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Stroud Local Elections Focus: Labour

But this time, Labour’s regional party HQ have made clear, “we've got to win as many seats as we can. Both to be supporting Simon [Opher] when it comes to [the general election], and also so that we we have got representatives across the district.
Stroud Local Elections Focus: Labour

Labour Group Leader Steve Robinson interviewed by Caroline Molloy

AT THE START OF MY INTERVIEW with Labour group leader Councillor Steve Robinson, he’s keen to tell me he’s walking 14,000 steps a day on average – “doing very well for an old ‘un!”, as he puts it.

Robinson loves to walk up the “W” on the side of Nailsworth Hill, to take the view of the whole of Nailsworth from his favourite bench. He fancied being an electrician when he was younger, but instead went into the local family butchery business, Taylors, and then for many years was a youth worker for the county council.

A longstanding councillor, two years ago Robinson found himself in the unexpected position of becoming Labour party Group Leader on the district council, after a large number of his councillor colleagues resigned from the Labour party, including the then Council Leader, Doina Cornell, who had been blocked from standing as a parliamentary candidate.

Robinson’s own personal ambitions are modest – he clearly loves being a ward councillor, but if Labour formed the new administration, or part of it, he says, “I don’t want to be leader of the council. Maybe just to see a handover. I haven’t got the time, or the knowhow. I’m just an ordinary councillor.”

It’s hard to call the outcome of May 2nd’s election. For one thing, only 22 out of the 51 current councillors (across all parties) have put themselves up for re-election.

And also because the former alliance partners are approaching this election quite differently from the last few elections. Labour are standing a candidate for every single one of the 51 seats – the first time they’ve done so in 20 years, Steve tells me. 

“12 years ago, there were three Tory district councillors in Nailsworth,” he explains. “Since then there hasn't been, because, we've had unofficial and official pacts, you know, that Labour have only put two people up, the Greens have only put one. And people, you know, voted for two labour and one green, and we’ve been able to tell people that as well.”

But this time, Labour’s regional party HQ have made clear, “we've got to win as many seats as we can. Both to be supporting Simon [Opher] when it comes to [the general election], and also so that we we have got representatives across the district. And now, you know, well the Greens have put 51 candidates up, as well.”

If Labour were to take power what would be your priorities?

On housing, he says, “there's a massive need to listen more to tenants groups”, as well as to “continue to build more council houses, we’ve got a vast amount of people on the waiting list. And that's not going to go away any time soon, not at all. So housing would be a priority, to build council homes.”

He’s proud of the housing that’s been built in recent years, much of which was initiated when Labour were leading the Co-operative Alliance, he tells me:

“We’ve built new houses in Nailsworth, in Dursley and Cam, we've replaced some of those older non-traditional houses both in Stanley and in the top of town with new houses with very good insulation, PV panels on the top…”
Community wellbeing is a big focus for Robinson, and again he's keen to highlight projects he says were initiatied whilst Labour was still the largest party in the alliance.

Funding for community hubs, like those in Paganhill, Top of Town, Wootton, Stonehouse, and the Arkell Centre in Nailsworth, is vital, “to continue to support those those in need,” from food banks, to things like exercise classes for older people. Funding has also been given to Citizens Advice, and for community outreach more generally.

And “from November, Stratford Park [leisure centre] will be like the Pulse at Dursley and will be in-house. So we won’t be paying a separate providor, we will be running them both. We've just put in air source heat pumps in Stratford Park and the Museum, too.”

Robinson is keen to refurbish Stroud leisure centre further, to improve the changing rooms which “are getting tired”, and make them meet people’s expectations,  “and the same with the gym, because we want people to use the gym, rather than pay to go to a gym down the road that might have better equipment.”

Robinson says that a group is working on a lottery funding bid to refurbish the of the lido, too. He thinks that “we do need to be looking at heating it up a bit” but that it’s an “amazing asset”. 

“I used to go to the lido when I was 13 or 14 – to show off and meet young young ladies from other parts of the district!” he laughs.

Finally, Labour want to offer all residents three free collections of bulky waste, to try to address fly-tipping. It’s a promise that can definitely be funded, says Robinson.

So does it really make a difference what parties are in power in Ebley Mill? Isn't it who is in Westminster that really makes the difference?

It does matter, Steve tells me. The Tories have different priorities – for example, he says, they were looking at “possibly the council properties, going over to a Housing Association, like all the other ones in the county. I mean, we're the only ones that have still got our housing stock, and it's important that we keep housing within Stroud District Council, and on Council rents, rather than transferring to a housing association where rents can go up a lot more than how much Council rents can go up.”

