If the bar hadn’t run out of the whisky he was drinking, John Hart might still have been inside Brighton’s Grand Hotel on its most fateful night 40 years ago.

As it was, he remembers leaving the venue, which was hosting Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party conference in October 1984, at around 2am to get in a taxi to where he was staying.

Around an hour later, the IRA bomb would explode, killing five and injuring 31.

“It’s something you don’t forget,” he says.

“I saw a documentary on the bomb recently and it was the first time that I’d seen internal footage of the bars after the bomb had gone off.”

The atmosphere of party conferences understandably altered dramatically afterwards. Cllr Hart recalls “seven rows of police horses” at the following year’s event in Blackpool.

Joh Hart new chair_Devon County_May 2024 - LDRS
(Joh Hart new chair Devon County May 2024 - LDRS)

That shift is not the only one Mr Hart has experienced in his long political career, which saw him first become a councillor in 1989 and this month stand down as Devon’s leader after 15 years to become chairman.

He has held his seat under Conservative, Labour and coalition governments in Westminster, reorganised the education system in Exeter, led through austerity, and helped steer the county through covid.

Interestingly, he sees the post-pandemic period as one of potentially the greatest change.

John Hart  - LDRS
(John Hart - LDRS)

“People want instant answers today,” he says.

“It’s much more about an instant reaction and they want it solved if possible, but it’s come at a time when we have less money and less ability to do it.

“I find if you tell people the truth that you can’t do something, and explain why, they accept it. I feel that sometimes you’re getting presented with the problem, but it isn’t yours to solve, and so you have to point them in the right direction and support them while they’re going that way.

“That [demand] is something that has changed, especially post-covid.”

The insatiable appetite for answers and outcomes has arguably forced a shift in how Cllr Hart’s administration and the council have to operate, and this isn’t without frustration from the outgoing leader.

“I’ve gone from fax machines, to mobiles, and now Teams meetings. Everything is faster, but it’s all jammed up,” he says.

“Lots of the time we don’t finish something before going to the next thing, and that’s a big mistake. We need to do what we’re doing, get it finished, and then move on or you have too many unfinished bits hanging around and people think they’re not getting the service they deserve.”

One thing Mr Hart, who turned 79 this month, did get done and holds up as the achievement he is most proud of, is overseeing the reorganisation of Exeter’s school system and securing well above the expected amount of government funding to see it through.

At the time, County Hall had a four-party rainbow alliance for a cabinet, and Mr Hart was asked to oversee Devon’s schools.

The biggest challenge of the portfolio was moving Exeter from a first-, middle- and high-school set-up to a primary and secondary one that people are used to today.

The scale of the task meant five new secondary schools were needed, one new primary school, and 26 others changed to accommodate the different ages of pupils.

In his negotiations with government, he asked for a minimum £57 million, which even local MPs thought was an overreach.

“I told the minister to ignore them, and to look at the paperwork I had submitted and to tell me what she thought I was worth,” he says.

“I was chopping trees down at home a few weeks later, and as I was filling the chainsaw up with more petrol, my wife Rita came to the bottom of the bank and shouted to me that the phones were going crazy; the reason ended up being that we’d secured £79 million.”

It is acknowledged by many as a coup, even if the subsequent management of the schools by Carillion, a construction and facilities services company, caused unfortunate issues once the new schools were built.

“There were teething troubles, but it was sorted and they are in good condition,” he adds.

Carillion went bust in 2018.

Mr Hart says Exeter’s education performance saw a marked improvement with the new buildings, with the number of pupils securing A-C in their GCSEs rising by 10 percentage points in the following three years, something he says “dramatically affected” the education of 17 per cent of the county’s children.

Education and children’s services, specifically the Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (Send) provision has been a troubled topic for the council in the past few years.

The council department’s cumulative overspend surpassed £160 million, with an overspend in the 2023/24 financial year of more than £40 million.

Devon applied to the government’s Safety Valve scheme, which is aimed at helping councils tackle education overspends, and once again secured a significant sum. The £95 million was at the upper end of the authority’s estimates of between £80 million to £100 million, although it does require belt-tightening from the council and is paid over nine years.

“While Send is still overspending, other departments have become more efficient,” Cllr Hart said.

“We’ve gone from 3,800 staff to 5,000 across the council and that needs to be reduced. We need to review what we’re doing.

