The Liberal Democrats currently have seven seats on the council and leader LINDSAY FERRIS is looking to increase that on Thursday, May 3
OF THE three political leaders in Wokingham, Cllr Lindsay Ferris is now the longest serving, having been active since the late 1970s.
He moved to Twyford in 1991, where first Liberal Democrat councillor Dee Tomlin was elected two years later. Between 1997 and 2000, he was a councillor in Woodley and his wife was a Twyford councillor until 2003.
He came back to politics in 2012 and succeeded Prue Bray as leader 2016.
But his political pedigree goes back even further. “I started to show an interest in politics in the 1970s when we had the three-day week. I just felt I couldn’t agree with what the Conservative Government was doing at the time. I thought there had to be a better way.”
By his own admission, he was not particularly active then, that changes six months after Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979.
“There was a party political broadcast with David Steel. I disagreed with Thatcher so much I communicated that I’d like to join the Liberals. That was the start,” he said.
With such a long history in local politics, he has seen the changes from District to Borough Council and the Conservatives taking control.
“Between 1996 and 2000, under the old committee structure the council was much more open, there was more information about what was going on. As a ward member you got more information from officers. It just felt that it was a more open place,” he recalled.
“Under the move to a cabinet structure, power is given to a smaller group of people and it’s much more secretive. The ruling group treat the opposition badly, with chance of debate curtailed.
“We used to be able to see papers in draft form and vote on it. Now the Executive system is nothing more than rubber stamping decisions made beforehand. I hope that potential changes to the operation of Overview & Scrutiny will start to address this.”
While the Liberal Democrats did once run Wokingham Borough Council, Cllr Ferris feels that at the moment they need to be a strong opposition, one that is preparing to take over.
“At a local level, we always believed that you have to provide a viable alternative and put your views out as to what you would do if you were in control,” he said.
“As an opposition councillor you have to use what ammunition you have. There’s nothing wrong with an opposition group saying that they have concerns over what the ruling party are doing, you are raising the concerns of the residents.”
One of the key ways the Liberal Democrats are doing this is through its manifesto, which it launched last autumn.
“We have come up with various proposals: as an opposition we oppose and propose, and that’s what we are doing,” he said.
“Part of the problem in Wokingham is that there is such a high level of complacency among the Tories, a feeling that they have a right to be in control. Not at all.
“But a good percentage of councillors don’t like being challenged, and try very hard not to answer the questions.”
While the Liberal Democrats won’t gain control of the council in this election, it could over the coming three years if residents choose it over other parties. What would Cllr Ferris do if he was leading Wokingham borough?
“I’d start with a blank sheet of paper,” he said.
“Council meetings are dire. I’d structure them so there is proper debate that isn’t constrained or stage managed.”
And with polling day just seven days away, the Liberal Democrats are optimistic of their chances of gaining seats.
“The morale in our group is really high. The group members are really responding to their new roles and have increasing experience.
“On the doorsteps, locally people are prepared to look at things quite differently to nationally. We ask people how they think they have been treated by the council and the general answer, I have to say, over the past 18 months they think the performance has left them with considerable concerns.
“The Conservatives need to realise they are representatives of residents.
“If the regeneration goes wrong, it’s the council tax payer that would foot the bill.”
Money and budgets is a concern for Cllr Ferris. He says he would “instantly revoke” a Conservative decision to allow four people to have power to spend £100 million on building projects, saying that there is no accountability on that scheme.
He is also dismayed at the Conservatives’ behaviour over the past 18 months.
“After the debacle over councillors’ expenses and the resignation of the Independent Remuneration Panel, I would say it shows how not to run a council group,” Cllr Ferris said.
“Gary Cowan became an independent, while Chris Singleton’s resignation caused a by-election that in turn galvanised our group. Since then we have become more focused and seen a lot of new members and younger people join.
“With the Council’s plans to build 15,000 homes at Grazeley, it’s symbolic of the problem we have with the council and the secrecy surrounding it. I fully supported the release of the information and the residents should have been consulted.”
And Cllr Ferris is hopeful that next week, borough residents will elect enough Liberal Democrats to take them into double figures.
“It is absolutely essential for any council to have a reasonable sized opposition.
“We want to increase representation,” he countered. “It is absolutely essential for any council to have a reasonable sized strong opposition to keep it under control. We need local government to do things for residents.”
Housing for local people is a key issue in this campaign and the Liberal Democrats want to help introduce policies to help residents to be able to rent or buy their own homes.
“Many residents have little or no chance of owning their own property at the moment,” Cllr Ferris said. “There are also older people who want to stay in the borough but don’t want to stay in their large home.”
Under the Liberal Democrats plans, they would build more one- and two-bedroom homes for young local people and their families to get starter homes whilst allowing older people to downsize to purpose built bungalows.
“The Council has a tremendous opportunity to provide truly affordable homes for our local people, but they have not addressed that at all,” he said. “Just look at the amount of money, nearly £12M they have not used from S106 receipts, the 14th worst performing Council in the whole of the Country, this inactivity smacks of complacency.
“So many young people in particular need truly affordable homes and now, not some unspecified time in the future.”
Next week, Cllr Ferris is hoping that people will vote for the Liberal Democrats.
“I will bring a new sense of integrity to the council,” he said. “I will be open and honest, careful with how we spend your money and be prepared to be open with residents.”