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Letter: Political Party Influence At Council Level Is Unhealthy

Published on: 5 Mar, 2017
Updated on: 5 Mar, 2017

From Ben Paton

As opposed to the question, given as mine, in George Potter’s letter (Political Parties Are An Inevitable Part of Government) the sentence I wrote was: “What purpose do national parties serve on local councils anyway – given the very limited functions and powers of the borough council?”

My concern is the influence of national parties in local assemblies. Of course political parties serve some purpose. But any special interest group – whether it is a professional body or a trades union or just a group of “experts” has the potential to be a “conspiracy” against the public, after all.

How well political parties perform depends on the particular leaders, policies and circumstances. The local context in Guildford is that the council has for many years been controlled by the Conservative party.

It holds 34 out of 48 seats or around 70% of the votes in the chamber. When it comes to voting at least, the other parties are largely an irrelevance. The Conservatives can carry any vote they wish subject only to the proviso that they vote together.

The borough council’s biggest job is planning policy. (It has no power over transport and education which are decided by Surrey County Council or over matters such as defence, foreign policy or taxation which are dealt with at Westminster.)

Even in planning its role is to apply a set of rules, the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), in a disinterested and non-political manner. The things that qualify a councillor to make these decisions are diligence in getting to grips with the facts (this is time consuming hard work), fair mindedness, and a sense of responsibility to the residents of the borough for the quality of life and environment in the borough.

The Conservative party in Guildford does not have any special claim to hold these attributes. Having a large majority, in fact, allows members of the majority to be lazy. Most of the big decisions are taken in private meetings outside the council chamber.

Proceedings in the chamber are to a large extent theatre for public consumption. Individual councillors can toe the ‘party line’ rather than form their own opinion.

The most important job of an elected assembly is to scrutinise the work of Executive and the full time council officials. Scrutiny is an essential part of the checks and balances in government.

The Conservatives have not performed that duty properly. That’s illustrated by the failure to scrutinise the Strategy Housing Market Assessment (SHMA) and standards in public life.

The council has a duty to prepare a SHMA and evaluate the Objectively Assess Housing Need or OAN. To do this it commissioned GL Hearn to produce a SHMA for the whole of West Surrey.

GL Hearn used a model from a firm called Justin Gardner Consulting (JGC). JGC’s model of housing projections is the basis for the housing need estimates for Guildford, Waverley and Woking.

One might imagine that at least one of these elected assemblies would have scrutinised this model. But none of these assemblies has ever received a copy of the model – let alone scrutinised it.

Guildford had a debate on the subject. The Conservatives appeared to use their majority to make sure that the model was not even asked for.

This happened, in spite of: the Local Plan Expert Group saying that the figures should be “replicable by others” (http://lpeg.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Appendices- local-plans-report- to-government.pdf), that the House of Commons Committee on Local Plans said: “Communities need to have confidence that the figures on which their local plans are based are accurate,” and that the Planning Advisory Service wrote, “A method which uses a “black box” approach is at risk of being unexplainable and unreliable.”

Another core function of the council is to maintain standards in public life. When the council was put on notice that the deputy leader of the Conservative group, Monika Juneja, was falsely claiming to be a barrister it responded by first of all claiming the allegations were politically motivated.

Then, when the CPS later successfully brought a prosecution against Ms Juneja in which she was convicted of forgery and falsely claiming to be a barrister, the new Standards Committee in its annual report decided that there had been no breaches of the council’s code of conduct.

The Conservative councillors have not done a good job of implementing a new local plan. Work began in 2009. But we still do not have a new Local Plan in 2017 – after spending some £4 million.

Part of the reason for this has been the Conservative insistence on forcing through an inflated and unconstrained housing target and on paying consultants to produce tendentious and partial reports to support this policy.

Some argue that Guildford Borough Council has greater access to, and influence at, county and national government and at agencies such as Highways England or Natural England because it is controlled by the Conservatives.

To the extent that this is true this raises troubling questions of independence and impartiality. Conservatives in Guildford use their party as an instrument of political power rather than as a means to represent the interests of the local electorate.

It is high time that residents took back control of their council by voting for individuals who will represent them rather than parties.

