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What’s Behind the Rise of the Independents in Surrey?

Published on: 1 May, 2022
Updated on: 4 May, 2022

The rise of Independent councillors is even more apparent in Surrey than elsewhere in England and Wales. Source Local Government Association

By Emily Coady-Stemp

local democracy reporter

Long-serving councillors and those new to politics are finding themselves pulled by the draw of standing as Independent councillors, often representing residents’ associations.

These Independents offer an alternative to the larger parties, and say they can afford to focus on local issues, with many of the residents’ associations having started up primarily in response to planning issues.

According to the Local Government Association Independent Group there was an increase nationwide of around 700 elected independent councillors in 2021 local elections compared to 2016.

The organisation said following the 2021 local elections there were 2,928 Independent group councillors in England and Wales, a number which also includes Green Party and Plaid Cymru councillors, but is made up of 2,218 Independent and resident association members.

This bar graph shows the remarkable change that occurred in the Guildford Borough Council election in 2019. Wikipedia

In Surrey, two borough councils, Guildford and Elmbridge, are led by resident and Lib Dem coalitions, while Tandridge District and Epsom and Ewell Borough Councils are led by residents’ associations.

They are an important feature on many of the other lower-tier councils in Surrey, with an independent as deputy leader of Spelthorne Borough Council.

Tandridge District Council has a minority administration of 16 Independents and Oxted & Limpsfield Residents’ Group Alliance councillors, with the remainder being 14 Conservative, nine Liberal Democrat, and three Independent Group councillors.

Cllr Catherine Sayer, Oxted Photo Darren Pepe

Its leader is Catherine Sayer of the Oxted & Limpsfield Residents’ Group, who says the group did not think it would get to this stage when it first put forward a council candidate in 2016.

The association “just ticked along for quite a few years” after it started in 2008, in response to a lot of sudden and speculative planning applications in the green belt, she said.

Then Jackie Wren, now also a councillor in the leader’s Oxted North & Tandridge ward, stood as the group’s first candidate, winning the seat from the then Conservative leader of the council with a swing of 49.3 per cent.

Though Cllr Sayer had her doubts on how easy it would be to run an alliance, and admitting that it’s easier to be in opposition, she said since the group took over the council from the previous Conservative administration in May 2021 so far it had been “amazingly, very coherent”.

She said alongside planning, the big issues for the group were fixing the council’s finances and dealing with anti-social behaviour, especially in Oxted town centre.

Conservative candidates in the area are promising to protect green spaces, ensure appropriate planning and support local events such as the Pram Race and the Beer Festival, while the Lib Dems in the district are pledging to serve the community and to “stabilise the council’s finances”.

‘Life has gone out the window’

Cllr Sayer said her life has gone “out the window” since she took on the leader role, having put a book deal on hold in what she described as a “big chance” to follow up on the success of her first thriller.

She is up for election on May 5.

She said: “I’ve had to put a lot of things on hold that perhaps I would have done otherwise, because it’s taken off to such an extent.

“I suppose when we started, we didn’t really think it would be this big. But it obviously spiralled.

“We don’t think we’ve achieved everything we wanted to do yet.”

She thinks the success of independents and residents’ associations across Surrey could be down to the fact that they are not tied to the main parties, and says they do try to stay out of political “squabbling”.

They can work to get people together on a given issue “in a way that’s not perceived as scoring political points,” she said. “It’s just to do something and achieve something. I think it’s easier for us to do that somehow.”

It remains to be seen how long Tandridge may continue under residents’ control, but you don’t have to travel far to nearby Epsom and Ewell Borough Council, which has been under residents’ association control since it was founded in 1938.

Of its 38 councillors, 32 are Residents’ Association, three are Labour, two are Liberal Democrat and there is one Conservative councillor.

Cllr Hannah Dalton

The chair of its Residents’ Association, Hannah Dalton (Stoneleigh), became a councillor in 2015, having campaigned for step-free access to Stoneleigh station, a project that is now underway but one she said would not “translate to a national level”.

Cllr Dalton said it was easier to campaign as an independent at a local level, because wards are smaller and there is a focus on community issues in the area.

She said too thinks the move in Surrey towards independents is to do with taking party politics out of local decision making.

Councillor left Conservatives for an Independent group to be ‘free from party politics’

Cllr Barry Cheyne, Walton Society candidate. Image supplied by candidate

Cllr Barry Cheyne has been an Elmbridge councillor for 28 years and would agree with this sentiment.

This year he left the Conservative group on council and will be standing in the Walton Central ward with the Walton Society.

He said the group, which represents local residents and is not party affiliated, was a “natural home” home for him where he could be “free from party politics”.

Cllr Cheyne said: “I don’t have to be following any party rule. If I think the government’s approach to helping people is totally wrong and a mess, I’m free to say so.”

Cllr Cheyne chaired the local plan working group, putting together a plan for homes in the borough that will go out for public consultation after being unanimously voted through at a full council meeting in March.

He said any building done in the Walton area, where nearly 2,000 new homes are planned, needed to be sympathetic since it was taking “a fairly large chunk of the new homes”.

He added: “I really want to see that through because I think it is not only important for the Walton area, but for the rest of the borough.

“Where there are proposals for development that are not sympathetic to the area, then they have got to be challenged.”

He will stand against four other candidates, including another former Conservative councillor, Christine Richardson who says she wants to focus on local issues and not party politics.

The Conservatives in Elmbridge are campaigning on issues including road condition and safety, helping local businesses and protecting green spaces. Lib Dem candidates are promising more help for young people, protection of green spaces and improvements to roads and pavements.

Cllr Cheyne said there may only be a few votes in it. “On a five-cornered fight, you can never be overconfident,” he said.

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