Councillor quits Wokingham Tories, blaming council ‘secrecy’

Gary Cowan
Cllr Gary Cowan Picture: Phil Creighton

A CONSERVATIVE Councillor who resigned the whip over the secret plan to build 15,000 homes in Grazeley has now quit the party.

Late on Wednesday evening, Cllr Gary Cowan wrote to Wokingham MP John Redwood to inform him of the decision.

In his letter, Cllr Cowan blasts the ruling Conservative party for becoming an “autocratic, close and secret regime, with a blatant distrust of its residents”.

He also said that there is an inner circle of power that “feeds on the inertia and subservience of backbenchers who are fuelled by financial patronage and self-importance”.

He also criticised the leader of the council, Cllr Keith Baker, for overruling the recommendations of the remuneration panel on allowances to councillors “increasing his power of patronage”. This was revealed by The Wokingham Paper after the council meeting in Novemeber.

As a result, the remuneration panel resigned en masse.


In his letter to John Redwood, Cllr Cowan felt that the “lack of debate and scrutiny within Wokingham Borough Council has had a major impact on planning policies but impacts on all decision-making. The majority of decisions are therefore officer driven. They are only casually in the interests of our residents and very often can be detrimental.”

Cllr Cowan resigned the whip at November’s council meeting, but was allowed to remain a member of the Conservative party on condition that he does not stand as an independent in the 2018 local elections.

His seat in Arborfield is one of those that will be contested next year.

Cllr Gary Cowan’s letter to Wokingham MP John Redwood in full

Dear John,

I have been a loyal Conservative, an active supporter of the Party and you for over twenty years. The last few months have been very difficult and distressing. I have been thinking carefully about what action would be in the best interests of Arborfield and its residents.

I am grateful for the strong support, which I have received from friends, family and fellow Councillors of all political persuasions. Although this support has been incredibly important, I have decided that it is right to tender my resignation from the Conservative Party with immediate effect.  

Having supported you fervently over all that time. I have thought of you more as a friend than a colleague. I must admit that I am deeply disappointed that having kept you informed as events unfolded you have not given me support, commented or even acknowledged what I have sent you.    

Trust is a precious commodity. Once politicians decide not to trust their residents, and act secretly and independently of them, that trust is lost. It becomes very difficult to regain it. Democracy depends on trust but when public trust in Conservative colleagues is eroded, we all get tarred with the same brush.

In my twenty years serving as a Councillor representing Arborfield, I have done everything possible to keep my residents’ confidence by dedicating all my experience and expertise for their benefit in particular and for the Conservative Party in general.

Over the same period as I see it, Wokingham Borough Council has evolved from being transparent and open to an autocratic, close and secret regime, with a blatant distrust of its residents and in so it has eroded democracy. Therefore, any trust its residents had in the past in its local Conservative politicians is now gone.  

The great strength of Wokingham’s Conservatives was their openness and respect for residents coupled with the unique combination of policy understanding and expertise. It was a very professional approach and thanks to that culture our residents were the real beneficiaries.

The Leadership historically always accepted challenge to ill-founded arguments by back benchers. Those in power paid heed to arguments put. One was never afraid to speak openly and honestly even if the message was disagreeable. Sadly, those days are long gone, to be replaced by one of fear and threat, where hardly anyone speaks out for anxiety of intimidation, being bullied, ridiculed and even sacked.

The Wokingham Conservative Association is dominated by Wokingham Borough Councillors who form part of the ruling Group. They act to silence any reasoned vocal debate or dissention with suspensions and threats of expulsion. They bring with them a policy of distrust of our residents.  They are complicit in the Council’s activities.  I am ashamed to play any part in this.

Local and national politics differ. I believe that the Government drive for many more houses in the South East will be disastrous for our Borough, particularly if WBC follows its current housing policy and political strategy.  I led the fight when the South-East Plan was evolving under a Labour Government to mitigate the number of houses on behalf of the quality of life for the residents. Paradoxically, it seems that to fight on behalf of our residents is unacceptable now we have a Conservative Government.

I believe we have a duty to our residents to give them real choices through transparency, consultation and open debate. This is not what is currently occurring either within the Association or the Borough Council. As local Conservatives, we should take the lead in opposing development. The Borough Council is actively promoting development and the Association is silent.

