“In the past year, we’ve grown as a group. We’re a lot more organised and focused on the issues residents want us to be focused on. And the feedback we’re getting shows that.”
That’s the view of Liberal Democrat leader Cllr Lindsay Ferris, who leads the main opposition to the Conservatives in Wokingham Borough Council’s chamber.
The group made significant gains at last year’s local elections and also held on to their Evendons seat in a by-election called in February after one of last year’s winners, Helen Power, had to stand down due to ill-health.
Now, Cllr Ferris – who is not up for election – is hoping that residents will give the party a stronger mandate when they vote next Thursday. If the unthinkable happened and the Conservatives lost all 18 of the council seats, the Lib Dems could emerge as the largest party in a hung council.
Lindsay admits this is unlikely but the party is preparing for every eventuality.
“Our new manifesto is much more detailed than last year, we’ve made good progress and we’re more professional.
“The budget amendment we submitted to the council in March was fully costed.
“We have a good team of councillors with their own lead areas [of concern]. In our group meetings, colleagues are given an opportunity to provide ideas and we’ve been talking to [council] officers on a number of issues.
“Many of the ideas and proposals we would put in place, well quite a few of them are from residents.”
And Cllr Ferris is hopeful that the direction of Wokingham Borough Council could change if there was a stronger Liberal Democrat representation on it.
“This council has stalled,” he said. “The Conservatives have been in power now for 17 years. They’re on their fourth leader in a short period of time. They’ve lost focus.
“They’re quite divided locally.”
Cllr Ferris said that if Wokingham’s voters elect more Lib Dems, the party would have more influence on the council and therefore be in a better position to challenge decisions it feels are inappropriate.
“The biggest criticism we hear is that the council has been arrogant and has a we know best attitude. They have basically ignored residents. The way in which residents were treated over petitions such as the one on Barkham Square housing development was disgraceful.
“Residents have criticised the council over its handling of Sheeplands. They’ve asked for answers and not had them.
“The council needs to focus on providing services to the residents, to listen and to consult properly. Consultations are largely a farce.”
Despite this, he does get on well with the current leader, Julian McGhee-Sumner.
“We’re always ready to work together on issues that are not party political, such as the recent highways contract.”
And he also welcomed the proposal to hold a residents’ consultation over housing numbers – as long as it doesn’t become a Conservative issue as some election leaflets have tried to make out.
“The consultation by the council is a good thing. It is an issue that residents need an answer to – the residents also need to decide on.
“We have to finger the developers where appropriate, such as when they started destroying hedges or putting in speculative applications. This playing the system has to stop, it’s not acceptable.”
When it comes to what a council should be providing, Cllr Ferris says that the Liberal Democrats would make focusing on basic services a priority.
“I would provide more emphasis on the services people need. There are a number of projects put forward by the ruling group [the Conservatives] that need to be looked at. We need to make much better use of some of the subsidies the council has – there’s no point in having them if we don’t use them properly.
“We would be much more focused on what the council should be providing.”
One of the big challenges that has faced the council over the past few years is the reduction in the Government’s grant to zero. This
has meant a host of changes including the 21st Century Council programme instigated by the Conservatives
to save money and reduce the number of officers. Over the past two years, the council has seen a number of senior officers leave, as well as reducing the number of staff, merging divisions and changing the way in which the public interact.
“It has been disastrous,” Cllr Ferris said. “The morale of staff has plummeted; they’ve been left with a mess and there has been exceedingly poor management.
“Council has taken its eye off the ball, there is rising debt, it’s spent £134 million on Wokingham Town Centre. When Dawnus went into administration, the net effect was that Wokingham Borough Council had to take on the risk of additional costs.
“All these projected profits? I think there should be a moratorium so we can look at things. There really does need to be a rethink.”
If the Liberal Democrats were running Wokingham Borough Council, he promised that the party would “produce results”.
“We appeal to the residents – there is an alternative, we would like to have a go.
“As a group we are united and committed.
“If I was leader, I would be someone who listens. I’d be thoughtful and prepared to make decisions. I’d lead, and I wouldn’t be afraid to say sorry if things go wrong.”
As a Lib Dem since the 1970s, Cllr Ferris has seen many changes in that time.
“It’s extremely hard for a Lib Dem to get elected. You have to work two, three, four times harder than your opponents. But that means that we do do the work,” he said.
“But this is the important thing. I don’t want passengers as councillors. Sarah Kerr is an incredible councillor [for Evendons], Prue Bray is well established in Winnersh, we have councillors who work their socks off. We have to field candidates who will be as good, if not better.
“The important thing to remember is that you are there to represent the people in your ward.”
And for those wondering whether to back the Liberal Democrats next Thursday, Cllr Ferris has this message:
“We offer a clear alternative. We are consistently delivering on that message, we have our local plan and views on housing numbers.
“Our commitment is that we will stand up for all of Wokingham borough, not just part of it.”