Monthly Archives: May 2015
Shortly before the election I held a meeting with people who live in the properties at the bottom end of White Rose Lane towards the junction with Old Woking Road. Residents have been campaigning for additional measures to reduce the speed of traffic coming into Woking from the east of the borough. Although White Rose Lane already has a number of speed reduction features built in, the numerous blind curves, the narrowness of the road and the lack of a proper footpath beyond the Jack & Jill steps makes it a particularly treacherous route for pedestrians.
Earlier in the year residents submitted a petition to Surrey County Council calling for the introduction of a 20mph speed limit. Unfortunately, that proposal was not accepted on the grounds that very few roads in Woking have such a low limit.
My County Council colleague Liz Bowes and I are currently working with officers to explore what could be done to install a footpath which would run from Toad Hall in White Rose Lane to the corner of Old Woking Road. There are, however, a number of obstacles which need to be looked at carefully. There are uncertain land ownership issues, with part of the highway and pavement being owned by Woking Borough Council, other parts being owned by Surrey County Council, and others being privately owned by residents. There is also the lack of a consensus in favour of a footpath, with some residents being strongly opposed. The fact that this part of White Rose Lane is so narrow also presents logistical difficulties, and, even if a solution can be found, there are a lot of demands on the highways budget and the project will need to compete with other areas which are also looking for funding.
As a first step, Councillor Bowes and I have arranged a meeting between White Rose Lane residents Surrey County Council officers Alan Milne and Keith Patching, to take place on Tuesday 16th June. The purpose of this meeting will be to identify ownership of the land running along White Rose Lane and to discuss ways in which we can either reduce speeding along the road or make pedestrian access safer. Separately to this, I have also contacted Serco and asked them to carry out remedial work on the shrubbery between Toad Hall and the White Rose Lane Nature Reserve so the road can be made easier to navigate for those walking along this route.
Once this meeting with highway officers has been held we will be able to decide the next best steps. I will continue to keep residents updated and ensure they are a part of the discussion.
It was a long evening at the HG Wells Centre. The Conservatives increased their majority for the fourth year running, and now have 24 seats on the council. The Liberal Democrats lost further ground, failing to hold traditionally safe seats like Old Woking and Hermitage & Knaphill South and coming within 50 votes of seeing their leader deposed in Kingfield & Westfield. Labour gained a second councillor in Maybury & Sheerwater, while attempts by independent candidates to win seats failed to replicate John Bond’s success in Byfleet last year. UKIP’s share of the vote held up well, but under their current leadership they are incapable of articulating a positive vision for the borough.
I was particularly pleased to see my friend Melanie Whitehand re-elected in Knaphill with the largest majority in Woking. Somewhat dishearteningly, Melanie’s majority is greater than the entire number of votes cast to re-elect me in Mount Hermon East last year, and she secured more votes in a single council ward than I gained in the entire parliamentary constituency of Glasgow East when I stood as a candidate in 2005. Melanie has provided a fantastic service to her residents and has addressed some challenging issues over the last eight years. Completely selfless in her work, she is the epitome of what public service should be about. I was also happy to see Hilary Addison elected to another term as councillor for Goldsworth East. Like Melanie, Hilary has turned a former Liberal Democrat seat into one with a large Conservative vote thanks to her staunch advocacy of residents’ interests.
In Byfleet, our excellent candidate Harry Briggs will now represent residents in the east of the borough. Although independent candidate Amanda Boote came a good second, pushing the Liberal Democrats into third place, voters were no doubt aware of the poor performance of the area’s other independent councillor, who failed to turn up to a large number of important meetings last year. An independent candidate standing on a platform of opposition to the Sheerwater redevelopment also failed to muster significant support, suggesting that opposition to the project might not be as widespread as is often believed.
It was going to be a tall order for the Conservatives to win in Kingfield & Westfield this time round given the high profile of the incumbent councillor, but credit goes to Natalie Bourne who represented the Conservatives extremely well in the ward. She will undoubtedly have better success next time. Colin Scott also failed to win election in Maybury & Sheerwater despite expending considerable energy campaigning in every seat in the borough as well as constituencies as far flung as Southampton and Rochester & Strood.
