“I am delighted to present to you today the first Liberal Democrat Leader’s speech since 2006. I am very proud to be the first leader of a Liberal Democrat majority administration in Woking this century.
“In this speech I will set out my priorities for the year ahead – financial responsibility, a Masterplan for Woking town centre and achieving carbon neutral. I will highlight the projects and issues we will be tackling. I will introduce the people who will work with me to deliver our programme for change.
"Before I do that, I would like to thank all those local people who supported us in the recent elections. I really appreciate the opportunity we have been given to change Woking for good.
“Our first priority has to be control of the Council’s finances. We are all too aware of the huge level of borrowing. Soon after the elections we learnt of government intervention to look at our borrowing and the associated risks.
“I’m pleased that Liberal Democrats have already done much work in opposition to get a handle on the challenging financial situation. We successfully achieved a financial review last year, having promised this in our 2021 manifesto. Information gathered in that review has put us in a good place to understand the risks and areas of concern.
“Our team on the Standards and Audit committee asked pertinent questions throughout the last year to understand why accounts are still not signed off and secure the auditors Value for Money opinion and view on whether sufficient provision has been made to cover future revenue needs. We secured an amendment to the latest financial strategy to require updated business plans from subsidiary companies and joint ventures, an external opinion on the provision of sufficient funds to secure our borrowing and sought answers on the planned purchase of the new car park for £58m, that has already been funded by council borrowing.
“We have big issues, but we are committed to getting to the bottom of these issues and dealing with them to the benefit of Woking.
“Affordability is key. We need to determine that Woking Borough Council and its companies can afford to pay back all that it has borrowed. We need to look at new approaches to increase income.
“We will work closely with Council officers and government officials as we tackle Woking’s debt.
Wholly owned companies
“Much of the Council’s borrowing is through wholly owned companies. We will review the financial model used to fund these companies. Currently the Council borrows money from government, lends it to a company, which is intended to deliver on the Council’s purpose. The company then pays a percentage back to the Council and borrows more money, some of it to fund the percentage that has to be paid back. We will get an expert and specialist review of the financial sustainability of this model and company forecasts and business models.
“We will put in place clear and decisive action in respect of the Thameswey Milton Keynes Limited company.
“We need to end the money pit that is Thameswey Central Milton Keynes. The massive debt there now stands at £32 million. This debt has grown based on promises of jam tomorrow, with that jam not now due to be on the table until 2064.
“We will ensure that all council companies are delivering on the original purpose set for them by this Council. To provide homes that are close as possible to affordable for residents, for energy saving initiatives and for developments that benefit this borough and its people.
“We will bring forward plans for a new governance model to ensure the wholly owned companies deliver on these objectives.
Openness and transparency
“I am committed to openness and transparency. Far too often council decisions that affect local people have been made in a less than transparent way.
“I took an open and transparent approach when we were contacted by the government to be told officials will be looking at our finances. I insisted we let people know what was happening and a statement was issued by the Chief Executive. I will continue to keep the public informed as we progress through dealing with the finances.
“Woking Council is very dependent on car parking income. There is a monopoly on town centre parking. This over dependency on car park income was severely hit during the pandemic and has yet to recover.
“The only answer in the past seems to have been ever increasing prices. More than ever before I found talking to local people before the election high parking charges are a real barrier for coming into Woking town centre. Residential roads are impacted as commuters and local workers opt for free on-street parking causing blockages and inconvenience.
“Whilst my administration recognises the Council needs income to fund services, we will look at new and more informed and evidence based approaches. The Conservatives seem to have failed to act on the changing post-Covid environment.
“There is no reflection of the hybrid working trend in the Council’s season tickets. Woking continues to offer only the same full time season ticket. We will look at parking data with a view to offering a hybrid worker season, something that helps your cost of parking if you need to park in the town centre for two or three week days and maybe want a trip in on a weekend day or if you have a working week that covers a mix of weekdays and weekends.
“We are looking at offers to bring and keep people in the town to use shops, restaurants and leisure activities. We are looking at a simple, low cost evening parking option that will encourage use of town centre restaurants, making time for a bite to eat before the theatre or cinema. We will take an evidence based approach. We will look at the numbers and make informed decisions. We would rather have revenue and people in the town than high charges and few people.
“I haven’t forgotten those who cycle, walk or take the bus to the town. Cycle parking needs to be safe. We have won awards for the safety of our car parks, but cycles continue to be stolen at an alarming rate. We will explore how we can best provide safer cycle parking, including more secure parking, such as the cycle hub on the south side of the station, use of CCTV and working with the police to promote cycle marking. Paths need to be well maintained, pavements kept in good condition, bushes cut back and road crossings safe.
