Over the last year, Mole Valley District Council has had to take several far-reaching decisions, some of which will be irreversible and fundamentally affect Ashtead residents for generations. Yet you have not even been asked for your views on some, and even your elected Councillors have had no opportunity to express theirs by a vote on several key issues. While this is not to say that anything has been done which is contrary to what is permitted under either local Government regulations or the Council’s Constitution, many find this situation regrettable.
The Local Government Boundary Commission for England periodically re-assesses ward boundaries and numbers of elected Councillors in all local authorities to determine if any changes need to be made. Mole Valley was last examined in 1996, and its turn came around again last year. In any restructuring, it aims to have a similar number of electors in each ward, and also for those electors to have an opportunity to vote in every election year. This requires that for District Councillor elections three of every four years as we have at present, each ward must have three Councillors so there is an election in every ward in each of the three years (one coming up each time); currently, however, Mole Valley has 21 wards, 7 with 1 Councillor, 8 with two, and just 6 with 3. In order to have three per ward, the number of wards would need to be reduced from 21 to just 13, and the total number of Councillors to be divisible by three implying 39 rather the present 42 seats. A Cabinet Working Group, despite numerous meetings, failed to come up with a generally acceptable system of new ward boundaries.
There was an alternative, that all seats would come up for election once every four years, which would make it possible for permit each ward to have just one, two or three Councillors as at present provided that the number of electors per Councillor was roughly the same – and the total number of Councillors need not be divisible by three. The periodicity of elections and the number of Councillors are both matters reserved for the Council itself and not for the Commission.
Motions were put to Council on two occasions for the District to have one-in-four yearly elections and single-member wards, but the current Administration would not even consult residents on these options. The District is therefore now destined to lose two Councillor seats and to have just 13 wards, some of which cover huge geographical areas. The Commission is set to publish its proposals in the summer, and then there will be a chance for all of us comment on the drawing of the boundaries themselves –– but with the constraint of the number of wards and number of Councillors now fixed by the Administration.
The new system is scheduled to take effect in May 2023, when Ashtead faces a reduction from three to two wards, and from seven to six Councillors. All six seats will come up election at that time, so our three Councillor positions to be filled this May will have terms of just one year.
Another instance where decision making is questionable relates to the Draft Local Plan for 2020-2037 which fixes planning policies and determines how the housing targets placed on the District by central Government are to be met, including the release of Green Belt land for building. This lengthy procedure has been through two exhaustive public consultation, and comments were received from numerous individuals and organizations (including a lengthy one from the ARA). In general, this has been undertaken in a very objective manner by the Council’s Planning Officers and there have been almost monthly discussions at the Cabinet’s Planning Policy Working Group meetings – which were open to all Councillors on the suggestion of the Ashtead Independents’. Planning policies were reworked and all sites proposed scrutinized against generally agreed criteria, and in February Council voted to submit the Draft to the Planning Inspectorate for examination – along with the comments received during consultation, by a majority of six (the Ashtead Independents and Conservatives voted against submission). We opposed not just on the proposed developments on Green Belt and being principally directed to the already built-up areas (including Ashtead) and a lack of plans to improve infrastructure, but furthermore as there had been no opportunity for Councillors, even in the Working Group, to actually vote on the inclusion of individual sites or the new policies. When the public examination by the Inspector starts, probably in June, there will, however, be a chance for residents to press again for Green Belt retention and infrastructure provision.
Cllr David L Hawksworth CBE
Leader, Ashtead Independents
[Originally printed in The Resident224 : [7-8], Spring 2022.]