FROM working the night shift at in an ice cream factory to meeting President Obama – it’s been quite the journey for the leader of Newport’s Conservative group Cllr Matthew Evans.

IAN CRAIG met him at the Café at the Ridgeway to talk about how he got into politics, what he thinks are the biggest issues in the city and the place of Conservativism in Newport.

AS far as having strong family links to Newport goes, you can’t get more genuine than being able to trace your lineage back to one of the members of the Chartist movement.

So leader of the city’s Conservative group Cllr Matthew Evans, who is descended on his mother’s side from John Partridge, who printed publications for the group and was jailed for hiding the movement’s leader John Frost from the authorities, has a rare claim.

The long-serving Allt-Yr-Yn ward member was first elected to Newport City Council, then Newport County Borough Council. in 1999, served as leader in a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition between 2008 and 2012 and was mayor during the 2014-2015 civic year, during which time he met President Obama during the 2014 Nato summit.

Born and raised in Newport, after leaving school Cllr Evans worked in catering across the UK, including in an ice cream factory, before coming back to the city in 1990 to set up a corporate catering business, which he ran for nine years before it was sold.

He said it was during his time away from the city that he developed a passion for politics and Conservatism.

“I was interested in politics in school, but I suppose it was when I worked as a catering manager at the Lyons Maid ice cream factory in London as night manager it started,” he said.

“At the time in the mid-80s it was pretty much run by the unions.

“I can recall an issue where I realised staff were taking, not small amounts of stock, but large amounts of stock, and when I stopped and confronted them I was hauled in front of the union person.

“At the time my political opinions were formed that this wasn’t a way to run businesses.”

Although Cllr Evans became truly political active while the Conservative Party was in decline following the highs of the 1980’s Thatcher government, heading towards the lows of the 1997 Labour landslide, he said his allegiance had never swayed.

“There was a time when John Major was in power that I looked at the Lib Dems and other alternatives, but for all the faults, and I can say I wasn’t a big fan of John Major, it was pretty much always Conservative for me,” he said.

Frustrated about issues he saw as being caused by the Labour-run county borough council, Cllr Evans said he had decided to stand in the 1999 local government election, and was elected at his first try.

“At that time there were 46 Labour councillors and one Conservative,” he said. “It wasn’t a good time to be a Conservative.

“Nevertheless I managed to take the seat from Labour.”

He added: “I always thought if you want to do something about it you can always stand and make a difference.

“My daughters were fairly young at the time and I had just sold my business so I felt why not?

“Lots of people say they’ve got to do something, buts it’s a question of doing it.”

The council’s Conservative group led by Cllr Evans shocked the city when it teamed up with the Liberal Democrat group to wrestle power from Labour and lead a coalition after the 2008 election.

Although the group lasted just a single council term, with Labour taking back control in 2012, it achieved a lot during its five years in power, including signing the agreements which led to the development of Friars Walk.

Reflecting on his time in power, Cllr Evans said: “People said ‘why didn’t you just stay in opposition? It would have been easier to stay in opposition. That’s not what you go into local politics for, you go into local politics to make a difference.

“It’s all very well being in opposition, but if you’ve never been in control of the council you don’t know what’s going on.

“When you become leader of the opposition again having been leader of the council there’s a lot more you know.”

He said agreeing the Friars Walk deal, which was later taken forward and completed by Labour when they took back control of the council, was the proudest moment of his time in charge of the authority.

“We went back to the drawing board and looked at what developers wanted,” he said.

“If they wanted a bus station there we said fine, we’d put the bus station there, if they wanted it moved we’d move it.

“It was clearing all the hurdles including CPOing (Compulsory Purchase Order) the land to ensure the development site was ready. If we needed to have battles, which we did with people like Iceland at the time, I was more than happy to stand up and accuse Iceland of getting in the way of the development.

“I’m glad Labour continued with the scheme, but I can say ultimately I think it’s made a huge difference.

“That’s part of the legacy.”

He added: “We had plenty to celebrate in the four years

“I don’t have any regrets.”

He said key to running a good council was to make sure basic issues such as litter and dog fouling are handled.

“It’s about the environment you live in, if you can walk out of the door and you don’t see rubbish or dog mess and you can send your kids to a good school – that’s all people really want on a local level,” he said.

“You’ve got to ensure you get those basics right, make sure you’ve got good social services to look after people when they need it, an education system when they need.

“It just sickens me when you see people have just come out and just chucked rubbish on the streets.

“It’s the same as the broken window syndrome – if you don’t have a broken window on a building the building will remain intact.

“As soon as windows are broken and it’s left, before you know it all the windows are broken and paint daubed over it and everything else.

“It’s important and it doesn’t cost huge amounts of money to get the basics right.

“Most of the complaints I get are along those lines, about litter and dog fouling and general respect for the environment.”

He added: “I am not too precious about who runs the service, nor are the public, as long as it’s a quality service and you’ve got best value for money I don’t think people care.”

He said a major struggle was to improve the reputation of the city, seen by many as the poor cousin of places such as Cardiff and Bristol.

“I suppose it’s understandable in a way, people here have been let down so many times when you see the developments going on in Cardiff and surrounding areas,” he said.

“But even something like the Ryder Cup coming to Newport (in 2010) should have been a great opportunity, but the amount of negativity around it, with people saying ‘it’s only a few rich golfers coming’ saddens me and angers me.

“We’ve got places like the Celtic Manor who employ something like 700 full-time members of staff and contribute £20 million plus to the local economy.

“I know loads of cities round the world would have bitten their right arms off to have an opportunity like the Ryder Cup.

“Yes, it’s been a difficult time, but ultimately everyone has got to pull together and make it a success.”

He added: “Newport has so much unfulfilled potential but we keep wanting to dumb it down to the lowest common denominator.

“There’s never been any real ambition for the future and it still frustrates the hell out of me that we are sitting in meeting and talking about little workshops going on, but the big picture is we need more quality hotels in the city centre, we need more people working and living in the city centre.

“We are in an ideal position location-wise, just off the M4 with road and rail links, we’ve got the countryside, we’ve got Tredegar House which is a great asset.

“We’ve got problems like any other city, but slagging it off isn’t going to help. Who wants to come to a place where people say ‘don’t bother coming to Newport, there’s nothing to do’.”

The Conservative Party has traditionally struggled in Newport, with the city being represented by Labour MPs for more than 30 years and the council rarely being out of Labour’s control.

May’s Local Government Election saw the Conservative group gain two extra seats, but still remain the second-largest party, and the General Election earlier this month saw Labour MPs Jessica Morden and Paul Flynn re-elected comfortably, despite predictions at the start of the campaign the Tories could make gains.

Although he said he was “disappointed and surprised” by the result earlier this month, Cllr Evans said he was under no illusions about the scale of the challenge faced by Conservative activists in the city.

“Bear in mind with one exception in 1983 Newport has been solid Labour,” he said. “Even in Gordon Brown's darkest day in 2008 Labour were still the largest party, they’ve got a big organisation with two AMs and two MPs. They’ve always had a large number of councillors.

“It’s always going to be an incredibly difficult nut to crack.

“I think it partly goes back to the steel works and people’s views of Thatcher.”

But he said he did believe things were changing.

“It’s always been a socialist city,” he said.

“But you can’t get used to it because I always think we’ll be able to change it and have Conservative MPs in Newport East or West or AMs.

“But Labour is part of the DNA of Newport.”