Tag Archives: David Lee

Isn’t Local Politics Unfair

So the people have spoken.

Well a small minority of the people have spoken, the vast majority considered it wasn’t worth the bother and didn’t show up. In Wokingham where the vast majority of campaigning was focused on Winnersh, where the candidates for the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives canvassed every house, elsewhere you’d be forgiven for thinking there wasn’t an election going on as in many wards people didn’t even get a leaflet from many of the candidates – indeed one of the Green party candidates seemed quite proud on Facebook to have polled almost 300 votes off no campaigning at all…

The upshot of the whole process was a grand total of two seats changing hands. Winnersh, which was the most marginal seat on the council switched from Conservative to Liberal Democrat, and over in Charvil a Parish Councillor running as an independent managed to unseat the sitting Conservative councillor. This result produced a response about how unfair the result was from the leader of the council. Bear in mind that the ruling Conservative group still holds forty-three of the fifty-four seats on the council so can still do pretty well anything they want, and much as with the library privatisation and bin scheme can introduce things without any consultation. To be honest if you’re talking about unfair getting nearly 90% of the seats off just above 50% of the vote is much more unfair but since he’s the party getting 90% of the seats he’s not complaining. As far as I’m concerned he’s got off lightly, it’s only the general apathy of the electorate who are fed up with all politicians that means that he didn’t lose more. Talking with my aunt this week, a veteran of many election campaigns over the years she said the only way to take a seat from the ruling party is by simple hard work, and that involves a lot of door knocking, not sitting back and being proud of 300 votes off no campaigning!

Lying to Get Elected

One of the big political stories of the past couple of weeks has been the spectacular fall from grace of Phil Woolas who became the first Member of Parliament in almost a century to be booted out of office, having been found guilty of knowingly misleading voters over his main opponent, i.e. he lied on an election leaflet. Typically other MP’s are worried saying that the ruling will affect ‘robust debate’.

The timing of the ruling was personally somewhat ironic, as it almost exactly coincided with the arrival of the official transcript of a question I asked at a recent Wokingham Borough Council Executive meeting. There was a newspaper report of the meeting published in which I get a mention – pretty good considering that there were forty-three questions in total asked on that night – however the report does simplify my point quite a lot.

If we roll back the clock to before the election, the first point of note is late summer 2009 when the then shadow minister Caroline Spelman wrote to all local councils highlighting that if a Conservative government were returned in the upcoming election they would quickly and radically change the policy on housing. The letter suggested that councils should not adopt any core strategy until after the election, and also referred councillors to the newly published policy documents on Returning Power to Local Communities and Building Homes and Communities. What is striking reading those documents is that they are very much about building more homes – the radical shift is from the Labour stick, to a Conservative carrot, so councils who build more get more money.

Looking at how this was greeted locally, Wokingham Borough Council adopted their Core Strategy as planned in January 2010, and the new policy was uniformly presented as being the ability to cut housing numbers. This ability to cut housing numbers was presented verbally, most notably by David Lee at a local residents meeting, and can also be found in this election leaflet from our local councillor and then Executive Member for Planning, Gary Cowan.

After the election there was an almost instantaneous U-turn, with everybody now saying that the policy would result in Wokingham Borough having to build more houses, therefore the Core Strategy was the only thing keeping us safe.

This led to my question:

The leader of Wokingham Borough Council has said on several occasions, including at a Public meeting of the Arborfield Garrison Residents Action Group in April 2010, that if a new Conservative government were elected they would abolish the previous government’s top down housing targets, and that he expected WBC to significantly lower the housing numbers planned for Wokingham borough. Furthermore, in answer to a question from the floor about how he would deliver this expectation in the face of potential appeals from developers, he said that WBC would engage Queens Counsel to defend their position.

The position was further stated in election literature from the former Executive Member for Planning which said ‘If a Conservative government is elected they will abolish the high housing targets forced on Wokingham, leaving Wokingham Borough Council free to amend its plans and scale down the targets’, and echoed by the Conservative MP for Wokingham, John Redwood in the local press and online who has stated that with the abolition of top down targets WBC should revise the figure.

Now that the recommendation quoted in Item 68 is that ‘WBC is to continue with the housing numbers included in the Core Strategy’, would the leader of the council detail the reason(s) for his complete U-turn?

To some extent I knew what the answer to the question was going to be, hence why I took along a copy of the offending election leaflet – the point where I held it up produced a laugh from the assembled locals, and the apology from David Lee – what I objected to was the implication that they had been taken by surprise by the policy, when in all honesty I don’t think Wokingham Borough Council would have merrily carried on without reading their own parties policy on housing! The purpose in asking the question is to air the point in a public forum, and get it written into the official record.

