West Sussex County Council election - parties pitch for your votes

With West Sussex County Council elections just weeks away the leaders of the main political parties have made their pitches for your votes.

Thursday, 22nd April 2021, 10:35 am
From top left clockwise: Conservative Paul Marshall, Lib Dem James Walsh, Green Party's Sarah Sharp and Labour's Michael Jones

The candidates were quizzed on their track record, main campaign policies and what their focus would be on if elected next month.

Polling day is Thursday May 6 with all 70 seats up for election.

CONSERVATIVES

The past 18 months have been a ‘whirlwind’ for Conservative Paul Marshall since taking over as leader of West Sussex County Council.

He succeeded Louise Goldsmith in October 2019 at a time when the authority had received criticism for the performance of its children’s services, fire and rescue service and transparency of its governance arrangements.

He described it as a ‘pretty tough time’ to take over, but feels significant improvements have been made in all three areas since then.

In children’s services the changes he felt had been ‘quite dramatic’ with an independent commissioner recommending a pause to moving services over to a trust.

Meanwhile an independent advisory panel set up to monitor the progress of the county’s fire and rescue services is no longer needed due to the strides made.

On governance, Mr Marshall set up regular cabinet meetings in public so residents can better understand decisions and the background to them.

One of the other main challenges was ‘unstable leadership’ as there had been a number of interim senior officers in place.

Becky Shaw has been brought in from East Sussex to act as chief executive for both county councils.

Mr Marshall felt this had been key with talented people wanting to come and work for West Sussex now there is stability right at the top.

All this has led to praise from Secretary of State Robert Jenrick in a recent letter.

Reflecting on his time so far as leader Mr Marshall mentioned the progress made on two large capital projects, a new college for Woodlands Meed School in Burgess Hill and a new fire station for Horsham, both now granted planning permission.

But the county council’s biggest challenge has been responding to the pandemic.

He praised staff both at WSCC and the district and borough councils for going over and above in setting up community hubs, which with the assistance of volunteers have provided help, support and signposting for vulnerable residents.

More challenges are still to come with the need to reset West Sussex’s economy and re-skill parts of the workforce.

And as a result of the pandemic the county council has also reset its own priorities.

Along with the usual challenges of improving the condition of West Sussex’s roads, Mr Marshall wants to see a greater alignment of social care with health and mentioned the importance of education, not just primary and secondaries but also colleges providing apprenticeships and skills.

Improvements to the A27 at Arundel were ‘critical’ while he was also keen to see upgrades to the route advance at both Chichester and Worthing.

He said climate change would be another key focus if the Conservatives return to power after May, especially providing more infrastructure for electric vehicle charging as would rolling out superfast gigabit broadband.

Post-pandemic, Mr Marshall believes West Sussex is ‘extremely capable of bouncing back in a really positive way’, adding: “But we need the skills, training, infrastructure and affordable homes to provide those jobs and accommodation at the right price.”

The direct cost of Covid to the county council was around £84million and while this has been repaid by government they were continuing to lobby through West Sussex MP’s for fairer long-term funding.

On the idea of creating a unitary authority, Mr Marshall has agreed with his West Sussex counterparts at district and borough level to wait for a White Paper on the subject to provide the framework for any conversations to take place.

Personally he thinks unitaries are a ‘good model’.

He described a ‘real sense of achievement’ at the county council with its staff not only keeping business as usual going, but also providing support systems during the pandemic as well as making significant improvements in the three key areas.

LIBERAL DEMOCRATS

The Lib Dems have promised to clamp down on ‘wasteful’ spending of public money at County Hall over the last four years under the Conservatives.

Group leader James Walsh, who has now been a county councillor for 36 years, pointed towards the £12m required to put mistakes right in children’s services, £5m extra needed for the fire and rescue service, £4m compensation paid out after the ‘bungled’ re-letting of the highways contract and large golden handshakes paid to several senior officers leaving the council.

Dr Walsh said: “All this talk about the Conservatives looking after the taxpayers’ money very well is a myth.

