By Beth Park
Surrey County Council has been under the leadership of the Conservatives for no less than 24 years. Of the 81 seats available, the Conservatives hold 56. There’s no surprise then that the Council has been seen as a shining example of a solid Conservative majority, at the centre of a once-strong blue wall.
But so was Guildford until 2019. In fact, nine of eleven district and borough councils in Surrey are no longer controlled by the Conservatives. So, what exactly went wrong for them, and will history repeat itself at this year’s county council vote?
In Guildford, development was undoubtedly a key factor in the defeat of the local Conservative Party. Under pressure to meet Government housing targets, in an area massively constrained by Green Belt, it’s probably true that the Conservatives had little choice but to progress a controversial Local Plan. Leading to even greater contention locally, however, was the fact that the Plan was voted through in the purdah period, days before the borough council election. The result? A remarkable loss of 22 Conservative seats in one fell swoop.
According to Fiona Davidson, Chair of Residents for Guildford and Villages (R4GV) – the party now in charge of the Guildford Council administration, despite only first fielding candidates in 2019 – it was the “inward-looking” approach of a party with very little opposition, which had left the Conservatives vulnerable to defeat in the borough council elections, and that could lead to similar losses at the Surrey County Council elections too.
Parties like R4GV have, at the same time, presented themselves as a genuine alternative to the status quo. At the top of their ‘Agenda for Guildford’ is to deliver a better Local Plan and to assess how they can protect the remaining local Green Belt in future. This time, they are fielding 6 candidates at the county council elections, and are undoubtedly hoping to make an impactful dent in the Conservatives’ majority once again.
And will they? Well, there are several issues to consider, which weren’t previously at play. The first is the outrage across many of the district councils about the suggested move to a unitary authority. The proposal made by Surrey County Council’s Conservative leadership has been labelled as a ‘power grab’ by many of the smaller parties, and reportedly resulted in £500,000 of taxpayers’ cash being paid in consulting costs.
The handling of the COVID-19 crisis is also a factor, through which the Conservatives appear to be coming out on top, following the success of the vaccine roll out. The latest YouGov polls show voting intention at 44% for the Conservatives, with 34% for Labour. At one point back in January, it was Labour that were ahead.
It’s also important to consider that at the 2019 local elections, Brexit was still a major issue, particularly in areas of the South East traditionally held by the Conservatives. The abundance of smaller parties at this election could also in and of itself lead to a split vote amongst those opposed to another four years of Conservative leadership, leaving the remaining pieces of Surrey’s blue wall strongly intact.
Nonetheless, it seems quite clear that the legacy of the Local Plan remains a source of concern for the Guildford Conservatives. Just last week, it was in fact their members who proposed a motion to review the Local Plan and reduce Guildford’s housing numbers, based on the fact that some of the planned infrastructure improvements are yet to come forward.
So whilst the blue wall is likely to remain standing in Surrey on 6th May, there’s no doubt local planning issues are causing just a little bit of a wobble. Perhaps in another four years, it will all come falling down.