This is going to be an important year for Surrey Heath as we will be having a boundary review over the next few months. On Monday 15th Feb, I therefore met with the Electoral Commission along with the Conservative Group leader to hear how this process will work before a briefing to all members was then given. The reason why this is taking place is because there are three wards where there is an imbalance of more than 10%. Two of these (St.Michael’s and Watchetts) currently have too many voters whereas Bisley has too few.
The first step is that a decision would need to be taken about how many Cllrs are needed at Surrey Heath from 2019 (we currently have 16 wards and 40 Cllrs). This means looking at how many Cllrs are needed to do the various roles such as planning, licensing, exec, scrutiny, civic etc. When that figure has been decided, the Electoral Commission will then look as issues such as community boundaries and voter numbers so that each Cllr represents a similar number of voters. This is likely to mean that all wards will be affected by redrawing boundaries including possibly removing or adding wards (not just those currently unbalanced)
This is a long process and the decision maker is the Electoral Commission rather than the Council so it is very much a chance to have our say. The deadline for the first stage (number of Councillors) will be June 2016 and it is likely the Council will put forward their preferred number in May.
On Wednesday 17th Feb, we had our first Surrey Heath Labour Party “pubchat” session in Bagshot and it was great to speak with members informally about a range of local and national issues. Everyone seemed to enjoy this and we intend to repeat this again with the next one likely to be in Camberley in a few weeks time.
On Tuesday 23rd February, I took a trip over the border to join Rushmoor Labour Party who were having a fish and chip fundraiser along with a talk and questions by Michael Dugher MP for Barnsley. It was very interesting to listen to Michael who gave a blunt and honest critique of the Party of where we were doing well and also where we needed to improve. His key point was that we need to win power in order to make a difference and urged all members to help where they can.
Wednesday 24th February was Full Council at Surrey Heath and a chance to raise a number of important points.
I had submitted a written question asking about the Government Planning and Housing Bill as this was going to potentially cause major issues to those living as a tenant of our housing associations. As expected, the response received was an attempt to put positive spin on these rather than the issues that would arise. In my follow up question, I pointed out that under pay to stay, “tenants on higher incomes” actually meant that households with two people earning £15k a year each or the lower than the “living wage” and therefore asked for a further report to the Executive once the Bill had been completed and this was verbally agreed.
We then turned to the setting of the Council Tax in Surrey Heath for 2016/17. The two choices which had been written up were an increase of 1.94% or an increase of £5 a year (2.55%) However, both of these budgets relied on unspecified “savings targets” of either £197 000 or £241 000. I therefore asked for detail as to where these savings may arise such as which services would be potentially cut. The Executive member for Finance refused to give any detail and therefore I decided to vote against. I have some sympathy with local Councils as their budgets have been drastically cut but this budget was not balanced and Cllrs might as well make up any figure they like as an unspecified “savings target” and present it as a budget!
Also on the agenda was my motion, “This Council believes that it is in the best interests of our residents and businesses for the UK to remain a member of the European Union.” This had been submitted as an educated guess that the Prime Minister would come back with a deal and that many Surrey Heath Conservatives had already told me they would be against this. This was seconded by the Lib Dem Cllr for Bagshot.
After speaking on the subject (including giving rare praise for David Cameron and directly quoting George Osborne, Theresa May and the CBI which didn’t appear to go down too well), the Leader of the Council gave a bizarre speech in which she claimed that supporting the motion would mean that individual Cllrs would not be able to give a contrary opinion and that many Conservative Cllrs did not want to give a public view on the subject (although she was happy to say she wants to leave). This seemed very strange when many Councils had already discussed the subject and come to a view including the Conservative Council of Bexley the night before. Oddly, she also seemed to forget that only two weeks before, she had herself proposed that the Council writes to the Government to express concern about the plight of persecuted Christians and other religions in Syria. This was indeed a good cause but of much less impact to Surrey Heath residents than businesses potentially leaving Surrey Heath and resettling within the European Union.
The motion was then defeated but BBC Surrey turned up to listen to the debate but there was a good news report on the radio including a quick interview (go to 1:49:42 – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03j124z#play)
On Thursday 25th Feb, I attended a private meeting of the Surrey Heath Local Area Committee where we received presentations on mental health services for young people, CrossRail 2, bus services review and the cycle strategy. There is currently a consultation affecting some Surrey Heath buses with some of these decided by SCC but others being commercial and thus decided by the bus operator. The main issue appears to be to split some services at Camberley such as the number 1,2 and 3. If you have any comments, please send these on line to www.surreycc.gov.uk/transportreview by Monday 14th March.
And finally on Friday 26th, I was grateful to have a behind the scenes tour of the Arena Leisure Centre from Carly, the General Manager. This was very interesting and helpful in discussing and seeing a number of practical issues that had been reported to me. She seemed very open and approachable to service users including two who mentioned issues on the way round. I said that I would keep in touch and therefore if any party member or Old Dean resident does have any comments, please let me know and I can discuss/forward to her directly.
After this, I then went to the Old Dean pavilion where we had an open session for community groups to drop by and see the renovations. The idea is that we can think about how this facility in a key location can be better used and some useful ideas were generated that can be followed up over the coming months.