Woking’s new Leader – What does this mean for Surrey’s ‘tallest’ borough?
By David Parry, Account Manager
At a Full Council meeting on Thursday 15th October 2020 Leader of Woking Borough Council, Cllr David Bittleston (Conservative), announced that he would be retiring from his position as Leader with immediate effect. He will continue on as a councillor for Mount Hermon ward but will likely be looking to stand down from his council duties entirely in April 2021. This is not an unexpected announcement as Cllr Bittleston had previously stated in an article on Conservative Home his intention to stand down in 2020.
Cllr Bittleston has served as a councillor in Woking for 22 years in which time Woking has transformed from Guildford’s ugly duckling neighbour to a thriving town. With this transformation a drive to build homes for future generations has been a priority for the Council with high rise development taking a lead role – sparing the surrounding Green Belt as far as possible.
However, a resignation necessitates an election, and this was a quick one to say the least.
Cllr Bittleston took the opportunity to nominate current Deputy Leader of the Council Cllr Ayesha Azad. No further nominations were put forward by opposition parties so it was quickly confirmed that Cllr Azad will now serve as Leader of the Council. But what does this mean for Woking?
Let us first look at collaborative working. Since May 2019 Woking Borough Council has been in a situation of No Overall Control with no one party claiming a majority of the seats available. It has certainly not been an easy ride for the Council since May last year as the Conservatives had to survive a vote of no confidence in July 2019. The motion, submitted by Labour member Cllr Mohammad Ali, was carried as both Conservative and Liberal Democrat members abstained from the vote. However, no party was able to put forward an alternative so Cllr Bittleston remained in his position.
The controversial tenure of Cllr Bittleston was also highlighted by leader of the opposition Cllr Ann-Marie Barker (Liberal Democrat) who claimed during her thank you speech to Cllr Bittleston that “his attitude and approach has not always been what we liked”. However, Cllr Azad made a point of stating early on in her acceptance speech that now is not a time for party politics. She then went on to outline the importance of working together and invited leaders of the opposition to consider joining the board of the Council’s housing company and to share executive portfolios amongst parties. If successful, this approach could see a rainbow executive formed from all parties across the council.
Secondly, we look at strategic direction. As mentioned above the view of Woking’s tall towers can be seen across Surrey. While this approach looks to secure housing for future generations while protecting the Green Belt it has not necessarily been received well by residents who continue to campaign against the towers. The town center first approach, while pragmatic, has been closely associated with Cllr Bittleston and his Chief Executive Ray Morgan, and with change expected in that role too, we could see a shift in the dynamic.
Recent activity from the Woking Borough Council Planning Committee also suggests a shift in direction as members veoted plans for two new high rise developments in the town centre as well as refusing an application to redevelop Woking Football Club with associated housing between March and July.
Now only days into her new leadership and Cllr Azad has some tough decisions to make. She will need to decide not only on whether she fully commits to sharing responsibility with opposition parties to create a new way of working that could drive the borough forward even further and whether it is time for a new strategic direction for Woking that could see a departure from high rise developments.
David is a Woking resident and an avid watcher of Surrey politics. To find out more about Woking and his former home town of Guildford, give David a call on 07713 940 724 or send him an email.