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Opinion: What Will the Next Four Years Look Like for GBC? There Are Factors That Do Not Bode Well

Published on: 14 May, 2023
Updated on: 16 May, 2023

By George Dokimakis

member of Guildford Labour

George Dokimakis has stood four times as a candidate for Guildford Labour in the 2015, 2019, 2023 borough elections and in 2017 he stood for the county council.

So he has a rare insight to the local political scene and gives his view of the next four years until the next borough council election in 2027.

A week after the local elections, it is worth looking at what we should expect from the Liberal Democrat-led administration.

But before we look forward, let’s look back to the 2019 GBC elections. It was very much a protest election, a protest against the Local Plan that was put forward by the Conservatives and adopted despite a lot of local and vocal opposition, a few days before the councillors’ votes were cast.

The parties that were vocal against it, or just not wholeheartedly for it, did really well. Lib Dems gained eight seats, Residents for Guildford & Villages (R4GV – a completely new party) gained 15 seats and the Conservatives lost a massive 26 seats, going from 35 seats and full control of the council to only nine, the worst result in living memory and certainly since the borough council came into being in 1974.

GBC Election 2019 result map. Wikipedia

It was an election defined by what parties stood against rather than what they stood for. The Lib Dems made numerous promises in 2019, the highlight of which was 3,000 new social homes.

After the election, the Lib Dems found themselves, unexpectedly, the biggest party with R4GV second. After a period of minority control, they formed a coalition with R4GV and shared leadership.

The end result of these four years has not been good. GBC is now at the bottom of the pile across councils nationally on planning performance. Of the promised 3,000 social houses less than two per cent were built and most of those had been started by the previous Conservative administration.

“It was an election defined by what parties stood against rather than what they stood for.”

Worse, they gave back £2.3 million earmarked for social housing because they failed to use the money. Considering we have about 2,000 families waiting for social housing, it is a dire track record of a central election campaign promise.

For a more detailed explanation of the repayment please see: Why Council Had to Pay £2.3m Held For Council Housing to Government.

Finally, and worst of all is their long-term legacy of the Debenhams and North Street developments (the latter widely expected to be allowed on appeal or through a new similar application). The problem with defining yourself against something, rather than in favour, is that others fill the void of vision for you.

The lack of a positive vision during 2019-23 meant that developers are designing how the town will look as in a piecemeal approach aimed more at maximising profit rather than as part of a coherent vision.

And after the election?

This brings us to the 2023 GBC election. It was indicative of their party’s track record that most Lib Dem communications focussed on an anti-Tory message rather than showcasing their own record leading and co-leading the council the last four years.

There were no promises made this time, such as the 3,000 social houses. The Lib Dem message was that they were the ones to beat the Tories. They used, successfully, a national theme, locally.

Again though, it creates the question of: “What do they stand for?” What are they planning on delivering the next four years? What is their vision for Guildford? Their last action was to oppose North Street redevelopment after previously supporting it. To successfully deliver something, you need to know what you want to deliver.

This lack of vision can sometimes be counterbalanced by the professional skills of individuals, their capability and experience. In this, the new Lib Dem team is severely lacking. They do not have such people whereas almost all of the opposition parties did (John Rigg’s mentioned this in his letter: Sadly, Fake News Misled the Electorate).

To compound the problem, they have a small majority of just two, including some erratic elements such as Cllr Potter, as evidenced by him meeting the producer of the controversial Battle for Guildford video in the run-up to the election, without the knowledge of the Lib Dem chair. Then when asked when Potter was asked about it he, at first, denied it.

There are obstacles ahead for whoever is to lead the borough council

It will be extremely difficult to ensure they all vote in favour of whatever proposals are put forward. Anything controversial might be defeated if the opposition act in concert with only two Lib Dem rebels. This could inhibit difficult decision-making.

Key to this will be the leader of the council, Cllr Julia McShane. The impression she gave over the last few months of the previous administration was of one not enjoying the job and its responsibilities. She effectively disappeared, not participating in hustings and avoiding interviews. One has to wonder whether she actually wants the job or not and whether she is up to the job or not.

“To compound the problem, they have a small majority of just two”

But what about the opposition? Will they act in concert? They have some opposing views and divergent interests. Will at least a few of them support the Lib Dems in some votes and challenging decisions?

The Conservatives are now the second biggest party having gained a seat off the Greens, who didn’t stand in Tillingbourne, and four from R4GV. Considering the vitriolic Lib Dem opposition to the Local Plan, the most likely scenario is that they will give the Lib Dems a taste of their own medicine.

GBC Election 2023 result map. Wikipedia

R4GV have seen their seat share halved. It was political naivety going into coalition with the Lib Dems and their development plans were not universally popular, a factor skilfully exploited by the Battle for Guildford videos, even if they did mislead.

Throughout the last twelve months, it was evident that R4GV’s relationship with the Lib Dems was deteriorating. It is unlikely we have heard the last about the tactics used in the election, so I do not expect R4GV to prop up the Lib Dems under any circumstances.

Labour is the other winner of this election, increasing their councillor count by one and being the only party that took a seat from the Lib Dems. Considering the track record, it is not likely our Labour councillors will be disposed to support the Lib Dems either.

“…there will be very little progress in Guildford over the next four years…”

Finally, for the Guildford Greenbelt Group, their whole reason d’etre was to preserve the green belt, so the Lib Dems will struggle to find any support there.

Considering all of the above together, the most likely scenario is that there will be very little progress in Guildford over the next four years led by the Lib Dems with a lot of infighting and bickering. The best we should expect will be an improvement in council performance. Considering the low point GBC finds itself in right now surely the only way really is up.

I truly and honestly hope that the next four years prove my analysis wrong and we have some real progress in Guildford, addressing at least some of the real challenges our town and borough face.

Unfortunately, the reality is that we have a party highly skilled in opposing, and good at campaigning, who have found themselves solely in charge. But the buck stops with them, so the future does not bode well.

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Responses to Opinion: What Will the Next Four Years Look Like for GBC? There Are Factors That Do Not Bode Well

  1. Valerie Thompson Reply

    May 15, 2023 at 10:04 am

    I fear the GBC will lose control of planning altogether if Mr Gove has his way.

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