Elmbridge residents 'punish' council leader for M&S Foodhall as he loses seat

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The Liberal Democrat Councillor for Claygate lost his seat in Elmbridge in shock result, which some local residents have attributed to anger over the controversial plans for a Marks & Spencer foodhall.

The recent local elections in Elmbridge, Surrey, saw Bruce McDonald, the former Liberal Democrat council leader, lose his seat in Claygate to an Independent candidate, Mary Marshall, by 858 votes to 1,020.

In a letter sent to his administration colleagues on Friday (May 3), Bruce said: “It’s unusual to be succeeded by one’s predecessor as Claygate Councillor and former Leader of the Lib Dem Council Group. But that’s the way the local political cookie crumbles…”

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Cllr Gill Coates, Thames Ditton & West Green Residents’ Association, said the result in Elmbridge could be attributed to a local grievance over plans for an M&S on a car park in 2023.

CGI for proposed M&S Foodhall in Claygate, from Kilo Properties' website. Credit: Kilo PropertiesCGI for proposed M&S Foodhall in Claygate, from Kilo Properties' website. Credit: Kilo Properties
CGI for proposed M&S Foodhall in Claygate, from Kilo Properties' website. Credit: Kilo Properties

M&S applied for planning permission to build a foodhall on the ‘underused’ Torrington Lodge car park, near a high street of independent shops. Residents rigorously objected to the plan with a campaign ‘Claygate Can Do Better’, arguing it would harm local businesses and create traffic.

Negotiations had taken place between Elmbridge council, the developer and retailer for the store about a financial support from the council.

After a wave of local anger and frustration over lack of consultation, the plan was sent back to the council cabinet and the costs of pulling out were discussed.

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The council abandoned the plans after reports of abuse to councillors and opened consultations with residents on the plans in future. the plans have now been completely withdrawn.

“He gave the people of Claygate what they wanted [and withdrew] and they still punished him for it,” Cllr Gill said. After speaking to residents in the area, Cllr Gill said they have “really taken the Torrington Lodge car park issue to heart”.

Speaking for the party, Cllr Ashley Tilling (Weybridge Riverside) said they knew the election would be based on “local issues in Claygate” and that it would be a “close result”.

An Independent councillor defeating the Lib Dem leader may indicate a local disillusionment with the party, but the elections showed its vote share is continuing to grow. In the constituency of Esher and Walton, The Lib Dems won 49% of the vote compared to the Conservative’s 29%.

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“At the end of the day what matters is what happens to our vote,” Cllr Ashley said. “Our vote share is growing, having gone from the third party locally to the first in the last four years.”

The council has been run as a coalition between the Liberal Democrats and Residents’ Association councillors, though the Lib Dems are the largest party. The Resident Coalition say they are “absolutely shocked and devastated” at losing Bruce.

“We thought he was an absolutely brilliant leader,” Gill said. “His priority was not political point scoring and promoting the Lib Dems. It was about doing the best for the people of Elmbridge. It’s going to be a huge loss.”

In his leaving statement, Bruce spoke proudly of Elmbridge’s financial “competency” and “resilience” when more councils are going bankrupt. He added that the council’s good financial management has allowed it to invest in extra community projects and cost-of-living support alongside its statutory duties.

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Cllr Ashley said: “Our new council leader will continue to build on [Bruce’s] legacy.”

Gaining four extra councillors in this months local elections, the Lib Dems continue to be the largest party. The Local Democracy Reporting Service understands a new leader will be elected within the next few days. The residents’ association groups will not be involved in choosing the next council leader.

Bruce was elected as council leader in May 2023 last year, after the previous leader, Cllr Chris Sadler, stepped down ahead of the local election count. Bruce was the chief executive at Kingston Council from 2000 until 2015 and was elected as an Elmbridge councillor in 2021.