Continuing my series of interviews with Surrey County Councillors in the run up to the May 6th elections, I interview Tim Oliver, Conservative councillor for Weybridge division and leader of the Surrey County Council, on post-pandemic plans for the SCC.
Alongside an illustrious thirty-year career as a solicitor, Oliver has been in politics since 1999, where he was elected to Elmbridge Borough Council. Standing down in 2009, he also did a brief term in the SCC between 2005 and 2009. He returned in 2017 as an SCC cabinet member before becoming leader in 2019. Since being elected as leader, he’s worked to provide the council with enough financial stability to begin reducing council tax, helped children’s services immensely, and provided a comprehensive review of council practices. ‘I’d like to think that there’s been a real change in the culture of the organisation’ after the review ‘so, moving it from a kind of traditional local authority approach to a council that is now forward looking, innovative, energetic, and really wanting to improve outcomes to residents.’ As leader during the Covid-19 pandemic, he has been at the forefront of Surrey’s local response to the crisis.
Oliver sets out four key areas of priority for the council to take in the coming months: building a sustainable economy, tackling health inequality, enabling a greener future, and empowering communities. On the economy, Oliver stresses that ‘Surrey, like the rest of the country, has been badly hit by the pandemic, particularly the areas that depended on the aviation industry up in Spelthorne and near Gatwick. So, what we must do is find ways to support the economy and help it grow; so that’s around reskilling people, upskilling people, working with the local enterprise partnership that are responsible for skills and apprenticeships, further education colleges and so on. So I think we’ll see a lot of investment going into that.’ The council also plans to try to revitalise the high streets: ‘We’ve reimagined the libraries so that they turn into community hubs, rather than just places that you can borrow books; using the council’s own property assets to help regenerate the town centres where appropriate; providing space for business start-ups to go and use desks and access wifi and so on.’
On tackling health inequality, Oliver stresses how significant health and social care is in the council’s spending: ‘We spend a million pounds a day on delivering adult social care and half a million on supporting children’s services. But we’ve seen again through the pandemic and through the research that we’ve done, the data we’ve collected, the disproportionate impact that Covid has had on our communities. So, what we’re going to do is use that data and target those areas who’ve seen significant deprivation and indeed where there’s inequality in life expectancy and opportunity. And part of that will be using the government’s white paper on the integration on health and social care, so working closely with the health system to jointly tackle access to the healthcare and inequalities.’ Regarding the third and fourth points, Oliver plans to further implement Surrey’s strategy in tackling climate change, as well as build on already existing work in community strength which was bolstered by the pandemic. ‘They’ve come together in support of people in their own locality, and we want to improve the way that services are delivered locally.’
Surrey, says Oliver, faces many of the same challenges as the rest of the country: getting its economy and health service back on track after the virus recedes. ‘We need to promote ourselves more, and we need to retain the businesses that we have; we’ve got some large international businesses that are based in Surrey, but equally we have a huge number of small and medium enterprises, and entrepreneurs and start-up businesses; those are the ones we’ve got to help and encourage.’ And on the health service: ‘I think there’s a good opportunity to deliver health services in a more effective way, and to stop people falling into chronic conditions. I think the key part of this is around prevention, how can we ideally stop people getting ill; if we can’t we’ve got to intervene much earlier, we’ve got to put all our resources at the front end, whether it’s mental health or otherwise.’
Finally, Oliver tells me about the issues in his division of Weybridge. The main focus here is rebuilding Weybridge’s medical centre, which burnt down in 2017. ‘It’s been more complicated than one would have hoped. It’s got the involvement of NHS and NHS property services, as you would expect over this last year certainly they’ve been focusing on delivering services rather than building things. It’s also got the involvement of Surrey County Council and Elmbridge borough council.’ He’s optimistic, however. ‘We’re nearly there.’ Oliver also plans to focus on revitalising the high street, which he feels needs to be reimagined in the age of online retail.
Beyond this, it’s the ‘usual problem of potholes.’ Oliver elaborates, discussing the problems caused by the immense traffic flow through Surrey’s roads. ‘It is a real challenge for the county. We spend over one hundred million pounds a year – that’s 10% of the budget – on roads. We don’t get enough money from the government, we have three thousand miles of roads to maintain, we have the highest volume of traffic going through the county of anywhere in the country, and that’s inevitably the cause of real wear and tear, so it’s interesting to see that today there’s some talk about revisiting or reviewing the way that funding is managed. As we move to electric vehicles and there’ll be no road tax. So, the government are looking at a way of charging vehicles for road usage, which probably is a fairer way of looking at it actually, and I think if the government were to go down that line that probably would be beneficial for Surrey because I think we would get proper compensation for the volume of traffic that uses our roads.’
Picture Credit: https://cllrtimoliver.com/about/