“That’s the record we are looking at drawing to the public’s attention and we want to change a lot of that.”

He highlighted how the county’s civic amenity tips had experienced four major changes over the last few years from closing several locations between one to two days a week, to briefly introducing charges for some non-household waste, to bringing in ID checks and now trialling a booking system at six sites.

The Lib Dems are pledging to reopen sites seven days a week to encourage more responsible recycling and help reduce fly tipping.

His party is also concerned about the level of potholes on West Sussex’s roads. He said: “It’s clear not enough is being spent and the pothole situation is just getting worse. That is everybody’s experience.”

The Lib Dems are also campaigning to restore bus subsidies, especially in more rural areas in order to reduce reliance on cars in line with the climate agenda. He said the cuts have meant a ‘vicious circle’ of fewer bus services leading to a drop in people using them.

Dr Walsh described how they want to see a ‘really intensive’ programme of climate change actions from improved public transport to extending the network of electric vehicle charging points.

Another area where they want to see action is to address the funding crisis across West Sussex’s schools with the county’s children ‘getting a worse deal than many other parts of the country’.

He also said they needed to make sure central government makes good on promises to properly fund adult social care especially with costs going up and people having to sell their homes and other remaining assets to pay for their care.

Dr Walsh said: “Adult social care needs to be funded in the same way the health service is funded.”

A redesign of early help services has been in the spotlight recently and the current proposals out for public consultation would see the majority of the county’s children and family centres close.

Dr Walsh described how these facilities provide ‘absolutely vital’ services for new parents, with the Lib Dems promising to keep as many open as possible if not all of them.

He also pointed out how over the last half decade council tax bills have risen significantly at the same time as services are ‘effectively being reduced’. As a regressive tax he argued these increases hit poorer families who are not eligible for support the hardest.

Although taking control of the county council might be out of reach for the Lib Dems, they are hoping to pick up seats in a number of areas particularly Arun, Mid Sussex, Chichester and Horsham with the aim of denying the Conservatives an overall majority.

Dr Walsh said: “A sizeable opposition is very important to hold an all-powerful executive to account and make sure they remain responsive to the public across the whole of West Sussex.”

He argued that a vote for the Lib Dems was about getting ‘better value for money and making sure the waste and excess of the Conservatives is not repeated’.

LABOUR

Labour says it is offering a ‘more vibrant vision’ for West Sussex, promoting fairness and ensuring the county has the very best services.

Michael Jones, the party’s group leader at County Hall, explained how they also wanted to see the county council’s work truly reflect the priorities of residents and be far more listening.

He said: “The bottom line is the last four years have shown like never before that the West Sussex Tories have failed the county. Children’s services and the fire and rescue service were found to be inadequate and the county council was found to be run badly with many examples of poor spending while the Tories cut back on many vital services.”

He argued that a vote for Labour ‘sends a message loud and clear that the Conservatives’ disastrous management can’t go on’.

Their six main campaign policies are: halting the closure of all children and family centres proposed by the Conservatives, taking the necessary steps to reopen all the rubbish tips for seven days a week and ending the booking system trial, rearranging spending priorities so potholes and repairs to broken pavements are ‘finally dealt with properly’, ending wasteful spending on outsourced services, real action on tackling climate change and continuing the work to revitalise the local economy and communities as we recover from the Covid pandemic.

A public consultation is currently being held on a redesign of early help services, with the most controversial element the proposed closure of many children and family centres.

For Mr Jones these centres are important not just to support young children and their parents, but are places where families can meet and get advice.

Although supportive of work to ensure hard to reach families are targeted, he thought this should not happen at the same time as ‘drastically cutting the service for everyone else’.

Several years ago a number of rubbish tips were closed for two days a week with opening hours reduced and Labour wants to reverse these decisions, believing the cuts increase the risk of flytipping and disincentivise recycling.

Labour is also pressing for action to address the ‘chronic poor state of the roads’ and disrepair of many pavements.

