Hustings for the County Council elections took place in the Oxford Union yesterday evening, to which the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and UKIP all sent representatives.
The event, held in the Goodman library, was not well attended, with around 40 audience members, which nearly all of the political representatives noted at the beginning of their speeches.
The Conservatives, who have held a majority in the County Council since 2005, were represented by Ian Hudspeth, Leader of the Council and Leader of the Conservative group. Labour sent Liz Brighouse O.B.E., Leader of the Labour group. Zoe Patrick, Leader of the Opposition, represented the Liberal Democrats, and Larry Sanders attended as Leader of the Green Party. UKIP were represented by Edgar Mkrtchian, a Law student at Harris Manchester, who is not standing for election.
Liz Brighouse for Labour addressed the audience first. She emphasised the difficulties caused to local government by the cuts, the problems that outsourcing responsibilities from local government leads to, and the necessity of structural changes, which, in her view, are even more important than raising extra funds.
The Conservative representative Ian Hudspeth then drew attention to how the Conservative-led County Council have been reducing the money spent on management since 2006, which included sharing facilities between the various councils in Oxfordshire. He emphasised the importance of the state of roads, though arguing that repairs have been hampered by a lack of money; he also stressed the necessity of rural bus services, hospitals and libraries.
Zoe Patrick for the Liberal Democrats highlighted the significance of community empowerment, the importance of day centres for the elderly and the transport links to them, as well as making a priority of high achievement at school, concessionary transport for young people in order to ease their way into employment and apprenticeships, and the state of the roads. She also stressed the need for drain clearance and weed control, along with cycling and pedestrian schemes. She also supported energy efficiency.
The Green Party’s representative Larry Sanders, in a more jovial and anecdotal speech, attacked the national government’s economic policy, and the difficulties faced by councillors in light of the cuts. He supported increases in council tax in order to combat this, and stressed the importance of the state of the roads and the insulation of homes.
Edgar Mkrtchian, born in Armenia and raised in the USA, stated that he had joined UKIP after studying European law. He said that too much money is spent on the EU and salaries paid to local executives. He stressed various reasons why previous supporters of other parties might find UKIP attractive.
The question and answer session afterwards ranged from the rents in the Covered Market, to the price of property and the causes of homelessness, but numerous questions focused on the salaries paid to County Councillors and local executives. It emerged that Hudspeth, Leader of the Council, is paid a little over £30,000, along with travel expenses, and that there is one direct employee of the County Council who earns more than £150,000.
Wanjiru Ngige, a student who attended the hustings, commented, “I liked the fact that our local councils, the people who want to be elected can be accountable before the election. It’s good to see how they develop their policies, how they think these things through, and what their responses to the concerns of local people are.”
She further commented, “What is disappointing is that not many more people arrived, especially because these issues are so close to home, and it would have been good to have comment from a wider background, a wider variety of people… I don’t know if it’s just apathy or what.”