Finally, congratulations to our new councillors, John Lawrence and Paul Smith, who will represent the traditionally Liberal Democrat seats of Old Woking and Hermitage & Knaphill South. Both men are hugely respected in their communities and bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to the council. I’m sure they will both be effective champions for their areas.
The opinion polls got it wrong. Although I went out on a limb and predicted back in October that the Conservatives would win an overall majority, commentators could not agree on the most likely outcome, with some suggesting that Labour would emerge as the largest party and others predicting that the coalition would continue in its present form.
The election has thrown up some unusual outcomes. The first is the headline result. The fact that David Cameron secured an overall majority when most people believed it wasn’t possible is testament to a well run election campaign and also reflects public confidence in his decision to focus on economic growth and stability over the next few years. During the final days of the campaign it became clear that voters were looking at the marked improvements we have seen in the economy over the last few years and were coming to the decision that we had to stick the course.
However, it wasn’t just the national campaign that helped the Conservatives gain an impressive victory. In many of the constituencies where I campaigned, such as Eastleigh, Kingston & Surbiton, Sutton & Cheam and Portsmouth South, hardworking candidates built up grassroots organisations and active campaigns by focusing on local issues, often gain support by going door to door and street to street to find out what people were really thinking. They were aided by an enthusiastic and activist volunteer base. This was my third General Election campaign and it was by far the most organised I had ever seen in terms of the Conservatives’ ability to direct activists and resources to target seats.
In contrast, Ed Miliband was never able to shake off perceptions that he would be a Prime Minister like Gordon Brown and spend too much, borrow too much and waste too much. Too many people failed to see him as a credible Prime Minister and felt he was concentrating on core Labour issues rather than bread and butter concerns. Labour also suffered a disastrous night in Scotland, losing all but one their seats to the SNP. Much will be written about this phenomenon in the next few days, but the SNP have obviously capitalised on a new engagement with politics which emerged in Scotland as a result of the referendum campaign.
The Liberal Democrats were punished heavily by voters. Although the coalition was in the national interest and the party took on a great responsibility in helping get the country through a difficult period, the public felt the Lib Dems had betrayed their principles and even national figures like Vince Cable and Simon Hughes weren’t spared from voters’ wrath.While some of these figures should have been able to count on a strong personal showing and could have run a positive campaign to secure re-election, the Lib Dem campaigns on the ground were often sneering and negative, with some terrible character assassinations and outright falsehoods being peddled about their opponents. I am glad that this style of doing politics backfired and was shown the contempt it deserves.
Another big story was the failure of UKIP to pick up more than one seat, despite winning almost 4 million votes. Nonetheless, the eurosceptic party picked up some impressive second place finishes, mainly in Labour seats in the north of England. It will be interesting to see whether they can capitalise on this progress or whether disappointment at a poor parliamentary showing will see disillusionment and division set in within the party.
The votes for the local election will be counted later this afternoon at the HG Wells Centre and my colleagues and I are hopeful that our solid record of delivering record investment in the town centre, in new housing and in top class public services while making efficiency savings and reducing waste will be rewarded with a bigger majority.
Last night I attended the hustings meeting at the HG Wells Centre with all the different candidates standing for the Woking Parliamentary constituency. Although the questions from the moderator touched on a range of different national issues, from foreign policy through to the NHS, many of those present were concerned about housing affordability, with several members of the audience stating that as young professionals they found it impossible to get on the property ladder and felt they were being pushed out of the borough by high house prices.
Woking is one of the most expensive places in the country to live, with house prices and rents on a par with London. The average house price in Woking is around £440,000. Taking the measure of affordability as three times annual salary, this means that even with a £40,000 deposit a couple would need a joint income of £130,000 to be able to purchase a property, a staggering calculation when we consider the average salary is around £26,000. While such prices are clearly unaffordable for most the population, the reality is that the South East is home to many wealthy or highly paid people with significant assets, and demand for homes, even at these exorbitant rates, remains high.
