Angela Richardson: Lessons from our local election defeats in Surrey

14 May

Angela Richardson is the Conservative MP for Guildford.

Somewhere vs anywhere. It’s a strong narrative that has helped explain the seismic shift in the way communities up and down the land have been voting since before the Brexit Referendum in 2016. It’s well documented by political commentators and we saw increasing evidence of it play out in this set of election results on May 6th, where council seats in the Midlands and the North turned blue after years of neglect by Labour, coupled with the promise of investment by the Prime Minister in levelling-up, not only in opportunities and jobs, but in shiny new infrastructure. New buildings, new hospitals, new schools, upgrading town centres and high streets.

You could be forgiven for thinking that places like Guildford and other towns in Surrey, where we have lost seats to residents groups and Lib Dems, are populated with the “anywheres” who don’t identify with the same sense of pride in community and place.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

This set of elections was to choose our county councillors in Surrey for another four years.  A strong Conservative record of delivery on services, keeping council tax low, and exceptional local leadership throughout the pandemic was not enough to save experienced councillors like Mark Brett-Warburton in Guildford South East division, former borough councillor Philip Brooker hoping to take over from Graham Ellwood in Guildford East, or even Julie Iles, our dedicated Cabinet Lead for All Age Learning, in the Horsleys division who had worked wonders in improving SEND provision for our children.

There was no tangible evidence of a vaccine bounce, regardless of the marvel that vaccine roll-out has been. Instead, our local elections was fought on borough level planning issues, a hangover from the Local Plan implemented by the Conservative controlled administration at borough council shortly before the May 2019 elections – with massive strategic sites eating into the Green Belt – which saw the electorate remove every single Conservative councillor in the Guildford Borough Council part of my constituency.

That Conservative administration did its noble duty in bringing forward the best plan possible, to consult and find sites with a brownfield first approach to avoid the risk of having development imposed on them by central government which would not reflect the communities wishes – and to avoid building hulking tower blocks that we see in neighbouring Woking.

There is no desire to destroy the historic character of our ancient county town.

The fact was that the local community, though understanding the lack of affordable housing for key workers and those who had lived their entire lives in Guildford and wanted the same for their children, wanted the local plan stopped and voted in a brand new residents group who pledged to stop it.

They have now been in a power-sharing agreement for the last two years with the Lib Dems and, in the job, clearly realise their ambitions are not as straightforward to achieve.

The local plan was agreed with promised road infrastructure for the A3 which runs like a scar through the centre of Guildford, dividing the prosperous South from the North which has communities struggling with deprivation and health inequalities and a difference in life expectancy between either side of the A3 of 10 years. When this main arterial route becomes congested as it narrows through Guildford the surrounding areas suffer from resulting air pollution and gridlock.

We discovered last year that any improvements to the A3 had been left out of the next Road Investment Strategy. In my meetings with Highways England, they have told me there are no more sticking plasters, which is why I am calling for the A3 to be tunnelled under Guildford. It’s expensive, but it’s the least impactful project to the environment and the surrounding valuable landscape which a cheaper by-pass would have to cut through. The successful Hindhead Tunnel to the south shows it can be done, however, any success in getting a hard infrastructure solution like this will fall well outside the local plan period. On this basis, we simply cannot take the number of houses in the plan without decent infrastructure solutions.

The remnants of the Conservative Group on the Council put forward a motion to review the local plan in early April on the basis that vital infrastructure could not be delivered. The new administration has disappointed residents by not taking up this sensible offer and instead say they “plan to review the plan closer to the next set of Borough elections in 2023” whatever that means?

The pandemic brought communities together here. It tightened the warp and weft of our social fabric and it is this social infrastructure that we need to maintain and invest in, in communities like Guildford and our surrounding villages. Planning is a big part of this. To create a sense of place, we need to future-proof our town centres and high streets, make them welcoming, understanding what drives people to want to come and visit, as many in our community struggle to get back and feel secure and safe using them following this last year.

We need to make permanent changes like licensing for outdoor eating and drinking space and re-think how we use retail space so that our high streets aren’t massive and hollowed out but perhaps smaller, welcoming and cocooning, creating quarters that feel micro-local with pubs, bars and restaurants. We need to hold festivals, farmers markets, develop our riverside, and bring our town and gown together with the nearby University of Surrey. Students will find a sense of community equally as meaningful, especially after the disrupted year they have had. Our Culture and Arts is incredibly important to the local economy and they need all the support they can get. The Culture Recovery Fund investment was critical for the future of Guildford and Cranleigh.

Our voluntary community is the solid foundation that underpins success. We need to find ways to make it easier for volunteers to come forward and have the reward of the skills and talents they possess in making a difference to others. There is too much red tape and good people are put off before they even start. We saw this with returning health professionals wanting to help roll out the vaccine and we moved swiftly to change some of the measures and form-filling.

