Woking Conservatives strangle and stifle scrutiny

July 22nd, 2014 by willforster
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My first month as Group Leader on Woking Borough Council was dominated by the Conservatives rewriting the Council’s constitution to remove the right of the opposition to chair scrutiny meetings.

Despite strong opposition from the Lib Dems, the Conservatives used their majority to push through the change and delete the requirement that the Chairman of the Council’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee has to be elected from an opposition party – they then chose a Conservative Councillor to led scrutiny of their own Conservative Executive.

Councillors were scheduled to elect a Chairman of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee at its first meeting on Monday 9th June, however the Tories cancelled that meeting until it changed the Council’s rules on who can chair that committee.  At a hastily arranged Full Council meeting on 23rd June, the Conservatives made the constitutional change and elected one of their own as Chairman.

I was appalled and frustrated by this power grab – it seems clear that following the recent elections, the Tories felt entitled to every important position on the Council and this was the only one they did not have.  Sadly, this is what happens when the Conservatives have a decent majority on local authorities – they abuse their power and act like complete bullies.  On Surrey County Council they have used their large majority to give senior Tory County Councillors a massive pay rise, and now at Woking they have stopped all impartial scrutiny of their decisions.

It is accepted best practice in local government that the opposition should chair the Council’s scrutiny work to ensure there is an adequate check and balance to the ruling party’s power.  Scrutiny committees on Elmbridge, Mole Valley, Surrey and Reigate Councils are all chaired by opposition parties – appallingly, Conservatives in Woking (unlike their counterparts in those neighbouring authorities) do not want any independent check on their power.

With the Council about to make several important decisions that will impact the future of the Borough for generations to come – on the Green Belt Review, regeneration in Sheerwater and Town Centre developments – independent scrutiny is needed now more than ever.

However, all these arguments and more were completely lost on the Tories.  No doubt they were worried about their ability to handle challenging questions and proper scrutiny.  They have deliberately and cynically make it harder for the democratically elected opposition to do our job.

A traffic free Commercial Way

July 16th, 2014 by willforster
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Commercial Way

I am pleased to see that Woking Borough Council are finally proposing to ban traffic from Commercial Way.

With Commercial Way being repaved and redesigned at the moment, the Council are consulting on plans to fully pedestrianise area of Commercial Way – 24 hours, 7 days a week.  Currently, the section of Commercial Way in between Cawsey Way and Chapel Street is only vehicle free on between 10.30 am and 4 pm, Monday to Saturday.

To have your say on the plans, or for full details – please see the Council’s consultation here.

Resurfacing in Sutton Green

July 10th, 2014 by willforster
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Surrey County Council should start resurfacing work on New Lane and Sutton Green Road today – 10th July 2014.

The resurfacing will only take place on the worst sections of New Lane and Sutton Green Road, and the work should last around 4 days.  The area to be resurfaced is between the Church in New Lane, to just beyond the Sutton Green Road junction with Blanchards Hill and Whitmoor Lane.

Surrey gets less pothole money than Hampshire and Kent

July 8th, 2014 by willforster
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For next week’s Full Surrey County Council meeting, the Lib Dem Group have submitted a motion calling for the Council to improve the speed and quality of pothole repair.

Surrey has received less additional government funding for pothole repair and weather repair compared with other neighbouring local authorities such as Hampshire and Kent.  Kent County Council received over £8 million more than Surrey in additional funding or emergency funding, and Hampshire County Council received over £5 million more than Surrey.

The reason for this is clear – other councils that have been successful at obtaining more money have invested in new technology and initiatives to repair their roads.

Needless to say, Surrey desperately needs this money.  Surrey’s roads are riddled with potholes and deteriorating surfaces, so I find it very disappointing that our county’s roads will not benefit from the extra cash that other councils will receive.

The County Council needs to learn from the best practice of other councils to increase the speed of pothole repair in Surrey.  The Conservative Cabinet must do more to get its message across to central government that Surrey needs more money to repair its crumbling roads.

Council Announces Green Belt Review

July 7th, 2014 by willforster
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Green Belt

Woking Borough Council finally announced the results of its Green Belt Boundary Review today – and appallingly, the review recommends building on much of the Borough’s Green Belt including in south Woking.

The Council’s Core Strategy states that around 500 homes will be built in the Borough’s Green Belt between 2022 and 2027, so the Council set up a review into what land could potentially be built on.

