My impressions of the recent Leatherhead-Ashtead Forum

Last Thursday evening (15th October) we had another Ashtead-Leatherhead Forum. The first item was the Chairman’s: “Stop Smoking Campaign.” The speaker spoke to the converted, there being apparently no smokers present. We had the usual statistics and learnt that whereas in England (never a mention of the situation in Scotland or Wales) 23% of the population smokes, in Surrey it’s only 19.5%. We we told the targets for 2015, among which is one to reduce smoking to 4% for 11 to 15 year olds. I could not help remembering those far off days of my youth when the target was 0% for 11 to 15 year olds.”O tempora! O mores!”

We did learn that in Mole Valley, it is 17.2% of the population that smokes – yes, we’re far better than England as a whole & are even below the Surrey average. But here’s the rub: whereas it’s only 13.5% in leafy Leith Hill, it’s a whopping 27.9% in North Leatherhead (that’s above the average for England!). There was a bit of discussion afterwards about what to do in North Leatherhead – but, as far as I could make out, nothing about the underlying social problems that give rise to the problem in the first place.

Just over half an hour later, Allan Berridge updated us on Neighbour Watch and Sergeant Simon Cox gave police reports for North & South Leatherhead and for Ashtead.

By 8.44 we were ready to listen to the presentation: “Strong Leader/ Elected Mayor – which model?” Apparently, after introducing the current ‘Executive model’ in March 2008, the 2007 Act requires up to change this to either a “Strong Leader” or “Elected Mayor” model. Wait about! Didn’t 2007 come before 2008? So if it was already known that we’d need to change to one of these two models, why did we bother to introduce the Executive model in 2008? Why not leave things as they were while we decided the model to go for?

Also, as I read the title of the talk I could not help wondering why a directly elected mayor was not a strong leader. In fact the more I heard, the more I wondered about the “strong” leader; this leader would be elected from the Councillors by the Councillors – in effect, it means, unless we have a hung Council, from the ruling party by the ruling party. Doesn’t that make the “strong” leader a creature of the Council and probably of a political party as well? The powers and functions of both a directly elected mayor & of a Council elected “strong” leader would be much the same: “determine functions delegated to other Cabinet Members, committees of the Executive or officers; determine the size of the Executive; appoint/ remove Executive members.” So who, dear reader, will be more effective: a Council elected leader or one elected directly by the people of Mole Valley?

It was also noted that the Council elected “strong” leader with his or her executive Cabinet is not so very different from the Executive model introduced in 2008. One of those present asked if in fact after the period of consultation (to conclude early in 2010 (How early?), the Council need take any notice of the findings. Could they not opt for their chosen model irrespective of consultation? There was no clear answer given. ‘Um’, I thought, ‘why was the Executive model introduced in 2008?’

After this presentation the meeting was asked to vote on whether they wished to continue the present arrangement of electing a third of MVDC each time, as at present, or to have a singled election every four years to elect the whole Council in one go. Yes, folks, you’ve read aright! We were not asked for a straw poll on the “strong leader” ~ directly elected mayor business that we’d been discussing for nearly three quarters of an hour; we suddenly had sprung on us a straw poll on a different issue. It was pointed out by several members from the floor that we had not discussed the pros and cons of the present system vis-a-vis the one-off election, so what would be the validity of such a vote? What indeed!

By this time it was fast approaching 9.30, when we got to the next item: “Public Question Time.” Our LRA planning officer was allowed to ask a question about the recent decision to allow Nos. 52-56 Church Street change of use from retail premises to restaurant. But after this had been answered, it was deemed that we had run over time and no more public questions could be asked. So much for consultation with the public!

How much consultation was there about matters to do with Leatherhead (or, indeed, Ashtead)? We learnt that more people smoke in North Leatherhead then the national average. We heard police reports that are made, in any case, at police panels in North & South Leatherhead and in Ashtead and, if I am not misaken, at the Leatherhead & District Forum. We heard about the “strong leader” ~ directly elected mayor business, which will affect the whole of Mole Valley. Then we were allowed one question only.

Which is a more genuine forum for real consultation: a Council controlled ‘area Forum’, or the Leatherhead & District Forum which has evolved from grass roots level over many years? Yet our Council refuses to recognize the latter.

If MVDC really wants to save money, why not scrap the Leatherhead-Ashtead and Bookham-Fetcham area fora, which the Residents’ Associations never wanted in the first place, and have proper consultation at the Leaherhead & District Forum?

Posted in Consultations, Local Government.