How Conservatives win in Gloucestershire
When I meet Conservatives from other parts of the country, they tend to think I have an easy job. 'Gloucestershire -they must weigh your votes there!' seems to be a commonly expressed view. Sadly, not so. Only three of Gloucestershire's six MPs are Conservative and until 2005 Conservatives had been in opposition on the County Council since 1985.
One of the key ways we set about changing that was through innovative policies. We knew from canvass returns that crime and the fear of crime was one of the key issues for Gloucestershire people. This was true in both rural and urban areas. At the same time, a lot of people were keen to tell us that doing something about it wasn't our problem. Labour and the Liberal Democrats refused to take any action - they preferred to blame the police. Even some Conservative colleagues thought that, because crime was 'the police's job', we could ignore it. For two reasons I disagreed.
Firstly ideologically, I've never been a fan of councils passing the buck or evading responsibility for the problems people in their areas face. A council leader's job is just that, to lead, not to hide behind statutory responsibility. Secondly, tactically, I knew if we were the only party addressing the problems facing people in the county, then we'd be more likely to win the election!
That's why I decided that one of our top 5 manifesto pledges would be turning council waste into police officers. We knew after 20 years of Labour and Liberal Democrat waste and high taxes that there would be plenty of fat to trim. I wanted most of those savings to go to keeping tax down - but we agreed that a small portion should go to paying for what we believe are Britain's first council funded police officers. We promised to put an extra 63 police officers on the beat across Gloucestershire - one for every council division in the county. These would be real, full time, police officers, who would dedicate the majority of their time to beat patrolling - not paperwork.
The pledge clearly resonated with the electorate - not just because it delivered them the extra police they wanted - but because it marked a change of attitude, from can't do Lib/Lab to can-do Conservatism. Conservatives took control for the first time in 20 years. Of the £40m pa we trimmed from the council's budgets, we are devoting £2m pa to extra police - and parts of Gloucestershire which haven't seen a policeman on patrol for decades are now seeing the difference. By next May all 63 extra officers will be on the street, and we will have fulfilled our promise. Across Gloucestershire, crime has fallen 19% since 2005. I certainly wouldn't try to take all the credit for that - but I know our officers have made a real difference. I'd also point out that we haven't delivered it at the expense of the taxpayer. We've also delivered the council's lowest ever council tax increases, two years in a row.
I suppose that, as County Council groups start to write their manifestoes for the next election, my message is be bold - and focus on what the public want - not what others tell you you ought to do. It's the recipe that worked for us last time in Gloucestershire - and which we will be sticking to in 2009.