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test 7 Responses to Letter: Political Party Influence At Council Level Is Unhealthy

  1. Harry Eve Reply

    March 5, 2017 at 1:06 pm

    It is not just the SHMA that should be scrutinised. The Transport Assessment should be thoroughly scrutinised too, along with any other evidence that involves choices and assumptions to be made in applying modelling techniques.

    Even though the assessment was rather damning, it still fell well short of defining the road infrastructure deficit that would be created under the proposed plan. The danger is that the full cost is greatly understated and could never be met, condemning Guildford Borough to far worse congestion and pollution than we experience now.

    Constraint is needed and my understanding is that such constraint is permitted in planning law.

  2. Peta Malthouse Reply

    March 6, 2017 at 8:54 am

    I wish to thank Ben Paton for this. It is a thoughtful piece and one that should alarm all residents/ voters because, sadly in my view, it is exactly right in its observations and conclusions. I am not sure where the opposition were on all this either.

    • Harry Eve Reply

      March 9, 2017 at 8:23 pm

      Regarding the opposition, I recall that Guildford Greenbelt Group did their best to get the SHMA scrutinised but the attitude of the other opposition parties was ineffective (perhaps afraid of tackling it even though they thought they ought to) and as a result the Scrutiny Committee failed to do its duty.

      We are fortunate that GGG have the competence and will to do things that the other parties shy away from.

  3. Valerie Thompson Reply

    March 6, 2017 at 3:39 pm

    The failure of the borough councils of Guildford, Woking or Waverley to demand the research leading to the SHMA is a disgrace.

    Is there any way that a complaint could be made to the government that the councils have abandoned their duties to the electorate? One has to question the motives of the councillors who are so uninterested that they feel no need to see this crucial document.

  4. Jules Cranwell Reply

    March 7, 2017 at 12:36 am

    After so many complaints as to this essential aspect of the local plan, the secret ‘black box’ SHMA, why have we had no response from the Executive?

    Is it because they cannot defend the indefensible?

  5. Lisa Wright Reply

    March 7, 2017 at 1:57 pm

    Can I just remind everyone that, crucially, if it wasn’t for GGG debating in council, we would not even be aware of many of the issues that we are now discussing. GGG has really brought scrutiny to Guildford Borough Council and long may it continue.

  6. Jenny Procter Reply

    March 7, 2017 at 6:45 pm

    I agree with Ben Paton that national party representation at local level can be a barrier to real local needs ever being acknowledged or met. The large Conservative majority in GBC over the past few years at least has not served its electorate well.

    The surprising emergence of GGG in this entrenched situation needs to be acknowledged for the success it is which illustrates exactly his point.

    GGG councillors, despite being few in number, are not caught in the web of established party politics and have in fact been able to be very influential within GBC. Susan Parker has stood her corner in the face of many vitriolic and bullying attempted put downs from the Council leadership, simply because she intelligently challenges the will of the establishment.

    The GGG group consistently stick to realities which represent honest values and support those of their local electorates. They have provided a solid platform for opposition to the Local Plan, which threatens to overwhelm the borough and its villages with unnecessary and inappropriate development on an industrial scale.

    Early on they brought to light the fraudulent activities of Monika Juneja. They have caused a rethink about governance within the council. They continue to challenge the SHMA and have recently managed to instigate the serious investigation of air quality issues which were judiciously being ignored. They are doing well standing up for their key manifesto pledges of good governance, protection of environment, air quality, historic settings and countryside.

    Political parties can make a difference if they choose. A few brave local representatives of the national parties do break ranks but the rest would do well to take note of just how successful they could be in finding solutions to local issues if they chose to work with rather than against their electorate and honour the promises they made when electioneering.
    I need to add that Guildford Greenbelt Group were formed in response to this lack of challenge by our councillors and they in my view have worked hard and with dedication to try and get the facts checked and opinion challenged…when I talk about the opposition I meant the Lib Dems and Labour?

    I need to add that Guildford Greenbelt Group were formed in response to this lack of challenge by our councillors and they in my view have worked hard and with dedication to try and get the facts checked and opinion challenge. When I talk about the opposition I meant the Lib Dems and Labour?

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