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The Dragon Says: The Solace Report States the Obvious – Real Change is Needed Urgently

Published on: 13 May, 2024
Updated on: 13 May, 2024

By Martin Giles

There were no real surprises in the Solace report on the current state of Guildford Borough Council.

For those who have been observing GBC in recent years, the conclusions arrived at in the damning report stated the obvious but the problems are not all down to the current administration and some have come from the government.

See: Council Leader Apologises Following Publication of Damning Report on GBC

The underlying cultural problem at the borough council that prevented properly listening to criticism, honest self-appraisal, true understanding of and compliance with the Nolan principles, has been clear. Over the years, it has been highlighted in various editorial articles as well as readers’ letters and comments in The Dragon and elsewhere.

The lack of openness, in particular, has been a truly woeful failing, aggravated by the constant denials of responsibility as seen in the Monika Junja case (see: Council Report Accepts Juneja Case Has Caused ‘Reputational Damage’).

Even worse though has been the contempt shown towards residents’ views and the failure to deliver what residents want.

There was very little support for the current Local Plan, and the way it was railroaded through in 2019 was an appalling misuse of power. There was also no real heed paid to the thousands of residents’ comments made in an expensive but mostly pointless public consultation.

Subsequently, many of the fears relating to the impact of the plan have been realised, especially in Ash and the inset villages that have had their green belt status removed.

We now have damaging overdevelopment in many parts of the borough and more expected. Despite specific promises that there would be no development without the required additional infrastructure, that is precisely what has happened.

Why councillors, not all of them Conservative, were so intent on maximising housing numbers within the borough remains a mystery. Whose interests were they serving?

See the full Solace report in the papers for the Corporate Governance & Standards Committee on Wednesday, May 15.

Certainly not those on Guildford’s waiting list for housing. Only new council housing will meet their needs – real homes, not the imaginary kind, 3,000 of them, so shamelessly and dishonestly promised by the Lib Dems in 2019.

Nor were the interests of residents who value the green belt character of the Guildford borough, which was probably a reason why they chose to live in Guildford or remain here.

Nor those who are all for congruous, attractive improvement and development of the town centre rather than the characterless high-rises, some promoted by R4GV and now due to be delivered, that will only further damage the town’s character. The failure of successive administrations to create an effective building height policy is every bit as shameful as any other failing and will have a longer legacy.

More recently there have been the scandalous accounting errors. First the unspent Section 106 monies, then the £10 million that was due to be repaid to the government but shown misleadingly as an asset, nearly causing the council to effectively declare bankruptcy, and, most recently, the overspending on a housing maintenance contract by more than £13 million, ironically while some council tenants are waiting for overdue maintenance and safety work.

Meanwhile, the leadership has gone from bad to weak, failing to be accountable and protecting officers who are not properly engaging with councillors wanting to bring problems to their attention.

Councillors are rarely unprincipled people but the system, with political parties choosing candidates from a small, sometimes unwilling group of members, does not usually bring the most able to the fore. Recently the ineptitude has been shown to be manifest and the accompanying denials, secrecy and hubris only compounded the faults.

But let’s not exonerate ourselves. We all form part of the Guildford Borough community. Despite the council’s ridiculous secrecy, a lot of this has happened in plain sight but we keep voting for the same parties and sometimes the same councillors, pointlessly expecting improvement.

And The Dragon has not been able to prevent it. We have tried hard with our meagre resources to present the news in a palatable, accurate and balanced way but we have not been effective enough in drawing attention to the poor health of our council. We hope to improve things in the coming year but it will require significant support from the community.

Having watched GBC from the outside almost certainly as closely as anyone, I am convinced that party politics have had a malign effect. Voter apathy hardly needs to be encouraged but that is what the party labels do. Too many of those who bother to vote choose who to vote for in a similar way they support football teams.

We too often vote blue, red or yellow simply because that’s what we normally do. Perhaps we have a vague preference for a “philosophy” but not a clue about the candidate or their party’s local policies or performance.

To a degree it is understandable. Election promises mean nothing; councillors are not even embarrassed by their failures. And the rest of us just accept it as the norm.

If the Solace report is to be truly effective we must all be prepared to play our part as citizens, as voters. We should be more vocal, more demanding, pay more attention, and tell our friends, relatives and neighbours to give more time to local affairs if they desire improvement.

I do realise I am singing to the choir. Dragon readers are among the most engaged but we need to spread the word. We all pay council tax and we all suffer the consequences of government failure, often more directly at local government level.

Many residents couldn’t even say which council, county or borough, is responsible for what. They could not name their division and ward councillors and never listen to a council debate. They don’t even bother to read free local news.

There might be a daunting challenge facing new CEO Pedro Wrobel at GBC (and good luck to him) to fix the culture there but there is an equally challenging cultural challenge facing us all.