Mr Jones pointed towards recent government decisions cutting funding for road repairs, but also felt the county council’s leadership had ‘failed to get to grips with it’.

He also described the ‘troubled history’ of outsourcing services at County Hall with ‘some examples of poor contract management’ meaning the county council had not received good value for money leading to a ‘constant stream’ of services being brought back in-house.

He said that many practical issues and concerns raised had been either ignored or glossed over.

Meanwhile Mr Jones believes his group has ‘led the way on environmental issues’ at County Hall.

This includes pressing for a climate emergency to be declared and calling for the West Sussex pension fund to divest from fossil fuels.

Labour is also pressing for greater investment in renewables, increased use of electric vehicles, more recycling and greater support for public transport.

Lastly, Labour wants to continue work to revitalise the local economy and communities following the pandemic.

Mr Jones said: “The extent of the challenge here is daunting for all of us who wish the very best for our towns and villages.”

In particular, they want to put pressure on government for more strategic help to recover given the impact on the aviation industry and other sectors.

Diversification of the local economy could involve promoting the green jobs agenda while they are also calling for support for village and town centres as well as more of a focus on the night-time economy.

GREEN PARTY

The Green Party wants to ensure communities are listened to and West Sussex County Council is more responsive and transparent in its decision making as well as defending services for the most vulnerable.

Sarah Sharp, a district councillor and county council candidate for Chichester South, outlined her party’s vision for people centred places, a circular economy, inclusive and just prosperity for all and biodiversity net gain.

They want to see new green jobs and re-skilling such as expanding the workforce, retrofitting old housing stock and more local jobs to repair and reuse products rather than throwing things away after a couple of years.

Although a trial of food waste collections is due to take place in Arun, the Greens want to see this rolled out to households across West Sussex much quicker.

When it comes to rubbish tips, Ms Sharp raised concerns that a booking system trial at a number of sites means households are limited to one visit a week maximum and felt this would be unhelpful to someone carrying out major garden or home projects.

In order to reduce carbon emissions, the Greens want to see measures to reduce reliance on car travel, from a better public transport network to ramping up plans to create safer walking and cycling links.

Ms Sharp believes nowhere near enough new cycling lanes are being planned and described how they were opposed to new roadbuilding, citing the Arundel bypass and Stockbridge link road as two examples.

She said: “This is quite a dangerous policy to go down. Building more roads induces more traffic and encourages more people to stay in their cars.”

Her party is opposed to extraction of oil and gas with the need for solar panels and wind turbines to replace fossil fuels.

The Greens are also against the proposed incinerator at Ford as burning waste does not fit in with the reduce, reuse and recycle strategy.

Given the likely impact of climate change on the coast and level of housebuilding required in West Sussex, Ms Sharp questioned why there were no proper policies for the shoreline to make sure new houses being built are safe from future flooding.

As it has been more than a year since the first lockdown, Ms Sharp said people, especially the vulnerable, needed more places to meet and socialise and suggested libraries could be expanded to fit this purpose.

And with people’s mental health suffering during the pandemic, she believes they had to do everything they can to improve the level of normal social interactions.

She also referenced possible cuts to day services for adults with learning disabilities and the proposed closure of the majority of children and family centres.

She explained: “We have just had a year of many people stuck in their houses. It does not seem to me to be a sensible approach.”

She also suggested if places become more vibrant and people have more things to do in their own communities they do not rely on travelling as much in cars.

While other areas had made huge advances in encouraging more cycling and walking during the pandemic, she felt in West Sussex this had been ‘badly handled’ leading to a backlash from motorists.

The Greens are also pressing for measures to increase young people’s participation in democracy and greater engagement overall so people ‘feel it’s worthwhile to get involved’.

Another focus is on listening more to what the public has to say, with Ms Sharp highlighting the successful campaigns overturning several proposed small school closures.

She added: “We want to make sure that the community is listened to and our county council is more responsive and more transparent in its decision making.”