The malaise in Wokingham Borough Council is due to power being concentrated within an inner circle (Executive), which feeds on the inertia and subservience of backbenchers who are fuelled by financial patronage and self-importance. Last Council, Keith Baker pitifully decided to overrule the Remuneration Panel’s recommendations in favour of increasing his power of patronage.  The same cohort covertly rule the Association. I was not prepared to continue to provide a foil for the ruling group and so resigned the whip.

This clandestineness goes back many years; the Council keep secret from residents the new homes bonus of £12 million probably rising to £20 million designed to ease the pressures new development brought to our communities, but used for quite different purposes.

The lack of debate and scrutiny within Wokingham Borough Council has had a major impact on planning policies but impacts on all decision-making. The majority of decisions are therefore officer driven. They are only casually in the interests of our residents and very often can be detrimental. Examples include public protection, adult services, schools, waste, social housing and roads, where the wrong direction has been taken.

In 2013, the Council covertly increased the housing annual build numbers from the approved Core Strategy of 661 to 856, followed by then furtively applying to the government to build 15,000 houses in Grazeley. Although the Government has not approved Grazeley, I am quite sure all the parties, which have worked in secret to deliver Grazeley, will not up stumps and go away. I fear for Grazeley!

The Council agreed to a Spatial Planning Framework again without any consultation to build over 66,000 houses to meet the needs of Bracknell, Reading and West Berks as well as Wokingham. Everything based on a “dodgy dossier” produced by G L Hearn.

I believe the majority of these houses will end up in Wokingham Borough; so, it will be goodbye to Wokingham’s Greenfields. In Conservative Group, I fought all these secret plans but to no avail. Perhaps this explains why the ruling caucus deselected me as the 2018 candidate for Arborfield, which I have represented very successfully for the last 20 years.    

It’s not that I am a Nimby or have no sympathy for those who wish to have a home. Whilst I admit to being nostalgic about the rural nature of Berkshire being eroded, my fundamental concern is that the proposed huge amount of development needs an equally huge amount of infrastructure to service the new residents but also to repair the current infrastructure which has had little investment in the past.

Development contributions will raise significant sums but I estimate that in addition the Borough will need more than £2 billion; the government is not offering this assistance. There is no way of forcing developers to provide these sorts of sums and the Borough Council could not raise this from council tax.

For example, we have 1,600 roads in Wokingham; we repair or rebuild barely 30 in any year. This concern is not limited to repairing roads or potholes but includes new roads, bypasses particularly for Wokingham town, schools, leisure facilities, adult services, waste facilities, hospitals, surgeries, social housing etc etc. everything that a good quality of life deserves.

What is being proposed is to change a semi-rural borough to a semi-urban borough. Without the infrastructure, residents will spend their lives in traffic jams trying to access services, which will be inadequate or unavailable. Ironically, the deterioration in the quality of life will lead to an erosion of the business prospects the enhancement of which is the very raison d’être given by many of the proponents for more and more development.

I am not seeking the leadership, nor acting in concert. My actions are my own, nothing more. Time and time again I have argued against this evolving Housing Strategy at Group, but to no avail.  

I am a natural party loyalist and have been for over 20 years, but the direction Wokingham Conservative Party has gone has strained every sinew of that loyalty. It has been apparent for some time now that if one is not in the inner circle then one has no role in Council decision making.

Finally, and most importantly, I have pursued a local political career because of my sense of public duty, especially to the residents of Arborfield, who I have served faithfully for twenty years in various capacities. I am quite happy to devote myself to how I can best continue to serve the interests of Arborfield and its residents, about whom I care so passionately.

Cllr Gary Cowan. 12th January 2017  

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Robin Smith
Robin Smith

Dear Mr Cowan, Thank you for your 20 years service. I saw similar activity and coercion as a cllr during my short stint 2007-2012. And it was all councillors who closed ranks every time a bold leader stood up authentically not just the leaders selected by them. My view is its a mistake just to blame the leadership. Isn’t this the general approach of the democrat though today across the political spectrum? I have a proposal which can answer all your questions about preserving the green fields while providing abundant funds for gold plated infrastructure. I frequently took it to… Read more »