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Comment: Tory Grip on Surrey Slackens as Opposition Grows Teeth

Published on: 8 May, 2021
Updated on: 10 May, 2021

Martin Giles

By Martin Giles

The rough-and-tumble tensions of campaigning are over and our local election results are in. But they paint an unclear picture.

Nationally, the Conservatives made gains, yet Surrey has bucked that national trend.

Here, Conservatives retained control of the county council but lost 14 seats, slackening their grip to 47 and now facing a combined opposition of 34.

The main opposing party, the Liberal Democrats, made five gains to hold 14 seats, Labour and the Greens now have two each, having gained Egham and Earlswood and Reigate South respectively.

But the Independent parties scored the greatest success, county-wide doubling their representation from eight to 16.

Conservative whips know party discipline is more effective when majorities are slim but the Tories still have a 13-seat cushion so the odd defector or two, on certain votes, might not matter.

The briefing pack for the SCC’s single unitary authority bid.

That could matter for one major political move, apparently kicked into the long grass by Central Office to the annoyance of SCC leader Tim Oliver: the single unitary authority proposal.

Some fear that will re-emerge. But will all the Conservative members be supportive? Last year, many of their borough and district colleagues were distinctly unhappy on the issue.

Tomorrow (Sunday, May 9), The Dragon editor will chair a Zoom debate with three of the new county councillors, George Potter (Lib Dem, Guildford East), Bob Hughes (Con, Shere) and Fiona Davidson (R4GV, Guildford South East). The debate will be published tomorrow evening.

And what does the result mean for adult and children’s social care in Surrey? Together, these take up more than 50% of the council’s budget and were subjected to critical reports but they did not seem to feature much in the election debates. What are the Conservative plans for improvement?

We have yet to see the Ofsted letter reporting on the present state of children’s care. Mary Lewis, the county lead on children who has retired, said Ofsted had held publication till after the election.

Guildford traffic

What about our roads? Potholes, congestion or air quality, there are problems that remain to be addressed.

Within the Guildford Divisions, these issues may not have been the driving factors behind the diverse results. In a bad day for Guildford Conservatives, they lost four of the 10 seats and hung on by only a thread to Shere, thanks to the split “Green” vote.

Our Conservative MP, Angela Richardson, said they needed to take the results away and reflect, mentioning the effect of social media campaigning, implying that had been their weakness. But was it?

The long-bubbling resentment over the Local Plan seems to be concentrated in the east of Guildford borough, which allowed R4GV’s Colin Cross to overturn a huge Conservative majority, the second time he’s done that.

Wide unhappiness with the Local Plan and lingering discontent with the legacy of the Tory style of GBC leadership at GBC certainly appear to have affected the Ash result where the battle against further developments has already been lost.

In Shalford, effective campaigning by SCC Conservative cabinet member Matt Furniss drowned opposition and he increased his majority, R4GV unable to repeat its success at the borough election.

His party colleagues and opponents are likely to seek better understanding of the reasons for his success. Part could be the ineffectiveness of the R4GV’s representation in the western part of the division which stretches across to Tongham and part of Ash.

But if voters are not too impressed with R4GV in the west they certainly were in Guildford South East. What is behind that? Probably the Local Plan is not such an issue. Fiona Davidson, the first R4GV county councillor to be elected, said residents’ concerns were often about the perceived deterioration of the town’s appearance.

When potential voters were asked in our April straw poll what issues they were considering in the elections, this was the result:

And, as a faint trumpet call echoes, I cannot resist pointing out that our same straw poll was not too far off the mark in measuring the relative popular support for parties in the town centre divisions:

Result of The Dragon straw poll conducted on April 2. Most respondents were from Guildford town.

We also predicted the Conservatives could have trouble holding their two Guildford town seats. They lost both.

Finally, a parting observation, whether ethical or not, there is no doubt election agreements between opposition parties to prevent the splitting of non-Tory votes can be very effective.

And their absence very costly.

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