Maybury & Sheerwater
Earlier today I chaired a meeting of Woking Borough Council’s licensing sub-committee, which was called at the request of Surrey Police to review the premises license for the Every Day shop on Maybury Hill. Both the police and trading standards have expressed concern about a number of incidents at the shop, including the sale of alcohol to underage customers, selling alcohol to people who were already drunk, and selling bottles of spirits that were found to have been stolen from nearby supermarkets.
During the course of the hearing it became apparent that there was little, if any, training or record keeping at the store. The police also presented substantial evidence of criminal activity taking place at the shop, such as handling stolen goods. It was made very clear to the committee that the standards of behaviour at this premises fell far short of what we would expect from any license holder in the borough. We were also concerned that the shop owner did not inform the court upon his conviction that he was a license holder, as he was required to do, nor did he bring his conviction to the council’s attention.
Under these circumstances, it was felt we had no option but to agree with the police’s recommendation that Every Day should have its license revoked. This will hopefully send a strong signal that the council is determined to keep residents safe and that evidence of illegal activity or a serious breach in the licensing standards will be dealt with quickly and firmly.
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.
On Thursday councillors will debate changes to the ward boundaries for local elections. The purpose of the boundary review is to make local elections more balanced by ensuring that all councillors represent a similar number of voters across the borough, and to reduce the number of councillors from 36 to 30, in line with recommendations set out by the Boundary Commission. The council undertook a public consultation on the proposed new wards earlier this year, with displays in the Peacock Centre and Mercia Walk. A total of 195 responses were received, the bulk of which were supportive of the changes.
During the consultation representations were received from Pyrford residents about the boundaries for the new Heath ward, which would have included Pyrford village, Mount Hermon East and parts of Maybury and Sheerwater. Residents were concerned that the new ward would split the historic community of Pyrford across two different seats. At a public meeting about the boundary review last month, some residents also expressed opposition to Pyrford being included in the same ward as Sheerwater – considered to be a very different community in terms of character and needs.
In response to these objections, a number of alternatives were considered which sought to ensure that Pyrford remained within one ward. The new ward will now contain the entire area within the current Pyrford division as well as the Maybury estate, but will exclude Sheerwater and Mount Hermon East. Mount Hermon East will instead merge with the bulk of what is currently Mount Hermon West to create a single Mount Hermon ward. The new seat will run from the Old Woking Road in the east, along White Rose Lane in the south and the railway line in the north, and will extend all the way along York Road and Mount Hermon Road.
I am glad that the new boundaries will retain Mount Hermon as a distinct community within Woking, as this would have been lost under the earlier proposals. The new wards will ensure we have the right number of councillors in the borough to represent residents’ interests. I look forward to supporting the changes when they are debated later this week.
The Conservatives have won the Maybury & Sheerwater by-election, which was called following the disqualification of sitting Liberal Democrat councillor Mohammed Bashir for electoral fraud at the last local elections in 2012. Rashid Mohammed, the winning candidate, took a clear lead with 1,057 votes, fending off competition from the Labour candidate Stephen Tudhope who received 833 votes. The Liberal Democrat candidate Norman Johns came a poor fourth with 252 votes, a collapse in their previous support and putting them behind UKIP.
The poor showing by the Liberal Democrats was obviously the result of public disgust and outrage at revelations about the corrupt and illegal practices used to win the Maybury & Sheerwater ward in 2012, such as adding false names to the electoral register, falsely registering postal voters and forging the votes and signatures of others without their knowledge or consent. While Rashid Mohammed won a clear, decisive and fair victory last night, credit is also due to the Woking Labour Party, and in particular their previous Maybury & Sheerwater candidate Mohammed Ali, who uncovered the fraud and took a petition to the High Court to have the 2012 result overturned.
Rashid will be an excellent councillor and a strong advocate for his community. At the same time, voters in Woking will expect assurances that with a General Election just eighteen months away, the integrity of the electoral system in the borough is sound. This is an issue that I intend to look at in more detail, and I will be calling for this sorry incident to be examined in more detail by the Overview & Scrutiny Committee in due course.