High house prices do not just cause problems for those who wish to wish to buy a property but are unable to do so. As the cost of accommodation eats up a bigger proportion of people’s income, purchasing power is reduced. Expensive rents make it difficult for people to live away from their parents, or for those looking to transition from unemployment benefit to financial independence. It reduces social mobility, as those with parents who can help out with a deposit get an early foot on the ladder and benefit from rising prices, excluding those who are unable to call upon such assistance. It also makes it difficult for companies or public services to recruit staff, with the South East in particular struggling to fill positions in nursing and the police due to employees being unable to live in the area where suitable roles are available.
There are, in my view, three reasons for the current disparity between average incomes and housing affordability, but sadly two of these are outside the control of local government. The first reason is that successive governments have encouraged high levels of immigration, with people being attracted to Britain thanks to our relatively buoyant economy compared to other European countries. More than 3 million people have come to live in the UK since 1997, increasing the demand for housing. Secondly, during the boom years under the last government, the Bank of England held interest rates too low, encouraging easy credit and a mortgage bubble which artificially inflated property values. While the 2008-09 recession brought in an element of correction, the uncertainty in the global economy and wildly fluctuating commodity markets means that London property is seen as a safe haven for international investors, particularly from China, Russia and the Middle East. This has had a ripple effect, spreading out from the centre of the capital to other parts of the South East, and has been a driver for the big increases in house prices we have seen since 2010 as the economy has picked up.
The final reason for high property prices is that local government has sought to shirk its responsibility and has built too few houses to cope with demand. This is particularly the case in London, where only a third of the homes needed to keep pace with additional demand was built in the last year. The Localism Act took decisions about housing targets away from central government and devolved them to local authorities, but unsurprisingly almost all councils opted to reduce the number of new properties they built rather than increase it.
Woking has a better record than most in terms of delivering new housing units, with substantial flatted developments going up in the town centre in recent years and more to come through the Victoria Square development and on the old St Dunstan’s church site. There have also been significant new developments in Brookwood Farm, Moor Lane, Ryden’s Way and elsewhere in Westfield. The redevelopment of Sheerwater will also bring more homes onto the market. It is true, however, that the council has not been successful in meeting its targets for delivery of ‘affordable’ units. In any case, I dislike the designation of properties as ‘affordable’, which despite the label does not mean that such homes are within reach of those on average incomes, but rather that they are eligible for various subsidy, shared equity or incentive schemes for key workers or other groups who meet certain criteria but which excludes most of the working population. Housebuilding is also extremely unpopular in Woking, with the bulk of the borough comprising green belt land and an active and vocal community which has in the past fought to resist new development.
So what is to be done? There are some who pray for a house price crash, as they think this will allow them to buy a home which they cannot afford at the moment. Sadly, it is not so simple, since during times of falling house prices banks tighten their lending criteria, demanding higher deposits and reducing the loan-to-value ratio which they are willing to offer, often excluding those who might otherwise benefit from lower prices. Falling house prices are also an indication of more serious economic troubles and are usually accompanied by job losses or slowing growth, all of which has an impact on people’s ability to take on or service a mortgage.
Unfortunately, as stated earlier, the underlying problem is out of the control of local government, and there is little that any council can do to dramatically increase affordability. I would like to see the council prioritise development of smaller homes which are within the budget of the average family, and make better use of brownfield land which is already available for development. I also think we need to move away from using high rise buildings as a means of trying to meet numerical targets when most of these flats are luxury developments unaffordable for most people and which are bought by those coming in from outside the borough. Finally, the council should see through its strategy to refurbish more empty homes and bring them back on the market.
Ultimately the council will need to make a serious and responsible decision about whether it wishes to allow more building on green belt land to meet some of the pent up demand. Those who oppose any green belt development need to have sensible alternative suggestions for how else we will meet our housing needs. With house prices as they are, it is unsustainable to automatically exclude 64% of the borough from new housing. Such a decision is likely to be extremely unpopular, but the alternative is to continue to allow rents and home ownership to become less affordable, for social mobility to reduced further, for inequality to deepen, and for professional people to feel that they cannot build a future for themselves in Woking.