Former town council leader John Neale will not be standing at this year’s elections under the independent Farnham Residents banner.
He says he feels his fellow councillors have “bottled out” during the discussions to improve Farnham town centre.
He believes around £2million has so far been spent on reports, consultations and office time – with little to show for that time and money.
Mr Neale refused to rule out standing in the elections under another party banner – and his views are closely aligned to some local Conservatives.
But for now he is keeping his plans under wraps.
“I’m not sure what to do yet – I could stand as an independent, join another party or not take part in it at all, as there still a lot of things I want to do in the community.”
Mr Neale is a member for Farnham Firgrove ward on Farnham Town Council and Waverley Borough Council.
Here, he answers questions surrounding his decision to step away from the Farnham Residents group.
You are not running for election this year under Farnham Residents banner. Why?
Most people know my prime interest in becoming a councillor was to find a solution to the town centre road problems.
Farnham people have been trying to improve our road system ever since the 1947, and now it was becoming within grasp, with growing local support for change.
But my fellow Farnham councillors have bottled out, yet again, so I feel we are failing. I don’t want to be seen as the one letting the people down and, as far as I can see, this is likely to continue after the election.
My fellow Farnham councillors have bottled out, yet again, so I feel we are failing. I don’t want to be seen as the one letting the people down.
Why do you think it is achievable now?
I think people’s views are evolving all the time. When I speak to local people, most recognise we can’t just go on as we are indefinitely, with more congestion and pollution.
Parents want their kids to be able to use their bikes, they recognise we all need to get fitter by walking and cycling more, and many would really like to see some changes to bus services that would work and help to reduce car congestion.
Is Farnham ready for such significant change?
That’s the big question. I believe it is. Apart from what I hear from the young families, and also many of the older generation, I speak to all the key businesses and organisations in Farnham – and as far as I can see, most of them want to see the centre updated.
You’ll remember the online poll I conducted last year – that showed a huge majority in favour. Surrey is aware of the results, but they are yet to be swayed.
So why don’t more councillors agree with you?
I think it comes down to fear of change and pressure from some quarters that believe traffic displacement will bring Farnham to a halt.
I don’t believe that will happen, so long as supporting changes are put in place first.
When we started this back in 2019 – to eliminate air pollution and improve the town centre for pedestrians – there was optimism within the project that we could achieve the changes.
After the Surrey County Council elections in 2021, that feeling was driven out and we were back to the old ways of ‘no change’.
Ironically, the three key people who inspired the project – Tim Oliver, Jeremy Hunt and myself – all find ourselves not being able to deliver the vision that we set out on.
What would you do instead?
It’s quite straightforward – set a goal to get necessary changes in place by, say, 2030, and then rebuild the central area as a pedestrian zone, with allowance for permitted vehicles only – selected buses, delivery vehicles, cycles.
I want to emphasise, I am not suggesting we would be trying to stop people from driving to town – that would not work in our rural setting.
I am only trying to eliminate the through traffic, which will have to go around.
What we should not do, since this is our only chance, is to rebuild the roads now as highways, similar to what we have today.
Why is this important?
We live in a rapidly changing world. Climate change is the big issue today for all of us.
Councils have a big part to play in encouraging a reduction in car use, since vehicle emissions are a major contribution to greenhouse gases.
Farnham can make its contribution on this by what I am suggesting for the town centre.
Along with everywhere else, we also have a growing problem with health and fitness, caused partly by lack of exercise.
So making it easier and safer for people, especially children, to use cycles and to walk more, is another positive thing our councils can do.
On top of all this, I want to see the town centre smarten up, be more welcoming to visitors, provide a more exciting community space – just as we do when we close the roads for the carnival and Sunday markets.
As a councillor, I am also very aware of government and council policies on all these issues. There are strong directives and policies supporting my ambitions, and the government is making it increasingly difficult to get funding for infrastructure projects unless they implement these policies.
Where do you stand on the other big local issue – planning?
Planning and the allocation of sites for house building is really a Waverley issue. Farnham has produced a Neighbourhood Plan which should give us control over where new housing is built in Farnham.
However, planning is a very complex issue, both at government and local levels, and unfortunately the policies that are behind it are not well joined up.
Waverley has the duty to keep an up-to-date Local Plan in place. So long as it does this, then we have a reasonable level of control over the situation, both in Farnham and the wider Waverley borough.
For a number of reasons – some understandable and some not so – Waverley’s Local Plan is about to go out of date.
I find that a major drop off by Waverley, and I don’t fully understand how it came about.
But as politicians, especially those responsible for planning policy, I think we have failed on this, and Farnham is going to take a major hit with further unscrupulous development.
Cllr Carole Cockburn has been a tireless campaigner in looking after our local interests, but even those efforts have not prevailed.
You are frustrated on these two big topics. What have been the positives?
For most of the time it has been a great experience to be a Farnham councillor with the Farnham Residents party.
I am proud of what I contributed as town council leader for three years, and that would probably have gone on for the fourth year if I had not resigned over the infrastructure programme.
I like to think I brought energy and leadership to the council, and I also made a big effort to speak to as many people as I could around the town, making sure, as best I could, that I kept the community informed about what was happening.
I am still in touch with all the big organisations, many businesses and the prominent leaders in the town, which is why I can gauge the feeling of what the town wants for the future.
It’s also been rewarding to work with the people in my ward, Firgrove.
I now know many people in this area and have been able to help many of them with local concerns. I speak to many of them about what they want for the future of our town.
So what will you be doing after May?
I can’t quite give you an answer today. I am currently looking at a few options, so I might appear under a different hat.
If nothing turns up on that front, I can always take a break and catch up on other things I have had to put aside for the past four years.