The review identifies that the land off Egley Road and Saunders Lane in Mayford, as well as Green Belt land around Byfleet and West Byfleet – and small sections of land in Brookwood and Pyrford are suitable for development.

Specifically, the Green Belt Review recommends several development sites around the Borough, namely from west to east:

  • A parcel of land south east of the Brookwood Crossroads
  • Land north of Saunders Lane (around the one house on the north side of Saunders Lane)
  • Land in between Hook Hill Lane, Mayford Village Hall and Saunders Lane
  • Land in between Hook Heath and the Guildford to Woking railway line railway line in Hook Heath
  • Land the other side of the railway, off Egley Road (including the garden centre)
  • A parcel of land by Coldharbour Road and Pyrford Common Road in Pyrford
  • Land to the south of the A245 in West Byfleet, land south of Murray’s Lane in Byfleet
  • Land south of High Road in Byfleet
  • And finally, land east of Byfleet off Mill Lane

Strangely, the review also states that much of the Borough’s open and recreation spaces should lose their Green Belt protection.  The report states this is not to allow for development – as the land in question is subject to other planning protections – but to tidy up the Green Belt boundary.

However, needless to say removing Green Belt protection would make development easier in the areas of land identified – which include some of Horsell Common, Goldsworth Park Rec, St John’s Lye and the large section of land north of Old Woking (the Coniston Road allotments, Hoebridge School, St John the Baptist School and Woking College).

The Conservative Executive does not plan to hold any public consultation on this review, as it is classing it as a technical consultants report.  However, this review will be used to draft the Council’s Delivery Development Plan Document (a supplementary document to the Core Strategy) that will be debated by Councillors and then subject to a public consultation between now and the end of 2014.  The Delivery Development Plan Development will then be subject to an examination by a Planning Inspector from the Department of Communities and Local Government.

The report has deliberately identified ‘too many’ sites to meet the Council’s 2027 housing target – therefore the Council does not need to allow development on all of them to meet its target.  The report recommends that some of those Green Belt sites above are built on before 2027, with the rest being earmarked for development but after 2027.

Clearly our precious Green Belt is under threat, but the battle is far from lost – the next 6 months will be fundamental in deciding the future of our Borough.

Of course Woking needs more homes, but any plans must be sustainable and accompanied by the right infrastructure – and the Conservative Council’s plans seem intent on sacrificing our Green Belt.  I am hoping that when they actual allow a consultation, the ruling Conservatives listen to local residents and drop these plans.

Woking Park Play Area Refurbishment

July 4th, 2014 by willforster
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Woking Park Play Area

Woking Borough Council will start the long awaited refurbishment of the Woking Park play area next week.

The Council consulted local residents some time ago on the idea of improving and extending the play area – and drew up an ambitious play to completely refurbish the well-used play area.

The refurbishment works include extending the play area site by reinforcing the embankment by the Pool in the Park to bring these areas back into use as part of the play area.  Following a motion to Council from my Lib Dem colleague, Councillor Liam Lyons – there will also be an additional fenced ‘dog free’ picnic area adjacent to the play area.

Clearly it is far from ideal for Woking Park’s play area to be unavailable due to refurbishment during the school summer holidays – I understand the work will take up to 17 weeks, so the play area should be reopened in early November 2014.

Hoe Valley Free School

June 30th, 2014 by willforster
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The Department of Education has approved plans by a group of parents to set up a new secondary school and sixth form college in south Woking.

Following changes by the Coalition Government, parents are now allowed to bid to set up a school independent of local authority control – and a group of local parents are seeking to set up a so called ‘free school’ south of Woking.

The Hoe Valley Free School could be the first of it’s type in Woking Borough and only the second free school in Surrey.

I completely support the Hoe Valley plans – partly as it would right the wrong of my South Woking division losing it’s ‘local’ secondary school when Surrey County Council foolishly closed Highlands School in Bonsey Lane – but also as there is a rising population, both as a result of a rising birth and new housing developments.

Now that official approval has been given to the Hoe Valley Free School, the school group will now go into something called a ‘pre-opening’ phase with much more work being undertaken to secure a temporary, as well as a permanent site.

Parents in the Hoe Valley Group hope that the school will open in temporary accommodation in September 2015 and to be included in the County Council’s school admissions process in October 2014 for a Year 7 intake of 120 pupils.

