Greg Stafford is the first candidate to throw his hat into the ring for the new Farnham & Bordon parliamentary constituency, representing the Conservative Party.
Earlier this month, DANIEL GEE caught up with the political hopeful and married dad of two daughters, aged seven and five, to discuss his family ties to the area, career in the NHS, time as a councillor in Ealing and hopes for the new constituency.
Hi Greg, can you share a bit about your personal connection to the area?
My great-grandparents, on my father’s side, moved to Haslemere at the turn of the last century and opened a cafe and confectionery shop called Staffords. It stayed open until my grandmother died in 2006.
Then, on my mother’s side, my grandparents settled here after the Second World War.
My grandfather was aged 16 and living in Poland when the Second World War broke out. When the Russians invaded from the east, he was shipped off to a concentration camp in Siberia. When Russia switched sides to the Allies, he walked down to the Caspian Sea where he met up with the Polish regiment of British Army and came to England.
After the war, with Poland in the hands of the USSR, there was nothing for him to go home for so he remained here and met my grandmother at grammar school. She was also Polish and likewise fled the Nazis to England after her father, a dentist, had got in trouble for treating Jews.
I have a lot of sympathy for those people who are fleeing persecution and war because I wouldn’t exist if Britain hadn’t welcomed my grandparents.
So yes, I grew up here, I took part in plays and competitions at Haslemere Hall, I learned to sail on Frensham Pond, so I know the area pretty well and I love it here.
You’ve been an Ealing councillor since 2007 – how are you combining that role with campaigning here?
I’ve backed off on my council duties. But I’m not one of these people who is just going to stop. One reason for that is totally practical; it would cost the council £45,000 to run a by-election so I’d rather do it on the day there’s another election.
But also, I made a commitment to voters that I was going to represent them and while I can pull back from a lot of things, I don’t think it’s fair to do nothing for them.
I already have a flat in Farnham and split my time between Ealing and here, but I’m looking for somewhere a bit bigger as I want to get the family up here as much as possible.
My daughters are currently at school in Ealing, and the timing wasn’t quite right to move them this academic year. But we’re looking to relocate for the next academic year – hopefully in time for the election!
You beat me to it – when do you think the general election will be called?
They have to call it no later than five years after the day of the last election, on December 12, 2019. But I can’t see the government wanting an over-Christmas general election. But I really have no insight – very few people do.
You were leader of the opposition in Ealing for eight years, from 2014 to 2022. I’ve covered local politics a long time, and that’s pretty good stint – how did you do it?
I came in as leader after a pretty difficult set of local election results for the Conservatives in 2014 and I think my colleagues saw me as someone who could unite an upset group of people who were disappointed with election results.
My job was to rebuild the team and provide the opposition that the council wasn’t getting because it had such a large Labour majority.
I think we’re seeing that at Waverley Borough Council now, where there’s only a few Conservatives now. I don’t think that’s healthy for democracy, and I would honestly say the same thing if it was the other way around.
Part of my role from a party political point of view is to help my colleagues rebuild in Waverley.
Farnham & Bordon, it’s an odd constituency – spanning two counties, and incorporating the likes of Haslemere, Liphook and Grayshott. How will you go about unifying the area?
Those of us in politics and the media see the boundaries, but I’m not sure many others do. Parts of Haslemere are actually in Sussex, but no-one goes ‘I’m not going to cross the road because it’s in another county’.
But there will be challenges on a political level, especially with the county border, because we’ve got to deal with two county councils, two district councils, two police forces, two police and crime commissioners.
But what I would say is each of these areas has a very strong community feel. And I wouldn’t want to create some kind of artificial community around that. As long as people know I’m working for them and I am their representative, that’s fine.
Your brother Alexander is also an MP so public service obviously runs in the family! Why is that?
I don’t really know, it’s an interesting one. My parents are interested in politics, but they’re not politicians and they’ve never stood for elected office. They were very involved on a civic level, rather than a political level, and my mother was a magistrate. So the public service ethos was always there.
It sounds corny, but I really enjoy helping people and where I see injustices or things I don’t think we’re doing very well, rather than just moaning about them I’d rather do something about it.
You’ve got a very senior job in the NHS as a director for the ‘Getting It Right First Time’ programme – how have you juggled that with your role in politics?
In many ways, they go hand in hand. It’s about trying to improve services; in one case clinical effectiveness in the NHS and on the other, potholes and the education system, etc, locally.
We set up the programme I’m running in the NHS as a clinical improvement programme, and the sole focus is to improve patient care. It’s not a cost-improvement programme. But if you do things better, in the long run you save money, and we’ve saved £3 billion for the NHS over the past couple of years. That’s value for money for the taxpayer, which also relates back to my local government experience.
Your predecessor Jeremy Hunt and before him Virginia Bottomley both served as health secretaries, and health services are always a hot topic locally – will that be a focus for you too?
The universal reality is there is a significant problem with primary care across the country.
In areas where there aren’t enough dentists or GPs, where doctors surgeries are still in two-up, two-down totally unfit-for-purpose practices, and where some services, for example the Haslemere Health Centre, wants to expand, the inertia from the national NHS is a real problem.
And in places like Bordon, which have seen a lot of new housing built, health services are just not catching up. The money is there from the developers, but the NHS just takes years to get its act together and that’s just not acceptable.
