By David Parry, Account Manager – Planning
Back in May we reported on a change in leadership at Guildford Borough Council which can be found here. At a Full Council meeting which took place on 5 May we learned that a new split leadership arrangement was being put in place that would see the current Leader of the Council Cllr Caroline Reeves (Liberal Democrat) step down from her position to make way for the new Deputy Leader of the Council Cllr Joss Bigmore (Residents for Guildford and Villages (R4GV)) to become Leader of the Council.
At the time it was announced that this would take place in Autumn 2020, well the time is here!
On 22 September Cllr Reeves announced at a Guildford Borough Council’s Executive meeting that she would be standing down at the next Full Council meeting on 6 October. As Cllr Reeves outlined in her statement “This may seem a strange time to be changing Council leadership” and she is correct. Regardless of whether people think that the middle of a pandemic is a good time to change the leadership of a council we must now accept that this is going to happen and look forward to what this could mean for the future direction of Guildford.
There are three main items to consider, council funding, unitary authorities (yes, unitary authorities again!) and Guildford Town Centre.
Let’s first look at council funding. We all know that it is no secret that council’s across England have struggled with funding for many years which has worsened during the current Covid-19 pandemic. However, the new Leader of Guildford Cllr Joss Bigmore may just be the perfect candidate to take up the job of trying to keep Guildford financially in the black. Cllr Bigmore spent 12 years as a managing director for Credit Suisse. During these many years at a leading wealth management organisations Cllr Bigmore will have undoubtably gained significant experience in financial management. This could lead to a new direction for investment at Guildford Borough Council where the authority may look to spend strategically to boost dwindling reserves. Guildford Borough Council has often been known as an asset rich authority, owning many properties in and outside of the borough boundaries forming much of the council’s income. The new Leader could signal a renewed wave of investment in assets in and around the borough in order to boost council finances in the wake of increased spending as a result of the incoming second wave of lockdown.
Secondly, we have the unitary authority question. We have reported on a number of occasions that a unitary authority is coming for Surrey. However, Residents for Guildford and Villages members have on a number of occasions made their opposition to the formation of a unitary authority in Surrey known. With an understanding the residents association parties are likely to lose their voice due to the tightly located geography of their wards, R4GV will likely look to oppose the formation of a unitary authority at all costs. Time will tell how this will affect the projected timeline of two years that has been put in place to form the new look Surrey unitary as ultimately it will be Surrey County Council that will vote on the proposals but we could see R4GV look to rally together members from neighbouring authorities who may also feel that their voices will be lost to put together strong opposition to the plans. We understand from recent press coverage from Leader of Surrey County Council Cllr Tim Oliver that recent changes in direction from central government have slowed down the progress of forming a unitary authority. However, Cllr Oliver has acknowledged that it is still an initiative that he wants to pursue. We will wait to see if any significant progress is made during R4GV’s two years in control of Guildford.
Last but not least we come to the puzzle of Guildford Town Centre. For many years residents and observers in Guildford have been eagerly awaiting a new masterplan that would see the regeneration of Guildford Town Centre progressed. With R4GV taking over the administration we may finally see this materialize as this was one of the main priorities set out in much of the election material. However, this is unlikely to be a simple process as the waters have already been muddied with Guildford Member of Parliament Angela Richardson setting up her own Guildford Forum to meet to discuss the plans. This drew criticism from members of R4GV as they felt this was properly a role for the Council. It will be interesting to see how the Guildford Forum works alongside the working groups that R4GV is seeking to step up and how much resistance the group will face from Angela Richardson MP as she looks to make her mark in Guildford.
Undoubtably this is a series of topics that we will look to revisit in the coming years as R4GV are likely to work hard to achieve their aims over the next two years. It’s fair to say that since the May 2019 Local Elections Guildford has never been the place for a slow news day!