Interview With ERA Councillor Richard Williams
Q: Richard, you’ve been an Elmbridge Borough Councillor since May 2018. What does this involve?
Richard: My responsibilities are pretty wide ranging. I’ve chaired two committees, one that focused on the future of our High Streets and what contribution the Council can make to their well-being and one that looks after our countryside. They have involved Councillors from all parties – I enjoy working across party lines. Many of the Councillors are hugely experienced and I put great value on their views, whichever party they represent.
I sit on the East Area Planning sub-committee and occasionally on the main Planning Committee, which with my design background and love of architecture, is fascinating and at times deeply depressing. There is tremendous scope for better development.
Of course, any decision we make on planning can be overturned by the inspectors and the really major ones, like Sandown, can be taken out of the hands of the inspectors and decided by the Secretary of State.
A large part of my work is helping residents sort out problems that they just can’t resolve through the usual channels. It can be anything from getting peoples’ verges cut, sorting out lost recycling bins, getting ditches unblocked so someone isn’t flooded out of their property or helping people with housing. That kind of task is immensely rewarding.
Q: What are the key achievements you’ve made in 2020?
Richard: From a planning perspective, I think that I have brought the subject of good design into the open more. I hear it discussed very regularly now.
I’d say galvanising opposition to The Jockey Club’s completely inappropriate plans to put housing on Sandown Park was thrilling. I spoke, for the first time, at a Planning Committee meeting and was delighted at the response. Linda Stotesbury was really the great driving force behind the fight and I was so pleased when she agreed to join the ERA Committee.
Esher Place House needed far stronger protection and I was proud to be instrumental in stopping a very insensitive development there.
In terms of the roads, whilst Elmbridge doesn’t run the highways, I was very pleased to see the introduction of the Active Travel scheme on the A244. It wasn’t universally popular, but I campaigned for a crossing there in 2018 and gave it my full support. I’ve also pushed hard for the residents of Esher Green to be spared the improper use of business parking permits and the unification of car parks and on street parking, thus preventing people from dumping their cars in the Controlled Parking Zone once it’s free and the car parks are still charging.
My most recent highlight was getting a young Lower Green couple with two very young children in a one bedroom flat rehoused, when they were stuck in a never-ending nightmare, where every time they thought they were moving, something or someone stopped cooperating. They move this weekend and I’m hugely proud to have helped.
Q: 2020 was obviously a very unusual year. What impact has the pandemic had on the work of the Council?
Richard: It’s been enormous. Amongst other things, we have distributed £25m in grants to businesses, grown the meals on wheels service to deliver 50,000+ meals and moved 28 rough sleepers into settled accommodation, whilst keeping the show on the road by working from home and meeting on Zoom.
However, there are some very hard financial issues to be resolved. We have a tricky leisure contract which, with all our halls, gyms and pools closed, is costing us a lot of money. By not making the contributions they promised, Central Government has left us with a hit to our reserves for 20/21 of £5.2 million and in 21/22, despite £1.5 million savings, we still estimate there will be a hit to reserves of £4.5 million. This totals a whopping £9.7m.
Q: Are there any frustrations in your role as a Councillor?
Richard: There are many. I’m used to a business world where decision making is simplified and stuff gets done quickly. That’s not the case in local government. Getting some double yellow lines changed or a bus service improved means going to Surrey County Council (since roads and buses are not run by Elmbridge) and getting into the quagmire of public consultations and raising funds. It can take years.
I also don’t have enough hours in the day to do the things I want to do, like building more vibrant relevant high streets with improved shops and a sense of community. I’ve also not scratched the surface of children’s play areas and improving the lives of our residents in some of the more challenged areas of the ward.
Q: What are you hoping to achieve in 2021
Richard: I’d like there to be a second ERA Councillor so we can jointly attack the problems I’ve not cracked yet!