Cllr Mike Hurleston is the Leader of the Conservative Group on Stockport Borough Council.
“Stockport. Change Here.” This is the slogan for the town’s ambitious regeneration strategy. But also a question many are asking in the run-up to the May local elections.
Stockport is a hung Council, currently run by a minority Labour administration, and with the two largest political groups – Labour and Liberal Democrats – on a dead heat of 26 seats each. In the red corner, the Labour administration has a new Leader still finding her feet in the role, while the Lib Dem Leader is a former MP and previous Council Leader who, along with his Group, appear to be chomping at the bit to get their hands back on the tiller.
Although a comparatively small group, at eight members, the Conservatives hold the balance of power. We expect the Council to remain in no overall control this May and we will have a part to play in deciding the future; which we view as a positive.
Like many Conservative Groups around the country, we suffered at the ballot box last May, losing some hard-working local councillors. In the vexed political atmosphere nationally, some of our core vote stayed at home.
Since then, things have moved on and for many, the General Election will have felt like a cathartic purge of the recent past. We retained our two local Conservatives MPs in Cheadle and Hazel Grove and were of course, delighted to see them joined by five new Conservative MPs in Greater Manchester as part of the collapse of the red wall. It was a positive campaign and as local campaigners, we hope to build on the results and maintain the impetus going into May.
As Conservatives, we offer an alternative to the high tax, pedestrian management of a Labour-run Council, which has seen a steady decline since they took control three years ago. On Labour’s watch, a joint CQC/Ofsted inspection of SEND found “serious weaknesses” and the wheels of the much promoted transformation vehicle for health and social care appear to have come off, with the demise of the original vision for “Stockport Together”.
Despite Stockport being a commuter town, located at the heart of the region’s transport nexus, Labour appears unmoved by the problems local people experience every day on our gridlocked roads. They appear to have abandoned all attempts to complete the last link in the relief road and we still await the findings of their much-delayed parking review following a ruling against the Council by the Local Government Ombudsman.
Labour’s budget proposals for the coming year include plans which would see a planned drop off in the responsiveness and quality of street cleaning and winter maintenance. After suffering through summer floods which have seen some residents still unable to return to their homes six months on – and an autumn winter season characterised by the slippery sludge of unswept leaves from one end of the Borough to the other just waiting to pack the drains, this is the last thing people want to hear.
Despite the warm words of the Council’s “values statement” that it wants to put people at the heart of what they do, Labour proposes removing staff from the contact centre. This is even though they are missing their own targets on answering the phone with 20 per cent of residents calls into the Council going completely unanswered.
The saga of the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework rumbles on – a plan for housing which has proved so controversial that the second draft has been pushed back certainly until after this year’s Mayoral and local elections and more probably, indefinitely. For Stockport, the plan would mean giving up swathes of greenbelt – and new settlements located right next to new housing development by our neighbouring authority – leading to a sprawl of miles, all without any guarantees on the infrastructure needed to support such transformation.
The Liberal Democrats on the Council have little to offer beyond a seemingly endless stream of virtue-signalling motions which often have scant connection to Stockport, but provide ample content for their spring deluge of leaflets. Sadly, their campaigning is often characterised by personal attacks, highly dubious bar charts, and the type of negative campaigns that colleagues in the other parts of the country will recognise. In Stockport, the Lib Dem Group has prioritised the parliamentary ambitions of certain parachuted in members, at the expense of offering residents a genuine alternative on the Council.
Stockport Conservatives are working for our local residents; we’ve been campaigning hard with a “brownfield first” policy for new build to be delivered on previously developed land, to protect our valued greenbelt and fight hard for the essential infrastructure – roads, public transport, schools and health facilities – to be delivered alongside housing development. We want to see value for money and solid local services – bins emptied and roads fixed. As Conservatives we don’t want to see more marketing brochures, we want to see actual delivery of solutions to turn our town centre around. As Group Leader, I am on the Board of the Mayoral Development Corporation and intend to push for the best results for a transformed town centre.
With a Conservative majority in Government and positive signs that it intends to invest in the north and our towns – a Town Deal for Cheadle being pushed forward by Mary Robinson MP and devolved public transport funding with an expectation that this would (finally!) see the Metrolink extended to Stockport – there is a good deal to be enthused by. As ever though, much of our prospects in May will depend on the national picture in the post-Brexit environment.