In the run-up to the UK local elections in May, I interviewed Councillor Robert Evans, the only Labour member out of Surrey County Council’s 81 councillors. A councillor with a long and illustrious career, he represented London as an MEP before becoming councillor for Stanwell and Stanwell Moor division. He is best known for his campaigning to keep his local fire stations open, and opposition to the building of Heathrow Airport’s third runway.
The political atmosphere is, Evans acknowledges, very different to that during the last local elections. Brexit has been overshadowed by the virus and the Scottish issue, Labour has been ‘invigorated’ by its new leader Keir Starmer, and with the electoral marginalisation of the Liberal Democrats, the context in which he operates has changed immensely. ‘It will be interesting to see what happens when people actually go down to vote.’
If he is re-elected, Evans plans to continue much of the work he’s been doing for the past eight years. ‘I campaigned hard on the fire service because I think in Spelthorne we have been short-changed’ he says. They lost one of their two fire stations, and ‘the fire cover has been reduced by half at night and across the whole of Surrey the number of fire fighters has been cut from 641 to 448. There’s a third fewer fire fighters to protect more people in Surrey. It’s just not acceptable.’ Evans plans to continue opposing the expansion of Heathrow, which, despite being side-lined by the virus, could still very much remain an issue in the future after lockdown ends. He stresses the positive environmental impact that halting this expansion would entail. He also describes the way health service workers have been treated during the pandemic as a ‘disgrace,’ and has been providing Ashford hospital with continued support.
Evans also discusses his time representing London as an MEP, doing three terms from 1994 to 2009. ‘It was a very exciting time,’ he says. ‘It was during the period of the changeover government from John Major to Tony Blair, then the Maastricht treaty, the Lisbon treaty, the introduction of the Euro . . . so I was at the forefront of a lot of developments.’ Evans states that while he started off pro-European, the experience of being an MEP only cemented his convictions. ‘Over the time I saw the immense strength of countries working together. It was a much better way forward rather than the isolation we seem to be going towards now. More and more countries still want to join the European Union, and Britain seems to be the only one that decided we wanted to leave. I think we’ll come to regret it, but in the meantime we’ve got to make the best of it.’
Finally, I asked Evans what his proudest achievements have been during his time in council. It is, he says, difficult as the lone Labour counsellor in a county council, coming up against frequent opposition, but nevertheless, he has made some substantial achievements over the years. For example, he managed to prompt SCC to become a Fairtrade council and to sign the Charter Against Modern Slavery. ‘It is going on in Surrey just like domestic violence goes on in Surrey,’ he says of modern slavery. ‘People think these things don’t happen.’ He has also worked to implement rail links to Heathrow from Surrey through Guildford and Woking, as the current links force one to go in and out of London whilst travelling to the airport. ‘No airport in Europe or anywhere in the world has such poor links,’ he says of this.