HE is the clerk of clerks, the authority on local authorities, the consummate professional who knows more than it’s perhaps healthy to know about local government acts in the Isle of Man.
But after 29 years in his post as clerk (40 with the authority) Port Erin commissioners’ clerk Mike Kewley has retired, intent on spending more time with his family, in the garden and on the golf course.
When he joined the authority as assistant clerk to Doris Kelly, in March 1973, at the age of 22, life in Port Erin – and therefore the role of the authority – was quite different to what it is today.
‘Tourism was at its peak,’ he said. ‘We employed seasonal workers, three for the deck-chairs and wind-breaks. The swimming pool [at Traie Meanagh] was operational, we had seasonal staff for that and one lifeguard, it had a chute and diving boards, the weekly galas were still going. We’d get chlorine bottles from ICI for the pool that was virtually tidal.’
He said safety inspectors would check water safety within arm’s length of the pool side, ‘goodness knows what was going on the middle!’
The old Breagle Glen and Bradda Glen premises ran during the season and were controlled by the office, who did all the ordering for the catering. Hotels on the promenade were brimming with visitors.
Housing estates started to be developed (from the promenade back) and housing now stretches to the Four Roads.
‘It’s got more difficult to know everybody as the village has expanded,’ he said. ‘The test is on election day whether you can find them before they hand in their poll card. You can surprise them by knowing where they live before they get to the table.’
He inherited a system of working based largely on that used when the authority was established, in 1887. During his time, thanks to technology and the changing nature of the business, that has been revolutionised.
‘The [office’s] first mobile phone [or the work supervisor] was like a house brick, that was in the mid-1990s,’ he said.
An unwelcome addition has been more rigorous accounting requirements. ‘There has been an increased financial burden because of internal audits and professional charges. You do wonder what’s in it for the ratepayer. It costs £10,000 to £12,000. What do they see for it? That could be getting spent on amenities.’
The job can involve some emotive issues, so requires careful handling. Of great help, and this has helped to make him a very popular clerk, has been his baseline courteous approach to people. ‘Treat people as you like to be treated yourself really, that’s the general attitude,’ he said.
‘A lot of local authority stuff can be confrontational, you are dealing with issues where there is lots of emotion … there are people with rent arrears, you do everything you can to try to reach a suitable compromise for all parties … if they have not got the money and cannot pay [the rent], but if they just pay a bit or got to take more serious action, you have got to make people aware they have got a responsibility to make their own efforts as well.
‘Over the years that sense of responsibility has been waning, there is a change in mindset in general in expectations.’
His role as clerk of Marashen Crescent Housing Committee (providing sheltered housing, including the new Rheart y Chrink development) has been the most rewarding task. ‘Every decade there has been a new development. The number of units was 32, now it is 137 [when they’re completed in September]. There has been tremendous progress – I find that on the whole the most rewarding part of it. You can see the benefit, the improvement in the lives of tenants and from some health professionals you get positive feedback.’
Local government reform has been on the table ever since he joined the authority, but the housing review could have a huge impact, he said.
‘Housing is an essential function of local authorities, if it is taken out, there will be a reduced function of the local authority.’
This uncertainty means now is a good time to retire. ‘It needs someone with a newer outlook,’ he said. A highlight has been, ‘The satisfaction in being able to help people through housing or whatever. There are decisions made by authorities that can change people’s lives.’
Plus the odd royal encounter. ‘When the Duchess of Kent visited, it [the fog] was as thick as a bag, she looked over what should have been the bay and she was heard to ask: “What’s out there? Is it a housing estate?”’
• Phil Crellin, the authority’s longest-serving commissioner, said: ‘Mr Kewley is professional and caring and always has that old fashioned sense of community. He will be sadly missed, not just by the people of Port Erin, but also by the whole community of local authorities.’