Another hot topic at the moment is Farnborough Airport’s expansion. Where do you stand on that?
I’ve met with the chief executive of the airport and I don’t want to prevent any business from applying to expand and do well. However, I have been disappointed by the lack of communication Farnborough has had with residents.
There is a focus on the people living within a few miles of the runway, but actually the effect the flight path changes have had on Farnham, on Churt, even down to Liphook, has been significant.
The proposals as they currently stand would be unacceptable to residents in those areas.
I’m especially concerned about the changes to the weekend flights, both in terms of increasing numbers and the expansion of starting earlier and finishing later. I think that’s going to be a real problem.
If the proposals are unacceptable to residents, they are unacceptable to me. So I will be writing in to object to the expansion.
Another one – where do you stand on planning and affordable housing?
Obviously we need housing for younger people and families, and if we don’t have that, people will move elsewhere and this area will become an enclave for older people who can afford to live here. That’s just not sustainable.
But top-down imposed targets and the lack of robustness in dealing with planning applications has been a real problem. Waverley has got into all sorts of trouble with its planning department, and I think if you had a much more robust planning system in Waverley, it would’ve been able to block a number of these larger, unwanted developments.
But what I wouldn’t want to see is, as Labour are proposing, massive increases in housing targets. I want to see much more control given to local authorities to decide how much housing is built and where.
Crime and anti-social behaviour, especially shoplifting, has become a real issue locally – how would you tackle that?
The week of the Farnham Heritage Open Days, I popped to have a look at Pauline Baynes’ drawings in the town hall because my children love Narnia. We were walking through Gostrey Meadow when suddenly I saw a guy carrying an air fryer chased by another guy dressed in Robert Dyas uniform saying he’s just nicked that. I managed to pull it off him and give it back to Robert Dyas – it’s about the most heroic thing I’ve ever done!
But it’s a real problem. There was the appalling assault in Farnham’s Victoria Garden recently, and there is a lot of anti-social behaviour and low-level crime in our towns and villages. You see it in Haslemere too and a lot of Liphook residents are upset about the behaviour of some Bohunt School pupils.
The lack of police presence is a real problem. If more police officers were seen on the beat, then that would act as a deterrent. One of the successes of this Conservative government is we have achieved the target of 20,000 more police employed. But chief constables don’t seem to be getting them out onto the streets.
A shining example is Greater Manchester where their chief constable has actually got officers out on the street, and crime has gone down. He’s investigating every crime, and it seems bizarre to me that you wouldn’t investigate every crime. I don’t understand that as a private citizen, and you certainly shouldn’t accept as politicians.
I’m trying to set up meetings with our chief constables to ask what is going on here, where are the police? They need to be out patrolling.
The next one is the Farnham Infrastructure Plan (FIP). It started out with the aim of reducing congestion in the polluted town centre, but Surrey County Council is now proposing changes that will increase congestion in the town, in favour of an 'improved pedestrian experience'. What is your view on the proposals?
It’s bonkers. I think the Wrecclesham bypass needs to be back on the table, and the Western bypass, likewise.
As for the planters on Downing Street, I can understand why they put them in for Covid, and they do look pretty with the flowers. But it just adds to the congestion.
If this town wants to grow, it can’t cope with both the traffic that needs to come in and the traffic that needs to pass through. We need to get the Wrecclesham and western bypasses back on the table, and fast.
Do you look forward to playing an active part in the FIP as Jeremy Hunt has?
Absolutely. It will hopefully be beneficial to residents and I want to be an active part in that and be able to push all the partners together. That’s the role of the member of parliament, isn’t it? Where a member of parliament doesn’t have a decision making role. What their role is, is to lobby push, bring people together, and that’s what I’ll be doing.
I see pollsters Electoral Calculus give you a 70-plus per cent chance of winning – you must be happy with that?
I’ve seen four or five polls and they all say something different! The trouble is there is no benchmark in Farnham and Bordon, so you can’t really believe any of them. All I can say is the election is going to be hard-fought by the Conservatives this time around. The only way I’m going to win this election is by winning people’s trust, letting them get to know me by seeing me out and about, and so that’s my focus. No complacency!
Is it a concern Whitehill, Farnham and Haslemere councils are non-Conservative?
I’m concerned for residents who are not getting the benefit of a Conservative council in those areas! But I think national elections are very different to local elections – the turnout is half, if not less – and when I’ve been knocking on doors over the past few months, and especially since I’ve been selected, I find there is a lot of Conservative support out there. But I do think people need to fall in love with us again, fall in trust with us again, and that’s what I’m trying to do.
As a Member of Parliament, my job would be to try to get the best deal for the people in this area.
We talk a lot about levelling up, and that doesn’t just mean people in the north. We don’t have a train station in Bordon, for instance, and the transport links there are appalling. That would be something I would absolutely want to be focusing on, starting by reinstating a bus service from Bordon down to Liphook station.
I’m not just going to be about the grand projects, there is lots of deprivation here and I’ll be fighting for everyone.
Greg Stafford is currently the only candidate to come forward to contest the new Farnham & Bordon seat. When others announce their candidacy, we will of course offer them the same interview opportunities as the Conservative candidate.