Looking back at what actually happened it seems to me that having read the policy documents, the local councillors realised that the new policy wasn’t going to help on numbers, which explains why they pressed on and adopted the unpopular core strategy. Realising that going into an election campaign admitting that they had no intention of cutting housing numbers would be tantamount to electoral suicide given local feeling, they carried on with the charade by promising to cut housing numbers whenever the opportunity arose, and then once elected maintained that the policy implementation had taken them by surprise.

Interestingly I had a private e-mail argument with Gary Cowan in the run up to the election over some of his promises where I said I didn’t believe him, and he got really quite defensive, but the policy documents were widely available online and pretty clear in their tone. As I said I cannot believe that local Tories with housing being such a hot topic locally would not have read their own policy, and the fact that they didn’t take the opt out on the unpopular core strategy seems to confirm this. It really just confirms the common conception that politicians will say anything, even lying totally to get themselves elected.

Shock! Are There Actually Some Wokingham Tories With Integrity?

During the run up to the recent local elections I swapped a number of e-mails with both Gary Cowan, the sitting Tory councillor, and Steve Bacon, the Liberal Democrat challenger and former local councillor for our ward who had also run against Gary in the 2006 election. It started because I sent both of them an e-mail asking that they could run a campaign with integrity, and not produce a repeat of the last campaign with blatant misrepresentation particularly over housing. Sadly although Steve Bacon gave me an assurance, Gary didn’t, and then proceeded to campaign on a totally mythical and ludicrous assertion that the Liberal Democrats were proposing to put 12,000 houses on the Garrison site (yes that would be houses at a density of central London for those with calculators), and that the Tories were the only option for protecting Arborfield.

In the run up to the election Gary, like most of the other Tory candidates and Wokingham Borough Council itself had been squarely blaming the Labour government for the current housing numbers. One of Gary’s election flyers said the following:

The extra homes in Wokingham’s Core Strategy are required by the Labour government’s national policy and regional housing targets. If a Conservative government is elected they will abolish the high housing targets forced on Wokingham, leaving Wokingham Borough Council free to amend its plans and scale down the targets. If re-elected, as the lead Councillor for planning I would then ensure that our local plan was revised to spare the greenfields of Arborfield.

As we know, a Tory led government was elected on May 6th, and they duly abolished housing targets, therefore it was a bit of a surprise to most people in Wokingham to find that despite pressure from our local MP, who of course had been around on the doorstep backing the cut housing numbers message, and highlighting the same thing in his blog after the election, and the well known opposition of the vast majority of local residents to large scale housing developments, the local council seemed to be suggesting that numbers wouldn’t be cut significantly as they had already adopted their core strategy. This is even more peculiar considering that they, like many other councils had received this letter in August 2009 highlighting that an incoming Tory government would abolish regional spatial strategies and urging councils not to adopt core strategies – Wokingham Borough adopted their strategy in January 2010, four months before the current Tory government was elected and abolished housing targets.

Were the local Tories telling any old lies on their election material to win votes and never had any intention to cut housing? Did they not expect a Tory win at the General Election? Or are they just total muppets with no clue what they were doing when they adopted the strategy? I really don’t know, suffice to say back in June it really did start to look like Wokingham was doomed to go under a swathe of concrete and large scale housing development. I may not agree with John Redwood (@johnredwood) on many things, indeed I’m probably diametrically opposite to his position on some things, but at least he’s being consistent on this – he was elected on abolishing housing targets, his party has done that, and it’s the local council that is dragging and threatening to U-turn.

Roll forward to this week, and the headline on the Wokingham Times is “War breaks out over Wokingham housing targets”. The article again highlights the calls from residents to cut the numbers, and the intransigence from council leader David Lee who is unwilling to commit to reduce the target. Paul Gallagher, chair of the Emmbrook Residents Association highlights one possible reason – the new government still requires houses, so has switched from the Labour stick to a Tory carrot – Grant Shapps (@grantshapps) saying a couple of weeks back that “those councils who go for growth by providing planning permission now will reap the rewards” – so Paul is quite clear that the council, who regularly moaned about lack of funding almost as often as they moaned about Labour housing targets, would carry on with the unpopular targets to fill their coffers.

However, all is not lost, as the headline implied, the governing group on the council is not united. A number of local councillors have come out and said that if it comes to a vote over retaining the existing numbers, or cutting them, they would go for a cut. However there are suggestions from some of the Tories that they are worried that it will never come to a vote – the ten person executive, only one of whom has come out to say they are opposed to retaining the current numbers (and you guessed it, it isn’t Gary Cowan, despite his promise to protect the green fields of Arborfield), would take the vote alone without consulting the other 33 Tory councillors.

So are there some Wokingham Tories with integrity? Lets be fair, if you’d been saying for years that the numbers were too high, and being imposed by the Labour government, anyone with integrity could not do anything else but vote to cut the numbers could they?