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Letter: R4GV Must Remember What the “V” Stands For

Published on: 20 Jun, 2021
Updated on: 20 Jun, 2021

From David Roberts

In response to: Guildford MP Reports Meeting PM on Planning as By-Election Sounds ‘Warning Shot’ to Tories

What does the surprise result of the Chesham and Amersham by-election mean for places like Guildford?

Tory MP for the Isle of Wight Bob Seely puts his finger on it, telling the BBC the government, “badly needs to think again about planning. This entire system feeds the over-development of the South and the under-development of other areas. It needs to change.”

But have Guildford’s politicians got the message? Mr Seely, along with Theresa May and others, have been vocal critics of the government’s prospective new planning bill, that threatens to inflict even higher house-building targets on councils in the South East.

However, our Guildford MPs have been silent about these proposals. Guildford MP Angela Richardson recently praised the forced passage of our dreadful Local Plan as a “noble duty”. The man responsible for that, former council leader Paul Spooner, has Tweeted pictures of himself cutting ribbons for a new housing estate. Their motto appears still to be “build, build, build”.

Our local Tory MPs boast of their access to the powers-that-be. So what practical steps are they going to take to get the Office for National Statistics to reduce the inflated population projections on which the Local Plan housing targets are based?

Backbenchers have little influence on ministers and non-ministerial agencies, but our non-Tory council has even less and needs their support. Without pressure for better ONS figures, the planned review of the Plan will end as a whitewash.

If our MPs fail to recognise the significance of local over-development their part of the Remain-voting Home Counties “blue wall” is likely to collapse.

The Prime Minister made clear his indifference to losing Guildford before the last general election, but Chesham and Amersham is surely a warning. If the proposed constituency boundary changes come into force before the next election, Guildford will be a dead cert for the LibDems.

Even if they don’t, Mole Valley would look marginal for a Tory successor to Sir Paul Beresford, to whom an overdue retirement beckons. Two successive local elections have produced steep falls in the local Tory vote, yet the old guard with Cllr Spooner remains in place. The Tories really haven’t got the message.

But have the Lib Dems? Guildford Council deputy leader Cllr Harwood has made it plain in The Dragon (see: Opinion: Our Local Plan Review Is Bound By Government Rules) that he hopes the whole issue of over-development will go away so we can continue more or less with the Tory Plan his former party leader shamefully voted for in 2019.

The “blue wall” is safe in Cllr Harwood’s hands: he has turned a tin-ear towards those pesky rural voters who are already seeing their villages blighted by an orgy of over-development. For him, the review of the Local Plan seems to be just a nuisance to be managed. No Lib Dem, even those representing rural wards or his new local party leader, seems prepared to take issue with him.

Hopes are therefore pinned on R4GV council leader Joss Bigmore. Does he get it? Sort of, is the best answer. From a position of relative weakness, lacking a council majority, he is taking some steps towards a Local Plan review that he hopes will get his party off the hook it impaled itself on by promising real change.

Whether R4GV, with its overwhelming obsession with town-centre issues, has the cohesion or determination to bring this off, however, is an open question. Without much more ambitious political agenda-setting, such as an explicit objective to cut the housing target from 14,000 to 9,000 as independent studies suggest, the Plan review will be led off into the mist by the usual technocrats.

Up to now, R4GV have benefited hugely from rural votes, not least thank to a non-compete agreement with the Guildford Greenbelt Group. To preserve that they need to remember that the V in their name stands for Villages.

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