councils and national parks, helped get support to vulnerable residents.

A Devon County Council spokesperson added that under Cllr Hart’s leadership, the county council had invested £2 billion on infrastructure, including the construction of the South Devon Link Road, major improvements to the North Devon Link Road, the opening of Okehampton railway station and the introduction of daily train services to Exeter.

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