I believe one of the best investments the Government has made for our communities is helping those who are rough-sleeping. The support has been phenomenal and necessary and the ambition to end rough-sleeping one I wholeheartedly endorse.

In the meantime, the government has the ambitious target of building 300,000 homes a year. We do need housing in Guildford, generations of families should not be separated through affordability issues, they are part of what makes the community so strong.

A well-organised group of Conservative MPs successfully made the argument to look again at a housing algorithm that would have seen a disproportionate number of houses land right on our doorsteps in the South East. I will keep working with them to make sure that planning will be fit for what we need in Guildford and surrounds, not something imposed to hit a target, while still trying to fight for funding for the road infrastructure that we have needed for decades.

As levelling-up opportunity is spread to all four corners of this fantastic union of nations, so too should housing development, so that we can all appreciate the value of our own appropriate ‘somewhere’ to take pride in.

Angela Richardson: Recovery cannot come a moment too soon for the performing arts

3 Jul

Angela Richardson is the Conservative MP for Guilford.

The performing arts has had the most profound impact on my life. Music dominated the landscape of my early years with a piano beautifully played by my mother, cornet and trumpet by my father and the sound of his lovely tenor voice.

We gathered, often with extended family around the piano to sing and I would have my afternoon nap as a toddler on a pile of cushions with classical music on the record player. My siblings would cringe as they heard me trying to learn how to sing harmony with the headphones on, the relevant melody silenced, but hours in childhood were devoted to learning how to express everything I could hear, even if it took time to make the mechanical side of producing it work.

There were many reasons to start attending my local Baptist Church in West Auckland, New Zealand as a twelve year old, including social ones. But in my most straightforward of ways, I went up to the pianist after the first service and started singing while he played, was given a microphone the following week and spent the rest of my teenage years up the front, with the band, as well as rehearsing several times a week. My dearest friendships were formed through music.

My parents were not devotees of the performing arts. It was an anathema to them and I had to audition for school plays without their permission, being cast at thirteen in productions that were the preserve of the senior students.

The frustration of being handed a choice between studying music and drama at fifteen was unbearable. My parents strongly lobbied for music and I acquiesced, though luckily enough for me, my state school offered Dance in sixth form and I countered with studying that for a year at sixteen. I’m sure many families have been through this tussle with their teenagers.

Through working life and early parenthood, opportunities to perform were few and far between. Life is about seasons and this period was particularly dry on the musical and theatre front until I moved with my husband and children to the small and lovely village of Ewhurst in Surrey, which is blessed to have the most astonishingly wonderful Ewhurst Players. Multiple NODA award-winning productions and a genuine centre of our village life.

It’s easy to lose your confidence when you have been at home looking after small children with a significant narrowing of horizons and I give huge credit to the Ewhurst Players with helping me rediscover mine and ultimately stand for public office.

In 2012, I plucked up the courage to audition for their Diamond Jubilee Review and they welcomed me with open arms. The bug hit hard and I auditioned and was successfully cast in almost every production over the next six years and turned my hand to directing a pantomime for five to nine year olds and a short adult play, having a go at ever including vocal coaching an adult pantomime and prompting from the wings.

This new family was full of the most wonderful characters, bringing joy, laughter and moments of profound understanding of the human condition to our audiences drawn from near and far.

It’s this most important facet of connection between us all that has been sorely missed over these many weeks of lockdown. While many innovative and dynamic production companies in Guildford have moved elements of performance online, the understandable frustration of being one of the last cultural gems to come out of lockdown is taking an enormous toll on the industry, professional and amateur.

So, too, is the genuine financial concern of these companies and their players. We have the brilliant Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford Shakespeare Company, The Guildford Fringe, The Electric Theatre and the renowned Guildford School of Acting to name but a few.

The heroic endeavours of the Treasury to mitigate the economic impact of Coronavirus have been rightly hailed as extraordinary. The DCMS Secretary of State, Oliver Dowden, has signalled a roadmap for the recovery of the performing arts and pockets of funding have been received through generous grant schemes.

But I fundamentally agree that solid detail which I know is being worked on a speed needs to come sooner rather than later. Recovery cannot come a moment too soon.

I try to take the personal out of the political and look at the overall cost/benefit analysis to society and the unintended consequences in all we do. I do have a personal stake in this, but I know and I am sure that many will agree with me, that their lives are richer for the Christmas pantomimes they have attended, their own chance to shine in their primary school nativity play or the musical festivals or rock concerts that mark a summer on the cusp of adulthood, never forgotten.

Nor will many forget the first time they ever saw ballet, opera, Shakespeare or attended a Proms Concert and sang Land of Hope and Glory at the top of their lungs while conducting the orchestra with a Union Jack in hand.

Our rich cultural heritage and ground-breaking performances are as much of the beating heart of this country as is our economic prosperity. It is part of our global soft power and the sooner we can have both running successfully in tandem, the sooner we will thrive once again.