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.