Needless to say there is still a significant amount of work to get the school up and running – but the parents behind the Hoe Valley bid deserve a huge amount of praise for the work they have done to get this far.

As the local County Councillor I am pushing both the County Council and Woking Borough Council to support the Hoe Valley Free School find a suitable site.  We cannot have local school children going without a secondary school place that is accessible to them – and that could easily happen without this Free School providing these much needed extra school spaces.

Pembroke Road Resurfacing

June 18th, 2014 by willforster
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Surrey County Council is planning to resurface Pembroke Road between 23rd June and 11th July 2014.

Although the work will cause some disruption on this key route around Woking, the resurfacing of Pembroke Road is really needed as like all too many local roads – this road is in a dire state.

County Hall should say more complaints please!

June 16th, 2014 by willforster
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In my first attempt to recap on the stories that I missed during the election campaign, I wanted to highlight May’s Full Surrey County Council meeting, as it was filled with controversy and debate – some of which has filled column inches in the press ever since.

I’ll start with one of the less talked about debates first though – namely a motion Lib Dems calling on the County Council to make it easier for Surrey residents to complain about the services that the Council provides.

This motion followed the recent parliamentary report, More Complaints Please! - as we want County Hall to fundamentally change its policy and the implementation of its approach to complaints.  The Council should welcome complaints as a way of engaging with residents to improve services, making the complaints process more user friendly.  The process needs to be made simpler, more accessible and with speedier outcomes.

The County Council claims to welcome complaints, but if a Surrey resident wishes to complain, finding how to do so on the Council website is not as easy as it could be – then the resident has to select the relevant service area to complain about.

Needless to say there is room for improvement, given that the Council does not meet its own response targets in all cases.  In children’s social services in 2012/13 only responded to 47% of complaints within 10 working days, and 71% within 20 working days.  This just isn’t good enough.  There is also evidence that many complaints are valid in the case of adults social care in 2012/13 as 62% of all complaints made were upheld in full or in part, suggesting that service improvements are required.

I think local authorities need to be more responsive to residents’ needs, Surrey especially so – as under the current Cabinet it is all too focused on County Hall and not enough on what goes on in local communities.

Election Results

June 13th, 2014 by willforster
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Polling Station

Apologises for not keeping my website up to date recently, campaigning in the European and local elections – on top of working and meeting my council commitments – monopolised all my time.  However, now that the elections are over normal service will resume shortly.

I was delighted – and as I work for her, relieved – that Catherine Bearder was re-elected and will continue to represent the South East as one of our Euro MPs.  In Woking, the Lib Dems held several seats on Woking Borough Council which were up for election in this round of ‘thirds’ on 22nd May.  It was great to see Councillors Liam Lyons, Denzil Coulson and Ken Howard re-elected in Mount Hermon West, Goldsworth West and Hermitage & Knaphill South respectively.

I am very pleased South Woking residents continue to have faith in my colleagues and I – the area is still almost exclusively represented by Lib Dem Councillors. Mount Hermon West is served by Ian Johnson and Liam Lyons, Derek McCrum and I cover Kingfield, Westfield & Barnsbury on the Borough Council, Louise Morales represents Old Woking – only Mayford & Sutton Green ward has a Conservative Borough Councillor – with me representing the whole area (with the exception of Old Woking) on Surrey County Council.

Needless to say, despite some very local success – last month’s results were bad for the Lib Dems.  As many expected, but still hard to take all the same.  I was particularly sorry that the Woking Lib Dem Leader, Councillor Ann-Marie Barker was not re-elected in Horsell West.

Following the outcome of the election, I was honoured to be elected by my colleagues to serve as Leader of the Lib Dem Group on Woking Borough Council – so you may detect a more Woking-wide tone, rather than just a South Woking one in future.

Although, we lost three seats on 22nd May – the Lib Dems are still the only opposition group to the Conservatives in Woking’s Civic Offices.  We will continue hold the Tory administration to account and provide the effective opposition that residents need, scrutinising the Conservatives’ decisions and challenging them where appropriate – though I am willing to work constructively with the Conservatives on key long-term projects.

I am looking forward to tackling my new role, as well as continuing to represent South Woking – I know there a lot of issues round the corner.

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Will Forster

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