Another key difference with the Tories, he says, is the recent move to take council house repairs back in-house, too —

“we were having such a bad deal, we were getting shot of contractors before the contract ended, because they weren’t doing quality repairs to properties”.

What about the diversity of candidates across all parties? Do they fully represent the diversity of Stroud?

“To be honest, no, they don't,”, Steve acknowledges. “We have improved a lot, out of 51 councillors, I think 23 are women, which is far, far better than it used to be.”

But he admits there is a long way to go: “We haven't got any black people, we have a couple of Asian people.”

And whilst people with caring responsibilities do get allowances to help, those payments can then impact on anyone who gets Universal Credit.

Steve is filled with admiration for those who manage to take on the commitment of being a councillor on top of caring responsibilities.

Editor's note. The basic allowance for Councillors is around £600 per month, Councillors that are elected and who are on Universal Credit have to effectvely lose 55p in every £1 of that allowance because of the earnings taper, setting lower income representatives at a major disadvantage.

Tell me about your new candidates

Almost all of them are new, he tells me – only 4 are current serving Labour councillors.

“I mean, you've got David [DREW], who has been a councillor and a county councillor, but he is new to Stroud District Council since… the last time he was on SDC was almost 10 years ago. We’ve got Elizabeth STANLEY, we’ve got Mick FEALTY. All these are all new councillors.”
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As for Robinson himself, he still chairs the local youth centre in Nailsworth. Son of a Methodist preacher, he tells me he was “brought up chapel” and still goes regularly to the interdenominational chapel, as well as relaxing and socialising by playing outdoor bowls with the Nailsworth Mills bowling club

Would Labour now be willing to go back into a formal alliance with the Greens, if that were necessary to keep the Conservatives out?

It’s time for the question I know Robinson has been circling around

Given the Tories are currently the largest single party on the district council, and might be so again after the election, would Labour now be willing to go back into a formal alliance with the Greens, if that were necessary to keep the Conservatives out?

Robinson’s reply is careful:

“Personally, I certainly would. For the last 18 months since I haven’t been part of the alliance I haven’t known what’s going on the same, and I really miss that. But on the evening of the count when all the numbers are in I will then have to contact regional [party HQ] and ask for us – if it needs to be – to join an alliance. I cannot say. I cannot make that decision. It has to come [from region].”

He tells me that the same issue is being asked by labour councillors elsewhere in the country, and there are some signs of hope, such as agreements that have been okayed with the Lib Dems and Greens in South Gloucestershire and the Forest of Dean, respectively. But prior to the election, Labour HQ “will not say, unfortunately. It will be weighed up on the day… But yes, I'm disappointed that we can't have that agreement prior to the election.”

The Local Plan

From one thorny subject to another, I raise the subject of the Local Plan – the plan that sets out the planning and development priorities for the area, and that’s currently been put on pause amidst controversy over traffic and other impacts of planned housing developments.

Robinson tells me that “the main issue is the motorway junctions 12 and 14, which need improvements anyway.” The congestion is already so bad that people leaving workplaces in the area are driving “through Standish and down the lanes” to avoid the motorway.

“And it should have been sorted before we allowed those factory units, the incinerator, whatever that goes with. And then you add all the building at Hunts Grove, there's problems there.

So that needs to be sorted. Because we do need to build more homes.

What I'm pleased about is that long last we are building on some brownfield sites, though that will be expensive because many of them are contaminated.

We're building on the old MEB site, down Dudbridge Hill, that's a large site, and then the Daniels site next to B&Q.

And I think we should be looking at more brownfield sites, we should be looking at the old carpet place at Brimscombe…. I think as far as junction 14 goes, with the possible development down at Berkeley, and Oldbury, there may well be more funding for that.

I'd much prefer them to be built on brownfield sites to start with anyway, but we are starting to develop brownfield sites. But you know, we do have to build houses. Nobody likes them in their back yard, but, you know.”

It’s time to say goodbye. Robinson also wants to pay tribute to the “excellent” Natalie Bennett, who after resigning Labour, served as an independent councillor and the Deputy Leader for the last two years, but is now standing down.

Robinson is obviously a popular ward councillor, with a strong personal commitment to helping the most vulnerable in the community. But will his party be able bounce back from its recent local turbulence? We’ll find out on 2nd May.

Find out more about Stroud Labour's 2024 campaign

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Labour Councillor Pledges for SDC Elections 2024 Housing To bring all council houses up to a good living standard, which includes the external insulation of all council properties. To continue to build new affordable rented accommodation for those in need in the Stroud district. To work with local community land trusts and co-operatives to build affordable homes in their communities. Environment and Climate Change Achieve the commitments set out in 2021-24 of the Strategy to be a Carbon Neutral and…

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