While canvasing last week, I was disappointed to learn that some Liberal Democrat activists have been apparently been making unfounded claims about Woking Park in a bid to attract votes in Mount Hermon, such as falsely claiming that the Conservatives wish to promote house building in the park or sell parts of it off to developers. Needless to say, these claims are entirely unfounded and it is a shame that the opposition has seemingly had to resort to such scaremongering and dirty tricks to try and win an election, rather than standing on their record.
At the meeting of Full Council last week, I asked the Leader of the Council to set out what steps the Conservative administration has taken to protect and enhance Woking Park in recent years. He could point to an impressive list of improvements. The Hoe Valley flood defence work has meant that the old run down greenhouse area is now well laid out and landscape. The Hoe Valley community buildings also now allow a range of community groups to enjoy the park. There is the new grass and 3G football pitches, a new cricket pitch, the relocation and refurbishment of the bandstand, improved tennis courts, enhanced grounds maintenance, a dog-free area for bettr relaxation, new play facilities, and a modern, high quality fitness gym at the Leisure Centre.
It is clear that the Conservatives on the council have shown tremendous commitment to Woking Park and any suggestions to the contrary are entirely without foundation.
At the meeting of Full Council on Thursday night, I questioned council officers on what costs Woking Borough Council had incurred as a result of the voter fraud in Maybury & Sheerwater, which saw a Liberal Democrat councillor disqualified from office in 2013 after it was revealed he had won his seat with the help of corrupt and illegal practices.
I have now discovered that this abuse has cost Woking taxpayers more than £202,000 over the last three years. In response to my question, the Leader of the Council disclosed that the council had to pay more than £175,000 in costs and staff time to deal with the election tribunal, while the Maybury & Sheerwater by-election to choose a replacement councillor cost taxpayers £27,000. Although the council has insurance cover which paid out £82,000 towards these costs, legal action is still underway to try and recoup the remainder of the expenses incurred in combating electoral fraud.
I am appalled that the disgraceful tactics used to elect a Liberal Democrat conucillor in Maybury & Sheerwater have left local taxpayers out of pocket by such a large amount. This is money that should have been used to fund essential services such as day care centres and helping to provide much needed housing in the borough. To put it into context, the figure of £202,000 is seven times the sum that the modest 2.2% increase in council tax will raise in 2016-17.
I am pleased that some of those responsible have now been held to account, and hope that everyone involved with such practices will question their conscious. The Conservative administration on the council has also taken steps to protect the integrity of the ballot in Woking, and introduced measures such as an increased police presence on polling day, a full mini-canvass for all properties in areas where electoral fraud is more likely, and a thorough analysis of all postal vote applications. This should help ensure that such an unethical and illegal way of engaging in local politics is not repeated in the future.
The Conservatives have won another seat on Woking Borough Council and narrowly missed out on picking up a second following yesterday’s local council by-elections in Goldsworth Park. Chitra Rana won the usually safe Liberal Democrat seat of Goldsworth West by a margin of 18 votes, while Sonia Elbaraka came very close in Goldsworth East but fell 32 votes short of securing victory. Both seats were declared vacant earlier in the summer when the sitting Liberal Democrat councillors resigned and moved abroad after a period of questionable attendance at important meetings.
The results are a mixed bag for both parties. The Conservatives had hoped to win the third Goldsworth East seat given that this is a ward which already has two Tory councillors and has seen a significant change in voting behaviour over the last five years. Credit is due to the newly elected councillor James Sanderson who fought a tough and effective campaign. The Liberal Democrats will be pleased that they have stalled the Conservative advance in this seat and have continued a trend which has seen their vote hold up relatively well in council by-elections since the General Election. At the same time, they will be bitterly disappointed to have lost Goldsworth West which has long been one of their safest seats on the council. While they will be celebrating the fact that they held on to Goldsworth East, the reality is that the Liberal Democrats are a further seat down in Woking and have failed to arrest the terminal decline in their vote and support in the borough.
I would like to congratulate both of the newly elected councillors and hope that they will be effective champions for their communities. All eyes will be on the combined Goldsworth Park ward, which will be one of the most marginal seats in the borough once the changes to local government boundaries come into effect next year.
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.