Monday, 17 November 2014

Elmbridge Council votes to retain elections by 'thirds', but that might be bad news for Molesey

Elmbridge Council tonight voted by 29 to 23 to retain the present arrangements of electing councillors by thirds - but that may not be a good thing, as I will explain.

Firstly, for anyone who is unfamiliar with the thirds system of electing councillors, here's a short explanation. Elmbridge currently has 60 councillors who are elected to serve a four year term. In year one of a cycle, 20 council seats are contested, followed by another 20 the next year, and then the final 20 in year three. In year four the county council elections take place and there is no borough council election, and the year after the cycle begins anew.

On Monday night (November 17th) councillors met for a Special Meeting to debate moving to 'whole council' elections in which all of the seats would be elected in one go every four years. This would save Elmbridge residents £40,000 a year (around a million over a decade) which could be ploughed back into council services or grants for non-statutory services like meals on wheels and citizens advice - it might also pay for new facilities for our children and young people.

As the Leader of the Council, John O'Reilly, said, the Conservative group has no set view and whip on this matter, this was entirely up to each councillor to vote as they wished. Tonight, after giving the matter a lot of thought, I cast my vote for whole council elections.

I didn't do so for the money, important though saving taxpayer funds is, my bottom line was the need to protect Molesey from being carved up in the impending ward boundary review.

The Local Government Boundary Commission is currently looking at all of the wards and will consider whether to reduce the number of councillors from 60 to something like 48. If the council retains thirds - which it has now voted to do - the Commission will insist on three member wards. The six two-member wards that currently exist in Elmbridge will be redrawn and there will be a ripple effect, regardless of whether there is a reduction in councillors or not. My concern is that Molesey will end up with streets sliced off and joined to neighbouring wards, or other communities bolted on. From my conversations with the people of Molesey over the years I believe most value Molesey's community identity and would not want to see it diluted in this way.

The only way to avoid this would have been to switch to whole council elections in which it would have been possible to have 2 or 1 member wards and thus keep communities intact even with a reduction in the number of councillors. Unfortunately all but two of the Molesey Residents Association councillors (Cllrs Axton and Hopkins) voted tonight to keep with thirds - I suspect for political reasons in order to keep their annual opportunity to win power - and in my view they have imperilled Molesey.

In a year's time if Molesey is carved up electorally RA councillors will be quick to criticise the Boundary Commission and the Conservatives for inviting a review. But they can't say they weren't warned of the consequences as these were spelled out very clearly in the debate. The bed having been made by the MRA and its allies, we must now all lay on it.

I start this process as a supporter of thirds and believed like many residents that an annual vote keeps councillors on their toes, as well as offering unsuccessful candidates a chance to try again the following year. I didn't have the luxury of safe seat when I first entered Molesey politics and it took three attempts at standing for Borough Council before I was able to build a majority. Under a four year cycle I am not sure I would have persevered.

So thirds have been good for me personally and I appreciate the lifeline they offer, as well as allowing an Administration at Esher to adjust course in reaction to poor election results. Few would say that Parliament is undemocratic because it doesn't hold annual elections, and I think most people would accept that the period of stability is required between elections for the Government of the day to implement its manifesto. The same would be true in Elmbridge and at the end of four years voters could take stock and judge a ruling party on whether it had delivered, and dismiss them in one fell swoop (rather than not where majorities can only be slowly eroded).

However the vote on Monday was not about what is good for me or the political groups at Council, but what is right thing to do for residents and our communities. The Boundary Review will undoubtedly be far reaching and we have squandered the opportunity to exercise a degree of control over what those new ward boundaries might look like. I very much regret that.