Tag Archives: Gary Cowan

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?

Now We Wait

This morning on the way to work I did my civic duty and cast my vote in both the General Election, and also for our local councillor in Arborfield, as thanks to our unitary authority this is the one year in four when the people of Arborfield actually get to vote on local issues.

In Arborfield the vote is pretty well a straight rerun of the vote four years ago with the incumbent Tory, Gary Cowan, running against a Liberal Democrat, Steve Bacon, who was the local councillor beaten by Cowan thirteen years ago. As last time the only other candidate is from UKIP, Labour don’t even bother to field a candidate.

Sadly the campaign is also a rerun of the previous efforts with the sitting Tory producing leaflets spouting the most ludicrous claims about Liberal Democrat policy locally – this years gem being that the Liberal Democrats want to put 12,000 houses into the Garrison SDL. Bear in mind that taking the average household size of 2.36 that would be a population almost as big as Wokingham itself crammed into the Garrison SDL, at a density equivalent to some of our major inner city areas. The reality is that the Liberal Democrats have much the same policy towards Arborfield as the Tories – as one of the biggest potential brownfield areas in the borough it is a much more attractive location for houses than the other much more greenfield SDL’s, so even if a new government drops housing targets it’s more than likely that Arborfield would still be a prime site – and a careful reading of our Tories flyers show that he doesn’t say that housing won’t come to the Garrison site even if the numbers are scaled back across the borough. Sadly our one and only local councillor is also executive member for local and regional planning, so whilst his campaign leaflets bang on about him putting Arborfield first, second and third, he has a Wokingham wide view through his executive role, hence on occasions he can’t answer questions from his voters because they might compromise his executive position, and repeatedly he turns up in the press highlighting the next stage of the plan, only to object to the same plan in his role as local councillor.

Whilst there is a good deal of anger across the village, especially after the meeting earlier in the year where Gary refused to answer questions, Arborfield is one of the safer parts of one of the safest Tory councils in the country (Tories hold over 75% of the council, and even if they lost every ward today they would still be in control) I’m doubtful whether even that level of anger could swing the ward. Ironically though from e-mails I’ve swapped with our local councillor he seems a lot more pessimistic – indeed when his fifth flyer of the campaign popped through the door, following on from Redwood himself going door to door earlier in the week, he does seem increasingly desperate and unsure of his core vote. The count starts at 2pm tomorrow, so we’ll have to wait until then to find out if he was right.

By far the more interesting campaign though is for the constituency.

The Wokingham area was one of only thirty in the whole country that have been continuously represented by one party since the 1850’s. Our current MP is the well known John Redwood. Considering how safe the local council is people often assume that the constituency would be equally safe but it isn’t. The fact is that Redwood isn’t nearly as popular locally as he should be given the area, indeed his share has been steadily falling, and at the last election he could have been beaten had that Labour and Liberal Democrat vote combined. Into this mix comes Mark Ashwell, a local businessman standing as an independent. Traditionally independents don’t do well, but being well known locally, on the ground at least he seems to be making headway. Travelling around Wokingham you see vastly more Vote Ashwell boards than for any other party. He has also managed to grab a lot of good headlines in the local paper, and the various polls the local paper has run give him surprisingly high totals. Indeed the online bookmakers have cut his odds over the course of the campaign indicating that a good few people think he might win.

Considering the comparatively low majority that Redwood has, even a modest showing from Ashwell could cause a major upset, especially if a goodly number of disgruntled Labour voters swap to the Liberal Democrats. Whilst realistically the most likely outcome is still for Redwood to take the seat, albeit with a reduced majority, Ashwell has the possibility to either cause a major upset by taking enough of the Tory vote to let Prue Bray, the second placed Liberal Democrat candidate last time, and Liberal Democrat PPC this time in, or even more spectacularly by taking the seat himself.

There is the potential for things looking rather different tomorrow morning. Could Wokingham become a lone Liberal Democrat seat in Berkshire? Or might we be one of the few constituencies in the country to return a true independent? Now we wait to find out…