‘We’ve never shied away from difficult decisions’ says out-going Mid Sussex council leader
The Tory dominance at Mid Sussex District Council is ‘an endorsement of the job we’re doing’, according to its out-going leader.
Garry Wall, who represents the Franklands ward in Haywards Heath, announced last week that he would be stepping down as both leader and councillor after ten years at the helm.
Heading into his final month – with golf featuring high on his list of future plans – he looked back on his time with the most politically one-sided council in the county.
There are currently 52 Conservatives, one Liberal Democrat and one Independent councillor in Mid Sussex, but Mr Wall doesn’t agree that such an overwhelming majority might have a negative impact on local democracy.
He said: “It’s not like everyone suddenly woke up and one day said ‘let’s all vote Tory’ – they just believed in what was happening in their local community.
“It’s a reflection on a job well done. It’s not even part of party politics. It’s about people having faith in local government.
“I know some people see that as a bad thing, but for me it was an endorsement of the job we were doing.”
That job has certainly brought challenges.
The District Plan, for instance, was ever-present on Mr Wall’s ‘to do’ list throughout his time as leader, taking 14 years to adopt during which time it was rejected by government inspectors.
The delay was reported to have cost the council millions in lost Community Infrastructure Levy payments – a charge paid by developers to assist with the infrastructure where they build.
And Andrew MacNaughton, cabinet member for housing and planning, recently declared that the council ‘must never again be in a position where we do not have an up-to-date plan’.
But Mr Wall doesn’t think anything could have been done to see the plan adopted sooner.
Describing the process as ‘incredibly complicated’, he added: “It may have taken us longer than we wanted it to do but a lot of that was down to the challenges of the housing market in general – and the government insisting that we took a rather large amount of housing.
“We’re taking in excess of 16,000 new homes. That takes a considerable amount of planning.
“You can’t just say ‘yes, no problem, let’s do that, it’s easy’. You have to go through a long and protracted process which shows that you can take those houses, working with developers and planners to see where those houses can go.
“People looking from the outside may think it took longer than it should have done, but actually we couldn’t have moved any quicker.”
Mr Wall spoke enthusiastically about his pride in the council and the goals achieved over the past ten years.
While he wished quicker inroads had been made in some cases, he listed financial planning, investment, the care of vulnerable people, and economic strategy as pluses, adding: “We haven’t taken a backwards step.
“One of the things I’m probably most proud of is that we’ve never shied away from difficult decisions.
“It’s very easy for politicians to turn away from challenges and sort of put them on the back burner. We’ve never done that.
“Having a strong council and having a strong team around me has given me the opportunity to make those tough decisions.
“I think we see politicians at all levels shy away from difficult decisions. It leads to confusion. It leads to a mess.
“Even at this level you need to lead from the front. So what we’ve tried to instil into this authority is ‘what’s the problem we’re trying to solve? What do we need to do to solve it? And let’s get on with it’.
“For me, that’s the ethos that exists in this council.”
Mr Wall often speaks as if the coming election is a foregone conclusion – and in truth it would take a monumental change of mood for the Tories to be ousted in Mid Sussex.
But with one former Conservative councillor already listed as an Independent and word of at least two more hugely experienced members preparing to stand alone, change of some kind is definitely in the air.