Councillor Jon-Paul Howarth: 'I wanted to be the one who bangs the drum for this area'
Four and a half year years ago a track-suited teenager from the East Marsh became the youngest person ever elected onto North East Lincolnshire Council. In the latest of his series profiling our ward councillors, local government reporter Simon Faulkner speaks to Labour’s Jon-Paul Howarth.
THE McMenemy Suite at Blundell Park is where Jon-Paul Howarth's unlikely journey into politics began.
The fresh-faced teenager from the East Marsh had just received the Grimsby Telegraph sponsored volunteer of the year award when he was asked by the then council leader Andrew De Freitas if he had ever thought about becoming a councillor.
The short answer was no. At the time, Jon-Paul didn't even know what a councillor was.
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Yet just over a year later, aged 18, he became the youngest person ever to be elected onto North East Lincolnshire Council.
The former Strand Juniors and Havelock School pupil stood as a Liberal Democrat candidate – a decision which had less to do with party politics than his respect for ward councillor Steve Beasant, a "community politician" of the type he aspired to be.
Jon-Paul himself was already well known in the neighbourhood, a factor which made the rigours of a first election campaign easier to negotiate.
"I couldn't see the hard work of it because I was knocking on the doors of people that I knew. The job of getting people to know you was already done."
A volunteer at the Shalom Centre Youth Centre in Rutland Street, where he had been going since the age of 13, Jon-Paul also began attending meetings of the East Marsh Involve community forum.
It was here that he found his voice as a "champion of young people", speaking up for their interests while others were blaming them for the neighbourhood's ills.
He believes his lack of years proved more of a help than a hindrance on the doorstep.
"Only one person said I'm not voting for you, you are too young. Most of the time, people were saying it's about time we had someone young."
Ironically the first thing that struck him on entering the council chamber was the immature behaviour of the other members, most of whom were more than twice his age.
"As someone who worked in a youth club and had not long left school I looked at these people as grown-ups making decisions and then I heard them talking about each other and making sly digs and I just thought what the hell's going on here?"
As someone keen to see the long-awaited East Marsh regeneration come to fruition, Jon-Paul was also dismayed by the extent of council bureaucracy, and the length of time it took to get things done.
"I wanted to be the person banging the drum for this area, but I never knew it would take so long. I had come in at 18 thinking, great, I can do this and this and this, and then you go to a meeting where you spend three hours talking about tiny things like how much we are going to spend on our next leaflets.
Jon-Paul made his own drastic change of direction in February 2009, when he chose to leave the ruling Lib Dems for Labour in protest at a budget proposal to cut funding to the Citizens Advice Bureau.
"Straight away I thought that this goes against everything that I believe in and the Lib Dem group, who I thought would be saying exactly the same, were shushing me up, saying we've got to make savings."
And conversations with the Labour councillors convinced him that it was their party that shared his principles and beliefs.
Although he said the decision itself was easy, dealing with the public's reaction was less so.
"When I read the comments on the Grimsby Telegraph website there were people saying I had spat my dummy out and criticising me because I was young.
"It was the hardest time I have had as a councillor. I just thought what have I got myself into here? But once I got out of the town hall bubble and came back into the East Marsh I realised that most people didn't really care.
"When I was campaigning last year I think about three people said they were disappointed because they voted for a Lib Dem. All I could do was explain what I did, which was to protect the CAB, and I think that was right."
However, just six months later Jon-Paul walked out on Labour after refusing to support the party's bid to oust council leader Andrew De Freitas over the Icelandic banks fiasco.
"It was just a personal political attack", says Jon-Paul, who by voting with the Lib Dems to save his former colleague, defeated the motion to remove him from office.
After informing his Labour colleagues on the night of the full council meeting that he would not be supporting their "witch-hunt", he was told they were putting the whip on him.
"In my naivety I had no idea what it meant. It just sounded silly."
He soon found out. After a stormy meeting with his party colleagues and finding himself increasingly isolated, Jon-Paul felt his only option was to become an independent.
"There were a lot of people telling me what an idiot I was. There was no one at the side of me saying I did the right thing."
However, a letter from Canon Michael Hunter, the then Rector of Grimsby, proved a valuable source of moral support.
"He didn't say whether I was right or wrong, but he said that he admired the courage I had to make the decision. That was a great help."
In time, the rift with Labour healed, and eventually he was welcomed back into the fold.
"I had a meeting with the group and I said I may have been stubborn in walking out. I apologised to the group and no one has ever looked back. I think the Labour group we've got now is a really strong team. We have got people from all different walks of life. You couldn't ask for a better group of people."
And yet, with just six months to go before last year's election, Jon-Paul was not planning to defend his seat.
"I have always said I became a councillor to help the East Marsh and I was thinking that I could still help Doris in Nelson House without being called Councillor Howarth.
"But I decided there were still things I could do as a councillor to make a positive difference. There are more benefits to being a councillor than negatives."
One of his proudest achievements as a councillor was establishing the annual East Marsh Community Champions Awards.
But he insists that one of the most fulfilling aspects of being a councillor is helping residents in need.
"I can still remember the first thank you card I got, and even now, when someone takes the time to say thank you, there's that sense that whatever rubbish comes with being a councillor, you can have an impact on people's lives."
With his favourite hobbies including frequenting the watering holes of the East Marsh, Jon-Paul's downtime can often turn into an extended ward surgery.
"I could hold ward surgeries every Friday night in a church and probably no one would come. But if I go in the White Bear or the Casablanca I can guarantee I will get at least two jobs."
Not that he minds.
"It bothers my friends more than me. I don't really feel the need to switch off from being a councillor. When I'm in the youth club on a space hopper dressed as Mr Incredible running around like a lunatic with a load of kids, you can't get more out of the town hall than that."
Nor does he have any wish to be anywhere other than the East Marsh.
Until recently he worked as a community support worker for East Marsh Involve at Foresight in Newmarket Street, and hopes his next job will also involve working with the local community.
"I have lived on the East Marsh all my life. When I left home to find my own place, I never once thought of moving somewhere else.
"Within five minutes I've got everything I'm ever going to need. I've got brilliant neighbours, a brilliant community, Shalom on my doorstep, the Casablanca on my doorstep and Asda close by.
"It gets put down a lot but when you look at what the East Marsh has got – and nothing more so than the people – it's a brilliant place to live."
Although Jon Paul, now 23, says he is enjoying being a councillor more than ever, he insists it is too early to say whether he will stand again in three and a half years time.
The priority for him remains the same as it did when he was first elected – East Marsh regeneration.
"We have seen snippets of regeneration and the long term aim has got to be for that to happen from Freeman Street to Rutland Street. The people in the East Marsh are brilliant but some of the accommodation we've got doesn't match."