“There is a huge network or footpaths across the borough which we will encourage people to discover and use for their regular journeys. Buses fall under Surrey County Council, but we will work with the county and bus companies to encourage bus use, aiming to make it an attractive and cost effective way to travel.
Growing our economy
“Local town centres are no longer driven by retail alone. A successful and prospering town must encourage wider participation through restaurants, expanded leisure facilities and cultural amenities.
“A strong and successful economy will benefit the borough, bringing jobs in local shops, restaurants and leisure facilities and attracting other businesses that will offer local employment. We must consider creative ways to support our existing businesses whilst attracting new ones to develop a vibrant and successful borough.
“We are committed to delivering a masterplan for Woking.
“When in opposition, we called for and secured Council agreement for a new Woking Town Centre Masterplan to be brought forward given our concerns about a lack of a single joined up vision or robust guidance to manage new development including the height and character of tall buildings.
“We must bring an end to developers seeking to reach for the sky in Woking. We will deliver on our commitment to secure a design led masterplan responding to the characteristics of the town recognising and valuing open space, connectivity, and heritage. The overall number of homes set out in the masterplan will not be led by the previous administration’s commitment to the Housing Infrastructure Fund (HIF) and the replacement of the Victoria Arch.
“We recognise that the masterplan must support new investment through development and deliver a centre for all. Our ambition will be to support sustainable economic and housing growth and not development at all costs. We need a clear plan that provides a framework for those seeking to build in our town centre. I’m pleased to say draft proposals will come to Council in July and there will then be a wide-ranging public consultation. This will include in-person events in Woking, Byfleet and West Byfleet centres.
“Woking has an amazing record on the environment. A record that has been built up over many years through cross-party working. We will continue working together to deliver for the local environment and a ‘Greener Woking’, building on the work done by former Cllr Howard during his long tenure as Chair of the Climate Change Working Group.
“We have an objective to make the Council carbon neutral by 2030 but, despite having declared a climate emergency three years ago, we still do not have an assessment of the Council’s current carbon footprint. A priority will be to have that work completed so we can move forward from that baseline to a carbon neutral council and expand that into the wider Woking borough.
“Back in 2013 the Byfleet community suffered a Christmas flood. I confirm the commitment of this administration to pay its agreed share for the flood relief works. I took the opportunity on Saturday to go along to an information session from the Environment Agency to see their latest plans which take 230 homes out of flood risk. We will also need to look at the next steps in flood relief for other areas in Old Woking and the Hoe Valley that are still at risk of flooding.
“I’ve covered the priorities, now for the projects and issues we have inherited.
Housing Infrastructure Fund / Victoria Arch
“As promised we will review the Victoria Arch project. Cllr Forster is working on this. We have already had the HIF panel, headed by Cllr Johnson which focused on informing local people about the scheme. Immediately prior to the election Cllr Kirby started a task group to assess the housing requirements. There is much to be done but we will work through the many challenges and keep everyone updated on what is happening.
“My administration is not happy with the pace with which Victoria Place is moving to completion. We will be pushing for greater urgency and certainty so that it can bring greater value, earlier to the town centre vibrancy.
“We will be working with Hilton to open, as soon as possible and officers will continue to press the contractor to complete the permanent fix on the exterior. We will push for greater attention to getting the vacant shop units filled and trading.
“We are looking at exciting ideas to use both the inside and outside space. The square outside the development is too exposed to the weather, like high winds, that are limiting its use. I have asked officers to find solutions so we can make full use of this space for the benefit of town centre residents, shoppers and users.
“My administration will work to understand the actions the Council needs to take that both protects the Council’s interests in the investments it has made in the town centre and across the borough and ensures they are used for the benefit of Woking residents and businesses.
“In the light of a division of Moyallen, which owns Peacocks, going into administration, we need to ensure the Council’s interests, as the owners of Wolsey Walk, are represented.
“This phased development must progress with as little disruption to local people as is practicable and we need to deliver new homes on schedule to meet local needs.
“There is a desperate need for more homes that are affordable to meet local needs. We will use all methods possible to achieve more lower cost homes. This will include bringing forward council owned sites as quickly as we can, directing Thameswey Housing to maximise affordable delivery, accessing any government schemes and working with partners such as housing associations to achieve the highest possible number of homes.
“We will also support council officers in the great work they do to bring empty homes back into use following previous initiatives by former Cllr Hughes."