Cllr David Bittlestone is the Leader of Woking Borough Council.
Since 2007, Conservatives have held a majority on Woking Borough Council. That is, until May last year, when we lost one seat in the local elections – and one Conservative crossed the floor to join the Lib Dems. So for the last year, I have run a minority administration with 14 Conservatives (one of which couldn’t vote as she was Mayor), 10 Lib Dems, three Labour, and three independents. Woking operates the strong leader model with an executive made up of five Portfolio Holders. I initially offered the Lib Dems a couple of seats on the Executive which they declined. The independents forced a vote of no confidence in me as Leader in July which was agreed at Full Council and I offered my resignation if the opposition parties agreed to take control – which they declined. In September I won a vote of confidence and continued as Leader.
Generally, no overall control means nothing gets agreed and the minority administration just gets voted down at full council. However, common sense still exists in the Council Chamber at Woking and we have managed to continue with our ambitious plans for the town and for our residents. These started in 2010 with the purchase of our secondary shopping centre and a ten million pound investment in the public realm around it, which attracted a range of new restaurants and completely transformed the centre of Woking.
I know there is now a lot of negative press about councils investing in their shopping centres but if we hadn’t done that investment my guess is that Woking would now be in a very poor state. We are now nearing the end of our second, much larger, transformation of the centre of Woking. The £540 million pound “place-shaping” of the town includes three tower blocks rising to a maximum height of 34 storeys and including over 400 flats, an Hilton four-star hotel with a sky bar and restaurant at the top of it, plus a new 50,000 sq ft M&S and additional family attractions. In 2012 the Council decided to concentrate its house building in the town centre to protect the green belt.
My own personal ambition has always been around housing. It sits very uncomfortably with me that whilst we are one of the richest countries in the world, we have 70,000 families living in temporary accommodation. For the last 22 years on the council I have tried to address this issue. We have had some amazing successes including 223 new social homes delivered as part of a PFI initiative. We have housed 60 Syrian families over the past five years.
The Council now has its own arms-length housing company which has over 750 homes offering rents from 50-60 per cent of market price up to full price. To all these tenants we have introduced our Earn Your Deposit Scheme. If you are a good tenant, if you look after your property, pay your rent on time, and are not antisocial, we will give you money each year towards a deposit. For someone renting a two bedroom home they will receive £2,400 per year towards a deposit up to a maximum of £80,000. This is our way of giving back some hope to those people who still aspire to own their own home.
Last month the Council agreed, with cross-party support, our most ambitious housing project to date, which is the regeneration of Sheerwater – an Estate built in the 1950s to rehouse families who lost their homes in London during the war. The exciting part of this project for me has been that we promised to provide the community infrastructure before we built the new homes and we have already started the new Leisure Centre, swimming pool and sports facilities, all of which will be completed before the first of the new 1,100 homes have been built.
Everyone accepts that infrastructure is the key. Delivering it can be very challenging. Last year central government offered us £95 million as part of a HIF bid of £115 million to widen the railway bridge that is the major congestion point in the town. This infrastructure improvement will not only make a major improvement to the road network, but will also unlock the potential to increase the capacity at Woking Railway Station by over 40 per cent and will enable the development of an additional 4,500 plus homes on Brownfield development sites in the town centre.
Looking forward to the elections next year: we have a great collection of young enthusiastic candidates. We have a very strong message about our town and our future, and I believe we have a real chance to ”Take Back Control” of the Council.
I am standing down this year. It’s been an incredible journey over the last 22 years.