“Covid led to us getting a lot of money and responsibility with it, but now we don’t have some of those responsibilities so we need to review our working practices and look at what we’re doing.”

A big part of the rise relates to the council taking Babcock education staff and Virgin Care nurses in-house, but it still sits well below the roughly 7,000 the authority had before austerity was introduced by the Coalition government in 2010.

Looking forward, Mr Hart says the authority is assessing how artificial intelligence, or AI, could help, stating that it “will have quite an impact on this council, as it will every other”.

The notion of AI helping to run councils represents a stark juxtaposition from Mr Hart’s early political life.

His first direct involvement came through circumstance, when he became an occasional driver for Sir Henry Gray Studholme, the 1st Baronet CVO DL, during the MP’s 1964 election campaign to hold on to the Tavistock seat he initially won in 1942.

Mr Hart’s father, had been taken ill, and on a visit by Sir Henry, he had volunteered his son to drive the candidate around during his re-election bid.

Sir Henry won the 1964 election, but when a snap election in 1966 was called by Labour prime minister Harold Wilson, he decided to retire.

In stepped a young Michael Heseltine, who won the seat and held it for eight years, a period through which Mr Hart sometimes worked with the future deputy prime minister.

With his involvement throughout the Heseltine years, Cllr Hart was asked to chair the Ivybridge area for the Conservatives, which he did for five years before becoming the constituency treasurer.

“It was great, and through that time I became one of the better fundraisers in the south west, and we were invited to a reception with Margaret Thatcher,” he says.

“There weren’t gates across Downing Street then, so we just walked up and knocked on the door of Number 10 in those days.”

Mr Hart recalls that the awful weather on the evening of this reception meant London’s taxis were overwhelmed with demand, meaning many of the prime minister’s guests ran late.

As such, he was one of just eight people – including Margaret and Dennis Thatcher – for about an hour, until other guests managed to arrive.

Mr Hart’s drive to succeed helped him steadily rise in prominence locally, with one particular battle characterising this.

He recalls banding together two double-decker loads of people to fight a proposed boundary alteration for Plymouth, which formed part of the third periodic review of Westminster constituencies in 1983.

“We fought it and caused chaos,” he says.

“It was billed in the media as a David versus Goliath battle. We went to the meeting in Plymouth and there were too many of us for the room, so they had to relocate it to the council chamber.

“We won against expectations, which meant, among other things, that Wembury was not moved into a Plymouth seat but moved back into Devon.”

Just a few years later, Arnold Sayers, a councillor for Wembury who had previously led Devon between 1981 and 1985, told Mr Hart he wanted to retire.

Several local residents asked whether he wanted to run for the seat in the 1989 election.

“It was a bit of a surprise, and I initially said I wasn’t ready and that I’d like another four years before going for it,” Hart said.

“But Arnold told me that it might not be up for grabs in four years, so I went for it, and got elected.”

That decision to try rather than wait for the perfect moment perhaps characterises battles Mr Hart has taken on more recently, including with his bid for Devon to pursue so-called devolution with Torbay.

Opponents to the idea fear that it creates another level of unaccountable bureaucracy, possibly confuses relationships with civil servants, and doesn’t yet bring enough funding.

But Mr Hart has been steadfast in his view that having a more direct line to London can only be beneficial for the county in the long run, fearing that prevaricating could see the opportunity lost. The calling of the general election by prime minister Rishi Sunak on 4 July has, however, created uncertainty about when the legislation required for Devon’s devolution bid will be passed.

Mr Hart won his Wembury seat twice in succession, lost in 1997 as Tony Blair’s government swept to power, but was re-elected in 2001 and has held the seat in every subsequent election, including in 2009 when his victory led to the then opposition leader David Cameron landing in a helicopter on the lawn of County Hall.

He will relinquish his seat at next year’s local elections after his year-long stint as chair of the council, which began this month when he simultaneously handed the leadership reins he has held since 2009 to cabinet colleague James McInnes.

As he prepares to spend more time with his wife (the pair met as members of the Young Conservatives) and two children James and Candi, who took on the running of the family business, Bovisand Lodge Holiday Park, in 2001 when his role overseeing Exeter’s schools required his full-time attention, Mr Hart says travelling to see more of Europe will be high on the agenda.

And perhaps he’ll raise a glass of his favourite whisky at the hotel bar.