LAST WEEK’S Wokingham Paper featured extensive coverage of the civic funeral for Alderman Bob Wyatt. Former mayor, borough and town councillor and Austin enthusiast, he is the reason why Julian McGhee-Sumner is currently the leader of the Conservatives.
Up for election in Wescott ward, Mr McGhee-Sumner owes his political career to a knock on his door at the dawn of the 21st century.
“Bob was at the door, and he said, ‘Can I have your vote?’” Mr McGhee-Sumner recalled. That doorstep conversation, about how to make Wokingham better, led to a doorstep conversion.
Mr McGhee-Sumner stood first for the town council in 2003, and then for the borough in 2007.
“The town council look after the infrastructure of the town, like the parks and the bus shelters, the market, that kind of thing. I was chairman of finance, I love that as I come from a financial background,” he said.
“Then I applied for the [borough] seat of Wescott and managed to get it.
“I’m always humbled when I get elected. I genuinely never take for granted that someone has put their trust in me by voting for me”.
This election is an interesting one. All 18 borough council seats being contested are Conservative, several are front bench positions (called the Executive).
Added to that, Mr McGhee-Sumner has only been leader since December. His biggest statement to date is a plan to hold a local consultation over the amount of housing being built and planned for across the borough, which he hopes every resident will respond to.
It’s a bit of a perfect storm as some Conservative voters are angry over Brexit, while residents raise issues such as housing, roads and the town centre regeneration. This is an election where the Conservatives are defending several records.
Mr McGhee-Sumner is ready to defend his party’s record in Wokingham, not helped by the need to cut the council’s cloth accordingly as the Government support grant has been whittled away down to zero.
“Brexit is a Westminster problem,” he said, adding that he had been working closely with Sir John Redwood on the issue.
“We knock on doors, as all the other parties do, people are just saying, ‘Look, I’m either leave or remain, but will you just get on with it. What we want is certainty.’ And that’s what I’m finding from people and businesses. They just want certainty.
“In the meantime, we have other local issues to consider. Issues coming out on the doorstep are housing and congestion”.
“I’m here to represent the residents, not to represent the government. And I will do my best to represent the residents.
“The residents are saying to me, if you keep building, if you keep allowing these speculators coming in and building 250 houses here, 50 houses there, 200 over there, then the roads are going to grind to a halt.
“If we must have more housing, then it does have to be in a standalone location. And I’d like to be clear, that does not necessarily mean Grazeley, there are a number of different locations that could be considered.
“What we’ve said to the Government is we are going to consult. I just want to ask residents a simple question: Do you think our housing numbers are too high? If we get 50,000 people or more to say, yes, I can then go back to the government to say, ‘This is what our residents think’.
Mr McGhee-Sumner said that this approach would mean that infrastructure – doctors’ surgeries, schools, roads and local shops – would be built before the first house goes in.
He added: “I’m against speculative development, such as that proposed by Gladmans on the Finchampstead Road. Our roads can’t cope with the traffic. The Finchampstead Road can’t cope with any more traffic. It’s going to be at a standstill. So, my job is to work with the residents to ensure that that application doesn’t succeed, but it’s costing the council taxpayer tens of thousands of pounds to keep fighting these things.
“I think there need to be some changes on the law regarding appeals, so that if we turn down a developers’ planning applications and developers want to appeal, the law should be changed that they pay for it. If we win, they end up with their own costs. Currently, we have to recover the cost from the developer; that’s not always easy.”
Developers aside, Mr McGhee-Sumner is proud of his administration’s record, praising the borough’s schools despite having some of the lowest funding in the country. He is also proud of disability placements, which will be enhanced by the expansion of Addington Primary School; social care company Optalis is also in for his praise – it has again received a “good” rating from CQC.
He is also planning more improvements.
“I’m very proud for what we deliver for our residents,” he said.
“We’ve built more affordable homes than most of our neighbours. We’re actually getting to grips with the infrastructure in terms of repairing our roads.
“Sir John Redwood was very good at getting us just over a million pounds for potholes.
“Now for the first time in a long time, we’ve actually got a plan for all the roads, hopefully by September our residents will be able to go onto our website and say, ‘Where is my road within this map and when is it going to be repaired?’.
And using technology to enhance the council’s offering is just as important.
“We’ve got a plan, we’ve got a detailed plan, we know how to deliver it. And despite, and I mean this genuinely, despite what people might tell you, there is no secrecy.
“If you want to know something ask me, and that’s what I say to everyone. I don’t care if you’re the most senior person in the building or the most junior, if you’ve got something to say, say it.”
This means that as council leader, Mr McGhee-Sumer also has an open door to residents.
“Even today, as I was walking back from town and three residents stopped me and said, ‘I want to talk to you about this’. They actually came away and said, ‘Well, OK, we’ll give you a chance, but you’ve got to deliver on it’.”
He has also met with the new police commander for Wokingham and asked her how the borough can help fund new PCSOs to enhance the police presence in the town centre.
“Once we understand what our [residents’] problems are, we can try and find the solution,” he added.
“I stood on a platform of trying to find solutions.
“We have a strong track record of running a very efficient council with a minimum amount of money. I think we deliver top rated services and this is not just my opinion, we’ve been audited.
“We haven’t cut any services, not one single service. Other local authorities are cutting services. We continue to offer weekly bin collections which our residents tell us they value and we have recently introduced a food waste collection service.
“I live here as well. I want my family to have a nice place to live too, so I will do my very best and if it means going head-to-head with some government ministers, then that’s what I’ll do.”