On May 6th, we will elect our county councillors. This may not seem as momentous as a general election, but councillors, rather than being stuck in Westminster far from those they serve, are the ones that have to tackle directly with the problems that we have every day. Besides, the results of this election will foster the climate that the next general election takes place in; it could very well determine the next government.
With all this in mind, I interviewed a number of Surrey County Council (SCC) councillors on their careers, achievements, and hopes and plans for after the election if they are re-elected.
Tim Oliver (Conservative) – Weybridge Division, also Council Leader
While he has been in local politics since 1999, Oliver has only been council leader since 2019, and was thus at the forefront of Surrey’s local response to the Covid-19 pandemic. After the election, Tim plans to focus on four key areas of priority for the council to take in the coming months: building a sustainable economy, tackling health inequality, enabling a greener future, and empowering communities.
On the first, he says ‘Surrey, like the rest of the country, has been badly hit by the pandemic, particularly the areas that depended on the aviation industry up in Spelthorne and near Gatwick. So, what we must do is find ways to support the economy and help it grow; so that’s around reskilling people, upskilling people, working with the local enterprise partnership that are responsible for skills and apprenticeships, further education colleges and so on. So I think we’ll see a lot of investment going into that.’
On the second: ‘We spend a million pounds a day on delivering adult social care and half a million on supporting children’s services. But we’ve seen again through the pandemic and through the research that we’ve done, the data we’ve collected, the disproportionate impact that Covid has had on our communities. So, what we’re going to do is use that data and target those areas who’ve seen significant deprivation and indeed where there’s inequality in life expectancy and opportunity.’
Robert Evans (Labour) – Stanwell and Stanwell Moor Division
Robert Evans, the only Labour member of the council, is the councillor for Stanwell and Stanwell Moor division and a former MEP for London (serving from 1994 to 2009). As the only Labour council member, Robert experiences frequent opposition, but nevertheless, he has made some substantial achievements over the years; for example, prompting SCC to become a Fairtrade council and to sign the Charter Against Modern Slavery. ‘It is going on in Surrey just like domestic violence goes on in Surrey,’ he says. He has also worked to implement rail links to Heathrow from Surrey through Guildford and Woking, as the current links force one to go in and out of London when travelling to the airport.
If he is re-elected, Robert plans to continue much of the work he has been doing for the past eight years. ‘I campaigned hard on the fire service because I think in Spelthorne we have been short-changed’ he says. They lost one of their two fire stations, and ‘the fire cover has been reduced by half at night and across the whole of Surrey the number of fire fighters has been cut from 641 to 448. There’s a third fewer fire fighters to protect more people in Surrey. It’s just not acceptable.’ Robert also plans to continue opposing the expansion of Heathrow, which, despite being side-lined by the virus, could still very much remain an issue in the future after lockdown ends.
Will Forster (Liberal Democrats) – Woking South Division
Will Forster, councillor for Woking South, is also the former Mayor of Woking. He speaks of his mayoral duties fondly, describing the experience as ‘a wonderful honour’ consisting of ‘being the head of the civic community, so particularly cheerleading and fundraising local community groups and supporting the community spirit.’ He discusses his support for the York Road Project, a homeless charity, whose work was particularly valuable during the pandemic, making sure every homeless person got off the street and was looked after in a safe, Covid-appropriate way.
If he is re-elected, Will plans to sort out the roads in his division. ‘For years the local people have wanted better access from South Woking to Woking town centre. And I know network rail working with the local councils are going to replace Victoria Arch over the coming years; that’s got the potential to be very beneficial to local people. It’s awful at the moment but actually we need to make sure that any refurbishment is done quickly, it shouldn’t involve lengthy road closures or diversions.’ He also mentions that many roads do not have pavements, providing difficulty for pedestrians.
Jonathan Essex (Green Party) – Redhill East Division
My own division’s SCC councillor, Jonathan Essex is an engineer who was inspired to join the Green Party by his experiences in Vietnam and Bangladesh. ‘I went down the Ganges river in the Monsoon season,’ during a visit to Bangladesh ‘when the river was in flood wider than the English channel at ten knots, and visited a village by the side of that river looking at a project that was to reduce corruption in local governments and to invest in rural enterprises. Two weeks after I visited that place it was in the local paper that the river had widened by ten kilometres overnight; the village was halfway down three solid paragraphs that listed villages that had been ‘deleted’ overnight’. This, said Jonathan, made him think about the kind of impact human practices have on the environments of people in far-flung places.
While, as the only Green councillor in the SCC, he has little influence by himself, Essex believes that he has prompted the council to make several key decisions. ‘Through our efforts we’ve encouraged the council who’ve then committed to funding youth work that is still needed in Redhill. We’ve campaigned consistently for better recycling and an end to incineration across Surrey – last month the County Council announced that it’s now in legal proceedings with the Council’s waste provider, and I’m cautiously optimistic that will lead to no incineration in Surrey going forward. On climate change I’ve put the case for a strong climate motion with the deadline as 2030 for consideration.’ This was not supported, but it did lead the Conservatives to put their own motion aiming for net zero by 2050. This led to a baseline study being conducted by Leeds University which set a target of around two thirds reduction of emissions by 2030. The council said it would require £13 billion to be spent across Surrey to make it happen, which is a lot more ambitious than the government, whose industrial decarbonisation strategy has committed just £12 billion in the next five years for the whole country.’ If re-elected, Essex plans to keep pushing green issues: for example, to prevent the flooding over Redhill’s portion of the London to Paris cycle route.
Full interviews at redguesthouse.co.uk