The Conservative approach to local government is based on urgency and supported by realism, financial rigour and transparency in its dealings with residents and stakeholders, writes Councillor Stephen Mulliner, leader of Waverley Borough Council's Conservative opposition.
A borough or district council relies on local government officers to provide its services but the elected members play a vital role in both setting agendas and ensuring agreed actions are carried out briskly.
It is imperative that portfolio holders, the elected members who form the council’s executive committee, develop and maintain a detailed knowledge of their departments and the staff who work there so any problems with delivering an agreed action can be recognised and dealt with promptly.
Officers are not risk takers by nature and, if left to themselves, will always tend to take a cautious approach and hold another meeting or call for another report to be written. Delays have been rife in planning and housing, with examples affecting the Local Plan, the Farnham Design Statement and the crucial social housing Stock Condition Survey.
A borough council should generally stick to its knitting and resist the temptation to embark on speculative ventures in areas in which it has no experience.
The current administration spent £80,000 on consultants’ fees to write one letter to the owners of Dunsfold Park proposing Waverley should become a major housebuilder. It was utterly unrealistic from both a financial and staffing perspective and, fortunately, was given short shrift.
Financial rigour is essential, not just in preparing and monitoring budgets but also in evaluating projects. There is nothing wrong in principle in borrowing money at a fixed rate of interest to finance the building of housing to generate rental income that will increase over time.
But it makes no sense if the venture will be a substantial net cost to the council for over a decade and empty its usable reserves in that time.
Transparency is essential. Residents are entitled to know what the council can and cannot afford to do when times are tough. The impact of the pandemic and high inflation on the UK’s public finances have been enormous and local authority budgets have felt the squeeze as well. Difficult and unpopular decisions may become necessary and, if so, need to be communicated to those affected without delay.
As an example of what not to do, Waverley decided to terminate its lease on The Edge sports centre in Haslemere in April 2022 to take effect from July 2023. However, it did not inform the stakeholder sports clubs until last month, predictably arousing huge concerns.
However, by far the most serious example of non-transparency in the past four years was the headlong rush into the collaboration with Guildford Borough Council in 2021. Just 20 days elapsed between a briefing to councillors on June 16 and the full council decision to proceed on July 6. It is impossible to find another example in local government history where so little opportunity was provided for proper scrutiny of such a significant strategic decision.
Concerns about Guildford’s dire situation, the relatively tiny savings to be achieved and the effect on staff morale and retention were brushed aside by the Lib Dem-led administration.
Conservative administrations believe their main purpose is to run the council actively and successfully for the benefit of all by providing real leadership to the officers. Getting re-elected in four years’ time is a secondary concern. So if you want urgency supported by realism, financial rigour and genuine transparency, vote for your Conservative candidates on May 4.
Councillor Stephen Mulliner
Leader of Waverley Borough Council's Conservative opposition