Pembroke in charge

Jeremy Pembroke will be formally elected today as Leader of Suffolk County Council. EADT Political Editor GRAHAM DINES has been talking to the first Tory in command for 12 years, one of the three new boys in East Anglian politics.

Jeremy Pembroke will be formally elected today as Leader of Suffolk County Council. EADT Political Editor GRAHAM DINES has been talking to the first Tory in command for 12 years, one of the three new boys in East Anglian politics.

HIGH finance and the rural way of life are deeply embedded in the character of Jeremy Pembroke, who after less than four years as a member of the authority now finds himself the Leader of Suffolk County Council.

It was in June 2001 that he was elected for the Babergh-Cosford division, an area in which he had lived for 32 years and where his wife Diana was county councillor between 1989 and 1993.

Within a year, he was finance spokesman, presenting the Conservative Party's opposition to the joint Labour-Liberal Democrat proposal to raise council tax by 11.9%.

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"I remember my closing words very clearly: `To the people of Suffolk I say this. You will have to dig in and may well have to dig deep. But in three years' time, the wind of change will flow through county hall.'

"Little did I realise at the time how deep they would have to dig and just what would be the political repercussions.

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With then Tory leader Sue Sida-Lockett standing down to concentrate on the East of England Regional Assembly and her deputy Colin Barrow moving to London - where he is now Deputy Leader of Westminster City Council - he was asked to take control of the opposition with the task of guiding the Tories back to power.

And so at the 60, Mr Pembroke started to shape the Tories into a mean fighting machine to take on Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Within a year, his task suddenly became a whole lot easier when the joint administration, with barely a note of regret, hiked council tax by a massive 18.5%.

It was the single most unpopular decision made by the County Council since it was created by the 1974 reform of local government. There was to be no hiding from the anger and backlash of council tax payers, especially pensioners, the elderly, and those on fixed incomes.

If Labour and the Liberal Democrats had been hoping that subsequent low council tax rises would dim the electorate's memory of years of well-above inflation increases, they were to be mistaken. The Conservatives gained control of Suffolk earlier this month, winning 45 of the 75 seats.

Jeremy Pembroke takes charge of the county's largest employer with a work force of 27,000 and a budget of £818.3million.

Just when did he believe the Tories take charge of the council and he would become leader? "As soon as the 18.5% increase was announced and within a short space of time, Labour and the Liberal Democrats wanted to burden the council tax payers with 90 county councillors, that made me very aware just how out of touch they were with life in Suffolk.

"I realised that if we kept our message straight and we kept it simple, there was every chance we would form the next administration."

However, with Tory control has come a big downer - the party has just one representative in Ipswich and none in Lowestoft. Control went to the Tories because of their surge in rural areas, Felixstowe, Bury St Edmunds, Stowmarket, Haverhill and Great Cornard.

"I am greatly concerned at our lack of councillors in the two major urban areas of Suffolk," he admits. "When the dust gas settled, we will have to discover why.

"It has caused a polarisation between urban and rural areas, so we Tories have to work very hard indeed to let the people of Ipswich and Lowestoft know that they are very much in our thoughts."

The Conservatives fear that not just Suffolk but all shire counties are likely to receive a raw deal from the re-elected Labour government when it comes to council tax support next year, and they are working to keep spending under control.

But the incoming administration does have some priorities - a children's university for the county, a structured programme of highways maintenance and the restoration of twice yearly verge cutting, 20mph speed zones outside schools which want them, recruitment of community wardens, and increased respite care for the elderly.

Mr Pembroke is a keen supporter of involving young people in decision making and he will encourage the use of the public space at Endeavour House - the council's headquarters in Ipswich - for young musicians and artists. He also hopes to meet regularly with secondary school youth forums to listen to the concerns of the next generation of voters.

And how does he hope to be judged in four years' time when the Tories have to face the voters again? "Three things - that the County Council is a good place to work, that we are looking after the pennies, and that we are trying to improve services. If it is not a good place to work in, we can't deliver the other two."

There is life outside the County Council for Jeremy Pembroke. He was Joint Master of the Essex and Suffolk Foxhounds for eight seasons, is Treasurer of the Hadleigh Farmers Agricultural Association, is a former Steward of the Suffolk Show, and acts as judge at point-to-point meetings throughout East Anglia.

"Point-to-points are my passion but late in life I have come to love and appreciate opera. In my youth, I was a member of the Stock Exchange Cross Channel Swimming relay team - I swam six legs and we finished runners-up in the competition."

Born in Louth in Lincolnshire, raised in Richmond-on-Thames and educated at St Paul's School, he left home at the age of 17 to make his way in the world, and headed for the Stock Exchange with all its mega bucks riches.

When he was 21, he joined Hambros, the respected merchant bankers, where he worked until it was taken over by the South African firm Investo. He stuck with the new firm for a further two years, before retiring.

It was in 1969 that Diana and Jeremy Pembroke moved to Suffolk, firstly to Groton before settling down in 1975 to live a couple of miles away in Kersey Tye.

"We wanted to move out of London and Liverpool Street was the nearest mainline station to my office," says Mr Pembroke. "We gradually worked our way down the line, looking at places in which we might like to live.

"We decided to search within a 20 mile radius of Colchester, but even in those days, we thought Essex was becoming crowded. We liked the look of Suffolk. moved to the county, and have absolutely no regrets."

The Pembrokes have two children. Their son William, who lives in Nedging, works for an American insurance broker in the City of London, and is married to Lucy, a drama teacher at Orwell Park School, who is a former personal assistant to composer Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Their daughter Victoria lives in Wiltshire. She teaches at special schools, has a degree in theatre studies, and has appeared in several stage productions, including The Pillow Man at the National Theatre.

"The family has had an enormously happy life in Suffolk and we have never regretted once moving here. We've made some terrific friends.

"I know it sounds old fashioned, but I thought that after my retirement, I wanted to contribute something to the county and the community in which we lived so I stood for election to the County council."

Four years on, and he's now in charge, bringing a knowledge of high finance and a love of the rural way of life to the office of Leader.

IN the coming weeks, Graham Dines will be profiling the two other political New Boys in the region - Douglas Carswell, the Conservative MP for Harwich, and Braintree's Tory MP Brooks Newmark.

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