Big changes across Mid Sussex’s political landscape

The Lib Dems and Greens in Burgess Hill formed a partnership going into May's council elections
The Lib Dems and Greens in Burgess Hill formed a partnership going into May's council elections

What a difference a month makes, especially when it comes to Mid Sussex politics.

At the start of April, days after announcing he would be stepping down as leader of the district council, Garry Wall said the Conservatives’ seemingly endless dominance was ‘a reflection of a job well done’.

Alison Bennett was one of two Lib Dems elected to Hurstpierpoint and Downs

Alison Bennett was one of two Lib Dems elected to Hurstpierpoint and Downs

“It’s not like everyone suddenly woke up and one day said ‘let’s all vote Tory’”, he said: “They just believed in what was happening in their local community.”

Then came the elections and, while still mainly Tory, there will now be many more voices heard in the council chamber.

With the Liberal Democrats taking 13 seats, the Greens taking three and four going to Independents, it was clear that rather a lot of people no longer believed in what was happening and chose to look elsewhere to get the job done.

Alison Bennett, the new Lib Dem councillor for Hurstpierpoint & Downs, said people had been ‘fed up of the Conservatives taking their vote for granted’.

She added: “Many people told us that they were unhappy that Mid Sussex District Council had 53/54 councillors from one party and agreed with us that this wasn’t good for local democracy.

“I had life-long Conservative voters telling me that they were going to vote for the Lib Dems for the first time.”

The fight to change the status quo saw the Lib Dems team up with the Greens in Burgess Hill on a pledge to work together for the benefit of the town.

It was a prospect that certainly proved attractive.

While Emma Coe-Gunnell White and Samantha Smith held on to the town’s Dunstall ward for the Tories, the other five were taken over by a combination of Lib Dem, Green and Independent candidates.

Anne Eves (Green, Burgess Hill Leylands) suggested the somewhat toxic atmosphere of national politics coupled with frustration over local events were among the reasons that people voted for change.

She said: “On the doorstep people said they were fed up with all the dithering at Westminster and fed up with the adversarial atmosphere in the Commons.  

“So the Lib Dem and Green electoral pact in Burgess Hill was attractive as an example of grown-up politics – parties co-operating together.”

Looking at Burgess Hill town centre, Anne said: “It’s like a ghost town at the moment, with so many blank shop fronts and hardly any reason to go there on a Saturday.

“Delays in the town centre project, the loss of the Martlets and the library, have all turned traditional Tory voters away from their party.”

It was a view shared by Lib Dem Roger Cartwright, who was elected in St Andrew’s alongside Matthew Cornish, of the Greens.

Roger also shared strong feelings about the lack of money received from developers who had built hundreds of new homes around the town.

He added: “The town centre development is a mess and I feel it is now wholly misconceived given the slump in the town retail market.

“We deserve better, and although the control over the Burgess Hill development programme is still in the hands of the district council Tory majority, we are looking to get better decisions made through more open government and by exposing some of the misjudgements that have been made in the past where there was no effective opposition.”

Alison said she was looking forward to working with the parish and county councils to see what could be achieved, particularly when it came to providing better facilities for cyclists.

Cycle paths linking the Mid Sussex villages is on her wish list.

In the meantime, she has been something of a celebrity in Hurstpierpoint.

She said: “Walking into the village yesterday, I was stopped and congratulated by so many people.

“It is the first time that Hurstpierpoint and Downs has elected Lib Dems, so it’s created quite a buzz in the village.”

As for Anne, her ‘to do’ list is rather long.

As you would expect from a Green councillor, public transport and cycling are on her radar, as is the promotion of zero-carbon homes in future developments.

She said: “We want to reduce waste, and introduce more transparency and scrutiny into local government. And plant many more trees. And give Burgess Hill a performance centre again and keep a decent sized library and breathe new life back into the town via community initiatives such as a repair cafe or co-operatives, and give Burgess Hill a museum…. the list goes on and on!”

It certainly does.

And if she and her fellow newbies are as enthusiastic and dedicated as they seem, the controlling party won’t have things so easy any more.