Mayor Election 2016: Meet the mayor candidate: Charles Lucas
Charles Lucas thinks there is an upset on the cards. “We are in for a huge surprise,” he says with terrifying confidence in his Clifton Village office.
“The outgoing mayor, he’s upset a few people, we all know that – he’s had to make difficult decisions. But coupled with Labour in transition and a high turnout, I think we could cause an upset.”
We’re sitting in the bright and airy office on Princess Victoria Street, just five minutes from where the 46-year-old lives with his wife and three sons.
There are French and British flags on the shelf above him and empty wine bottles (decorative, not last night’s) to signify Lucas’s wine enthusiasm and “hobby” wine merchant business.
And there’s a copy of Bristol Property Live magazine to signify the Clifton councillor’s bread-and-butter business of property development.
Lucas is frank, direct and answers every question openly (except one – we’ll come to that later). A successful businessman, he’s polite but personable – dropping my first name as regularly as possible – and most of the time unwilling to criticise his fellow mayoral candidates.
He’s proudly Conservative, chairman of Clifton Conservatives no less, and unashamedly establishment. Boarding school, check, privately-educated children, check, Merchant Venturer, check, membership to the Clifton Club, check, tweed jacket and loafers, check…
“Yes, I am absolutely,” he says right away when I suggest he’s the establishment candidate. “The country as a whole chose to have the Conservative establishment run them because they believed it’s the best thing to do in difficult times.
“I have had experience running my own business, I know what it’s like to have good years and bad years, I know what it’s like to not have a salary some months and to have good times and bad – that’s life.
“Nobody should expect anything on a plate. But if you go out there and work hard, people should be rewarded for that.”
He calls himself a “free-spirited Conservative” – free from London control – who believes in the core values and is most certainly not a “career politician”.
But to focus solely on his establishment roots is unfair. He’s not keen to push it, but he’s happy to talk about his time on soup runs helping feed the growing number homeless in Bristol – a problem he is passionate about.
“I meet these people first-hand,” he says, “so I can understand what they need and what we need to do so we can try and put this right.”
One of the ways he plans to put it right is by kickstarting a major project of housebuilding using a similar model developed in Birmingham – a policy he is convinced Labour and the Greens have copied his lead on.
But won’t some people find it hard to take policy and advice about homelessness and the housing crisis from someone who develops luxury – “top-end executive”, as he puts it – homes?
“I don’t develop luxury homes in Bristol,” he says, before moving swiftly forward: “We need to build thousands of houses in Bristol.
“The Greens and Labour say we need 8,000,” he says, scrunching his nose and drawing back in his chair. “Actually we need to build more like 28,000. 8,000 is a drop in the ocean, but it’s a start.”
He argues that the solution is not through social housing and the like, but freeing up land and loosening regulations for the private sector
“The quickest way to free up stock is to move everybody up the property ladder. Supply and demand just means the prices are rising.
“We need to build more affordable housing, but we also need to release all the housing stock. As we move people up it will free up more spaces at the bottom and that’s the quickest way to get the homeless accommodated.”
We talk about what kind of council he wants to run and he says he is keen to make assets (the council owns 42 per cent of the city) work for us, either by monetising them or selling them.
He promises to make “swingeing cuts” within the council’s administration in order to protect key services under threat from reduced funding from the Conservative Government.
“Officers will tell you it’s not possible to make any more cuts. I disagree,” he says referencing a recent planning committee he sat on for the arena where there were four service directors – all paid handsome, six-figure sums.
“I have no intension of cutting services. I would change the way the council is administered, absolutely. I do believe that some services are so important that we must be prepared to make difficult decisions in order to fund it.”
We take a break from his office and head out into Clifton Village, stopping before we leave to admire his collection of flags – another hobby of his. There’s also time for a quick glance over his bookshelf where we find autobiographies of Bill Clinton and Margaret Thatcher and, erm, Michael Schumacher. There are also two books on the Blair years (“so I can understand where it all went wrong”).
“I live here and work here. I’m all about trying to maintain it and improve it,” he says of Clifton as we step out of the front door and head down the road towards the Avon Gorge Hotel.
He laughs when I mention residents parking zones as the biggest story to come out of the area recently. He believes he was elected on the back of RPZs after campaigning in favour of them.
“I lived with it in London 20-odd years ago and it worked then. Parking was such a joke in Clifton and Cliftonwood. 85 per cent, 90 per cent, tell me they are happy now.”
He believes that the protests – which even saw a tank driven through his ward – were a storm in a teacup from the minority.
A Formula One fan (if the Schumacher book is anything to go by), Lucas is a self-confessed petrol head. “I’m pro-motorist. Tell everybody I’m pro-motorist,” he wags his finger as we walk past the Clifton Suspension Bridge.
“Let’s get away from this anti the motorist. Surely, you must agree? It’s very important that there is safe cycling. I’m all for it. I’m for freedom of choice. If I want to ride a bike, I want to ride a bike. If I want to take a bus, I want to take a bus. If I want to drive my car, I want to drive my car. All three things I’ve done in the last week. I don’t want to be prevented from doing this by an idealist.”
One of his big plans is to take the M32 into local authority hands and open the hard shoulder to get an extra lane of traffic to move vehicles faster into the city centre.
I ask him what car he drives. “What’s that got to do with it?” Well, if you drive a tank, for example, I begin. He says he’s looking into getting a hybrid.
On the third time of asking he replies: “I do have a family of three teenage boys. I’ve got nothing to hide. I drive a BMW X5 (four by four).”
We stop in front of the old NatWest bank on the corner of The Mall and Caledonia Place. “Hey, you know what’s coming here, don’t you? The Ivy,” he says.
“What a fantastic use. It’s brilliant for Clifton. The first time The Ivy has come out of London and it’s come to Bristol. Isn’t it great?”
I suggest that an exclusive restaurant is not great for everyone. “No it’s not, but it will attract investment and create jobs, so every little helps,” he says.
We touch briefly on the Labour Party mantra that Bristol is a divided city. “If we can focus on what we should be, which is building and continuing to attract investment to strengthen the economy and create new jobs we generate more wealth for everybody, that will help overcome the disparity for all the city,” he responds.
Lucas is very careful not to point fingers, name names and generally stoop down to a personal level. But he has strong views on his Labour counterpart, and can’t resist a cheeky jab.
“They’ve selected a candidate who was beaten four years ago and in my view – this isn’t personal – a Labour mayor would be Mr Corbyn’s puppet.”
I suggest Marvin is far from a Corbynista. “But he’s not distancing himself from Mr Corbyn. Let’s be honest, the trade unions are funding all this, and your paymasters will always come back and ask for their due dividends.”
Lucas sets himself apart from Rees and “the Labour machine” behind him. “I can tell you, I’ve had no direct financial support from London,” he insists.
He says he is independent from London as we come back around to the great upset he is predicting in May: “I’ve made it very clear that when the surprise happens on May 8 and you’re all suddenly wanting to talk to me, if Conservative Party central office all jump on the train and say ‘can we come and get some photographs?’ the answer will be no.”
Bristol24/7 is hosting a mayoral hustings featuring all candidates at The Lantern at 7pm on Thursday, April 28. Entrance is first come first served. For more information, visit www.colstonhall.org/shows/mayoral-hustings/