What happens next is crucial. We cannot simply rely on the new CEO (who also has to serve Waverley). It needs strong political leadership too of the kind Julia McShane, well-intentioned though she undoubtedly is, has shown she cannot provide. For the task ahead we need different leadership to emerge an elected councillor – elected by and supported by the whole council.

In times of national crisis Parliament sometimes forms a National Government. We need the equivalent here, a “Guildford Government” under a new leader to get the council back on track, so it can properly fulfil its function of effectively administering this borough. Political partisanship has been part of the problem. Who cares which political party the best councillors are from?

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Responses to The Dragon Says: The Solace Report States the Obvious – Real Change is Needed Urgently

  1. Jim Allen Reply

    May 13, 2024 at 7:12 pm

    An excellent summary of the situation.

    The problem extends well back past 2004 when the relocation of the sewage works, known to be financially unsustainable then and still is, was proposed. As a case in point, No one mentions the public works loan on the project.

    Perhaps a blind ballot vote of all councillors for a new leader would be beneficial.

  2. David Roberts Reply

    May 13, 2024 at 9:16 pm

    I’m not sure a “council of all the talents” (or, in our current bumbledom, lack of them) is the answer. Coalitions still face oppositions, and councillors would still divide into two camps.

    But, as this month’s elections showed, a much under-reported phenomenon in local government across the country is the ever-growing split between the national parties, which prioritise their national agendas, and the mass of local ones, residents’ groups and independents, whose numbers and influence continue to rise on the back of local issues.

    Perhaps, having heavily voted down the idea of a directly elected mayor in 2017, Guildford should dump the “strong leader” governance structure introduced by the Tories (in which the head of the biggest party assumes quasi-presidential powers to choose all the executive councillors, usually from the same party) in favour of the committee system that existed until (I think) about 2002. Consensual politics always makes taking decisions slower and more complex, but usually more sound and consistent.

    Editor’s response: A National Government in the UK is one that can include all MPs, so an equivalent a GBC would could include all councillors. Coalitions, of course can be between only two parties and this is not what was being suggested.

  3. Andrew Halliday Reply

    May 14, 2024 at 8:12 am

    An excellent and excellent analysis. I hope it hits home.

  4. Jules Cranwell Reply

    May 14, 2024 at 9:08 am

    I agree wholeheartedly with this article. If Cllr McShane really wants to do what is best for Guildford, she should resign. As she is a big part of the problem, she cannot be the solution. She does not possess either the ability or the leadership acumen to get the job done.

    The SOLACE report could not be more damning of the lead councillors and officers.

    I believe the only way for a turnaround to be possible is for the government to place GBC in special measures, and appoint a government inspector to manage the remedial measures.

  5. Ramsey Nagaty Reply

    May 14, 2024 at 9:21 am

    Once again The Dragon expertly analyses the situation at GBC with laser sharp insight. Martin Giles goes on to call for residents to get more involved and for councillors to work together for the benefit of Guildford not merely their particular party.

    Sadly, there is still no vision and the council continue to talk of transparency but operate in secrecy.

    The Guildford Greenbelt Group (GGG) was founded by concerned residents horrified by the maladministration at GBC, the revolving door of officers on golden handshakes with NDAs [non-disclosure agreements] not just the development by GBC within what was greenbelt, countryside and villages.

    The SOLACE report highlights that much of what motivated the formation of GGG sadly continues at GBC.

    Ramsey Nagaty is a former GGG borough councillor and chair og the Guildford Greenbelt Group party.

  6. Pete Bennett Reply

    May 14, 2024 at 9:43 am

    Tribal party politics is certainly a major part of the problem. A suggestion that the council as a whole should be improved will be quickly seized upon by the Conservatives as evidence that the “Lib Dems are to blame” (even though the issues date back to the time when the Conservatives ran the council). This will lead to a lack of cooperation and, after a few soundbite worth communications, a continuation of the status quo.

    I would certainly welcome a system where party labels are banned from local elections (and even more so for the pointless PCC election – why ever would I want scrutiny of the police to be politicised?).

    A system where a councillor is elected on their own merits without relying on the colour of their rosette would certainly force councillors to be more active in their communities.

    There are good councillors of all parties, but there are also councillors who would never have been elected without the party colour. As Martin Giles alludes to, it is such a shame that our system prevents the talent we have from working together for the good of our borough.

    Pete Bennett is the chair of the Residents for Guildford & the Villages (R4GV).

  7. Richard Benson Reply

    May 14, 2024 at 6:19 pm

    In my opinion Council Leader McShane and the GBC Executive need to understand that transparency is about telling the truth before you’re asked and divulging all the important information along the way.

    Transparency builds trust because people will never feel as though you’re keeping something from them.

    I would advise new CEO Pedro Wrobel to very quickly put into practice the tried and tested maxim: if the people won’t change, then change the people.

    Editor’s comment: A local authority CEO cannot change the council leader or Executive members. All are elected councillors. He can only change council officer appointments subject to necessary approvals (some appointments have been approved by councillors) and terms of contract.

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