Liz taking Ipswich to the top

Liz Harsant is a Conservative with a social conscience. Now she's been elected leader of one of East Anglia's largest district councils, the avid Ipswich Town supporter tells EADT Political Editor Graham Dines she is determined to practice what she preachesCRITICS said it would never last.

Liz Harsant is a Conservative with a social conscience. Now she's been elected leader of one of East Anglia's largest district councils, the avid Ipswich Town supporter tells EADT Political Editor Graham Dines she is determined to practice what she preaches

CRITICS said it would never last. The Liberal Democrats, who had shared power with Labour on Suffolk County Council for 11 years, suddenly joined forces with Conservatives in Ipswich nearly 12 months' ago to remove the Labour clique which had run the borough since 1979.

Liz Harsant had been a member of the borough council for just 12 months when Labour suffered a calamitous collapse in support at the May 2004 elections. It clung to power on the casting vote of the mayor because a new Liberal Democrat council declined to change her holiday plans to attend the annual meeting.

But just five months later, Labour threw down the gauntlet to the Lib Dems. "Back us, or sack us." Labour was out on its ear and after negotiations over policy, the Lib Dems went into a Conservative-led administration.

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Mrs Harsant joined the ruling Cabinet but when council leader Dale Jackson quit to face a hearing brought by the Local Government Standards Board, she was elected acting leader and was confirmed leader at the annual meeting this year.

"It's a great privilege to be given such a vote of confidence. Ipswich has a bright future – it's a vibrant town and is going from strength to strength," says Mrs Harsant, who has been involved in Tory Party politics for 40 years but only took an active civic role when she retired from work.

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Liz Harsant is 62 and was born in Oxfordshire when her father was serving in the Army. After the war, he joined Blue Circle Cement and after initially working in Leamington Spa, he moved as manager to the Great Blakenham site and the family settled in Ipswich.

"I left school aged 15½. Mr father asked me if I wanted to be a nurse or a secretary. I said nurse, but he decided I wasn't suited and sent me to learn shorthand, typing and book-keeping."

With a Pitman's shorthand certificate for 120 words a minute and an advanced typing certificate, she started work for Hare and Pert, the architects in Elm Street, earning £3.50 a week.

Various jobs followed, including at the Red Poll Cattle Society and the Newmarket Blood Stock Agency. She continued to work after marrying her first husband Mark and the birth of their two daughters Samantha and Rachel. "I needed the money," she says unashamedly.

After her divorce, she married self-employed building surveyor Russell Harsant and she branched out to legal work, initially with Ipswich solicitors Woodham Smith and after sitting examinations, Mrs Harsant qualified as a conveyance.

"Believing that a golden future was ahead of me, I went into partnership and we set up our own firm. But we were hit for six when Chancellor Nigel Lawson ended double tax relief in the late 1980s, whereby couples could both claim exemption on a mortgage.

"It was hectic between the announcement and the introduction of the ban – people were queuing up to buy homes without even looking at them simply to get on the housing ladder,

"Then came a housing slump. It was a bad time in my life – I thought we were going to lose our own house because it had been used as collateral on the business."

Not one to feel sorry for herself, she got a temporary job with BT at Martlesham and then worked for a pharmaceuticals software author Kirsten Baker Munton, based at Bildeston, then worked for his wife Nicola Baker Munton>, finally retiring in 1999.

Politics had always been in her life, having served two spells as Chairman of the Ipswich Conservative Association and acting as agents at numerous elections. She stood unsuccessfully for the county council in 2001, was elected a borough councillor for Holywells ward in 2003, and was re-elected with a doubled majority the following year.

Her great compassion in social issues marks her out from many in the Conservative Party. "I've always argued that the Tories should do more as a party for the less fortunate.

"I helped found the Ipswich Night Centre for the disadvantaged, which is open from 8pm to 10pm at weekends, providing hot drinks, food and clothing.

"I'm also involved with the Ipswich Community Playbus, which goes into deprived areas helping mothers to learn to play with children and also tries to answer benefits inquiries."

Her personal vision sounds very non-Tory. "I'd like us to set up a proper night shelter very different from those operated by the Salvation Army. It would help the homeless and the less fortunate, giving them temporary accommodation and offering advice on all the problems they have. Then, after 28 days, they would be given a roof over their heads in the community.

"We must also have more affordable homes in Ipswich and I favour developments with a social mix which can be found in the new Ravenswood area of the town – I don't like the principle of ghettoisation, building tag-on social housing in expensive housing areas."

Until recently, Mrs Harsant was a regular attendee at Conservative Party conferences. "Not any more. Tory conferences are so structured that they have lost their appeal for me.

"No-one is allowed to criticise and fringe meetings, which were a platform for leading Tories to put forward opposing and controversial views, are no longer fun.

"I shall not be at the Blackpool conference in October, but will be in Ipswich, concentrating on council business. The joint administration with the Lib Dems has been going remarkably well. We have been able to work together and agree an agenda that is benefiting the people of Ipswich.

"We want to drive our policies forward and to do that, we have to be re-elected in May," says Mrs Harsant. "Transport is a big issue for Ipswich – people have to accept that they cannot keep driving into the town centre.

"But we have to ensure public transport is improved and if there is a clean, efficient, and frequent bus network, our hope is that will encourage people to leave their cars at home.

"What has annoyed me is the overhaul of bus routes which First Group is introducing this month in Ipswich without any consultation. People are upset and quite rightly so."

With husband Russell the only Tory county councillor in Ipswich, Mrs Harsant recognises that the Conservatives in charge of Suffolk could overlook the county town.

"I'm here to make sure Ipswich is not neglected. If there are battles ahead, I'll make sure Ipswich gets its fair share of funding."

She pays tribute to husband Russell. "I wouldn't be doing this work without his love and loyal support."

And then there's her love of football. An avid fan of Ipswich Town, she's a season ticket holder at Portman Road, and during the two years when the Club was last in the Premiership, she and best friend Rosemary Clarke – the new county councillor for Wilford in Suffolk Coastal – travelled the country supporting The Blues.

"We have great memories of the most recent European campaign. We went to Moscow, Milan, and Copenhagen cheering Ipswich. That UEFA Cup run was fantastic and absolutely brilliant for the people of Ipswich."

As for this season in the Football League Championship, she thinks the team is too dependent on young players. "I would like to predict promotion and realistically the best we can hope for is to reach the play-offs again.

"When Ipswich was in the Premiership, it propelled our town to national attention. I would like to hope we can look forward to that again very soon."


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