On Thursday 2nd May, or rather the early hours of Friday morning, there was a huge cheer from within the main hall at Loddon Valley Leisure Centre. I’m not entirely sure of the exact time, but it was around 3am that the announcement came that Dr Maria Gee became Councillor Maria Gee for Wescott, knocking out the leader of Wokingham Borough Council.
The whole evening had felt electric, despite the late hour. Many of us had been up since the crack of dawn, and we were tired, but being in that hall as the results came in was worth it. We (the Liberal Democrats) doubled in numbers overnight, bringing to the council a wide range of skills, including financial expertise and highways expertise among many others.
Many of us have been out canvassing since mid-September last year, talking to residents on a weekly basis, usually several times a week. Initially we were handing out surveys to try and gauge public opinion, then we moved on to election canvassing. In Evendons, election canvassing started much sooner than we anticipated due to the by-election. There are mixed views about canvassing. The majority of residents are happy to see us and have someone to discuss their thoughts with. A few people would rather we didn’t, but it’s a case of we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t. My personal view is, I’d rather be as visible as possible for residents to interact with (and I do try and communicate in a number of ways), but if someone really doesn’t want to talk to me, just politely say so.
When we canvass, we tend to work as a team, helping out in each other’s wards, and as such, I’ve spoken to residents in Winnersh, Emmbrook, Wescott and Hillside (Lower Earley) as well as Evendons. There are a few ward specific, and even area specific concerns residents have, that for Evendons, I’m working on with residents. However, there are a number of concerns coming out across all the wards I’ve been canvassing in – house building numbers, infrastructure, council spending and the town centre regeneration being top of the list. The point I’m trying to make is, whilst Brexit was sometimes raised on the doorstep and would have influenced to some extent voting intentions, it was predominantly local issues that brought about the results of this local election.
A question that was raised time and time again on the doorstep, and even in conversations I have with friends is, why are local councils political? Our role as local councillors is to represent residents, but this can be split into two areas. We have our case work, which is where residents contact us about an issue, and we help to try and get a resolution where possible. This covers a wide range of areas and in the three months I’ve been elected, has mostly been highways and refuse collection concerns, although I’ve also had children’s services, anti-social behaviour and housing issues to address amongst other areas.
The second part of our role is policy setting. Sometimes we can’t get a satisfactory result in our case work due to the policy that’s in place, and we can try and change that policy (although it’s not a simple task). A frustrating incident last week in planning committee was when a block of flats in Winnersh was approved despite there being inadequate parking. It was a block of 12 flats, with a total of 15 bedrooms and just 11 parking spaces, plus one accessible bay. It was approved because the number of spaces was in line with council policy.
This is where politics comes into play as decisions need to be made as to how Wokingham Borough is run and what policies are needed. This is where opinion will often be split. There will be times when all councillors in the chamber will agree, but more often than not, there are disagreements. As an opposition councillor, it will be much harder for myself and my colleagues to get policy changed should the leading party not agree, but this is why I believe cross party working is essential. There will of course be compromise, but working cross party means everyone’s voice gets heard, and hopefully as a result, decision making improves. And after the recent elections, we certainly have a louder voice!
Independent councillors pose more questions. I know many residents don’t like the idea of politics being involved at local level, and many have said they would vote for an independent candidate should one stand. I completely understand why residents feel like this. I too am sick of party politics. However, what’s important to remember is that an independent councillor may not be part of a party, but they still sit somewhere on the political spectrum. It’s really important to understand where, because by not being aligned with a party, it’s sometimes harder to know what their views are. These views influence how they vote on policies, and what policy changes they may put on the table. As mentioned in my previous blog, even within a political party there is a spectrum of opinion, but generally the overarching principles of the party are what they stand for. What those of us in parties need to do is work within our parties, but still maintain that independent voice where needed. I.e. not have our votes whipped.
The final thing I’d like to mention is that whilst I was telling outside of Woosehill Church polling station, a number of voters commented to me about the fact we (the Lib Dems) had no town council candidate on the ballot paper. We had candidates in other areas, but we did not have enough people wanting to stand for election. This is something we were obviously disappointed about, but unless residents are willing to stand for election, our hands are tied. A quote that I have on a notebook that I carry around in my handbag is “the most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity” – Amelia Earhart. I was never that interested in politics before I had children. Whilst I always voted, I tended to stay out of anything further. A number of incidents have happened over recent years that led me to change my mind, but the real catalyst that made me decide to act was the shocking event at Grenfell Tower in 2017. Having the option to not be that interested in politics is a privilege. For many, that is simply not possible – they are quite literally fighting for their lives. I felt I could no longer sit back and ignore things, although initially I still wasn’t sure what route to take. I knew though I wanted to do something for my community. So many residents have been saying that they want change, but my message to anyone who wants change (and I’m not just talking politics here) is please don’t rely on others to make that change happen. If you want change then why not ‘Be The Change.’