As Haslemere’s retiring first Independent Surrey County Councillor, I am delighted to have been asked to share some perspectives on representing the town at County Hall.
My message to the next County Councillor is that a community mindset trumps any political affiliation.
My own experience shows that being free from the constraints of party politics has enabled me to challenge and speak up for the best interests of our community.
Having as my only motivation the desire to serve the town has enabled me to bring together positive and collaborative partnerships in projects and initiatives that serve our town.
I am an accidental politician, drawn to stand for the first time in 2013 having been so appalled as I witnessed Surrey County Council (SCC) planning to install parking meters throughout the town.
Revenues from the parking meters were estimated to run into hundreds of thousands of pounds annually, with no clear benefit to the town and obviously negative impacts on local people and businesses.
I was appalled that such a radical and negative change to our town could be ushered in by the back door with minimal public engagement, so I decided to challenge the closed shop and back room deals of the then one-party politics in Haslemere.
They were exciting times – some may recall Haslemere’s second street demonstration since 1912, when hundreds of residents marched through the town to protest against the parking meters in support of our local traders and independent businesses.
The event that sealed my decision to fight for the community was a Surrey and Waverley Local Area Committee meeting in Witley Village hall where local councillors were going to approve the parking meters in the town.
Posters and banners were forbidden so we wore yellow t-shirts printed with the slogan “Haslemere demands a proper process and consultation”.
I had in my possession copies of letters from the clergy in Haslemere objecting to the installation of parking meters around churches.
I was shocked to hear the committee chair state that there were no objections to the proposals, so I stood up twice and challenged this.
Much to the amazement of the crowd, in response to my request that objections from the churches be properly considered, the Chair called for a security guard to physically remove me from the meeting and I was escorted out the building. In today’s world of zoom meetings, I am sure this would have gone viral, Handforth-esque!
Following the meeting, a letter was sent to the Leader of SCC, setting out the case for a judicial review due to the total failure by SCC our then County Councillor to listen to the community… the meter plans were dropped.
So shocked at what I had witnessed, I decided at the very last minute to stand for election as the first Independent for Haslemere.
I did not expect to win but wanted to fire a shot across the bows of the tribal politics, to demand that Haslemere’s electorate deserved better. Stunned, I won by the narrowest of margins, just 20 votes.
Much of my first term was spent challenging the established ways of local politics and being innovative including using social media (@HaslemereFirst).
Although I will have been seen at first as an irritation to the party-based groups in the town, at Waverley as well as at County Hall – evidenced by fellow councillors often coughing comically and rudely rolling their eyes when I spoke – my desire to create a mindset of community-focused and transparent representation for the town resonated with local residents.
My majority in 2019 increased from 20 to 1500, more than all the votes cast for the other party-political candidates put together. This mandate has given me greater confidence to speak out for the town and to push back when decisions are not in the town’s best interests or do not faithfully represent the wishes of local residents.
I am proud to have called for public scrutiny of many issues, including challenging: councillors who vote against the wishes of their constituents on protecting our green spaces, cuts to the fire service in our area, lack of adequate budgets for mental health provision in Surrey and proposals to saddle the town with massive debts for an unnecessary multistorey car park.
I have not been afraid to stand up for, and support residents and community groups, for example, where I played a lead role in the successful campaign to save the Alzheimer’s Centre, now The Hunter Centre and successfully lobbied SCC to enable the outstanding Stepping Stones school to expand into Undershaw in Hindhead.
Throughout my term of office, I have consistently spoken up on the key issue of climate change and sustainability. As a member of the SCC Climate Change working party developing the recent Climate Change Strategy, and on the Highways and Environment committee, I continually pressed for rigorous policy making to reduce carbon emissions. More locally, as a founder member of Haslemere Vision, the Neighbourhood Plan and as a member of the Town Council Neighbourhood Plan working party, I have supported the clear priorities of the community to protect the precious green countryside, rich in biodiversity that surrounds the town.
I have also supported Shottermill Infant school’s innovative green waste scheme – funding hot bins to compost school lunch waste instead of it being thrown out for landfill won an SCC award – and was a founding member of Haslemere South Residents Association.
My efforts have also secured funding for critical road safety and improvement projects across Haslemere and Grayswood including building a safe network for pedestrians and cyclists across town and major road resurfacing under SCC’s Project Horizon. . A key priority has been to improve Haslemere for walking and cycling, and gradually positive steps are being taken through bringing together Surrey Highways and our local community Active Travel group
I have thoroughly enjoyed establishing and Chairing groups such as the Surrey Hills to South Downs Community Rail Partnership – this extended the local partnership to link Haslemere with other stations on the line to promote Haslemere as a gateway to the South Downs, Surrey Hills and National Trust countryside – and liaising closely with the community to make sure I distributed every penny of my members allocation funds to support the activities of a wide range of local groups.
The list could go on, but perhaps the key point about my tenure as County Councillor is that, as we emerge from Covid and look forward to a brighter future, the principles of openness, transparency and the independent mindset that is not constrained by any political party is the most effective way for Haslemere’s voice to be heard and the most effective way to make differences for the town that matter.
My challenge is for the next County Councillor to leave their party politics behind, to encourage the post-pandemic spirit of the community working together and simply put Haslemere first.
I look forward to continue serving Haslemere as an Independent Town Councillor for the Haslemere South ward.
(An abridged account appeared here in the Haslemere Herald last week.)